Over There

As you know, you have to go to war with the Army you have, not the Army you want. You can have all the armor in the world on a tank, and it can [still] be blown up.
— Donald Rumsfeld (Camp Buehring, Northern Kuwait, 9 December 2004)

The response of the military psychiatrists to fear and anguish resulting from war has been largely inadequate and misguided.
— Paula J. Caplan, “The Emotional Casualties of War” (Counterpunch 1 July 2005)

The tragedy here is, we’re savages. We’re thrilled to kill each other, we’re monsters. And war is what unmasks us. But there’s a kind of honor in it too, a kind of grace.
— Dim (Luke McFarlane), “Pilot”

Just a few minutes into Over There, the screen goes green. You’re looking through an approximation of night vision goggles, as a squad of newbies has landed unexpectedly in a shooting zone. Following a brief sequence of snappy, freeze-framed and subtitled introductions and an even briefer moment on a transport to Iraq (“We’re into it now, huh?” grins the hotshot “natural leader), the troops are abruptly lying belly-down along a berm, taking fire from unidentified adversaries in a mosque.

One U.S. troop, Smoke (Kirk “Sticky” Jones, Sticky Fingaz back when he was in Onyx), admires his new gear as he gazes into the vast creepy greenness of the night. “Oh,” he says, “These are gangsta. I love my NVGs.” Cut to his commander for the moment, career soldier Sergeant Scream (Erik Palladino), who, we learn, is especially touchy because he’s just been extended for 90 days. “Shut up, you moron. Are you stoned? This is a combat zone.” Smug child of the ghetto, Smoke knows what he’s about, proclaiming, “I grew up in a combat zone.” Sergeant Scream goes him one better: “You think you’re bad, fool? A mortar lands on your head, we won’t find enough of you left to fill a condom. Now shut up.” Cut to a long view of the troops, making their way through emerald-filtered darkness. Quietly.

Much of Over There, the latest series executive produced by Steven Bochco, traffics in this sort of tough chatter. The characters appear in the first episode as so many stereotypes — the hard-ass sergeant and angry stoner are accompanied by football hero Bo (Josh Henderson), introduced wearing a “Be All You Can Be” t-shirt as he shags his pretty wife in every room of their home (“We’re making memories, baby!”); bespectacled Cornell grad Dim (Luke McFarland); beautiful singer Angel (Keith Robinson); young mother Doublewide (Lizette Carrion); and 18-year-old Mrs. B (Nicki Aycox), first visible as she says goodbye in a phone booth, imagining her fate: “Shit,” she says, “I know I’ll get killed. I’ve seen those faces on Nightline. And I said, goddamn, girl, that’s me. Every one of em’s me.”

Her fear is understandable and seems related to the trouble she brings, as she’s not supposed to be under fire (just a transport driver, delivering the new guys when the assault started), and errs seriously while squad is trying to lay low. More interestingly, her fear and Smoke’s bravado are of a piece — inspired by technology and tv, the bookend effects and influences of the Iraq war.

In exploring the dilemmas posed by tv images and advanced technology (new weapons, new gear, new surveillance, new targeting devices, new armor, new means to communicating with the folks back home, primarily by email and video), Over There just about keeps pace with the war it’s depicting. The result is part romance and part interrogation. Each week, the plot churns up some harrowing impasse that can’t be resolved easily (Episode Two has the group stationed at a roadblock outside Baghdad, faced with a speeding vehicle that might or might not be friendly; the third has them observing a senior officer abusing a prisoner to gain intel), and each week, impressionistic, skritchy imagery makes such plotting seem secondary.

Put another way, the plots are basic and shifty: shoot, survive, fret, survive again. Within this repetitive chaos, the series suggests, the very concept of news is a frequent source of trouble. As the troops settle in to watch and wait — for orders or hostile fire — the camera initiates the same steadicam prowl that Stanley Kubrick used in Full Metal Jacket, showing their behinds and splayed legs as they fire, all in a row, maybe ducks, maybe shooters. The sergeant complains about their current lack of movement, motive, and “common sense,” due to the fact that the soldiers in the mosque have a reporter with them:

Instead of being able to go in and bless the shit out of the bastards, we’re dug in, awaiting orders. You know why? Cause they got a goddamn Arab tv journalist in there with ’em. Al-Jazeera’s got us on the goddamn tv news right now. Understand? Do you have any idea what that means? It means we’re gonna wait here, taking fire for some general 75 miles away, to make a decision about goddamn public relations, about how it would look, or how it would look, if we did that. That sound like war to you?

Over There circles around what “war” might sound like. And so it emulates the troops’ frustrations. Plagued by lack of structure or clear aims, not to mention the morale-sucking threat of violence at every moment, the troops wait. They wait for orders, for decisions to be made, for promised rest or support.

The show fills in this time with unnecessary but familiar bits of business. Bo scampers from soldier to soldier, relaying instructions or asking how they got their nicknames (a stale let’s-get-to-know-the-soldiers trick). Or, during a break, Smoke pours a packet of Taster’s Choice crystals into his mouth, pondering a confrontation he’s witnessed between “the pink-assed sergeant” and a black lieutenant (Mad Cow, so named, the sergeant say, for the “disease that eats men’s brains”). When Angel suggests the LT is “a fool,” Smoke asks, “They got you so turned around you go against your own?” Angel, here and elsewhere, takes a longer view. Everyone in this mess is a fool, all the enlistees in this “volunteer army” have made bad decisions. “If you need another nigger to back you up no questions asked, don’t look at me,” he schools Smoke. “If you’re looking for another fool, to risk getting shot to save your behind, I’m right here beside you.”

When, after a couple of days and nights of hunkering down by the berm, the soldiers come under a heavy barrage and the sergeant screams that his men should “get some,” the fight is actually short. It’s the aftermath that takes up screen-time, the camera pausing on Smoke’s posturing, Iraqi bodies and Dim’s evaluation (“Smaller than I thought”), Doublewide’s prayer, and Mrs. B’s disturbing lack of affect. War makes you ugly, or you don’t live through it.

Such revelations aren’t original in tv war representations. From Combat to M*A*S*H to Tour of Duty, the usual way to illustrate the so-called humanity of war (its tragedies, terrors, acts of valor) is via sympathetic, sometimes disquieting characters whose arcs stretch out over seasons. And, like the makers of these other series, both Bochco and Chris Gerolmo insist theirs is apolitical. According to Gerolmo (who’s written five of 13 episodes and directs the pilot), “We’re not writing a political show. We’re writing a show about six or seven young people and their sergeant, and their goal in life is to get through today.” Bochco, who’s been around this block before, uses the p-word repeatedly in interviews, mostly to deny he has a view: “So far as taking a political stand, I’m damned if I do and damned if I don’t.”

Right. Some of this simultaneous do-and-don’ting is visible in efforts to show effects of war in country and back in the world (or, as Bochco puts it, “over here”). These scenes include Doublewide’s house-husband Lombardo (Sergio Del Rio), Dim’s cheatin’ wife Vanessa (Brigid Brannagh), Bo’s spunky wife Terry (Sprague Grayden). But even for its desert bonding and domestic focus, the series can’t help but be political. Like all the other war series (and all art, though that’s perhaps another argument), it raises its issues within seemingly unobjectionable frameworks: the loss of a comrade, a limb, and sense of trust. And even its setting in an ongoing war isn’t a claim to strict originality; no one thought M*A*S*H was only about Korea, and it premiered in 1972, when the Vietnam War was very visible on tv.

More significantly, Over There uses contemporary technology and imagery to mark its specificity and urgency. On one level, this means dropped-in references to Abu Ghraib (a prisoner asks if he should strip now that they’ve captured him) or hip-hop booming on an officer’s radio. On another level, the immediacy demonstrates that war is, as Gerolmo says, “a natural subject for television.” He notes that a weekly series allowing for plenty of action and gore (in the pilot, for examples, an Iraqi soldier is literally cut in half on camera [Tom Savini would be impressed] and a U.S. troop has his leg blown off). But Gerolmo’s argument that the series will not add to viewers’ desensitization is especially striking:

What people are desensitized to is news coverage of the war. And on the news, they can tell you that war is heartbreaking, that war is devastating, but in Over There, you’ll feel it. You’ll have a sense of it for yourself. You’ll have a powerful, gut-wrenching, visceral experience that the news can’t give you.

Consider this remarkable assessment. It assumes that news is no longer an effective means to convey experience (was it ever?), that “visceral” experience is best transmitted by fiction and special effects (true, the Iraqi soldier’s legs teetering without a torso is dauntingly spectacular), and that the sheer confusion of war is not compelling enough to create meaning (that is, politics). Over There is frequently confusing, visually and verbally disquieting (it’s FX), and short on geography (the desert locations all look alike, and besides, soldiers aren’t allowed to name their positions, as Smoke discovers when he tries to tell his people back home that he’s “in the middle of got-damn downtown shitville” — the military video censor cuts him off for giving up information). But this very confusion, this accidental or deliberate ruckus, is to be commended.

It’s unclear, based on a couple of episodes, whether the so-far rudimentary stories will turn as complex and startling as the images. One thing is evident already, though. Over There has the capacity to make trouble, to make viewers worry about the war, seek out information, become aware of its implications. Cable news and mainstream media aren’t doing that much.