Anthony Lappé is a writer, blogger, television producer and executive editor of GNN.tv, the web site for the Guerrilla News Network. He's written for mainstream press like the Times and was the National Affairs Editor for Black Book, and in 2003 he collaborated on the award-winning Showtime documentary about Iraq called BattleGround: 21 Days on the Empire’s Edge, which covered the front lines of the simmering guerrilla war in Iraq in 2003. Part of what he saw there influenced his new graphic novel, Shooting War, which started out as a serial on the Smith Magazine website. The lavish hardcover print edition, with illustrations by Dan Goldman, follows the gonzo adventures of a New York blogger who becomes a media darling in 2011 after his footage of a bombing at a Williamsburg Starbucks gets picked up by the mainstream media. Looking to keep coverage of the ongoing Iraq quagmire edgy, a global news network hires him to bring a youth angle to the guerrilla war. Part satire, part dystopian nightmare, Shooting War is unflinching in its depiction of the hellish future toward which the Bush administration is corralling us.
On Friday night Soft Skull Press founder Sander Hicks will join Lappé for a discussion about Shooting War at Vox Pop in Brooklyn. A stellar line-up of hip hop performances and organic beer to follow. Details here.
How much of yourself is in Shooting War’s protagonist, Jimmy Burns?I’d say a lot. I came up in the journalism world in sort of pre-internet days. But if I was 25 today I think I would share a lot similarities with him, though I never lived in Brooklyn and I never had an expensive haircut. I was once an angry young man with a lot of self-confidence. It kind of went over a lot of people’s heads that there’s a lot of mockery of the self-importance of the blogosphere in the character of Jimmy Burns.
Dan Rather plays a prominent role in Shooting War. What gave you the idea to make him a character in the book? I wrote him in as just a cameo role in the online serial version and the readers just flipped out. The Rather character quips his classic Dan Ratherisms, some of which are real Ratherisms and some I made up. You can go online and find lists of all these great phrases he actually uses. So it became so popular on the website I decided to write him as a real character in the book, kind of as an Obi-Wan Kenobi mentor to Jimmy Burns.
Have you heard from him? I was very apprehensive to know how he felt and I did ultimately receive a very, very sweet, endearing, two-page handwritten letter from Mr. Rather saying he was honored to be part of the project and that he appreciated it a lot. It felt good, especially because of the lawsuit and the New York Magazine cover story that shows how the executives at CBS turned on him in such a vicious and ungrateful way considering what he did for CBS News for so long. I don’t have any hero worship for the guy but I do respect him a lot. So it felt good to know he appreciated it and that he wasn’t going to sue me for using his image.
Shooting War presents a very dystopian vision of a world enflamed, with suicide bombings in Brooklyn, a nuclear attack in Bangalore, and the United States still mired in Iraq in 2011. Is this where you see things going? I don’t want to sound too pessimistic but it’s definitely a very possible future. I live very close to the World Trade Center and the plane actually woke me up that morning; it literally shook my windows. So I’m one of those people who wake up every day in New York City wondering why there hasn’t been a suicide bombing in New York or America since 9/11.
I do, too. Why do you think that is? I don’t know. I can speculate; I think the surveillance has pretty much every mosque in America under very tight electronic and visual surveillance. So I think there’s not a lot that’s going on that the authorities don’t know about. But at the same time I can’t imagine that there aren’t plots being hatched. It’s so easy to buy explosive materials or to put them together and get false identification. I always wonder because an Arab can look like a Hispanic. So you can get a Hispanic-sounding false I.D. and move around buying chemicals and things like that very easily with a Hispanic name, without raising red flags.
Anyway, I don’t want to give anyone ideas but it is surprising. And then when it comes to suitcase nukes it is a very scary thing. I was just reading the real experts on nuclear proliferation who know how loose the nukes are and that one of the greatest ironies now is that the U.S. is complaining about Iran’s nuclear program when the biggest seller of nuclear materials and secrets are our allies we’ve been funding in Pakistan all these years.
And what’s really scary is the testimony of Sibel Edmonds, who was an FBI translator working on wiretaps; she claims she has information that high-ranking government officials were involved in the proliferation of nuclear technology around the world. So, yeah, I am surprised that things have not come back to the homefront. But in terms of the world getting worse I think there definitely is a real possibility. Of course, writing dystopian stuff is always more interesting and more fun than writing about smiley rainbows at the end of the street.
You were in Iraq, right? In 2003, about seven months after the invasion.
Is there anything you witnessed that specifically ended up in Shooting War? Not a specific incident but two characters came out of shooting BattleGround: 21 Days on the Empire’s Edge, which was why I was there. The character of Lieutenant Colonel John “Crash” Crowley was inspired by Lt. Col. Nate Sassaman, who we ended up getting some incredible footage of. He was a quarterback at West Point and he turned down an NFL career to go into the army and was kind of a legend for being a bad ass commander in the Sunni triangle area in the early part of the war.
Just after we left, he basically freaked out and encircled a whole town with barbed wire, issued Palestinian-type I.D. cards to everyone and created checkpoints ala the occupied territories. And he was quoted in an article the Times saying, “With a heavy dose of fear and violence, and enough money for projects, these people will come around to understand we’re here to help them.” And it was that sort of absurdity and unintended humor that kind of inspired me to create this character Crash.
A lot of people have said it’s over the top, the way he’s drawn with an iconographic Christian face plate and talking about praying all the time. And my response to that is that it’s not over the top enough; people don’t realize how embedded the Christian ideology is into the combat operations over there in Iraq. Sassaman himself went on the lecture circuit when he got back from Iraq; the lectures were titled “The Christian Warrior Ethic.” Now, of course his lecture circuit career ended when it was learned he helped cover up the incident in which two of his men threw two Iraqi teenagers off a bridge and laughed while one of them drowned. He was implicated in trying to cover that up and it kind of put the kibosh on his lecture circuit. Tom Cruise had actually optioned his story after he appeared on the cover of the New York Times Magazine for an article called “The Fall of the Warrior King.” I have a feeling it’ll be put on the backburner because all these Iraq movies have been tanking.
Having gone to Columbia University’s graduate school of journalism, you seem a bit atypical in that you’ve hewed toward what some in the establishment press dismiss as activist journalism. Are you sort of a black sheep of the Columbia alumni? I was a black sheep when I was there and I still am in some ways, so part of what this book is about is critiquing the mainstream media. But I also in a lot of ways owed it to my experience at Columbia; I do have a great respect for the history of journalism and the traditional standards of journalism. I was a freelance contributor for the New York Times for a while and other mainstream publications.
I also have a particular respect for war correspondents, especially in Iraq because this is the most dangerous war for journalists in the modern era. More journalists have been killed there than there were in Vietnam and WWII put together. There’s a lot of good reporting out there in newspapers that people don’t give enough credit to. And a lot of those guys risking their lives to report what’s going on are my friends. I also have a lot of critiques of the blogosphere, though I am a blogger and I run a website of bloggers and am an absolute proponent of citizen journalism and all the promise that has to change the industry for the better. I also have a lot of problems with internet culture and the navel gazing of the blogosphere and the lack of getting out and actually experiencing the world, thinking that you’ve got it all figured out sitting on your couch or, worse, in Starbucks.
Shooting War depicts the military using remote control robots for combat in Iraq. Where did that idea come from? That actually is not fiction. The U.S. has been using robots on the ground in bomb sniffing and reconnaissance roles extensively. Of course they use air based drones both for offensive and surveillance missions all over the world and extensively in Iraq. But they’ve been using these ground based robots for surveillance and bomb sniffing. And they’ve developed and beta-tested ground based offensive robots; they’re called TALONs.
Actually, what we use in the book are souped-up versions of actual models. I’m not sure if they’ve actually been deployed but they’ve been testing them and I’m sure there’ll be out there soon. The joke in the book is that instead of being controlled from a base in Iraq, they’re controlled by all these teenage kids in a hanger in Florida. The joke is that the military recruiting has kind of fallen off by 2011 but they have these legions of kids who have grown up playing Playstation who are just experts in first person shooter games. So the ultimate outsourcing of war happens and it starts to become remote controlled.
Shooting War started out online on Smithmag.net. Why produce a hard copy? The goal was always to do a book. The idea actually started out as a screenplay; it was all written out as a screenplay in Final Draft. It was essentially adapted week to week into comic book form. And this should give hope to all those people out there who have late night inebriated ideas that never come to fruition: This is one of those 3:30am ideas. I was sitting there with Jeff Newelt, a P.R. guy; he’s a real comic head and one night he said, “Dude, that would make a great comic!” I was never really a big comic book person. So I said, yeah, cool, but twenty minutes later I’m wondering how I’m going to get an artist. But he came up with the idea of starting it online and I just went for it. I found Dan Goldman through Craigslist. The original idea was to do something that would serve as the basis of a book and ultimately a film. I see the whole thing as a franchise idea, though I hate to use that term, that could live in any medium.
There will be a book release party tonight at Vox Pop in Brooklyn for Shooting War, featuring live hip hop performances and organic beer. Details here.