Gary’s war on terror: soldiers’ stories, the ‘discourse of impropriety’ and the comedy of terror

Bruce Bennett, Lancaster University

(This is an edited version of the paper I gave at the University of Northumbria symposium, ‘Acting Up; Gender and Television Comedy’ on 14th Jan, 2012.  A revised and  extended version of this entitled, ‘The comedy of terror: ‘Gary: Tank Commander’ and the TV sitcom’s “discourse of impropriety”’, will be published in 2014 in Lacey, S. & Paget, D. (eds.). Representing the War on Terror. Cardiff: University of Wales Press. N.B., three series of Gary: Tank Commander have been broadcast to date, but at the time I gave this paper the third series was still in development)

Writing on the tenth anniversary of the terrorist attacks in the US in September 2001, the journalist Ryan Gilbey suggested that a notable feature of film and television treatments of the war on terror has been the absence of comic accounts of recent history but suggests that ‘defiant comedy is surely one of the sharpest weapons at our disposal’ (Gilbey, 2011, 52). Even more than the first gulf war, which generated what Jean Baudrillard termed ‘an improbable orgy of material’, the war on terror has produced an overwhelming deluge of films, TV drama, news coverage, books, articles, blogs across a range of media, but the scarcity of comic treatments of the ongoing conflict is clear. There are a few notable exceptions that include Team America: World Police (Parker, 2004), Harold and Kumar Escape from Guantanamo Bay (Hurwitz, Schlossberg, 2008), In the Loop (Ianucci, 2009) and Four Lions (Morris, 2010) but in general and perhaps unsurprisingly, this has been approached as a topic that must be treated with solemnity – it seems that it is self-evident that this is no laughing matter and this is what makes Gary: Tank Commander all the more interesting.

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Two series of Gary: Tank Commander were produced for BBC Scotland, the first broadcast in 2009, the second in 2011. It was initially broadcast on BBC Scotland but in 2011, the two series were re-run on BBC3. A third series is currently in development. They were derived from a pilot TV comedy called Gary’s War, which was commissioned and broadcast by Channel Four but never developed. Gary’s War is a mock documentary about a soldier, Corporal Gary McLintoch, returning home after fighting in Afghanistan. McLintoch ,the tank commander is played by Greg McHugh, who wrote Gary’s War and the subsequent series, which are based on the same scenario with an expanded range of characters. The first series follows aspects of Gary’s day-to-day life after returning from fighting in Afghanistan with the fictional tank regiment and in the second series he has returned from Iraq. With the exception of the first episode of series two in which the characters are waiting in an aircraft hangar in Afghanistan for a flight to Cyprus for r and r, almost all of the action is set on and around the Scottish army base on which Gary is stationed.

The programmes focus on the farcical attempts by McLintoch and the three other members of his tank crew, Jacko, Charlie and Adam, to carry out their mundane duties which include doing guard duty, chaperoning a visiting US general on a homeland security exchange, recruiting in the local shopping centre, standing in for striking firefighters, participating in a debate on the pros and cons of the Iraq war with students, transporting their tank along the motorway, trying to buy a second-hand cooker for Gary’s father while undergoing manoeuvres, and auditioning for roles in an army recruitment video.

They are overseen by Capt Fanshaw, the vague, upper-class English company commander, and Sgt Thomson a perpetually furious sadist who seizes gleefully any opportunity to punish them. The four men tackle their tedious tasks grudgingly or distractedly and are generally looking for short cuts or ways out of the jobs they’re assigned. In this respect the programme is in the rather passé tradition of sitcoms and film comedies about reluctant and incompetent soldiering that extend back to Chaplin’s 1918 film Shoulder Arms and the 1931 Laurel and Hardy film, Beau Hunks, via such films as Carry on Sergeant (1958), but the most direct models for GTC are The Phil Silvers Show (1955-59), M.A.S.H. (1972-1983), Dad’s Army (1968-77), and It Ain’t Half Hot, Mum (1974-81). All of these series are concerned not with soldiers in battle, but with the intimacies and domesticity of army life and the negotiation of power relations within the largely homosocial context of a military organisation and the celebration of small acts of resistance.

In terms of narrative organisation and in terms of visual and performance style the two series are relatively conventional, following the flexible minimalist narrative framework that almost any sitcom adheres to. Most episodes involve the four main characters being presented with an unengaging task, such as the job of patrolling the grounds of an estate where world leaders are attending a conference on climate change. Through a combination of their own boredom and incompetence and distraction by other events, such as the appearance of climate protestors dressed as rabbits who are trying to break into the conference centre to talk to Barack Obama, the characters will be diverted from the task. Finally they will improvise some sort of solution to the disruption, but they almost always fail to mollify their sceptical sergeant. And of course the tasks they’re given are all fairly marginal to soldiering.

However, there are two distinct and generically unconventional narrative and stylistic motifs running through the two series.

The first is that an element of the mock documentary pilot episode is carried over so that episodes are punctuated by shots in which Gary addresses an off-screen interviewer reflecting on a range of topics from terrorism and religion, to the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq to soldiers’ pay and official enquiries. These are captioned with text that picks out certain words or phrases – usually irrelevant and unilluminating. There is no indication that any of the rest of the programme is a documentary, so these inserts are unexplained and generally only have a tenuous relationship to the frame narrative.

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Documentary pastiche 1: Gary (Greg McHugh) discusses the arrangements for the transfer of power in post-war Afghanistan

The second motif is the periodic insertion of short videos and YouTube clips made by Gary and his colleagues filming themselves playing pranks on one another, making spoofs of Bin Laden’s video tapes, and producing parodies of music videos. This picks up on one of the characteristics of the conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq that almost every film and TV programme has acknowledged, which is the proliferation and widespread circulation of films by soldiers themselves through file-sharing sites – the unprecedented hyper mediation of the conflict. For instance, Brian De Palma’s 2007 film Redacted about a war crime by US soldiers in Iraq is composed entirely of simulated documentary footage, news reports, soldier’s videos, video blogs and youtube clips.

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Documentary pastiche 2: Gary and crew in Iraq performing Queen’s ‘We Will Rock You’

In particular the device alludes to a famous viral video made in 2005 by British soldiers in Iraq miming to the Tony Christie song,’ The Way to Amarillo’. This means that virtually the only footage we see of the protagonists in Iraq and Afghanistan throughout the two series is in these absurd comic sequences in which they are clowning and often in drag. Again they have little obvious connection to the narrative.

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‘The Way to Amarillo’, as performed by the Royal Dragoon Guards, Al Faw base, Iraq, 2005

The question I want to ask here is whether we might understand these programmes as critical or defiant and as texts that raise questions about how comedy or humour can function as critical – there is an ambivalence in these programmes that invites a reading of them as, if not oppositional or subversive, then at least defiantly comic.

Masculinity and camp

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The gendering of counter-terror. The Hurt Locker

A consistent feature of popular depictions of the war on terror has been the consolidation and retrenchment of a very traditional form of martial masculinity, the reactionary dimension of which is legitimised by its apparent authenticity. This is epitomised by The Hurt Locker (Bigelow, 2008) with its intense narrative focus upon a reckless, solitary, emotionally repressed bomb disposal technician who is addicted to the thrill of the warzone. To be sure, the treatment of gender in such not films is not unambivalent and uncritical, but nevertheless, the war on terror has revitalised action genres both on film and on television. 24 is television’s  counterpart to The Hurt Locker in its foregrounding of a cyborg-like protagonist that is part-human, part-machine – the traditional masculinity that is reiterated in these films comprises a particular physicality – hard, phallic, disciplined bodies  – and is aligned with emotional instability (typically against a backdrop of domestic disarray),  murderous aggression and coolness and paradoxical emotional continence. Gary: Tank Commander reproduces this focus upon male characters but, from the absurd title onwards, displays a consistently satirical attitude towards conventional models of masculinity. The protagonist, Gary, is presented in defiantly camp terms throughout, sporting a spray tan and bleached hair and a less than athletic physique. He is a sexual innocent as far as we know, who delights in plastic pop music and continually fails to understand the crude innuendos circulating around him. His campness, which consists of his theatricality and flamboyance is depicted as what Susan Sontag terms, pure or naive camp since it is rarely knowing or self-conscious and yet remains attractive and entertaining both for his friends and the spectator. One of the most notable features of the series is that, except for the exchange of bemused glances between his friends when Gary fails to get the double entendres, his campness remains unacknowledged and unpunished. There is a generic pretext for this in so far as British sitcoms have for a long time featured effeminate or camp characters – Dad’s Army and It Ain’t Half Hot Mum are good examples, but there are many others – however, Gary: Tank Commander is distinct since this sexually ambivalent character is not the pathetic and feeble butt of running jokes, nor a bitchy, bitter and repressed outsider who comments acidly from the margins. Instead he is a tank commander, an emphatically masculine role, who outranks his friends but who also remains very close to them and the centre of their friendship group. They are like a gang of schoolfriends who frequently launch into songs together. Although he is a comic character, our laughter is directed at his limited understanding of the world around him, rather than at his campness. The problematic stereotype is the focus for much academic discussion about the representational politics of TV comedy, but this series negotiates this rather deftly in so far as the character is drawn in positive but unconventional terms.

Indeed one of the genuine pleasures of the series is the enthusiasm and complete seriousness with which he and his friends launch into their well drilled performances of songs by Aqua, Lady Gaga, Beyoncé, often cross-dressing in elaborate improvised costumes. There is of course a neat coincidence of the etymologically distinct senses of camp in this sitcom, which brings together the army camp – the term derived from the Latin for field – with the gay slang term for tasteless and exhibitionistic – derived from the French term camper – to portray or depict. While there may be tenuous semantic connections, the programme argues for their cultural proximity, presenting Gary’s campness as a normalised element of life in a military camp as it appears on film and television.

And In its portrayal of camp life, what the programme identifies and highlights is the intrinsic campness underlying the excessive masculinity of many supposedly serious war on terror dramas. The most direct example is Generation Kill, which was broadcast the year before Gary: Tank Commander and which follows a group of US marines invading Iraq at the head of the invasion force and travelling north through the country to Baghdad. There is a great deal of spectacularly filmed fighting, but the series is as concerned with the social textures and culture of the unit of soldiers living and fighting together – with the frustrations of bureaucratic inertia and status anxiety. It shares with the sitcom format a preoccupation with quasi-familial relationships and the intimate and affective structure of the workplace. It is primarily concerned with how these men interact and the eroticised and stressful hyper-masculine environment that means that conversation about sex is obsessive. This is underpinned by boasting, teasing and abuse and playful flirtation with one another to the extent that, as one character observes, ‘Marines are so homoerotic – it’s all they ever talk about.’

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Sgt. Rudy Reyes moisturises in Camp Mathilda, Kuwait, Generation Kill

This is epitomised by the figure of Sgt Rudy Reyes – fruity Rudy as he’s known by the others – who is depicted as a body-conscious narcissist who sports a florid customised uniform with additional scarves and camouflage netting. Although apparently straight, Reyes is a potentially queer figure who troubles the other characters around him. As one of the marines says reassuringly to a new member of the unit, ‘it doesn’t make you gay if you think Rudy’s hot. Everyone does.’ Where Gary: Tank Commander is interesting is in its casual refusal of this disavowal. The tense misogynistic and homophobic anxiety around sexuality that pervades Generation Kill and which is expressed in continual wisecracks and insults (alongside a constant racism)  is entirely absent from Gary: Tank Commander.

Documentary, soldiers’ stories and embedding

Another way in which Generation Kill exemplifies television’s engagement with the war on terror is in its adoption of a docudrama mode. The series is derived directly from three articles written by a Rolling Stone reporter who was embedded with the unit, and it attempts a historically accurate reconstruction of the events depicted in the reports. Some of the marines themselves were employed as consultants and had cameo roles although interestingly, Rudy Reyes is the only one who got to play himself in the series.

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This is an image from his website on which he sells a range of branded products advocating ‘Hero Living’. The most unlikely and most camp character, it transpires, is the most genuine – the point at which the dramatic reconstruction is anchored in the real. One of the key characteristics of representations of the war on terror on film and on television has been the proliferation of docudramas and documentaries. There is a range of reasons for this, but a central factor is the sense that documentary and, by extension, documentary realist drama, is an appropriately solemn narrative mode for such grim and monumental topics as warfare, terrorism, occupation, torture, human rights abuses and forced displacement. Film theorist Bill Nichols categorises documentary as a ‘discourse of sobriety’ positioned alongside the related discourses of economics, science, politics and history. Documentary, for Nichols is directed towards instruction and illumination and exposure rather than entertainment, and in the distinction drawn between fiction and actuality it is ethically committed to accuracy and politically effective representation. In this respect, the hybrid forms of docudrama are problematic for Nichols, but nevertheless docudrama invokes the authority and serious-mindedness of documentary.

The documentary vignettes in Gary: Tank Commander function therefore both as an acknowledgement of this documentary turn, and as a parody of it since they are narratively disconnected and consistently unilluminating.  More precisely what they parody is the implicit assumption underlying the narrative focus upon soldiers’ experience – in docudramas such as Generation Kill and Redacted, fiction films like The Hurt Locker which again is closely based on an embedded reporter’s article, and documentaries such as the 2010 Danish film Armadillo – that close attention to the soldier’s story will reveals truth about the conflict that is not otherwise available. Generation Kill is a text that emerges from one of the innovations of the war on terror, the officially approved embedded reporter since the initial reports were written by a journalist embedded with this unit of marines, and the reporter is a minor character in the series, riding in the convoy as they invade the country from Kuwait. Of course, embedding is a strategy designed to ensure that journalists are constrained both in terms of their movements and in terms of their critical perspective by their dependence upon a particular community of military personnel with whom they form a close emotional bond over time. The fascination with the mundane details of soldiers’ lives during a war, and the vicarious thrill of battle that are conveyed by Generation Kill are a direct consequence of this.

Sitcom and satire

As much of the commentary upon the form has observed, the sitcom opens up a potentially quite subversive space within the fabric of mainstream popular culture in which issues of racism, adultery, the dysfunctionality of the nuclear family and the spectrum of sexuality are explored directly. As Jane Feuer suggests ‘it has been the ideological flexibility of the sitcom that has accounted for its longevity’ (Feuer, 70). In this respect, the sitcom is no less effective a mode through to which to criticise the conduct of the war on terror than more familiar comic modes of satire and sketch comedy. There remains, however, something scandalously inappropriate about the homely frame of the sitcom as a means of addressing this subject matter. Where Generation Kill adopts the sober register of documentary realism in order to emphasise the horrors and exhaustion as well as the triumphalism and machismo of bloody combat, GTC adopts the apparently trivialising format of light entertainment. In this context the sitcom is the articulation of a ‘discourse of impropriety’ rather than a ‘discourse of sobriety’. However, it is this impropriety that gives Gary: Tank Commander its potential critical purchase.

In refusing to show us the ambivalently seductive spectacle of battle, the series refrains from the insistence that the war on terror is a conventional war – that, to allude to Baudrillard this was a war that was actually happening. In refusing to restage the battles in Iraq and Afghanistan, making a virtue of a limited budget and relegating these events to off-screen space, the series refuses also to accept the crucial political significance and legitimacy of these conflicts which have been used to justify a state of exception in which colossal investment in the security and defence industry and the passage of repressive legislation are waved through. In its depiction of the British army as a class-ridden, under-funded and hierarchical organisation in which Scotland is a minor province, the series punctures the promotional, celebratory images of the modern army as a high-tech, surgically efficient fighting force. The soldiers of Gary: Tank Commander display all the efficiency and single-mindedness of the drivers and conductors of On the Buses, rather than the macho killing machines of Generation Kill.

Also, in its depiction of the soldiers as an affectionate family or gang, the series refuses the thrillingly reactionary masculinity that is crucial to the appeal of many of the accounts of the war on terror in film and television. At the same time, the series refuses the institutional framing of soldiers as heroes or traumatised innocent victims, a figuration that is deployed cynically to block or divert resistance with the insistence upon compassion, empathy and identification. While on the one hand, Gary has an eccentric and sometimes quite restricted understanding of why he’s been sent out to fight – in the pilot episode he explains that Bush invaded Afghanistan and Iraq because he was so annoyed by all the dust – on the other hand he is a professional soldier who’s happy to fight. In the pilot episode he’s pleased to find that on returning to Scotland after a posting in Iraq, friends and neighbours think he’s been on holiday because of his deep tan.

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This is not to impute a resistant or defiant agenda to the producers of the series – it may well be that the series was conceived as a contemporary reworking of a conventional sitcom genre, and Greg McHugh, who’s working on a third series has indicated that he intends to develop the sitcom identity of the series. Nevertheless, in the context of the breathless orgy of action films, TV docudramas and film and television documentaries that substitute the rhetoric and aesthetic machinery for critique, the sitcom is an appropriate narrative and generic frame for the treatment of the bombing and invasion of Afghanistan and Iraq. In this context Gary: Tank Commander constitutes an exceptionally interesting and acute gesture of scepticism, defiance and impropriety. In his treatise on comedy, Henri Bergson suggests that ‘Laughter indicates a slight revolt on the surface of social life’ (61b) and both despite and because of the formal and ideological conservatism with which the sitcom is generally associated, Gary: Tank Commander can be understood as just such an instance of slight revolt.

References:

Bennett, B. (2010). ‘Framing terror : cinema, docudrama and the “war on terror”’, Studies in Documentary Film. 4, 3, December 2010, 209-226

Bennett, B., Diken, B. (2011) ‘The Hurt Locker: cinematic addiction, ‘critique’ and the war on terror’, Cultural Politics, vol. 7, no. 2, July 2011, 165-188

Bergson, H. (1911). Laughter: An Essay on the Meaning of the Comic, trans. Brereton, C., Rothwell, F., Temple of Earth

Feuer, J. (2001). ‘‘The Situation Comedy, Part 2’’, The Television Genre Book.

Ed. Creeber, G.. London: British Film Institute Publishing, 67 – 70.

Gilbey, R. (2011). ‘9/11 – How to tell a horror story’, New Statesman, 5 Sep. 2011. Available from: http://www.newstatesman.com/film/2011/09/attacks-makers-world-away. Accessed: 18/9/12

Nichols, B. (1991) Representing Reality: Issues and Concepts in Documentary, Bloomington: Indiana University Press

Sontag, S. (1967). Against Interpretation and other essays, London: Eyre and Spottiswoode

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