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Make love and war

DAN NEIL writes the 800 Words column for West magazine and the Rumble Seat column for Highway 1.

Switzer and Flabbergast are pinned down in a bomb-shattered apartment building in Najiaff, Afbaghistan, with insurgents closing in and the air incandescent with tracers. An enemy mortar team has their range. It’s times like these when a GI’s fancy lightly turns to thoughts of love.

Welcome to DC/Vertigo’s new comic, “Army@Love,” and don’t forget to wear your mil-spec condom. “Army@Love,” in the words of its writer, Rick Veitch, “imagines how surreal the current war might get in five years,” as the military struggles to market itself to a new generation of recruits.

Before another sentence passes, let me reassure you: The Switzer character is female. The comic’s opening gambit involves a live-fire tryst -- what Switzer calls “joining the Hot Zone Club” -- while her patrol is engaged in house-to-house fighting. Post-coitus, the pair joyfully return fire -- vip! tzing! -- while squatting naked behind a wall. At one point, Switzer stands up to expose her breasts to an instantly mesmerized jihadist as Flabbergast takes aim. Now that’s unit cohesion.

The action takes place on a near-future battlefield where a National Guard unit from Edgefield Township, N.J., is coping with the stresses of war and an endless, grinding military occupation (oh, dear) with the help of the “Motivation and Morale” program, a secret Pentagon initiative that has reversed the military’s anti-fraternization policy -- in a big way.

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In fact, “Momo” encourages front-line troops to go on sexual retreats -- think “Girls Gone Wild,” but instead of Fort Lauderdale, Fort Benning. Thanks to the Momo program, casualties are down and kills, recruitment and reenlistment are way up. “When the history books are written,” says Momo officer Healey, “they’ll say we took the all-important first step to victory.”

Notwithstanding the laughable notion of a Pentagon-organized orgy, I wonder if Veitch might be on to something. Satire has a habit of becoming prophecy. And no one can doubt that among the zillion or so things the military never accounted for in Iraq was the low-grade madness of hundreds of thousands of young men and women kept from home year after year, forbidden from having sexual relationships among themselves and denied any respite in the local population. As comedian Bill Maher asks, “What good is liberty call in a land where there is no liberty?”

Comics and graphic novels have proved in the past to be singularly acute antennas of the zeitgeist, and the publication of “Army@Love” -- the first issue went on sale March 21 -- comes exactly at the moment when sex in-theater is confounding us like never before. Salon.com and the New York Times Magazine have run stories in recent weeks about incidents of sexual harassment, assault and rape of American servicewomen by their comrades.

The theme has been picked up by Garry Trudeau’s “Doonesbury” comic strip. B.D., in counseling for the loss of his leg, meets a woman in the waiting room. “What kind of counseling are you here for?” he asks. “Sexual trauma,” she replies. “OK, so I have no idea how to respond to that,” he says. She says, “Neither did I.”

Neither do we. The sweet gallantry of arguments against women in combat -- one of which was that they might be captured and raped by the enemy -- turns out to have elided a more menacing truth that everyone knows and few would say out loud: They might be raped by our own guys. But in order to confront that problem, you have to concede that, underneath the full battle rattle, American soldiers are living, breathing males and not warrior monks.

Obviously, rape is not the same as sex, and there is zero excuse for it, regardless of the circumstances. But there is an explanation. Young, aggressive men in an insane and dehumanizing situation may act out on their frustrated sexual impulses. War is a brutalizing experience -- witness Haditha; there’s no reason to think that brutality will end at the barracks door.

Like all good satire, Veitch’s comic explodes in all directions, fragging everyone involved. The American military’s prim denial of sexual expression -- whether it’s “don’t ask, don’t tell,” the fraternization code or the torpid response to the problem of rape -- is at a sad disconnect with the reality on the ground. The jihadists, meanwhile, with their religion-stoked, misogynistic loathing of sex, are obviously at a tactical disadvantage if the sight of breasts freeze them in their tracks.

America’s sex-glutted youth culture comes off no better. The soldiers are “a rowdy, bawdy bunch, brought up on Paris and Tommy Lee,” says Veitch in an author’s note at the back of the comic book. The trope of the whole series is that recruits must be bribed into serving their country with promises of easy, consequence-free sex. Not exactly the Greatest Generation.

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The truest things are said in jest. Perhaps, as we mark the months in Year 5 of the Iraq war -- a war we cannot win and cannot quit -- we should consider how we are going to accommodate our troops’ inconvenient status as sexually needful human beings. Meanwhile, I have no doubt that somewhere in the innards of the Pentagon, some officer is thumbing through “Army@Love” and wondering, “What if?”


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