War Is Boring: Bored Stiff, Scared to Death in the World's Worst War Zones
by David Axe
Reviewed by Niels Strandskov
As a major export of the United States, it is hardly surprising that war follows the trends established in other markets. Just as we have progressed over the last twenty years from huddling around a shared television set watching the bombs drop on CNN to calling up our favorite gloss on the war's progress individually on laptops, netbooks, and smartphones, so too has the prosecution of war moved into ever-more ethereal digital realms. Technicians fly drone warplanes from half a world away, in a procedure that is hardly distinguishable from a particularly complex video game -- except, of course, that it leaves very real holes in very real places and people.
Journalist David Axe thrust himself into this dissonance at the beginning of the second Iraq War, a reporter for print publications in a world where the only people who wanted another print war correspondent were the ones trying to sell the most complex digital weapons to the principal belligerent. In War Is Boring, a graphic novel illustrated by Matt Bors, Axe finds himself estranged from both the wars he covers and the denial and amnesia of the home front.
Axe structures his narrative as a series of reminiscences to his driver, Adrian Djimdim, as they travel to a camp for refugees of the Darfur conflict in Chad. Perhaps no more naive than the average newbie war correspondent, Axe describes the banal process of hunting down juicy stories in zones of conflict that are, as the title has it, mostly fairly boring. After a trip to Lebanon, Axe returns to the U.S. "Coming home was like popping Ecstasy," he writes. Though his euphoria lasts slightly longer than an MDMA trip, the comedown turns out to be much worse. Axe can't figure out what he misses about war, but he knows he must go back.
Through Afghanistan, East Timor, and Somalia, Axe probes closer to the heart of his discomfort. Paradoxically, he has seen too much of war to be comfortable at peace, and yet the horrors he sees on his travels (coupled with the mendacity of the other participants in the war industry) disgust and discomfit him. His dissociative experience of war reads like something out of Chuck Palahniuk's Fight Club -- the anomie of privilege and the ready availability of violence create an interplay of emotions that can never be reconciled. Certainly Axe never reconciles them, seeing none of the glory that Xenophon or Churchill saw, nor the affirmation of humanity in Kipling or Pyle. War is labor for Axe -- alienated, but tantalizing in the promise of a release from alienation as well.
Bors's matter-of-fact art underscores this procedure. The violence Axe describes is drawn without romance or mystification -- it is just what happened to people, some of whom died. There are no jarring aesthetic transitions, but a creeping sense of Sisyphean dread begins to permeate the panels as Axe's travels bring him closer to the present.
David Axe offers no searing indictment of the war industry in War Is Boring. Unpleasant as much of it is, the events of his chronicle are just there, happening whether or not an American is there to see them -- and, in a post-iPod world, it seems less and less likely that the Americans on the ground in war zones will be bothered to notice. Thus this book is tinged with melancholy; while some of the events Axe witnessed deserve their own "J'accuse," the tone of tedium now governs any recounting of this most heinous of human acts.