What on the surface looks like a science fiction romp with an extraordinarily high concept at it’s core (the US invades Canada) is actually a philosophical meditation on the nature and politics of the war on terror and how humans treat one another when they’re told they’re the enemy. It’s not without it’s problems, in both plot and philosophy, but it is an interesting read nonetheless and the subject matter is a rarity on comic book shelves. This is a worthwhile book that has been professionally put together, give it a look if you fancy something a little different with an interesting message.
It is not possible to read this book as anything other than a damning indictment of American foreign policy over the past decade and a half. There is no question that this is a well written book: structurally everything is sound with a powerful flashback to Amber’s past opening the book and giving way to the events of the issue, some of which are surprising and well executed, and distinct characters are beginning to emerge organically (even as sufficient doubt is left regarding Amber’s true motives). However, the success of the entire thing hinges on its political message.
This book essentially transplants the real-world tragedy of the 9/11 attacks and subsequent war on terror from the Middle East to a future North America as the US invades, demolishes, and occupies Canada in response to an unprovoked attack on the White House. I suppose the idea here is that it will be more shocking to see American soldiers treat their Canadian neighbours with minimum respect and maximum prejudice than it would be to see them doing it to, say, a Middle Eastern country. American troops aggressively storm innocent family homes and take prisoners on unreasonable ground; they impose martial law on a sovereign state; they perform terrifying surgery on their own soldiers and the implication is that they torture their captives, and it is all in the name of protecting against a threat that has yet to be fully explained.
What this fails to take into account though is that this behaviour can’t be more shocking than it already is in the real world. Just because the victims of it are white and speak English it doesn’t make it worse. There is no excuse for this in any conflict, which I suppose is the point of the book, but we could strip away the scifi trappings and plot gimmickry (what if American invaded Canada?! And they used giant ROBOTS?!) and it would probably be a more powerful statement (but maybe the problem with that is a commercial one, would people want to read about the genuine horrors of the war on terror unless it features impossible politics and giant robots). Changing the targets of American ire to people who look and sound just like them also removes what is arguably an important factor behind the abhorrent actions of some people during war – institutional racism and dehumanisation of ‘the other’. Afghanis and Iraqis don’t look like most Americans, and they don’t sound like them either – that ‘foreignness’ can create an artificial distance, the idea that they are somehow lesser humans, that becomes an excuse to do inexcusable things at both a governmental and personal level. This is a huge issue, a frame of mind that needs to be talked about to prevent it from taking insidious root, and the closest the book comes to tackling it is the US troops use of pejoratives like ‘Nuck’ – a strong and believable detail, but only scratching at the surface of this terrible truth and sinister power of this narrative of ‘otherness’.
The nature of the instigating attack on US soil is yet to be explained, nor are we given any idea why Canada did it or how the US knew it was a Canadian strike. This obfuscation of the political background offers a direct commentary on the events that followed 9/11 and the confusion at the highest levels of government that led to a weak and ill-judged case for war – the justification for invading Afghanistan and Iraq was so vaguely positioned and ultimately flimsy that it might as well not have existed. The difficulty this approach poses in the book is that we have no way of knowing if the Canada is a dangerous terror state and thus may justifiably need to be countered to preserve the security of America. Maybe that’s the point – is there any action the Canadian state could have taken that would warrant the merciless persecution of innocent civilians in their homes. But perhaps it also undermines the military aspects of the book: the American’s are shown to be policing the Canadian wilderness and in each military encounter they give the resistance fighters a chance to lay down their arms peaceably. So are they tyrannical oppressors or guardians of American security who fight honourably? Despite these ambiguities the Canadian resistance is clearly positioned as the ‘good’ side in this war, with the actions and tactics of the Americans military being demonstrably heavy handed (just look at the clear U.S. boot print smashing violently through a door on the first page – no diplomacy, tact, or understanding, just pure blunt force). Maybe the plot will pivot and we’ll see the more sympathetic side of the US occupancy, but so far it feels like that whilst the Americans have certainly done some bad stuff, we’re supposed to believe that the resistance are the good guys just because we’ve been told that they’re the good guys.
A particular scene that felt forced to me was when Amber, understandably excitedly, rushes to take a shower at the resistance base. There is a large panel of Amber naked and showering before realising she is being watched. The voyeur turns out to be both gay and watching her for a legitimate purpose (to see if she has any American survelliance implants). This just be a smart scene that emphasises she’s not part of this team yet and sows doubt about Amber’s allegiance (“for a gal who’s supposedly been fending for herself all this time, you don’t got much wear and tear on you“), but also feels like a retroactive excuse to include a big page of female nudity. Maybe I’m just being overly sensitive, but it definitely stood out as a curious choice to me to have a two page scene with Amber in a bath towel in a book that is supposed to be about a bitter struggle against tyrannical forces. Another point that probably just comes down to taste, but I’m not keen on the robot designs. I guess the idea is that they look just as massive and ugly as their actions are devastating and oppressive, but to me they just look outsized and ludicrously impractical (mention was made of sound dampeners that last issue allowed one of them to suddenly appear next to our heroes unheard, but that requires a lot of suspended disbelief). When the team arrive in their base having tied an entire robot monstrosity to the roof of their vehicle it looked laughably stupid – how have 6 people achieved this when the robot is 3 stories tall?
This is an interesting comic book, one that raises powerful questions that are not being tackled that frequently in the medium. The storytelling, art, and character work is all expertly delivered; this is a good read. But it really is the political and philosophical weight of the book that will stick with you; casting recent history as a science fiction parable has it’s risks (do cool robots obscure the message beneath) but I think that this book, so far at least, is a success in this regard. The reader is constantly being asked to consider how a nation ought to behave in a war and how almost any action can be justified by a war for survival, but perhaps more importantly the book is going to great lengths to stress that both sides in a conflict are populated by real people. Proud, strong people willing to sacrifice everything to defend their homeland. Whether that is an unpalatable political message for you as a reader is of course something only you can answer, but at least this book makes you ask the question.
We Stand on Guard #2 // Writer – Brian K. Vaughan / Artist – Steve Skroce / Colourist – Matt Hollingsworth // Image
– It is still not clear who the title refers to: is it the Americans or the Canadians who stand on guard?
– Pedantry warning: Am I the only one who thinks it’s strange that the high level operative/interrogator is given a message by a random soldier in the cell – think about this for a second, she is a holographic projection in that room so is actually somewhere else all together, yet the colonel gets in touch with a random prison guard to ask her to give him a visit in a third room somewhere else. Wouldn’t he give her (or her PA) a call directly where she actually was, not where her hologram was?
– Any one have a good guess on where that secret base is located?