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Paint It Black - Popcultural References In Warblogs

Page history last edited by Thomas 14 years, 1 month ago

There were things chirping out beyond where I could see. I remembered going to the old cowboy movies and seeing the cowboys sitting around a campfire and the Indians sneaking up on them and making noises like owls and stuff. I looked over toward Lobel, who was looking out toward the wire.

"Hey, Lobel, I didn't mean anything," I said. "I guess I'm just a little nervous."

"No sweat."He wore his helmet down low over his eyes and the top part of his face was in shadow. "I'm a little nervous, too. I'd be real nervous, except I know none of this is real and I'm just playing a part. [...] The part where the star of the movie is sitting in the foxhole* explaining how he feels about life and stuff like that. You never get killed in movies when you're doing that. Anytime you get killed in a movie, it's after you set it up."

"You play a part when we were on patrol?"

"That wasn't a patrol," Lobel said. "That was a firefight. [...] Anyway, I was playing Lee Marvin as a tough sergeant. That's my best part."

(excerpt from Walter Dean Myer's Fallen Angels, p. 71)


*= defensive fighting position; a trench or guarding postion for one or more soldiers and their equipment, often made up with sandbags



1. Introduction

2. What Is A Warblog?

     2.1 - A Blog In General

     2.2 - A Special Kind Of Blog

3. Pop Culture - Definitions And Important Concepts

     3.1 - The Definition Of Pop Culture

     3.2 - The Concept Of Intertextuality

     3.3 - Popculture, War & American GIs

     3.4 - A Short View On The Modern War Story

     3.5 - Paint It Black

4. Analysis Of Warblogs

     4.1 - Popcultural References In: Colby Buzzell's My War: Men In Black

     4.2 - Popcultural References In: LT G's Kaboom!: The Montagues And The Capulets

     4.3 - Popcultural References In: Alex Horton's Army Of Dude: A New Beginning

5. Analysis Summary

6. Conclusion

7. Bibliography

     7.1 - Images And Videos

     7.2 - Literature And Web Sites

1.  Introduction


Since the invasion of Afghanistan by American forces a new kind of war reports has emerged: the warblogs. Written by soldiers during their time in war, the warblogs are a mixture of soldiers' diaries and communication platforms. Reporting directly from the frontlines, and offering a close view on the real happenings in war, they have been called a revolution in journalism. Like the excerpt from Walter Dean Myer's Fallen Angels above, they carry a lot of popcultural references. But why? This essay will focus on that question, and it will try to answer it.


2.  What Is A Warblog


 At first, it will be necessary to get an idea about what a warblog is. This will happen in two steps. The first one will be a definition of the term blog in general. The second one will focus on the term warblog, which is a special kind of weblog.


2.1 - A Blog In General:


According to the online encyclopedia wikipedia.org, "a blog (a contraction of the term "web log") is a web site, usually maintained by an individual, with regular entries of commentary, descriptions of events, or other material such as graphics or video. Entries are commonly displayed in reverse-chronological order".  Furthermore, the term "blog can also be used as a verb, meaning to maintain or add content to a blog"(Wikipedia: Weblog/Blog).  

This definition already provides a good idea about blogs in general, but a few details must not be left out. Danah Boyd, who is an experienced blogger herself, analyzed the new medium in deep, and comes up with the following:


  • the process of blogging contains "a diverse set of practices resulting in the production of divers content (Boyd 1, 5)". So, blogging means to use several tools to create digital content on the blog, like journals, diarys, and all other forms of logs.
  • a blog can be analyzed in temporal terms (the post frequency for example) and in structural terms (the tools, hyperlinks, features, etc.)(Boyd 6).
  • they are a kind of computermediated communication (one or multiple authors communicate with an unknown readership via the blog. On some blogs the readers can respond via a comment box.) (Boyd 6).
  • a blog is both a "medium and a bi-product of expression" (Boyd 11).
  • blogs are blurring the borders between "orality and literacity, corporeality and spatiality, public and private". That means they are a mixture of speaking and writing, of virtual body and space, and of public and private life at the same time (Boyd 14 ff).


2.2 - A Special Kind Of Blog:


The warblog is a special kind of blog. Written by someone who got involved in war, the main theme is the experience made during the time of armed conflict, while it does not matter whether the author is a civilian, a member of the army, or someone else. Additionally, warblogs written by military members are called milblogs (military blogs).

As Michael, the author of A Day In Iraq and a warblogger himself, wrote on his blog on September 15th, 2006, the first milblogs emerged after the invasion of Afghanistan in the year 2001, when the American soldiers were given internet access by the U.S. military. The blogs were an ideal way for soldiers to stay in contact with their friends, comrads-in-arms, their family, and especially the public. At the first time, the new medium weblog perfectly filled in the gap between the censored reports by the old media and the military, and gave an unchanged and very close view on the real happenings in conflict. "Unfortunately," Michael added, "the U.S. government is now trying to shut down these blogs and otherwise censor them" (Michael). 


3.  Popculture - Definitions And Important Concepts


As the last chapter has covered the definitions of blogs and warblogs, chapter 3 will deal with other important definitions and concepts. The following will explain pop-culture and how referencing works. Additionally, the connection between war, pop-culture and American GIs will be considered, and there will be a short view on the theme of the modern combat movie.


3.1 - The Definition Of Pop Culture:


Again, it is the famous online encyclopedia, which provides a good definition of popular culture. The German version wikipedia.de, which gives a better definition than the English one, says that popular culture means different cultural products and everyday practices. As a result of the modernisation of society in the beginning of the 20th century, these products and practices are have spread as mass culture. Because of its popular (latin populus = people) or proletarian nature, popular culture differs from the avantgarde or high culture. Examples of popular culture are sports, mass media, formula fiction, and pop music. Especially in pop music, pop culture as a kind of a sub culture has emerged, which is clearly different to rock music, for example (Popkultur). In Pop & Mythos Martin Büsser, who works for the testcard magazine, gives an overview of the current situation. He says that pop culture has become a vast and important field, so that almost everything can be part of it, and the question if popular culture is high art is not important, anymore (Büsser 41, 43).  The old differentiations into high and low culture have disappeared and popular culture is both on the way to become the new avantgarde and at the same time showing signs of the old underground; it has reached a postmodern and self-reflexive state (45, 48).


3.2 - The Concept Of Intertextuality:


The concept of intertextuality might also be called the concept of referencing, or the concept of linking. As Heinrich E. Plett mentions in Intertextuality, an intertext is "a text between other texts", while it is important for both the author and the reader to know the intertext. Otherwise it will not be recognized as such (Plett 5). The Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary says that intertextuality is "the complex interrelationship between a text and other texts taken as basic to the creation or interpretation of the text" (Merriam-Webster). So, the concept of intertextuality explains how an author can shape his text by references to other texts. These references help to add a deeper meaning to his words, or to explain difficult relations behind it.

A good example of an intertext is the standard beginning of a fairy tale "Once upon a time...". By reading the first line, the reader immediately knows that he is reading a fairy tale, and that there may be dragons, knights and princesses etc. He immediately knows to which genre the text belongs to. This leads to the important details of this definition:


  • texts share context. That means that no text can be written or exist without connections to other ones. Each one contains information to another previously written text. This deja-vu-effect or net-effect is very important for the function of intertextuality.
  • intertextuality does not only work with texts, but also with images, music, sounds, and other media.
  • it is not only important in constructing texts, but also in constructing experience in life. "Much of what we know about the world is derived from what we have read in books, newspapers and magazines, from what we have seen in cinema and on television and from what we have heard on the radio. Life is [...] framed by texts to a greater extent than we are normally aware of."   


  • intertextuality is also very important in pop culture. Here it is used to achieve "depth to the fictional reality portrayed in the medium". Often meaning or humour is created by characters referencing to other elements and characters of pop culture.



3.3 - Pop Culture, War & American GIs:


What does pop culture have to do with war, or with American GIs? Tony Perry, who writes for the Los Angeles Times, says that "pop culture helps the GIs pass the time. [...] There is no doubt that when American military goes to war, American popular culture tags along".

When he visited American forces stationed in Iraq, he noticed that every base and every outpost was full of American popular culture. There were masses of paperback novels, video games, music, and movies on DVD. As he says, the average American soldier prefers war stories, science-fiction, adventure stories, but also high literature. So, during his stay in Iraq, he met a soldier reading Death In Venice on the back of truck. And, when it comes to music, most soldiers prefer country-western or rap. Most of all these books, movies and other pop culture stuff is sent by the families and friends athome. They shall help the soldiers pass the time and relax during their dangerous jobs and missions. And they remind the soldiers of home. As Perry says, they are "cultural ties to home"; a little bit of America far away from the U.S.  (Pop Culture Helps GIs Pass The Time)



But, there is not only a connection between pop culture and the GIs, there is also a connection to war. In today's pop culture the theme of war is almost omnipresent, and the music scene is filled with anti-war ideology. According to Jon Pareles, who writes for the New York Times, the situation is "somewhere between resignation and siege mentality. War wouldn't go away". There is anger, protest, tiredness, and a yearning for peace in music like everytime, in war, but this time even artists and song writers who normally concentrate on love songs turned to the theme of war. "The righteousness of old protestsongs", as he says, "is replaced by sorrow and malaise. The warsongs of the 21st century have been sober and earnest, pragmatic rather than fanciful". As Pareles continues, "music and the other arts, unlike journalism, don't echo the news"(Pareles).

Additionally to the anti-war ideology, there is still something else: sympathy for the troops. All the protest, anger, sadness and sorrow is directed against politics.


[Examples: Anti-Flag - War Sucks, Let's Party!; Eminem - White America; Green Day - Holiday; Sum 41 - The Jester; System Of A Down - Soldier Side ]


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System Of A Down - Soldier Side


3.4 - A Short View On The Modern War Story (Combat Movie):


For an analysis of warblogs it is important to consider the great change in the construction of the combat movie in the last decades. This sort of movie is often - intendedly or unitendedly - imitated and mirrored in warblogs.

In Getting The Word Out Johanna Roering mentions the main characteristics of this new kind of combat movie. She says that in the modern version the broad historical and political view is neglected in order to achieve a new and a much closer perspective. The view of the observer is dismissed and replaced by the more limited view and narration of one single soldier. This creates a focus on battle, violence, injury and dying. The narrating soldier is low-ranking, high-ranking soldiers like officers and generals are not important in the discourse of the story. So, the perspective on the battlefield gets as close as possible. The modern combat movie is also strongly influenced by pop-culture (Roering).


[Examples: Saving Private Ryan, Band Of Brothers, Black Hawk Down, Tears of The Sun, Jarhead, Platoon]




3.5 - Paint It Black:


A good and almost legendary example of how all these theories, definitions and concepts can work together is the following:

When the Rolling Stones wrote Paint It Black, one of their most famous songs, they intended it to be a story about a man mourning the death of his girlfriend and feeling depression and sadness in life. Because of its success in the music scene, and because of the high level of popular culture in the U.S. military life of that time, Paint It Black soon was used in several films and series about the war for Vietnam. Today, the song is strongly connected with Vietnam and often thought to be a story about depression and sadness following the experience of war (wikipedia).


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The Paint-It-Black - Intro of 'Tour Of Duty'


4.  Analysis Of Warblogs


As the definitions and important concepts are dealt with, this chapter will examine the use of popcultural references in three entries from three different warblogs: Colby Buzzell's My War, LT G's Kaboom! and Alex Horton's Army Of Dude.


4.1 - Popcultural References In Colby Buzzell's My War: Men In Black:


In his report about an attack of heavily armed, black clothed Iraqis on American forces, Colby Buzzell mostly uses references to famous Hollywood films and film elements. Already the title of his blog entry Men In Black references to the famous movie about a fictitious, top secret U.S. agency, whose members are all dressed in serious black suits and fulfill their task as alien hunters with special weapons and gear. On another point, he compares one of his comrades, who has been hit by a bullet and is lying on the floor, to a knocked out boxer in the ring, struck down by Rocky, the famous movie boxer, played by Sylvester Stallone. Other film elements are for explample his mentions of "crazy insane Hollywood explosions", the "crazed wide eyed look" in his eyes during the fight, the "Indian warcry thing" of the American soldiers, or the term "John-Wayning" to describe one of his comrades, who is shooting from the hip. Except these, there are some other popcultural references like the comic-like "Ping! Ping!" to describe the sounds of the bullets as they hit the vehicles, the mention of the famous brand Pepsi, or the war story he is reading at the beginning of his story (Thin Red Line).


4.2 - Popcultural References In LT G's Kaboom!: The Montagues And The Capulets:


LT G's entry about the happenings of one night in Iraq reads like an adventure of a group of popculture characters in literary form. Next to references to films and comics, his report is mainly filled with literary elements. He uses the name of the city of Verona out of Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet together with elements out of the arabic world to create the new name for the city "Anu-al-Verona". This name clearly explains the situation in the city: there are two equal and mighty family clans (here the Sunnis and the Shi'is), who fight each other. Additionally, LT G and his soldiers meet the equivalent of Juliet at the Sheik's place, which is a young Shi'i girl, that fell in love with a Sunni boy. (Later, after having posted the blog entry, LT G himself got compared to the character of Benvolio (Romeo's best friend and a strategian) by one of his readers). Further popcultural references are for example the title of the blog Kaboom! (comics), the popcultural names of his soldiers (i.e. "PV2 Hot Wheels") or the term boogeyman (films).


4.3 - Popcultural References In Alex Horton's Army Of Dude: New Beginnings:


In his blog entry New Beginnings Alex Horton does not use as much popcultural references like LT G or Colby Buzzell, at least he does not use them in such a direct way. While Buzzell and LT work a lot with direct references, he mainly works with photo stories and videos to express his story. Yet, there is at least one direct popcultural reference in the entry.  While they are searching the wide and empty Anbar desert for a wrecked jet pilot, and a helicopter is flying near the convoy to watch out for possible dangers, Horton and his comrades connect a megaphone with an mp3-player to play Breathe In The Air, a song by Pink Floyd. As Alex says, "nothing was more fitting at the time than Pink Floyd" (Horton). While the exact meaning of the song is unclear, it is certainly about freedom or emptiness in life, and also about the journey of life, which can lead to an early death. All of that fits very well to the event, which is described in the entry: a journey through a vast and empty space with uncertain dangers. 


5.  Analysis Summary


All three examples of warblog entries above use popcultural references to construct their reports. These references cover pop cultural fields like movies, comics, music and even high literature, but the function and the effects are always the same. Colby Buzzell's report turns into a Hollywood-American war story, LT G's entry turns into a kind of adventure report with literary elements, and in Alex Horton's report of the journey through the desert the popcultural elements construct a kind of soundtrack around the whole scene. In each of the blog entries the references are used mainly to descibe what happened in a short, but very exact way (i.e. "insane Hollywood explosions"(Buzzell)). Next to that, difficult situations can be explained by the use of them (i.e. "Anu-al Verona"(LT G)). And finally, emotions, thoughts and meaning can be expressed or conveyed (i.e. "Breathe In The Air"(Horton)). As effects on a secondary level, the use of popcultural references in warblogs creates reality and clearly shows the soldiers' belongig to popular mass culture. They share this belongig and knowledge with their readers, and they know it. Otherwise, these intertexts would not work, because the readers were not able to decode them.


6.  Conclusion


In Conclusion, it can be said that the soldiers tend to use popcultural references in their blogs, because of their belonging to the mass culture of pop. Their bases and outposts are full of novels, movies, video games and literature, which serve as ties to their home. Popculture is something known and loved in a foreign far away country of unknown dangers. And it is quite normal to use common and known things to explain or describe something new. Already the definition of intertextuality and its functions in the beginning of this essay says that "what we know about the world is derived from what we have read in books, newspapers and magazines, from what we have seen in cinema and on television and from what we have heard on the radio"(Chandler). The famous example of the song by the Rolling Stones Paint It Black, which has turned into a popcultural reference to the Vietnam war, perfectly shows the functions and effects of the combination of popcultural references and war experience. The same is used and reflected in warblogs: popcultural references are used to describe in a short and exact way, to explain difficult relations and situations, to express and convey meaning, feelings and thoughs, but also to imitate popculture elements and to create reality. In short: popcultural references in a warblog have the function of PAINTING IT BLACK.    


7.  Bibliography


7.1 - Images And Videos:


TF ORG. The Films. Platoon. 31 August 2008. <http://tf.org/images/covers/Platoon1986free.jpg>.

WKU Delo. DELO eNews - July 2007. Soldier Reading A Book. 31 August 2008. <http://www.wku.edu/delo/NewslettersHTML/Images/Jul07/etfk3.jpg>.

Youtube. System Of A Down - Soldier Side. 30 August 2008. <http://de.youtube.com/watch?v=T8YluAMCRT8>.


7.2 - Literature And Web Sites:


Boyd, Danah. A Blogger's Blog: Exploring The Definition Of A Medium. 29 August 2008. <http://www.danah.org/papers/ABloggersBlog.pdf>.

Buzzell, Colby. My War. Men In Black. 31 August 2008. <http://cbftw.blogspot.com/2004_08_01_archive.html>

Chandler, David. Semiotics For Beginners. Intertextuality. 30 August 2008. <http://www.aber.ac.uk/media/Documents/S4B/sem09.html>.

G, LT. Kaboom!. The Montagues And The Capulets. 31 August 2008. <http://kaboomwarjournalarchive.blogspot.com/2008/05/montagues-and-capulets.html>.

Geuen, Heinz. Pop And Mythos. Pop-Kultur, Pop-Ästhetik, Pop-Musik. Schliengen. Edition Argus. 2001.

Horton, Alex. Army Of Dude. New Beginnings. 31 August 2008. <http://armyofdude.blogspot.com/2007/12/photo-story-monday-new-beginnings.html>.

Merriam-Webster. Intertextuality. Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary. 30 August 2008. <http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/intertextuality>.

"Michael". A Day In Iraq. The Blog Of War. 29 August 2008. <http://adayiniraq.blogspot.com/2006/09/blog-of-war.html>.

Myers, Walter Dean. Fallen Angels. New York. Scholastic Inc. 1988.

Pareles, Jon. The New York Times. Pop Music And The War: The Sound Of Resignation. 30 August 2008.


Perry, Tony. Los Angeles Times. Pop Culture Helps GIs pass the time. 30 August 2008. <http://articles.latimes.com/2007/jan/29/entertainment/et-iraq29>.

Plett, Heinrich E. Intertextuality. Berlin. DeGruyter. 1991.

Roering, Johanna. New Media And The Iraq War. Getting The Word Out. Tübingen. Eberhard-Karls Universität.

Wikipedia. Intertextuality In Pop Culture. 30 August 2008. <http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Intertextuality#Intertextuality_in_pop_culture>.

Wikipedia. Paint It Black. 31 August 2008. <http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Paint_It,_Black>.

Wikipedia. Popkultur. 29 August 2008. <http://de.wikipedia.org/wiki/Popkultur>.

Wikipedia. Weblog / Blog. 29 August 2008. <http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Weblog>. 

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