One of the first things that happens as the raid goes down is the arrival of an MP (Military Policeman) carrying out a routine patrol. Luckily, the oddly-named Steve Christmas is on the ball!
“A hiss from Christmas’s radio broke the silence. “Headlights approaching,” whispered Villeneuve.
“How many…what speed?”
“Looks like a single, a car, I think. Not very fast-slow actually. Hey it just pulled in front of the old building down the road, shining a light around.”
Steve turned to Alex. “Company coming, single car. An MP, I think…checking buildings. Not too alert by the looks of it…just the routine meathead patrol.
“Right! Close the gate. Put the lock and chain back on. Pass the word – lights out. They know the drill.” At least I hope they do, he thought.
Finally! Bland actually uses a CF slang term that I recognize! Yeah, we still call the MPs meatheads.
I’m curious to know if Bland, in his capacity as a CF infantry officer, ever had to preside over a Comms course. Or if he ever had to deal with a new signaller who wasn’t used to speaking over the radio. Because on one hand Villeneuve (another European-type name!) is speaking clearly and coherently, but on the other hand he doesn’t seem to know how to cut his transmissions short.
Also, while it’s pretty realistic for green troops to be compulsively dependent on flashlights, it is unusual for them to respond quickly to douse the lights and go to ground.
It’s never made clear exactly how many people are in Alex Gabriel’s raiding party. The number of boats suggests Platoon minus (20-30 people) but most of them are anonymous and interchangeable. One of the few who gets a name is Steve Christmas. Steve Christmas is-like Alex Gabriel-an AWOL CF soldier. He is also described as a ‘disciplinarian.’ A bit later, in a rather inexplicable joke, one of their warriors is described as a Cree (more on this below). That is pretty much all we get to learn about him ever in this novel.
Contrast this with our introduction to Cpl Joan Newman of-I assume-2 MP platoon. She is the MP approaching our band of raiders in her patrol car, and she is introduced by Douglas Bland a few pages earlier like this:
“Military Police Corporal Joan Newman tried not to spill a lukewarm cup of instant coffee on her way to her patrol car. Join the Armed Forces, she thought bitterly. See the world. Yeah, well, then didn’t mention the part about marrying a warrant officer who’d come back from Africa with a drinking problem. Or aiming for the paratroops and winding up a military policeman instead.
Now divorced, Joan was looking at the spending the remaining four exciting years of her current enrolment patrolling half-empty bases on dark, lonely nights. And drinking too much while wondering what…Damn! She had spilled her coffee. No time to change her green military sweater either. Her boss was a real stickler for keeping to the regular patrol schedule, even though she, and no doubt other MPs, had pointed out it just made things more predictable for anybody up to anything worse than a drunken fist fight. Not that anybody ever was. As she got into the car, Joan told herself for the hundredth time that this was not the life she’d planned for herself.
That’s barely two hundred words, and Bland still can’t resist the urge to fall into clumsy, self-righteous exposition as he describes the predictability of MP patrols, but still we have a pretty good handle on who Joan Newman is and what the major motivators are in her life.1
Who is Steve Christmas? Fucked if I know. He’s a disciplinarian. One of his troops is a Cree, not a Crow (yes, more later). He has a western European first name, and a last name that sounds like it might have been assigned by a 17th century Jesuit missionary. Could there be more to him? Possibly. Could he have hopes, dreams, aspirations? I’m sure it’s possible. Are we ever going to learn about these things? Nope….
By way of contrast, consider the following:
This is a scene from Japanese director Akira Kurosawa’s 1954 classic ‘Seven Samurai.’ Depending on what version of the film you’ve seen, you may not recognize it since it’s a sub-plot involving the peasants (in the foreground of the shot) first attempt to recruit samurai to protect their village and it often gets cut out for TV edits. But it’s an interesting scene for one main reason; the action in the scene all revolves around unnamed characters who have no further role in the film afterwards.
The basic story of ‘The Seven Samurai’ is about a group of peasants in feudal Japan who recruit a band of samurai to defend their village against bandits. Before encountering their hero Kambei who recruits the other six of the titular samurai, the peasants meet another samurai (centre of the above shot). This samurai proves to be an impulsive and whining drunk who gets to gambling with another group of peasants in the barn (screen left, in the rear). He ends up losing his money and getting beaten up by these new peasants.
In the scene above (about fifteen minutes into the film) the drunk samurai has regained consciousness and tries to make an excuse for his poor behaviour.
The gambling peasants mock the drunken samurai and his excuses, prompting the samurai to challenge them.
The gambling peasants respond by waking up their friend, a hulking peasant much bigger than anyone else in the barn.
The hulking peasant is so disoriented that at first he charges in the wrong direction.
He quickly sorts himself out, and as the gambling peasants advance, the drunken samurai cowers in fear (gotta love the facial expression).
Rather than fight, the drunken samurai slinks away to his loft to sleep off the rest of the night, but before he does, he tries to assuage his pride by snapping at an elderly musician who’s been playing in the background throughout the scene.
Even this small victory is denied to him as the leader of the gambling peasants steps in to defend the monk.
The scene winds up with main characters deciding amongst themselves that, as peasants, they are unable to judge good samurai from bad.2
Now consider, none of the characters introduced in this scene have names. The drunken samurai, the three gambling peasants, the elderly musician, all five are on screen for barely two minutes. Despite this, we can draw some basic conclusions about their personalities. The drunken samurai is weak, exploitative and a coward. He’ll flee from a real fight but try to make himself feel better by lashing out at an older, weaker man. The leader of the gambling peasants is a loudmouth and cruel, but has a certain rough sense of fairness. He won’t sit idly by while the samurai tries to make his excuses, and he’ll stand up for the elderly musician/monk both on principle and to twist the knife on the samurai just a little bit more.
And the elderly musician? He hardly flinches, either when the samurai threatens him or when the gambling peasants take his side. You just know he’s seen this all before.
Part of the reason a scene like this can come out of nowhere and still work is that the Director Akira Kurosawa always made sure that any actor with a speaking role in one of his movies would get a complete dossier about the character they were playing. Even if none of the details were relevant to the story, the actor would know the complete history of their character: the names of their parents, siblings and children, their life history, even such trivial details such as their favourite food. Thus when you get scenes like this one in the Seven Samurai, where the nameless, cowardly drunken Samurai gets bullied by a gang of peasants in a barn, you can feel the depth of the story even if you never learn a name or a back story. Even if you never get the backstory, you can sense it’s there because the actors all know it.
But enough of these black and white characters, back to Douglas Bland’s Uprising!
We’ve already discussed how Bland hasn’t considered the ways in which weapons security has developed over the last fortty years in the Canadian Forces (not to mention how bringing a truck would have been easier than humping everything out on your back). Now we get to be treated to his interpretation of the classic action sequence where a random guard blunders into the commando raid.
In real life, breaching the gates of either a weapons vault or ammo compound should have set off immediate alarms with the MP detachment, which in turn should have in turn triggered a response from a patrol car and (probably) phone calls to the holding unit or the ammo techs to determine if this was a scheduled event. True, the initial response would still be fairly casual (typically, the most likely cause of an alarm would be a distracted storesman who failed to properly input the alarm code) but it would be direct to the vault and the incoming MP would be alert to the fact that there was a problem.
In this case, however, the response is more muted. Cpl Joan Newman is sleepy and distracted as she conducts a routine spot check on buildings and gates. Gabriel and his men are quickly able to grab and overpower her:
“Alex watched the approaching car. “Okay. We can’t take a chance that the MPs might see something and then, after we let the car go, raise an alarm. We’ll take them down. Okay, as we rehearsed the other night – once the car halts at the gate, I’ll take the driver’s side…you take the partner.”
Weird how they rehearsed the plan the other night, but Alex Gabriel still needs to explain the plan anyway.
“The car pulled into the entrance lane as expected. Joan Newman shone a spotlight across the gate then casually over the compound as she had done on too many night shifts. “Boring, boring, boring,” she told herself, “the usual Sunday night bullshit. I’ve got to get myself a life – maybe even that jerk, Jack.”
The door flew open. Joan felt someone grab her collar and lift her sideways and backwards out of the car. She fell hard on the road, the impact taking her breath away. A dark shape loomed over her, pistol in hand, and stepped hard on her right arm. “Be quiet, don’t do anything stupid, and you’ll be okay.”
The other front door was already open. She heard someone switch off the engine. Feet ran towards her. Joan caught her breath and growled, “If you guys are frigg’n militia on an exercise, you’re in big trouble. Let me up.” She moved to sit up but was knocked roughly back down.
“Shut up, stay down. This is no exercise,” Alex barked. He turned to the warriors. “You two, stay with me. The rest get back to the job. Sergeant, any commotion on the radio?”
“No.” He glanced at the body on the ground. “Nice job, sir.”
So let me get this straight…an MP gets yanked out of her car outside of the Petawawa ammo compound on a Sunday night, and her first assumption is that they’re militia?
In case anyone from the US ever reads this, Militia is an old term for the Canadian Armed Forces Primary Reserves. The part time soldiers who train to augment the Regular Force when they deploy overseas. Citizen soldiers. My people. Officially now we’re called the Primary Reserves, but Militia used to be the official term and it’s still pretty commonly used today. But why would Cpl Newman assume that a group of shadowy assailants physically attacking her on a Sunday night kilometres away from the training area are militia? Does Bland not understand how we work?
One of the more common derogatory terms for the militia in the Regular Forces is “Toons.” As in, cartoons. As in, a weekend distraction for the kids3. So how does it add up in Bland’s mind that a bunch of us would stay behind on a Sunday night (and not have our absence noticed by our home units?) so we can randomly practice sentry take downs on actual MP patrols?
Or maybe he just settled on us as his go-to punching bags and didn’t think at all? Seems to be a theme…
A second point: It’s a bit of a personal axe to grind, but I get slightly annoyed by scenes like this in which the ‘tough guy’ (whether hero or villain) is easily able to overpower the random extra with some kind of swanky martial arts move or ‘off-switch’ knockout punch. Based on my limited own experience, things aren’t nearly as quick and clean. I can only imagine the confusion if, upon trying to pull Cpl Newman out of her patrol car, they’d discovered that she had been wearing her seatbelt like any good police officer should or if the door had been locked…
…or the hilarity that might have ensued when, as she was dragged from the car, her foot came off the break pedal and the car (being an automatic transmission) started rolling forward again with Steve Christmas hanging out the passenger side.
Still, that’s minor quibble in the grand scheme of things. The real problem happened eight pages earlier. During an aside scene, a separate Native commando raid is taking place at the ammo compound of CFB Halifax:
“Inside the little guard’s hut at the Canadian Forces Base Halifax ammunition compound, Fred McTavish leafed eagerly through his sports fisherman’s catalogue. Page after page of sleek, shiny, aluminum boats, and on page twenty-two, the one he wanted: padded bow seats, whisper-quiet, four-stroke, fifteen-horsepower outboard motor, trailer, and everything. Oh sure, it would cost a bundle. But a man’s entitled. Hadn’t he worked hard all his life, done his tour of duty, worked in the shipyards, found other work when the yards shut down, paid his taxes, brought his paycheque home, and raised two honest kids? “You bet I’m entitled,” he told himself. “Three more months and I’ll be hitting the lake in that shiny beauty.”
His boys had moved away two years ago to go to university in Toronto and Calgary, but when Dennis was home last winter during reading week, he had told him, “Dad, you buy that boat. I’ll be back in the summer and we’ll go fishing every week.” That’ll be nice, Fred thought.
The sudden roar of fast motors from two pickup trucks startled Fred. “What the hell are those jerks doing speeding up to the depot gate on a Sunday at this time of night? Must be lost.” He reached for his flashlight and stepped out the door. Peering into the darkness, he watched the two pickup trucks coming down the road towards the gate. They were driving way too fast. “Stupid bastards!” Fred told himself. He flicked on his flashlight to wave them down. The lead truck slowed, then veered towards him and suddenly accelerated again. The collision crushed Fred’s ribcage and sent him flying backward into the doorway, rocking the table inside the guardhouse. The boat catalogue fluttered to the floor. Fred died, slumped sideways, half-sitting against the wall outside the little hut.”
So here’s another white character who’s only around for a page and a half that nevertheless gets a detailed backstory. But don’t bother wondering about Steve Christmas and what he thinks about his last name!
Well, at least the guys who killed Fred thought to bring a couple of trucks.
Poor Fred McTavish is introduced in just enough detail for us to be dismayed when he is unceremoniously run over and killed by a native commando raid launched against CFB Halifax. A character like this is something of an inevitability in one of these ‘techno-thrillers’ set on such a large scale. Typically, the way it would work is that the character would be introduced without explanation at the beginning of the novel, only to meet with an untimely end when the decisions made by figures higher up the food chain (US President, CIA director, terrorist mastermind, etc…) came to fruition. The flip side of this kind of character has our unknown everyman make a decision on their own, only to throw the whole world into chaos as their decision echoes upwards through the halls of power. If you want a master-class on how this works, pick up any of Tom Clancy’s early novels
The basic concept is something I actually liked quite a bit. Long before the concept of “the Strategic Corporal” became a popular buzzword, my old friend Tom Clancy presented us with a militarized version of the “great network of mutuality” where the actions of the story’s “great men” are illustrated in the way they impact upon an average person. Or alternately, how the average person could, nevertheless, make a decision that might shake the American President himself.
By necessity then, this often required a regular parade of one-off characters who are introduced to the reader only to be killed off in dramatic/sad/pathetic/significant ways, only to have the perspective cut back to the main story and never to return. When done right, this could actually be pretty poignant; showing how the grand decision made in an office somewhere can have very real and terrifying consequences on the ground halfway around the world, and vice versa.4
But one of the key aspects of this style is that the deaths of these one-off characters would be presented with a kind of value judgement attached to them. Either their fate would be deserved or they would be tragic. Either the character was dead because they had done something stupid and dishonourable (such as in ‘Clear and Present Danger’ when the Cartel assassins captured by the Coast Guard seem about to escape execution only to be murdered in prison) or when circumstances conspire against them (such as the Israeli fighter pilot flying in the Yom Kipur War in ‘The Sum of All Fears’ who is shot down over Syria, never realizes that his plane had been armed with a nuclear device).
This raises the question of whether Fred McTavish’s death is deserved or tragic. Personally, I’m inclined to say the latter, but the setup almost has an irony to it (in the Alanis Morisette sense) that seems to make it appear deserved. Regardless, Fred McTavish is about as suitable as any other extra out there. Perhaps a bit broad strokes in terms of his personality and maybe a bit abrupt in his death, but otherwise he gets the job done.
This passage leaves us with a couple of things to unpack, and although it’s a bit of a diversion from the text, I think it’s useful to examine Bland’s use of the word entitlement. In and of itself it’s a neutral term, but used here, it looks as though it’s supposed to be the signifier of Fred McTavish’s morale failing, making his death justified instead of tragic. He is supposed to be on guard, yet instead he pours over a boating magazine, gleefully anticipating his immanent retirement (although how’s he going to hit the lake in his new boat in three months is beyond me, since that would be December and any lake in the Maritimes would likely be frozen). As a result of this slothful behaviour, he is caught unprepared when the NPA raiders crash his check point and run him over. To emphasize the fact, Bland goes so far as to have the offending magazine flutter to the ground as Fred dies next to his guard shack.
But isn’t Fred McTavish entitled to his retirement? The man worked his whole life Bland has him leafing through a boat catalogue and convincing himself he deserves to splurge on a boat. You bet I’m entitled, he tells himself smugly.
I’m not a hundred percent sure of the timeline in which the book was written, but given a publication date of 2009, we can assume he wrote it in 2007-8. This would come hard on the heels of the 2006 Federal election that saw Harper’s Conservative Party come to power and made entitlement into a code word for Liberal (and by extension weak, corrupt and greedy). During that election, the then-dominant Liberal Party was facing (among other things) a scandal centred around frivolous expenses being claimed by Liberal Party Members of Parliament. A Conservative attack add from that election featured David Dingwall, former Liberal MP of and President of the Royal Canadian Mint angrily (and rather unfortunately) declaring “I am entitled to my entitlements.”
So leafing through the magazine to stare at his dream boat would make McTavish what? A Liberal?
The thing is, I don’t think it’s entirely obvious that Fred McTavish necessarily did anything wrong here. Although it’s not specified until much later on in the novel, he is a Commissionaire,5 which means his only real option in response to a threat would have been to raise the alarm. But he had no reason to suspect a threat in the first place. He is deep inside the base, hears the sound of fast approaching vehicles, and since no alert has been given he concludes that it was simply a couple of jerks racing in the dark. Not at all unreasonable. We can’t even blame him for getting hit since the text spells out that he’d carefully stayed out of the path of the oncoming vehicles (the truck had to swerve to hit him) and he was signalling with a flashlight.
But the word entitled is used twice in one paragraph. Maybe I’m reading too much into this, but it really feels as though Bland is blaming the victim for his own murder. But this is not the real problem with this scene.
The real problem here is the fact that Fred McTavish is dead while Cpl Newman is not.
This is going to come up more and more as we get into the story, but Uprising is meant to be a novel with good guys and bad guys on both sides of the conflict. But Bland is unwilling to look at any ambiguity or shades of grey. His good guys are good through and through, whereas the bad guys are bad to the bone.
What happens when an honourable man, fighting in an honourable cause, has to do something dishonourable? What happens to our ‘hero’ Alex Gabriel when he has to shoot an unsuspecting and therefore defenceless MP, someone who would have been his colleague just weeks earlier? That’s actually a story I’d like to read. These are serious questions without cut and dry answers. Do the ends justify the means? Who is innocent? How many is too many?
A portrait of a man driven from his trade and profession, forced to chose between his people or his calling? That’s a story for the ages. But Bland has carefully structured his story to avoid these questions. All of his favourite characters will be safe from making these hard decisions. There will always be the option for an ‘off-switch’ knock out or bloodless take down, and when killing happens-at least for the main characters-it will always be off screen or involve nameless extras from either side.
This is a basic failure of story telling and speaks to the lack of curiosity and courage that went into the writing of this book. And that’s unforgivable. I personally believe that no subject should ever be off limit for anyone to write about. But if you’re going to write about a race war, if you’re going to write about people who have been oppressed and cast them as villains, you cannot do it half assed. If you’re going to write about a race war, you have to do your research, you have to do the ground work. Most of all, you have to have the guts to look at the ugliest of truths.
Do that, and at least your work can be taken seriously. At least the people who object will have to nod and concede that there’s an argument there. Fail, and you got nothing to stand on.
Before we close on this particular set of scenes, I want to bring up one last episode.
“Morrison,” Christmas stage-whispered for everyone to hear, “if I see you drop Her Majesty’s ammunition again, I’ll call your mom to come and carry it for you. You’re an idle crow, Morrison.”
“Actually, I’m Cree, sergeant.”
“You’re a no good smart ass! Get your gear sorted out!”
The others snickered at the exchange, partly glad not to be the butt of the sergeant’s feigned wrath, but partly disappointed too. Thank God, Alex thought to himself, I have Steve Christmas as my second-in-command.
Okay WTF? Seriously. What the fuck was that? How the fuck is this a joke?
When you’re in the army, once in a while you’ll meet some aged weirdo who’s got a frame of reference for jokes that makes no sense at all to you in the present day. They’ll make some kind of crack that seems like it should be funny but somehow doesn’t make sense. And it’s only years later and with a fair bit of historical context that you start to suspect that the joke wasn’t meant to be funny.
There’s an art to writing a good character. To finding that character’s voice and conveying it effectively through words. If you can’t find the character’s voice, odds are, it’s going to be your own voice that comes through. I think it’s Bland’s voice that I’m hearing now, and I’m not sure what exactly I’m hearing. But I got my suspicions.
Also, why are the Native radicals calling it “Her Majesty’s ammunition?”
1 This scene does go a long way towards illustrating how out of touch Bland is with today’s Canadian Armed Forces: Why is a CF MP drinking instant coffee instead of Tim Hortons’?
2 ‘Seven Samurai’ released in 1954 by Toho Films. All screenshots are from the Criterion Collection DVD and taken by the author.
3 I’ve heard some of my fellow ‘toons attempts at a comeback by calling regular force guys ‘Soaps’ as in soap operas: as in ‘Monday to Friday, nine to three, nothing but drama.’ It never really caught on.
4 In terms of ‘six degrees of separation’ complexity, Tom Clancy’s novel The Sum of all Fears probably takes the cake when it introduced a Japanese architect purchasing timber in the United States to rebuild a shinto temple in Japan. Later in the novel the lumber is washed overboard from it’s container ship, and later still it collides with the towed array of an American nuclear missile submarine, causing said submarine to be detected by a Russian attack sub right at the height of a nuclear standoff triggered by a Palestinian nuclear terror attack on the Super Bowl using a captured Israeli nuke from the Yom Kippur War. Say what you will about Tom Clancy, but in terms of complex plotlessness that man could juggle chainsaws.
5 The Commissionaires are a kind of auxiliary force that provides general security duties in Canadian Armed Forces installations. They are unarmed, and their ranks are often composed of retired CAF members, many of them senior citizens. In emergency situations their options usually consist of sounding an alarm and (possibly) locking doors to prevent intrusion. They perform a necessary and important function, but are often derided as the army’s version of rent-a-cops.