Okay. Back to business.
So to further build upon my thoughts from the last deconstruction post, another thing that’s leaving me more and more perplexed is the fact that Douglas Bland really doesn’t seem to understand COMSEC, or communications security. This is especially evident in the fact that his NPA headquarters, the Complex in Akwesasne, is essentially a neon beacon of emissions that would have attracted bombs like a magnet on any normal modern battlefield. Now there’s all kinds of high-tech ways to protect your comms in a war, but these are usually complex, highly classified systems that probably require an advanced degree in math to properly explain. Luckily for us, though, there are a lot of low tech ways to protect what you’re saying, and even disguising that there’s a message there to begin with.
No, I’m not laying out some sinister, secret methods for ne’er-do-wells and rapscallions to circumvent the law a la anarchist cookbook. None of this stuff is secret and most of it, as we’re going to see, has been featured in popular movies throughout the years!
Before we begin, though, a bit of recent Canadian pop culture:
Back in 1992 (I said recent history…oh fuck, I’m old) Canada was celebrating her 125th birthday. Billed as ‘Canada one-two-five’ it ended up becoming a pretty big deal, hyped up by Heritage Canada, our Federal government Ministry of…basically promoting Canada. One of the outgrowths of this heady time was the advent of…The Heritage Minutes! These were basically minute-long short films portraying great or illustrative moments of Canadian history, and featured regularly on TV as a kind of patriotic PSAs.
They were a mixed bag, although there was no denying the enthusiasm and sincerity behind them. The degree to which they were pushed actually made the Minutes themselves “Part of our heritage,” leading to endless parodies and jokes. Not to mention the occasional moments of unintentional comedy in the Minutes themselves. Even today the ‘Burnt Toast’ and ‘I canna read a word’ jokes still show up in memes.
So getting back to COMSEC, this particular Heritage Minute covers the story of ‘Signal Hill’ and the first trans-atlantic radio broadcast in history. Not just an amazing technological leap, it opened the door for further developments in radio technology. One of the things that came out of this revolution was the discovery that short wave radio signals could be bounced off of the Earth’s ionosphere in order to relay signals around the planet using what is now relatively simple emitter setup.
So far in Uprising, we’ve seen Alex Gabriel and Will Boucanier both communicate with the Movement chain of command using cellphones. Cellphones. A system of communication that depends on an infrastructure that the NPA does not control, and which is often unencrypted. Later on, as the fighting breaks out, messages will fly back and forth without any real explanation as to the means, but which seems consistent with open cellphone conversations.
This is not only unrealistic, but it’s actually a shame for other reasons too. The lack of realism goes directly to Douglas Bland’s claim that the film is a vigorously researched work that represents a scenario that could very well happen. The NPA commanders are able to communicate with their soldiers without any kind of difficulty or disruption. This is not how things work in real life, even in a modern army operating in ideal circumstances. Comms break down, units drift in and out of contact, orders get missed and plans fall apart. This is why information must be pushed downwards so that subordinates who can’t reach their commanders can improvise on the spot while staying within the parameters of the commander’s intent.
Yet as the Uprising goes into full swing, comms work perfectly for the NPA, and their leadership is able to rapidly pass along orders without any difficulty whatsoever. And they all appear to be working with cell phones. That are never cut off.
The other downside though, is that communications is actually a pretty fascinating subject. The CAF Signals trade is a vital branch of the military, and while it may only be a support trade, it’s one that requires physical vigour and tactical awareness to compliment technical knowledge. Sigs can find themselves sitting safely behind the front lines operating a satellite uplink, or moving among the front line units, uploading new crypto into the radios so that the fighting troops will have secure comms.
Support trades get a lot of flack, but they have real jobs and the Sigs in particular.
I mentioned the Signal Hill Heritage Minute at the start of this post because it represents one of the realities of radio communications. Namely that today, with a fairly simple set up, it is possible to broadcast across the country independent of any existing infrastructure.
In exploring both their advantages and disadvantages it’s possible to appreciate the challenges of coordinating a pan-continental movement. There’s some rich history here, both in real life and film & TV, meaning that there’s a lot for Bland to have ignored when he researched Uprising.
This is a scene from the 1962 classic The Longest Day. In its portrayal of the D-Day landings, a fair bit of time is given over to the French Resistance, and the secret messages passed along to them by the Allied High Command in Britain. This was possible because, under the right conditions, short-wave radio broadcasts could reach much of occupied Europe. While the Nazis had a good chance of locating broadcast stations used by the Resistance, receivers could just be an ordinary family radio. Meaning it was almost impossible to block the messages.
Now the messages themselves had to be encoded, meaning that code books had to be smuggled into Europe and if they were ever captured an entire branch of the resistance could be cut off from the greater whole (assuming they weren’t wiped out altogether). So there’s still the problem we encounter with the tri-grams that Col Stevenson was using in the last post: You can only send a pre-established set of messages.
So those of you who know your World War II history (or at least your American WW II history) probable guessed the next thing I’m about to bring up:
In the Pacific theatre of World War II, the Americans were looking for a code system that would be unbreakable by Japanese Intelligence. The Germans had come up with Enigma, but as complex as that code was, it had nevertheless been broken by the Alan Turing and the code breakers at Bletchley Park. So they came up with a brilliant alternative. A code that was unbreakable because it wasn’t a code at all. It was a language.
These were the Navajo ‘Code Talkers,’ Native American Navajo men who used their language to communicate between formations in the Pacific theatre. It was an incredible coup in a war filled with remarkable innovations, made all the more poignant by the fact that for more than a generation the Code Talkers were not officially recognized by their government and even more recently, their recognition didn’t do much to inspire the government to treat their Nation better.
Unfortunately, when the Code Talkers did get a big budget movie, it was a John Woo action flick that focussed more on actor Nicholas Cage than on Adam Beach, his Indigenous co-star who played the Code Talker.
So one option for a pan-Canadian communication system that might be a short-wave radio network using First Nations languages as a form of encryption. Actually not a bad idea when you think about it, although such a plan would have at least one possible drawback. In the Second World War Japan had nobody who could speak Navajo, so there was simply no chance that they could crack the code without actually capturing a Code Talker. Meanwhile in modern day Canada, there are some ‘white’ people (including linguists and academics) who can speak many Indigenous languages.
There’s also the problem that there are multiple First Nations language groups across the country, meaning that natives in the west may not have a common language with those in the east. Furthermore, the actual languages themselves are, sadly, falling out of use. Today there is a major push within First Nations communities to educate the young people in their Nations’ languages, along with English and French.
So in modern day Canada, there is a dual risk of a language code being hacked, along with the code becoming unusable if too many language-speakers are killed. Remember, when you only have a few hundred (maybe a thousand) people in a given theatre, there’s far fewer bodies between you and the enemy. Unlike the movie Wind Talkers, the real-life Navaho Code Talkers were usually attached to the higher HQs, not in the front lines re-directing artillery fire missions.
There’s also a possibility of maybe splitting the difference. It’s probably not surprising that Bland decided not to associate the NPA with the French Resistance, or any other Allied effort against the Nazis or Imperial Japan. I’m kind of surprised that he didn’t hit upon using pop culture as a tool for communication.
The lady in profile here is Lynne Thigpen, the actress who played ‘the DJ’ in 1979’s The Warriors. In the film, the pre-cellphone gangs of New York coordinate their activities via the radio, where a sexy, smooth-talking DJ uses clever euphemisms to direct rival gangs as they hunt down the titular Warriors. The DJ is actually inspired by a real life event (or more precisely, an ugly lie about real life events).
This is Nathaniel ‘Magnificent’ Montague, a famous DJ in the Watts district of Los Angeles in the 1960s. A wildly popular music promoter (as well as a self-taught curator of black history) he was known early on in his career by his catch-phrase ‘Burn, baby burn!’ which would follow a particularly good record on his program.
In 1965, Watts erupted in one of the worst riots in American history as the black population rose up against an increasingly racist and oppressive LAPD. In the aftermath of the riot, Montague became a popular scapegoat for the authorities who tried to claim ‘Burn, baby burn’ was in fact incitement (or even coded instructions) for the people to riot. This was a particularly ugly slur since Montague had taken great risks to stay on the air during the riots, appealing to his listeners for calm.
I don’t personally know what Bland’s movie-viewing habits may be, although I’d be shocked to find out he’d never watched The Longest Day. These ideas aren’t anything new or special, and when you get down to it they are threads woven into our society. You may never have heard of ‘Magnificent’ Montague, but the idea that popular culture secretly influences the young people to do terrible things is old enough today to practically be a punchline. It’s almost as though this is…uh…part of our heritage!
I’m tempted to just chalk this up to a lack of world building and move on, but why hasn’t Bland thought about these things? He remembered tri-grams from his own past, and while a lot of other scenes in the novel will be criminally light on details there will be a few (such as a parachute drop) that suggest he’s actually paid attention to some things, just not everything.
This selective recall of details almost makes it sound like Bland made his way through life bitterly clinging to a few things that mattered to him. Like he never bothered to look around him and see what’s changed, and if maybe he had a place in a changing world.
If Uprising wasn’t such a toxic book, I might almost feel sorry for the man.
I’m not sure if there’s a coherent point I want to make here. There’s a hundred ways for fictional native radicals to transmit messages safely, and the fact that Bland wants to hand wave away the complications involved shouldn’t be that big a deal. It’s just that…there’s a whole bunch of stuff out there. And learning about it leads to so many other fascinating things about our history and our society. How could he not be interested in all of this?
…and maybe I just answered my own question…
***As a bit of a post script, I just want to add a couple of tidbits that came up during the writing of this post.
First of all, while the Navajo code talkers were by far the most famous of the Native American coders, there were also codes based on the Choctaw, Comanche, and Meskwakis languages. Code Talkers of these languages served against the Nazis in Europe and North Africa. One of them, Comanche Charles Chitibitty, landed at Utah Beach. Learn more Here.
Although Magnificent Montague successfully defended himself of charges of inciting riot, he was deeply troubled by the accusation. He would change his catch phrase to ‘Have Mercy, baby!’ and as time went on he would dedicate his life to his love for black history, becoming a popular educator and coining a new catch phrase ‘Learn, baby learn!’ At his death, he had amassed an incredible collection of documents and artifacts relating to the American slave trade and early Black American history. Learn more Here.
And in keeping with my love for everyman stories, here’s my favourite Heritage Minute. It even has a communications theme to it!
 And I’m talking about that scary kind of math where you don’t just have letters but Greek letters that are bigger than half the equation.
 At least a few of these movies are older classics. I figure Bland’s not one to be on the cutting edge of popular culture anyway.
 I’m assuming that the NPA is using cheap ‘burner’ phones given that they’re constantly throwing them out.
 There was a LOT wrong with that scene. _Sigh_.
 Because apparently, without this uppity black DJ, the black people of Watts would have no reason in the world to distrust the police.