Time for more DMZ, a comic set in a version of the noughties where an isolationist, let's say "America First", populist movement sprang up in the American midwest. They were disillusioned by the way the government was ignoring the people at home for various wars it had going on in the Middle East and declared their own government based in Montana, now known as the "Free States". This immediately brought them into conflict with the US government and a second civil war soon broke out, a total fantasy of course but go with it. With many of their soldiers still serving oversees and having never had to fight a war with people who looked just like them, the US was pushed right back to New York. Manhattan was partially evacuated but around 400,000 civilians remained trapped as the bridges, roads and tunnels were sealed off. Fighting between both sides took place there up until what is known as the "Day 204 Massacre" occured, which is what we will be finding out about today as embedded and independent journalist Matty Roth is hired by old station Liberty News to cover the story of the people involved and affected by that terrible event, the soldiers involved are going on trial, and we'll see how it was this event most of all that helped turn Manhattan into the DMZ and force a stalemate there between the US and the Free States.
Matty walks through the U.S government checkpoint to some hostility, "the prodigal son returns" he thinks to himself. Once inside the Liberty News building he bumps into his father who sits on the board of Liberty News. Matty tells him he won't pull his punches, his dad says he doesn't want him to. "The eyes of the world are on this tribunal, and it has to be transparent and fair" he says. Matty is then left in an interrogation room with Private First Class Stevens. Stevens ask if Matty will get him on the six o'clock news, Matty says maybe but right now he wants to listen, "where're you from Stevens?"
|Matty meets PFC Stevens.|
Stevens: "And the idea of a full blown war here, in this country? Even with those militia freaks recruiting anyone they could, there was just no way it could happen... someone would stop it before it got too far. The lies lies lies we tell ourselves".
After six months of bootcamp he finds himself deployed in Brooklyn, New York. It's chaos, nowhere to hide, no idea who was firing, what they looked like, the maps were "shit" and everywhere looked the same. "What the fuck kind of war is that?"
In the initial fighting they droves the Free States back to New Jersey, "it felt good, like we were winning". The calm lasted a month then fighting started up again, but it was different then. The Free Staters blended in with the population striking behind human cover. Some said it was the population rising up against them, or some third enemy joining in, "we were on the fast track to something horrible. But at the time we couldn't see it coming".
|Stevens' squad faces the peace march.|
Stevens: "I couldn't think, I couldn't speak, I couldn't tell the others what I was seeing. All I could do was watch, helpless."
He staggered fowards to reach for one of the marchers and the person turned, reaching inside their poncho and Stevens's sergeant yelled "gun!" and opened fire on the marchers. We return to the present and Stevens is silent. Matty brings the interveiw to a close for now. Matty asks him if there is anything he can do for him, "probably nothing" says Stevens sadly, "but thanks for trying".
|A just like that, a war crime happened.|
The tribunal was opened three years later, and just the soldiers. It's always been maintained that the sergeant saw a weapon being pulled and ordered his squad to open fire. Stevens is the only soldier who has stepped forwards and challenge the established defence, "to reopen the most painful wound of the war".
Next day Matty returns to talk Stevens again and his face is bruised and battered, but he doesn't want to talk about it. They continue on with the interview, Matty thinks "if he talks or doesn't talk... he's probably facing the death penalty either way". Back on the day of the massacre, they returned to base and were debriefed then returned to active duty as if nothing happened.
Sergeant Nunez checked their ammo and Stevens was the only one who didn't fire a round so was immediately suspect. He was removed from the unit and reassigned. He tells Matty he replayed every moment of that day, if there was anything that justified the order to fire, "I always come up zero". When the criminal investigation was opened, Nunez sent his buddies to beat Stevens to "make sure I remembered that day correctly. Precisely". But this made him think finally "fuck Nunez".
Day 204 wasn't a bad day anymore, "it's symbol of a broken county and a discredited military. Lost trust. Unhealed wounds". It meant the U.S. army would never be welcome back in the city. The war would never end. Who the fuck was he compared to that? Just a burnout-turned-private first class "and I had no right to anything anymore".
|Sergeant Nunez comes to say his piece.|
He tells Matty that he was born and raised in New York, "so when the Free States arrived I took it pretty fucking personal". He was out in Iraq when war broke out, he was transferred back home when he'd "killed enough ragheads".
Nunez: "I've been to Haiti, I've been to Somalia, I've been to Afghanistan, Pakistan... and three tours in Iraq. But this is my war. I was born for this shit... You'd have to kill me to get me away from it".
He recalls the day of the march, he tells Matty he doesn't give a fuck about what we know now. What matters is "what's going on right then". He held his fire as he discussed with the rest of the men who they were. Then he saw one of the protestors pull a gun and gave the order to open fire.
|Nunez, not the most sympathetic of characters.|
Nunez: "It was an armed mob in a warzone with unmistakable hostile intent. What the fuck do you want from me, huh? You gave us the tools... get out of the fucking way and let us do our job."
Later Matty thinks that Nunez stuck to the script he'd heard many times, he could have recited it himself. But Nunez truly thinks he did the right thing. He's trying to be objective, but it's been debated over and over, "most of us have already made up our minds".
Matty goes to leave the U.S. outpost and sees on the TV that the trial testimony will be reached the next day and the verdict by the end of the week, "what's the fucking rush?" he says. As a boat takes him back to the DMZ he reflects that Zee has told him it's tensing up as people there expect the worst. He is now going to interview the people left behind. Survivors and the friends and family of people killed.
Zee takes Matty to where it happened, he asks why there is no marker. Zee says metalworkers made a plaque but soldiers stole it. Anyway, everyone knows it happened there. She asks him if the kid Stevens did it, "I honestly don't know" he thinks. Technically he's guilty, but can he be blamed for his role in the massacre? Zee takes him to meet Dina, a survivor of that day.
|Dina, one of the peace marchers.|
Later he is having a meal with his friend Wilson and his grandsons. Wilson says it's none of their business, the war is not their war. "We sit, we wait. We stay alive. We position ourselves for end of war. Can't last forever, you know... someone gotta inherit what's left, right?" He declares himself the future king of New York. Matty laughs while thinking "Ah... he's not kidding is he?" As he sits outside with Wilson, drunk, he wonders why those who ordered the patrol aren't on trial. Then he throws up.
Next day he speaks to the leader of a right-wing militia group called The Nation of Fearghus. The leader says he lost brothers that day, Matty asks why members would join. Turns out it was the leaders actual brothers, "the stupid little fuckers" says the leader bitterly. The Free States don't respond to Matty's request for an interview.
Matty then goes to Soho to speak with the ex-U.S, army gunner living in self-imposed exile. He says day 204 was the "day America died". With public support "down the crapper" the U.S. never recovered. The message was that the U.S. kills its own which helped the FSA propaganda, even though this is a civil war so all they are doing is killing their own. With a show trial and a few heads on the chopping block, a sense of closure and a fresh round of regret from the brass, it'll go no higher than Nunez. "It's become a truism of modern American warfare" he says, "you fix old wounds with new ones".
|Zee has no answers for Matty.|
Zee: "Does there? What if it's just one of those horrible thing that happen in a war? Wouldn't that be answer enough? Why does day 204 get to be different from all the other times innocent people have been killed in this war? Or any war?"
Matty says this is different. Why though, asks Zee. When Matty is left alone he thinks that it's because it was when the war changed. It put the U.S. on the defensive and gave the FSA a chance of maybe taking the country. It created hundreds of survivors and put a dozen shell shocked soldiers in front of the TV cameras and called them murderers. It swayed public opinion around the globe and created funds for insurgents and funding for opposition groups.
And no one is asking who the soldiers are and why it happened, no one is digging deeper. Soldiers did it and will be punished, "doesn't everyone deserve better than that?" The tribunal is hearing the final arguments, the city is holding its breath, what will happen after the verdict is announced?
The next day Matty is woken by a phonecall from Liberty summoning him to the Manhattan Bridge checkpoint. There he is met by a U.S, army general who tells him, "I thought I'd clear up all the bullshit for you, once and for all." He drops a bullet casing in Matty's hand which is from the massacre. He tells Matty he can keep it, he has a couple of dozen. He tells Matty it's just a bullet casing, the city is carpeted in them, this one is no more special than others. Matty says "that's not true. I wouldn't be talking to you if it was."
|Matty meets one of the higher ups.|
General: "It's when the small guy breaks the rules so he can try and kill the big guy. Pretend for a moment that you're the big guy. What do you do about it? We had plans and scenarios on the books for just about anything you can think of. Except this war".
But war is what they do, so they deployed the troops and maintained the moral high ground, "the enemy was scum. White trash. We just had to show the world that".
He says that they'd been fighting trash all over the world, but trash that spoke American? "Even the best of the best has trouble with that" he tells Matty. But they figured it was only a one hundred and fifty years since the last civil war, they'd remember. On Day 204 most squads in the city had been out of contact for hours and days, "communications infrastructure had taken a hit". They had soldiers reporting in from payphones, you can't jam a landline.
|Pretty awful being a soldier in Manhattan really.|
General: "Day 204 was a bad call. But you have to be ready to live with a bad call if only for all the other times when you get it right. We train these men to follow procedure. To do thi shit by the book. Over and over again. We don't train them to second-guess".
Then suddenly a soldier comes to the APC the general and Matty are in, while Matty gets a phonecall from Zee. Turns out the general was distracting Matty while the tribunal announced the results, which was guilty and dishonourable discharges for the men involved as punishment.
As the U.S, soldiers retreat from the checkpoint while coming under fire, Matty races back to where a crowd in an ugly mood has gathered. He thinks about how the citizens of the DMZ deserved justice, but they got nothing. "The soldiers take the fall and get to go back home. And the DMZ keeps on bleeding".
The final chapter begins with the DMZ full of rioting. Matty and Zee are out on the streets as Matty realises the tension he's always felt in the DMZ was building to this day, "I didn't recognise the place anymore. Or the people". A U.S. army patrol trapped in the DMZ is murdered by the Nation of Fearghus and the pictures emailed to Liberty News. it reports that the death toll resulting from the riots will skyrocket and the U.S. military is helpless to intervene.
|Matty and Zee finally bond romantically.|
Stevens gave compelling evidence including the planting of a weapon and picking up of shell casings, Stevens with multiple convictions for possession, substance abuse and theft on his record. Or Nunez, telling him how they were confronted and outnumbered by an unknown mob, a weapon pulled on them and the righteous order to fire. Nunez, a decorated soldier who risked his life hundreds of times in the service of his country. Stevens, who suffered abuse on a daily basis because he wanted to tell the truth. Nunez, who racked up an impressive body count over the years.
Nunez's squad backs him up as does the military leadership. The residents of the DMZ see things differently although they have no love for Stevens either.
Matty: "Are they right? Is the warrior culture created by the United States government to blame? Is sending roving packs of young soldiers out into a civilian area with shitty training and no intel and expecting results a defensible act? Is it intentional? Or is this world so fucked up that no one has a handle on what they're doing anymore?"
As he reflects some more we see him and Zee kissing as the DMZ burns. Next day Matty is writing the story on his laptop while Zee tells him she has to be out there to see what she can do to help. He joins her and once outside she says Dina texted her to tell her to get over to The Bowery.
They get there and see a crowd has gathered and a helicopter is hovering overhead. Zee says to Matty, "I think something really fucking bad is about to happen". Then a man with his hand tied behind his back is tossed out by a man who yells "you want him, you got him!" It's Stevens. And when the crowd realise who he is, they start beating him. Matty and Zee fight their way to him and get the crowd to stop, but it's too late, Stevens is dead. Zee look around and sees Dina standing there with blood spattered on her face.
Matty sheds a tear as he thinks about Stevens, "a dumb kid from South Dakota who had nothing to offer anyone but his life. And we were more than happy to take it". He called his mother, finding out his first name was Chris, and wasn't able to lie and say he hadn't suffered. He emailed her his finished story, "if Liberty News or the military want it, they'll have to go ask the mother of the soldier they murdered".
|There are no happy endi... you know the rest.|
Another depressing story from the DMZ, but adds in some vital backstory to the war including how hard it is to effectively war against your own people and the problems faced by the modern U.S. soldier attempting to take on a well armed militia army in a warzone filled with the people you're ostensibly supposed to be fighting for. It's interesting that in this story the Free States don't actually appear, because this was entirely about a U.S. military fuck up even though it was fear of the FSA that caused it. Matty's search for the truth and his feeling that someone higher up should be held accountable seems from the point of view of a cynic to be somewhat naive. There never was going to be a wider investigation into the culture that produced both wet-behind-the-ears new meat like Stevens nor hardened career soldiers like Nunez. Really his investigation was a fig leaf covering the fact the trial was pretty much a forgone conclusion, a sop to the residents of the DMZ in an attempt to prevent violence erupting when the verdicts were announced. And in the end Matty didn't even really matter except to us the reader. The citizens of the DMZ don't get let off either with the beating to death of Stevens without whom the trial would never have come about, and yet showing that the comic operates in the greyest of grey areas, Matty admits that Stevens's death lanced a boil that had been festering away in the DMZ since the event occured. Superb writing as ever from Brian Wood, backed up with fantastic art by Riccardo Burchielli, Nathan Fox and Kristian Donaldson.