The fighting was furious — and entirely one-sided. While on patrol in eastern Afghanistan Paktia province in December 2002, paratroopers from the U.S. Army’s 82nd Airborne Division had taken a wrong turn and blundered straight into one of Paktia’s isolated villages. The villagers weren’t Taliban or even Taliban sympathizers. But they were heavily armed — and determined to keep the Americans out.
AK-47-armed men opened fire from inside mud huts and behind stone walls. The American commander, recognizing his mistake, ordered his men not to shoot back. Bullets pinged off the doors and roofs of unarmored Humvees. Still, the Americans held their fire. The paratroopers’ restraint, even in the face of mortal danger, was the most incredible thing that one 26-year-old Air Force controller had ever seen.
Eight years later, Tech. Sgt. Phoebus Lazaridis was back in Afghanistan on his third combat tour. He lived alongside soldiers in remote outposts, coordinating air strikes against the Taliban. By 2010, Lazaridis had seen as much war as any American combatant, and had a Bronze Star — pinned on his chest by U.S. House of Representatives speaker Nancy Pelosi in 2009 — to prove it.
It was on that third deployment, to Kunar province north of Paktia, that Lazaridis turned to a childhood passion, in an effort to understand himself and his war experiences. He began drawing comics again, years after the aspiring artist had put down his pens and pencils to join the Air Force. Lazaridis’ unpublished graphic novel Silver Shields, set during the ancient Greek invasion of Afghanistan more than two millennia ago, is a metaphor for his — and America’s — involvement in the “Graveyard of Empires.”
Today the Pentagon is looking to expand on personal projects such as Lazaridis’. The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency — the military’s fringe-science wing — has launched an initiative meant to encourage U.S. troops returning from war to tell their own stories in comics form. They’ve given the the program a cumbersome, miljargon name, “Online Graphic Novel/Sequential Art Authoring Tools for Therapeutic Storytelling.” But the goal is fascinating: help troops “process their memories and emotions” in a “graphic novel/sequential art format.”
If it survives Darpa’s sometimes fickle management process, the war-comics initiative could capitalize on, and even expand, a deep but mostly unheralded groundswell of comics written for, by and about veterans of the Afghan war. But the program also risks exposing the public to some of the ugliest emotional vestiges of the decade-old conflict.