Pentagon plots comic book therapy for troops

The fighting was furious, and entirely one-sided. While on patrol in eastern Afghanistan's 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 Lazaridis' unpublished graphic novel Silver Shields, set during the ancient Greek invasion of Afghanistan more than two millenniums ago, is a metaphor for his - and America's -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: to 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.

Comics as Therapy

More than most recent conflicts, the Afghanistan war has been steeped in comics - a truth that Darpa seems to recognize.

Consider, for example, this art slideshow. The 10 pages recounting the Paktia ambush were drawn by acclaimed comics artist Greg Scott after I, a graphic novelist in my own right, dragged him to Kunar last year so he could see the war for himself.

Our work-in-progress, The ‘Stan, is a comic book about comic books about Afghanistan, featuring Lazaridis, his Silver Shields and other sequential art. And, like the Darpa program, it's a kind of therapy for veteran troops (and reporters) seeking to understand their time at war.

"Art therapy and narrative are both useful techniques for helping individuals traumatized by life experiences process memories and channel emotions through a healthy outlet," Darpa notes in its solicitation for the comics initiative. The research agency wants industry to produce "web-based software with a simple interface that assists in both storytelling and graphical content creation."

"Content creation could relate to modern combat, historical combat, science fiction or fantasy," the solicitation continues. "But, the authoring tools must allow the user to draw from a library of artwork, icons and other templates to assist them in telling a story related to combat experiences."

The end result would be "instant" DIY comics that can be "integrated into a military medical health system." Exactly how the comics will be integrated is still evolving. "One of the goals of this program is to determine the best way to use these narrative tools," Darpa says.

Technically, it's not a huge challenge. Commercial comics-creation software has been around for years. And thousands of creators publish web-based autobiographical and nonfiction comics every day.

Moreover, the U.S. Navy has already thought hard about how comics can help its sailors deal with combat stress. One result is The Docs, a Navy-published comic book meant to expose new medical corpsmen to some of the sights and feelings they might experience in combat. (See above.)

For the Pentagon, one risk in asking troops to create their own comics is that the results might clash with the military's PR efforts. Thousands of military public-relations professionals work long hours putting the most appealing spin possible on the war effort … and on the reactions of individual troops to their time in combat. If the Darpa graphic-novel project works as advertised, it could produce stories that one Marine-turned-comics-creator describes as "very depressing."

Pentagon plots comic book therapy for troops

"Ready to Kill Anybody"

Robert LeHeup, now 29, joined the Marine Corps in 2000. He did two combat tours in Afghanistan - in Kandahar in 2001 and a stint in Kabul two years later. Today, several years out of the Corps, LeHeup (pictured above) is a Columbia, South Carolina, filmmaker and comics writer whose subject matter almost always deals with the war, whether directly or metaphorically.

In fact, it was during his violent, chaotic tour in Kabul that LeHeup decided to start creating comics. "The idea that I might not last made it so I had to get a legacy going," he says.

His first completed graphic-novel script was an epic tale of revenge and self-discovery starring an amnesiac assassin named Odin. It's not hard to see how much of himself LeHeup invested in the assassin character. "He's trying to save the last vestige of hope," LeHeup says of Odin.

"Everything I now write has to do with struggle," LeHeup says. That's something with which he's intimately familiar - even today, years removed from the battlefield. Seeing and inflicting so much death and destruction during his time in Afghanistan transformed LeHeup in ways he's not always proud of. "It was both one of the proudest things I've ever done and one of the most humbling things I've ever done," he says of his war service. "Humbling because of what a straight-up horrible person I was, ready to kill anybody."

Last year, LeHeup wrote a two-page autobiographical comic (Page 1 and Page 2), drawn by Robin Everett-McGuirl, that illustrates this duality. True and therapeutic, the black-and-white comic is precisely the kind of thing Darpa apparently has in mind - and also exactly the sort of thing that could embarrass the military if the comics leaked into general circulation.

Turns out, it's one thing to hear or read about brutal combat and its psychological effects on combatants. It's quite another to see them represented graphically. That's a distinction LeHeup appreciates. "Ninety percent of perception is visual," he points out.

Still, LeHeup thinks the graphic-novels-as-therapy project could help troops who might otherwise resist discussing their experiences. "People are not going to want to write poetry," he says. "Comics might be dorky, but they're cool dorky." But the Pentagon will need to impose rigorous structure - "a class or something," LeHeup says - to make sure troops actually finish their comics.

After all, not all combat vets will be as motivated to create comics as Lazaridis, LeHeup, Scott and myself.

Just don't expect miracles from comics or any other method of teasing out troops' stories, the former Marine cautions. "You can trim those bitches down," LeHeup says of traumatic wartime memories. "But once it's taken root, you can't pull it up. You'd have to lose clumps of memory - good luck!"

Photo: Robert LeHeup (David Axe)

Pentagon plots comic book therapy for troopsThis post originally appeared on Wired's Danger Room. Wired.com has been expanding the hive mind with technology, science and geek culture news since 1995.