Thursday, January 14, 2016

We Stand on Guard: For Who?

Brian K. Vaughan's latest comic proposal, We Stand on Guard, of the US invading Canada sounded interesting on proposal, but loses me in it's execution, even with the addition of a bilingual guard robot. Part of the problem is that it's written by an American, and not co-written by actual Canadians who'd give some authenticity to the franchise. The ragtag team at the end of the preview (their tiny Canadian flag tags notwithstanding) posing with guns (to appear cool) didn't exactly fill me with confidence.  And by the 6th and last issue, any enthusiasm was universally panned.

For the most part, Canadians are regularly ignored, and perk up whenever Americans stand up and notice any of our contributions we've done that normally fall under their scandal-watching radar.  Part of the problem is that Americans know very little about Canada, which is especially troubling since according to a multiple-choice survey, 1/3 of American 8th Graders thought Canadians were a Dictatorship, along with Australia and France.  This wasn't borne from a deep internal reflection of our last political party, but from massive guesswork of limited choices.  They thought that given their current standard of living, any other place would be considerably worse off, since who Wouldn't want to be an American???  The unwelcome answer is: not everyone.  People take a kind of jingoist pride in their own countries the same way Americans do in theirs - they just express it differently.

Generally speaking, Canadians have a different attitude and mentality that isn't easily fit for mass consumption.  Our left-leaning politics is more of a passive-aggressive stance.  We're more likely to win our battles through political manipulation than with outright overkill.  Stephen Harper tried to win his Prime Minister term with scaremongering, reminiscent of typical American election rulebooks, but his strong-arm tactics and single stranglehold over the party (along with unpopular decisions* and scandals that were coming to light) were enough to deem him undesirable, and welcome back the Liberal party, despite their Sponsorship scandal.  Boring, but practical, that's us.

Q. What's the worst insult you can give a Canadian?  A. Calling them Americans.

Indeed, a general complaint about Canadians is that we're notoriously difficult to pin down because of our lack of identity.  While that could be considered a fault, it also works as a plus, since it frees us from being strictly adhered to any one overall ideal.  But that also has a dark undercurrent for the Ugly Canadian - we're the only country that defines ourselves by what we're not.  Our singular identifying bragging feature is that we're not Americans.
"Okay, we might have a looming deficit, but at least we're not as bad as the Americans!"
"Okay, we've got rampant police brutality, but at least we're not as bad as the Americans!"
"Okay, we've got a long history of unfair treatment towards the Aboriginal First Nations, but at least we're not as bad as the Americans!"
If Brian K. Vaughan wanted to give a better portrayal of Canadians, he should've at least considered the plausible ways that Canada could protect itself from an invasion force that for all likes and purposes, overwhelm them by sheer firepower alone. The best Canadian strategy would be to hit them before the Americans could deploy the nuclear option - they wouldn't even HAVE to deploy a strike anywhere on our land - just melt the polar caps enough to flood our land beyond submission. The surest way to protect yourself against a force you're overly familiar with is to determine the most extreme solution, and then guard against that. (A gun's useless if you can't pull the trigger)

"The main aim of this policy would not be to actually fight a war, but to make it clear that the war will be so costly and so bloody that you don't want to fight it."

Of course, a better authentic portrayal would be if he'd gotten some consultation advice from an ACTUAL Canadian.  Preferably, someone who'd served in the armed services.  (The artist doesn't count - he's Spanish)  After hearing this proposal, I started thinking about all the kinds of ways that would prompt an attack.  What would be the impetus for the US to invade Canada in the first place? My first guess was that they'd want full access to our water supply, after inadvertently poisoning their reserves beyond saving. Sure, crude oil is necessary for moving large swaths of transportation around for a circulatory system of goods and people, but NOBODY can survive without water. People deprived of resources they need to live would be willing to do ANYTHING, no matter the cost, even at the expense of all else. This could be one realm where Government Bureaucracy (where Canadian excel) wouldn't be of much use.  Hostage negotiations and prisoner exchanges could be used to convince the other side to give up in exchange for some quality life-giving water.

But we didn't get any of that.  We were treated to scenes of soldiers traversing frozen wastelands, with none of the environmental hazards present.  Nor were we presented with scenarios such as preparing for warmer climates and shifting weather patterns or any background details of changing wet socks from accidentally stepping into ankle-deep waters.  If there's one topic that unites Canadians, it's the weather.  Americans have a generally stable weather system, with only occasional earthquakes and hurricanes to deal with.  But deal a little snow on the highways, and the whole city goes under, because they can't handle a little slippage, inadvertently causing car-pile-ups and traffic jams.  This isn't an egotistical slant - Canadians are just as guilty of this, because the instant a few flakes start falling, we're more concerned on getting to Point B than wasting time putting on time/life-saving snow tires.

Furthermore, for a war on water, there's surprisingly little account of coping with a water shortage, or using water-based substitutes, which would be vastly interesting.  Instant powdered foods would have to be rethought without any water additives in them.  Army showers are generally timed to make the most of their limited two-minute use - dampen the skin down, then apply soap, then rinse.  Hand sanitizers while clean, aren't as effective as good old soap & water.

There's talk of the War of 1812 where Canada fought against the US and won, but no mention of any of the tactics they used.  One particularly memorable anecdote is that before the White House was burned down, soldiers verified that the place was empty, but the President's dinner was ready.  At which point they started devouring the contents of the table and wine shelves.  When everything was eaten and drunk, the Captain said "My compliments to the cook!" before setting fire to the place.

In the event that the US (or another country) tries to invade us again, we've got various fail-safes set in place. Our bridges are designed to be blown apart at a moment's notice, which may explain our crumbling infrastructures, because they were never intended to remain standing for so long. (There's been years of corruption tied to our construction industry for this very reason)  Not that our spaghetti highways are easy to navigate in the first place, but why make it easy for our enemies?

So, how does this story start out by going into the great Canada/US divide?  By going into a blatant historical screed of Superman.  As interesting as the backstory of the founding background of Metropolis is, it feels somewhat out of place for what amounts to a border civil war.  One could say that the major difference between the creators of Batman and Superman was that Bob Kane knew how to manipulate the American Comic business to his whims, and Sigel and Shuster didn't.

The reason We Stand on Guard rings false is that it's more of a political metaphor for the Iraq War than a commentary on the political divisions between two superficially similar countries.  Pretty much any stories about the past or future are cautionary allegories for what's happening in the present, but they should also be an examination of how such rash decisions could potentially be avoided.  It's been suggested Brian K. Vaughan's stories are reflections of his inability to get over 9-11, and that certainly seems to be the case here.

Too much of We Stand on Guard's attention is focused on the jingoist fantasy appeal of a small rebellious group banding together to overthrow a corrupt government.  That setup relies and feeds on the lie that a band of trained outcasts can somehow stand up to overthrow a corrupt government.  A government that has access to unlimited supplies.  And loads of high-tech weaponry.  And elite men willing to follow orders.  Which could be safely executed miles away from their position.  Their resources would vastly overwhelm any potential outlaws.  And that's before the government'd get the media on their side.  The fantasy that one determined man can make a difference by waving their magic gun in the direction of their oppressors will make all their potential problems go away is a seductive one.  (Not that Americans tried to take their country back by force when Bush Jr. was in charge)

It also conveniently overlooks the fact that Canadians invaders could easily pass themselves off as Americans by simply aping their patriotic appeal while firing guns in the air, and using that as a pretext for buying more ammunition.  (Of course, it would have to be white people getting ammo, since other races would be frowned upon, and draw too much attention)  The challenge would be in presenting authentic forged documents to buy said ammo, though that wouldn't be too much of an obstacle, given how free Americans are about their gun rights.  What WOULD be more interesting would've been for said bunch is if they had to rationalize on their dwindling sources, and how to make the most use of every remaining bullet effectively.

The inverse would be less than true, since American spies trying to ape themselves as Canadians without prior knowledge would be easily caught using a variation of the Rick Mercer report.  Rather than try to convince us of their heritage via trivia (naming the Prime Minister, Provinces & Territories), give them the task of creating an igloo or canoe.  If they seem more eager than reluctant to the task, call them out on it.  (If they're heavily versed in wilderness living, see the extent of their knowledge, and whether they differ between Cub Scouts and Boy Scouts)

A. Sure!  I'll get right on it.
B. Are you MAD?!  I don't know beans about doing that!  Never learned how!
C. Well, the surrounding material's all wrong for that, but if that's what you want...
D. This is how I've always done it.  What's wrong with it?

Alternately, it could be a case of two sides feeling each other out, and avoiding answering potentially loaded questions.

"What's your favorite Hockey team?  The Raptors or the Expos?" (Basketball and Baseball)
"I don't really follow sports."
"Well, what's your favorite Canadian TV program?"
"I much more prefer the American stuff."
"Me too.  Any show in particular you like so far?"
"Well, there's (insert futuristic show title here)."
"I haven't seen it, but heard good things.  How'd you see it?"
"Same as anybody - illegal downloads."
"Yeah?  Which server do you use?"
"The same as anybody else's."
"You got an address?"
"I mean Ca."

If we wanted to make this an ideological war, we could intentionally target potentially problematic generals who have a long history of sending their soldiers into suicide missions.  Intentionally removing these obstacles would spread confusion among the American ranks, since our deliberate targeting would operate under the pretext of "Don't make us hurt you."  However, chances are they could interpret this Canadian message as being "weak", and come after us in greater force.  At which point we'd have no choice but to retaliate in kind.

To stand a better chance against the Americans, we should pair up with Australians (another widely underestimated / caricatured country), since history has shown that when teamed up, they wind up vastly intimidating the enemy.  "Woe betide any who fight against us."  If that's not our motto, it SHOULD be.
"The U.S.A. is the antagonist of this story, but Steve [Skroce] and I never wanted to portray them as two-dimensional, mustache-twirling villains." - Brian K. Vaughan
Despite assurances that he wanted to portray sympathetic flawed representations of both sides, the US wound up being political strawmen after all.  It's probably difficult to accurately portray a Socialist society when you've been raised up in a Capitalist society, convinced that all Americans have the right to Life, Liberty & the Pursuit of Happiness, and you're up against a country whose less-than-catchy motto is Peace, Order and Good Government.  The thing is, Socialism isn't a bad thing when done properly.

It doesn't help that he's harping on old traits he's already familiar with.  The sensitive issues that're raised up are already outdated by the time they hit print (using holographic fireboarding in place of waterboarding) despite the fact that it's been proven that torture tactics don't work for gaining accurate information from resistant soldiers unwilling to give up their sources.

A better analogy would be how purer water sources are reserved for the very rich, and polluted dirty water is outletted to poorer regions.  Then blame could be outsourced to Northern outsiders having access to wider expanses of cleaner water as a way of diverting attention away from the actual perpetrators of the crime.  Some corporations have even gone so far as to hold their water reserves hostage until their customers pony up enough money to sample their wares.  Privatizing water they claim, is a monopoly, not a human right.  Even collecting wellwater or rainwater is frowned upon and against the law in certain states, because that water is "someone else's property", so it needs to be dumped for vague reasons.  Especially upsetting is how Nestle drained water not just from poor countries, but also various US states and one Canada Province as well.  The previous Harper government gave Nestle unlimited permission to pump as much water from Hillsburgh, Ontario, upon which they "pay $3.71 for every million litres of water it pumps... which it then... sells back to the public for as much as $2 million.", making a 53,908,255% profit.

There were so many potentially interesting avenues that could've been taken, and they were all squandered away for a typical feel-bad story.  Brian K. Vaughan suffers from the same problems and weaknesses as Naoki Urasawa.  Both authors are both great at spinning yarns that have attention-grabbing cliffhangers, but have remarkably weak endings to all that buildup.  They're not as bad as Stephen King, whose overwritten horror prose is fraught with too much build-up, and not enough payoff, but it's just as annoying.  If anything, it's another exercise for wasted potential.

While Canadians have managed to succeed with underwhelming weapons against overwhelming odds, chances are still high that we would still fail the instant Americans start getting serious about overtaking us.

"Please.  The odds are clearly stacked up against us.  It's just a matter of time before we're fed some misinformation, or we're rushed by soldiers who happened to catch a pattern or reading we failed to notice."
"If you're so dubious about our chances of success, why are you standing up for a belief you don't even believe in?"
"HMM!  Good question.  That's a very good question!"
(Long pause)
(Even longer protracted silence)
"If you're expecting an answer, you're going to be disappointed."

It's not that we're vehemently opposed to their ideology (though America-bashing is practically a national pastime over here, finely tuned to an art form), we just disagree with how they handle most of their internal policies.  A country operating over the impetus that anyone can be what they strive to be, doesn't mean much if a certain entitled demographic vastly outpaces 99% of the other living citizens.  We look at how they've handled things, and feel (and know) that we could do better.  It's Socialism Vs. Capitalism, but through the lens that "Socialism isn't bad when done right."  Capitalism's been ruling the US policy for decades, and how well has it worked out for people not in the top 1%?  It doesn't help that our identity is continuously squashed by our boisterous louder neighbors constantly vying for attention.

The irony is, the US and Canada are similar enough to the extent where usage of "We're not that different, you and me", would be put to perfect use.  The closest we came to a successful Canada Vs. the US parody was Michael Moore's Canadian Bacon.  Sadly, the scaremongering newscast was the best part of the movie.  Once you've seen that, don't bother with the rest.

Maybe someday we'll have a worthy satirical takedown of our tenuous relationship with our Southern neighbors filled with pathos, but not today.

*The Conservative Party's last straw was probably the intended dismantling of postal service to the protest of many (including a mayor who took a jackhammer to one), in favor of community mailboxes... that to add insult to injury, were custom made in the US, and were unacclimated to the cold, resulting in frozen boxes.

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