When George W. Bush recently declared that the Guantanamo detainees were not prisoners of war, he inadvertently admitted what many of us already suspected, that the Afghan war wasn‘t really a war at all but something else -- a publicity construct backed by an enormous amount of TNT, perhaps, or the internationalization of the RICO Act. Or maybe the face of conflict really has changed with new technology and Washington’s reluctance to incur nearly any American casualties, so that we‘ve entered a period of meta-conflicts whose main weapons are rhetoric and opinion polls, a period that considers “war” to be war by other means.
Whatever it was, it seems to be over -- no more reliable a sign of which is the fact that Osama bin Laden--target T-shirts have dropped to four for $10 in Little Tokyo -- and so it’s time to close the covers on this war diary. Its spirit and author will reappear here next month, however, reincarnated in the form of “Open City,” a new column about life on that other, very real battlefield -- Los Angeles.
Since September 11 Americans have become acquainted with a roll call of terrorist organizations with names like al Qaeda, Taliban, Jaish-e-Mohammed, etc. But until last weekend few had heard of the Lancaster Liberation Front, a shadowy militia operating in northern Los Angeles County. The LLF is, truth be told, the name assigned to a platoon of off-duty LAPD officers and paint-ball enthusiasts whose mission was to engage the 746th Quartermaster Battalion (Van Nuys) of the National Guard in an afternoon of mock combat. Far from Tora Bora and Kandahar, Sunday‘s theater of action was Paintball USA Close Encounters, 70 acres of oak groves and rolling grassland near Newhall.
While most participants in paint-ball wars engage in capture-the-flag exercises designed to “kill” as many of the enemy as possible, the day’s main objective, as referee Charles Allen explained to the Weekly, was to provide realistic training for the 746th. This was the second time a guard unit had conducted maneuvers at Paintball USA. The 32-year-old Allen, a stuntman and former Army Ranger who was wounded in Desert Storm, is co-founder of Team AlphaWolf, a Valley group of paint-ball warriors, some of whom were supervising the combat while others joined the LAPD terror militia.
By midmorning about two dozen guardspeople had assembled on a windswept ridge crowded with SUVs, TV news vans and a Humvee. Except for some reporters and spectators, nearly all wore some kind of camouflage uniforms and Darth Vader--ish visored helmets. (Guardspeople uncomfortable with the idea of having their BDUs splashed with paint dye suited up in less than regulation uniform.) The LLF force only numbered about 15, although some of their personal air guns, sporting the kind of brightly customized paint jobs normally associated with hot rods, lent a certain joie de guerre to their side. A few claimed to be unaware that they were surrogate terrorists, but, of course, that‘s what their real-world counterparts are saying in Guantanamo.
At about 1045 hours, Guard First Lieutenant Robert Gump finished explaining the mission to the “U.S.” team, as the guardsmen and women were known, receiving from them the Army “Hooah!” acknowledgment familiar to viewers of Black Hawk Down.
“Look over there,” Gump said, indicating part of the road where some media were standing. “That’s the face of the enemy!” For a moment there was some uncomfortable shifting among reporters until they realized Gump was actually referring to the LLF members grouped behind them. He then gave a “safety brief” to the LLF, and at 1130 hours Guard fire teams fanned out and up a steep grade toward their defensive positions. As he watched, Team AlphaWolf‘s Allen told the Weekly how one of the Guard officers was working on him to re-up as a Guard instructor. It was a tempting offer to Allen, although it would mean cutting the ponytail he maintains for Renaissance Faire jousting tournaments.
He then inspected the LLF weapons and warned their owners of the paint-ball mortar rounds his group makes and which emit a howling “incoming” noise prior to their splattering impact.
“You will get paint,” Allen assured the Sunday terrorists, as though imparting a lesson from life itself.
AN ARSENAL OF CLICHES
Here is a list of familiar phrases and the number of times they have appeared in the media since September 11. The phrases were run through a LexisNexis search that coupled them with the word Afghanistan.