I woke up one morning and had a dream... Could I own every single issue of Detective Comics, Batman and all of the other subtitles in the Gotham universe?
Insane? Stupid? Inspired?
This can only end in obsession and financial chaos.

Sunday, 3 July 2011

Favourites: Rules Of Engagement

What has a cracking Batman story got to do with an enlightened 18th Century Prussian Major-General? Quite a lot actually...

Batman: Rules of Engagement'Rules of Engagement' was the d├ębut story arc in Batman Confidential, which in itself was the replacement for The Legends of the Dark Knight. If anyone really wants to know what the relevance of both of these book titles are in Batman continuity, it is that these are usually stories that take place after Miller's Year One and before the introduction of a Robin. The first story in the new Batman Confidential (published on December 2006) is very much a favourite and regardless how you read it, just great stuff (which if you buy on Trade Paperback you will be thoroughly rewarded!)

From a fanboy perspective, this simple Batman Confidential story attempts to clear up two bits of Batman continuity for the main books. Firstly, it explains where Batman 'gets all of those wonderful toys'. And, secondly, it shows the creation of the Wayne Foundation, and therefore the change from Bruce Wayne, businessman to Bruce Wayne, anthropologist.

'Rules of Engagement' by Andy Diggle, (awesome art by Whilce Portacio and Richard Friend, by-the-way) is a Batman story that reeks of research, thought and commentary about modern day warfare. Andy Diggle must have spent hours reading Jane's Defence and academic journals on war, strategy and intelligence to write this. For me, this story is very much told by a story by a man who reads 'The Guardian', and while absolutely fascinated by revolutionary thinking concepts in modern warfare, he ultimately understands that war, and its consequences aren't very nice. In telling this story I'm convinced that Diggle was very influenced by the man responsible for all of much of the basis of modern military thinking: Carl von Clausewitz in his book 'On War'. In fact, I believe that there is a level where a lot of the story-telling must be explained with this Major-General in mind.

Firstly, let's discuss the central plot: Bruce Wayne meets Lex Luthor meet for the first time as their corporate entities pitching for massive domestic government defence contracts. This is, of course, prologue to Luthor attempting a coup d'etat in the USA. This plot can be broken down into three acts which allow a narrative breakdown of this story. A first act showing the preparation for war, the second act illustrates the rejection of politics to attain a political solution. Concluding with, a the third act, showing actual conflict occurring.

I know your thinking: that this is just a comic book story, and that I may be reading way too much into it. But read the first issue yourself. Read the title of the Batman story again. Read the warlike language contained in almost every dialogue caption. Where words of conflict are not used, words of corporate business appear and eventually they merge into the same stream of thought (expressed by both Wayne and Luthor, therefore allowing the reader to engage with the Arm's Trade debate subtext). Eventually this language turns political, and then is used in the context of preparing for war. The tone of the Defence Pitch at the start of the story is totally relevant for the Prussian Major-General's standpoint that war is the extreme act of political intercourse. And, Diggle knows this as he prepares the Lex Luthor character as a man heading to war.

Indeed, what is truly brilliant amongst the political sparring between Wayne Aerospace, Lexcorp and the U.S. Government; is that behind all of the bravado and mad technological advancements shown throughout the story that there is something more simple at play here. For me, this book, allows a single military history concept to take a central position in the story. It is one very simple concept, that underpins most warfare academic thinking, this is 'Friction of War'. This theory was developed by a Prussian Major-General Carl von Clausewitz, who after fighting in the Napoleon Bonaparte got very introspective about the nature of war, and attempted to write these thoughts and theories down. His book, 'On War' [link] was first published in 1832, and is still being read, and studied, by those at West Point (and believe me, this book is written by a soldier for other soldiers). Von Clausewitz's Friction of war is a theoretical concept that he believes is inevitable within any General's campaign: As he explains

Friction, as we choose to call it, is the force that makes the apparently easy so difficult”.

'Friction', for Von Clausewitz, is the fog of war, it is the grit that build up in engines of tanks, it is the rain that makes mud that bogs down your horses. It is what a General cannot see, cannot account for and ultimately cannot plan for. However it is inevitable regardless of rules of engagement.

So what 'Friction' are we seeing in Rules of Engagement'? Well, for Lex Luthor the resistant element that he simply didn't count upon during his villainous scheme is the appearance of the 'another spandex-clad obsessive sticking his nose where it doesn't belong': Batman. After all, we are told that Luthors been plotting this plan for many years as shown. Indeed, it explains the the plot's first scene. Lex Luthor, in implementing his grand strategy never, ever takes into account that there is another with the means and determination to prevent him attaining his military goal. Indeed when the U.S. Forces attempt to take Area One, they also do not count on Batman turning up. There is no doubt that the 'Friction' in this story is Batman.

Now please remember I think that 'Rules of Engagement' is more than a Batman detective story. I see warfare almost everywhere in 'Rules of Engagement' for it not to be there on purpose. There are scenes using private armies, of corporate espionage resulting in the capture of military secrets. We see command and control situations. The operation of United States troops attempting to take Lex's Area One base. We see lines of communication interrupted on both a military and civilian level. We see the use of propaganda after the completion of the coup d'etat. As the story develops, I think you can draw a parallel between Lex Luthor's ambition to that of, say, Napoleon Bonaparte: Here is a very ambitious man willing to anything to achieve his goal of attaining ultimate power, and that includes using force to attain the goal.

As the story progresses into the final act, I am reminded Carl von Clasusewitz wrote that the “aim of warfare is to disarm the enemy and it is time to show that, at least in theory, this is bound to be so”. And he also wrote that:

“Basically, surprise is a tactical device, simply because in tactics time and space are limited in scale. Therefore in strategy surprise becomes more feasible the closer it occurs to the tactical realm , and more difficult, the more it approaches the higher levels of policy.”


Therefore, I argue, that Batman's strategy at the climax of the concluding confrontation, is to disarm Lex Luthor. And he uses 'Surprise' as a tactic to achieve this goal. Indeed, I strongly believe that this scene and the key components to Batman's involvement throughout 'Rules of Engagement' owe a lot to the work of von Clausewitz that leads me to think that there is no narrative co-incidence at play here.

To complete this assessment of 'Rules of Engagement', I think there is another thing that needs to be noted, and that Diggle successfully tries to reflects this theme of 'Friction' to then-current real world politics. That 'Friction', is always present in real world conflict, regardless how advanced the technology. What was interesting that when this book was published, there was real 'Friction' happening in Afghanistan and Iraq. The Coalition (especially, the United States forces) were better equipped and technologically more advanced than their enemy. Yet they still had to deal with the 'Friction' created by poorly armed insurgents groups that weren't factored in when the campaign had started (this link was from a few days before the release of Batman Confidential #1, as to illustrate my point), in order to complete their political victory. This Batman story is very much about world politics in 2006.

This is never more noticeable than when Diggle has a robot shouting 'Depleted Uranium' at Batman during the Area One siege. This is not a random phrase. Andy Diggle is hoping that you research the horrible, unforeseen consequences of depleted uranium. That you make your own opinion that whether the inevitable technological advancement of weaponry to prevent future problems of 'Friction' are necessary (this is a link to the most right wing British newspaper's piece on the subject, if you think I'm over-playing this). Especially, when you consider that they might create other problems.

For me, Andy Diggle, is responsible for a Batman story that is in every way as intelligent and thought-provoking as a quality action comic should be. And should be appluaded for doing so.