Image via Article 90
By the end of this year, the United States will remove more than 23,000 troops from Afghanistan, beginning a protracted drawdown to at least nominally end more than a decade of overseas wars that have killed nearly 7,000 US service members and left thousands more wounded, disabled, and traumatized.
Now, as Washington equivocates over how to deal with the scandal-plagued VA, a new generation of combat veterans is returning home to deal with the physical and emotional scars of conflict. A survey released last week by Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America found that more than 60 percent of respondents had been diagnosed with PTSD or a traumatic brain injury, and 31 percent said they have contemplated suicide. Nearly half said that they knew another veteran who took their own life.
This deadly combination of violence, stigma, and bureaucratic dysfunction is the focus of Article 90, a new short by Derek Schklar, a.k.a. the Devil, an Atlanta-based filmmaker, artist, and musician best known for his gritty, demoniac hip-hop mix tapes. Released under Schklar’s real name, Article 90 follows a more traditional narrative structure than the Devil’s other work, telling the story of Michael Cromwell, a former Marine who returns home from combat after being dishonorably discharged for violating Article 90, the military’s code against disobeying a commanding officer.
While Cromwell’s character is fictional, the story of an ex-combat veteran pushed to his breaking point has an almost eerie resonance in light of recent news events, including the shooting at Fort Hood earlier this year. With the Obama administration weighing new military involvements in Iraq and Syria, I caught up with Schklar to talk about his film and how it feels to see his art come to life.
VICE: What inspired you to make Article 90?
Derek Schklar: Article 90 was inspired by my rage regarding our insatiable taste for war. Around that time, Obama was talking about invading Syria, when we had already invaded Iraq and Afghanistan. There had also been a seemingly unending series of mass school shootings.
I have an obsession with the news. It scares me. Or, I wouldn’t say it scares me, but it unsettles me and makes me angry. I guess for me it was about my overwhelming rage considering these truths.
There are some very visceral scenes in the film. Do these come from your own experience, or from someone you know who has come back from Iraq or Afghanistan?
It’s a combination of the world around me and my feelings and my emotions. It’s an amalgamation. It’s less a political piece and more the story of a man who couldn’t take it anymore. It’s the downward spiral of a man, the mass shooter, the “animal,” the “monster.” How a tragedy like that is created, the abuse, and [how] blame and responsibility are always blanketed in every direction except the correct one. For me, it makes me so angry—it has a blinding effect. At that time, I was examining that anger as well as examining my anger toward the world around me, particularly our government.
Why did you decide to focus on Article 90? How does the idea of disobedience play out as a theme in the film?
In the film, you don’t really know why he’s home until the final monologue. The piece is very didactic in a sense. To me, one of the main messages in the film is to the soldiers: You always have responsibility for your own actions, regardless of the existing power structure that’s been enforced on you in the military. In [the main character] Michael Cromwell’s case, he felt like committing a violent act while in Afghanistan was the wrong thing to do, and he disobeyed the lawful command of his [commanding] officer. For that reason, he was dishonorably discharged. That’s what starts this downward spiral.
Since the film came out, there have been a lot of news stories that seem to play into the thesis of your film—the VA scandal, the shootings at the Navy Yard and Fort Hood. Have these stories changed or reinforced your perceptions at all?
I’m not going to claim to be an expert on these stories. But I am expert on getting to the point of no return. When [Cromwell] is sitting on the couch, watching Obama on the news [talking] about Syria, that was me. I’m not a violent man, nor will I ever be… I understand it sometimes, I guess. But in my mind every act of violence is abhorrent, whether it’s done by those with badges or uniforms or [to the sound of] trumpets. If someone kills another human being, they themselves die. I don’t know many infantry soldiers, but I know killers in the streets, and I know how it affects them.
War is not dressed up in my mind. It’s mass murder. And the men and women ordering the acts of violence never touch it, never see it, never smell it. Then, when the soldiers come home, they throw them in the trash like they’re worthless. They are human, and they have worth…Obviously if you send kids to war, they’re going to come back fucked up.
We’re like ancient Rome. We worship violence. We’re supremely guilty of hubris… Every time a tragedy like this happens, nobody wants to look at themselves in the mirror and ask themselves, "What have I done to contribute to this?"
What kind of impact do you expect this film to make? What kind of reaction have you gotten so far?
I don’t really care what the reaction is going to be. For me, it’s what I consider the truth. It stands for what it stands for. I don’t really think about how people are going react. This is what I felt.
In my mind art is supposed to be brutal honesty from within one's self. Part of my mission is to expose the truth through my eyes. Tell the story, expose the truth, lift the veil. My other pieces are less didactic. This piece is meant to have a message.