Armagideon Time

The last significant peak of Cold War anxieties regarding nuclear annihilation unfolded between 1982 and 1985, when panic over communist expansionism in places like Central America and Afghanistan came up against the hardline militarism of the Reagan Administration.

It was the era of The Day After, Red Dawn, Rocky IV, and “99 Luftballons” — where a horde of Bolshevik barbarians were purportedly at the gates of the Free World and the threat of global thermonuclear suicide was the only thing keeping them at bay.

The 1980s’ atmosphere of existential terror ratcheted down a few notches by the middle of the decade. The state of geopolitical paranoia had served its purpose — a recession-ending spike in defense spending in which brinksmanship served as a socially destructive form of pump-priming. The Soviets stepped back because the couldn’t afford the economic cost, the Americans stepped back because more level and cynical policymakers were troubled by the psychic costs…in terms of public perception if not the reality.

There becomes a point when the benefits of wealth distribution through jingoism reach diminishing returns, such as when a parent’s political loyalty for landing a plush job at an aerospace firm conflicts with having to explain the effects of nuclear war to his or her terrified three year old.

While Armageddon scenarios lingered on as a popular trope in the generally cheesy realm of industrial-grade genre fiction and low-budget sci-fi flicks, the masscult manifestations of militarism shifted into re-brandings of the Vietnam War mythos. Ideally suited (and soundtrackable) for the deep-pocketed narcissism of the Baby Boomer generation, these works tended to spin ostensibly anti-war messages into self-pitying rationales for atrocities gone by.

Running concurrently with these slices of historically revisionist nostalgia was a multimedia celebration of the technologies of mass destruction. Found everywhere from Top Gun to the real-life inspired weapon designs in the 1980s revival of G.I. Joe to the bestselling fiction of Tom Clancy, this upsized spin on gun-nuttery reflected the solid-state optimism of the era even as it attempted to recast the unpredictability of armed conflict into a series of stat comparisons between competing products.

These three popcult strains of 1980s militarism — the apocalyptic, the maudlin, and the technical — were not mutually exclusive and did a fair-degree cross-pollination did occur. So you had author Lucius Shepard using the Vietnam War for stylistic cues about a pre-apocalyptic future conflict in El Salvador, the Twilight 2000 role playing game bringing an excruciating level of technical detail to its World War III setting, and Team Yankee

…attempting an uneven and nonsensical combination of all three.

The weekly six-issue miniseries was published by First Comics in 1988, on the trailing end of the trend curve for fantasies of Cold War paranoia. It was based on a popular novel by Harold Coyle, which in turn was based on an earlier work of speculative infotainment by Gen. Sir John Hackett based on a shitload of wishful thinking by military strategists unwilling to accept the unpleasant realities of the nuclear age.

Envisioning a Third World War fight with conventional forces is like imagining the Battle of the Somme fought by cavalry units or Midway as a clash of battleships instead of aircraft carriers. While these scenarios may tickle the fancies of the type of folks who — by profession or hobby — push chits around on a sandtable or hex map, they rest upon a selective and willful disregard for empirical evidence and historical reality.

The theoretical events that could have plausibly led to massed conventional warfare between the Soviets and NATO are inescapably predicated on the notion that the nuclear deterrent would fail. If the stakes were high enough to risk nuclear retaliation, then they would also be grave enough to justify the use of such armaments. In such a desperate race to the moral bottom, one side or the other would inevitably seek an advantage through tactical nukes, triggering an escalating spiral of responses with global annihilation as the logical — if unintended — endgame.

The arguments evoking “rational actors” and “self-interest” as guardrails against that slippery slope conveniently omit the unpleasant truth that the same nations who condemned Nazi bombings of civilians as war crimes would, by war’s end, adopt civilian bombing as strategic lynchpin — and on a scale Hitler and Goering could only dream enviously about.

A conventially fought World War III was the stuff of utter fantasy, and it was to that unicorn that Team Yankee hitched its narrative wagon.

The titularly-named outfit was an American tank company stationed in the path of a not-quite-unexpected Soviet invasion of West Germany. The unit’s composition was straight out of Classic War Movie Central — a diverse (yet exclusively white) bunch of conflicting personalities whose scruffy virility was expressed through names like “Bubba,” “Ski,” “Bannon,” and “Pathos-in-Waiting.” They were John Wayne’s progeny in a post-Platoon world, ready to kill godless Commies or indulge in some melodramatic navel-gazing with equal aplomb.

Most importantly, however, they served as the means by which readers could discover the effectiveness of a Soviet T-80 versus an American M-1, or a Stinger anti-air missile against a HIND attack chopper. (Spoiler alert: The American stuff is always better.) When they weren’t taking the fruits of our nation’s mortgaged future out for a test drive, these cardboard champions of the Free World indulged in grim-faced reveries concerning the novel idea that war kills people and that’s kind of icky if you think about it.

One of Team Yankee’s stranger and more jarring efforts to repurpose the Vietnam narrative for the War That’s Coming was a decision to have our intrepid heroes refer to their Soviet adversaries as “gooks.” Not only was the term racially offensive and nonsensically dated, but it also demonstrated a profound lack of faith in Our Boys’ facility at creative dehumanization.

Hey, America may have fallen behind the rest of the world in a lot of things, but coining reductive slang terms for a demonized Other ain’t one of them.

The battle against Global Communism rages back and forth over the space of two weeks, with the valiant NATO forces maintaining an unsteady upper hand (because the authors knew damn well who was buying this nonsense). Still, it wasn’t going to end until the Fat Man sings…

…which it did in a tit-for-tat nuclear exchange that wipes Birmingham, England and Misnk off the map.

I understand that one can’t have a real World War Three potboiler without an ICBM or two being loosed, but this plot development utterly derailed any thin vestiges of logic or plausibility the narrative had managed to sustain. Again, the policy of nuclear deterrence was based around the notion of massive retaliation — you launch one of yours and we’ll launch hundreds of ours. So why did the Soviets risk complete annihilation by striking a single target of marginal strategic value, when there was a high probability that this would be the only launch window they’d ever get?

Like everything else about Team Yankee, it only makes sense because the chain of authors involved were committed to marketable sensationalism at the expense of any unwelcome implications.

No need to dwell on that though, because the story quicky cuts to the news that a cabal of Red Army officers gunned down the members of the Politiburo before requesting a ceasefire.

A victory for America! And humanity! But mostly for America! U-S-A F-T-W!

The Team Yankee comic might have been able to justify its existence from a visual-technical standpoint if you had a skilled draftsman like Russ Heath or John Severin cranking out accurately detailed tableaus featuring the machinery of modern war. Instead readers got Rod Whigham, burdened with some slopply finishes and the effects of a weekly release schedule. While I enjoyed his run on G.I. Joe, the only traces of that aesthetic demonstrated here were the decision to model the Russian uniforms after the ones Cobra grunts wore and that every infantry encounter takes place at point-blank range (complete with the familiar “line of bullets emerging from an exploding back” visual).

All fiction is rooted in falsehood, but good fiction takes pains to present a convincing lie. Team Yankee is an absurd mishmash of third-hand cliches and enough pretzel logic that I was looking for a “from Snyder’s of Hanover” blurb on the cover. I’d call it “laughable,” except for the sobering realization that Team Yankee‘s fantasy scenario was fundamentally identical to the one held by scores of American policymakers and strategists during the Reagan years.

So maybe I’ll skip the chuckles this time and simply whistle past the radioactive graveyard of Nobody’s Favorites.

Related posts:

  1. The war at home
  2. Nobody’s Favorites: Man meets war
  3. Nobody Else’s Favorites: Envy the dead

8 Responses to “Nobody’s Favorites: World War Wasn’t”

  1. Kris

    I remember this all to well. It was the kind of bullshit my dad loved when he wasn’t fiddling with his ham radio or commanding some sort of missile battery for the National Guard.

  2. Casey

    I think this is the best thing you’ve ever written, Andrew.

  3. Bill the Splut

    “The Russkies have shot a nuke at England!”
    “Wait–what did you say?”
    “The Gooksies shot a miss–”
    A missile? ONE missile?!”
    “Um, yeah–”
    “Tubular to the max! SHOOT ALL OUR MISSILES!”

    I’m pretty sure that’s the way it would’ve really played out.

    Around 1980 I read a slim 1950s paperback by a West German author. It began with an East German soldier shooting someone escaping to the west, not knowing that he did it after crossing the West German border, and thus turning it from an internal incident to an international one. The West Germans complain, the East Germans defend the action. The Americans and the Russians get involved in a diplomatic war; soon NATO and the Warsaw Pact join in with military posturing. Border skirmishes happen, and then a company of Soviet tanks attack American troops. With his unit about to be defeated, the American commander lets loose a tactical nuke. The Soviets fire one back, and soon nuclear war begins. The book ends with the combatant’s major cities being nuked…all over one guy who was killed crossing an imaginary line.
    The scary part of it was that at every turn, both sides refused to look “soft” and their decisions were perfectly logical. And exactly the decision that they shouldn’t have made. Back then, I always though that the threat was less from the city-melters that only a President or Premier could launch, but a panicking colonel with an Honest John or FROG he could fire off.

  4. bitterandrew

    Exactly.

    When faced with “use a tactical nuke or get thrown back over the Rhine/Vistula,” you know how that would have gone down.

  5. Bill the Splut

    ALIEN STUDENT, looking at the withered husk of the third planet: “Wow…the only known world where ‘intelligent’ life killed itself in an atom war.”
    ALIEN TEACHER: “Yes. It remains unclear from their surviving and garbled data whether Han-merica or Soviet-o shot first.”
    “What did it start with?”
    “With either an ‘Honest John’ or a ‘FROG’.”
    (pause)
    “AAAHH-HA HA HA! Seriously?!”
    “There’s more than one reason we call this the Planet of the Retards. Let’s go to the next one, where it rains sulphuric acid. It’s so much nicer.”

  6. Tec15

    Interesting. I wasn’t even aware of the existence of this comic but I have read the original book by Gen. Sir John Hackett that spawned Coyle’s book and eventually this adaptation, and it reads like bad fanfic devoid of any political reality and filled with cartoonish caricatures of the incompetent but evil Soviets, and the supercompetent Western troops who seem to defeat the red hordes easily enough despite being heavily outnumbered at all times. Neocon wet dream circa 1980 just about covers it.

    The mutual nuking of Birmingham and Minsk was a plot point from that book originally btw, so the comic was long screwed from a verisimilitude point of view even before it’s inception.

  7. bitterandrew

    PEACE PARK EAST! PEACE PARK WEST!

    On the other hand, Hackett’s tortured explanations of how Ireland and Sweden would abandon their neutrality and see the light were a masterpiece of (unintentional) absurdist comedy.

  8. Tec15

    Heh, if you find that unintentional absurdist comedy, you should try (or not; I don’t really recommend it) reading the departed Tom Clancy’s solution for peace in the Middle East as enumerated in The Sum of All Fears. Aaaand that just makes me realize how much of this sort of dreck I’ve wasted my time reading.

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