“Ranger Games,” by former Seattleite Ben Blum, is something of a genre mashup, part journalism and part family memoir.
The journalistic part pieces together, in high definition, the brazen 2007 robbery of a South Tacoma bank by a group of Army Rangers from Fort Lewis. The robbery, Rick Anderson’s coverage of which for Seattle Weekly gets brief mention (“Soldiers of Fortune,” Nov. 29, 2007), is a stranger-than-fiction tale in which a possibly psychopathic Army specialist convinces a “cherry” private and a small group of others that their training makes them well-suited to take out a bank.
As Blum describes it, the robbery sounds like something that would have been fun to watch were you not facing the barrel of one of the AK-47s the robbers hoisted: Rangers vaulting over barriers, calling out precise time checks, and then respectfully thanking everyone when it was done, all within 2 minutes. Astoundingly, the elite soldiers’ dexterous robbery was undone when they drove away, with security cameras watching, in one of their own cars with the license plates in full view. Arrests were made within a day.
None of these details are spoilers, by the way; so rich is this book that the facts of the robbery are dealt with quickly in the first few pages.
Which brings us to the family memoir part of the book: Blum’s insight into this piece of local history is sharpened by the fact that his cousin was one of the robbers—or the get-away driver, to be precise. Pfc. Alex Blum’s Audi with Colorado plates was the team’s undoing, and a large portion of Ranger Games is devoted to Ben Blum trying to figure out how Alex wound up involved in such a fiasco. As described by the author, the Blum family is an all-American sort, which is not necessarily a flattering look: they are wealthy, white, apathetic toward the Iraq War Alex would soon be fighting in, and sitting ducks for the looming housing crisis.
Blum’s portrait of his cousin is unsparing, peppered with quotes that make you kind of hate him. “I play a tough guy on the exterior, but a kid gives me a card, I hang it in my office. He signed it himself, in his little retard writing,” Blum quotes his cousin at one point in full bro mode.
Indeed, it is Ben Blum’s love-hate relationship with his cousin that is the driving tension of the book. The central question is how willing a participant in the robbery Alex was. Through breezy explanations of Ranger culture and prisoner psychology, Blum builds a plausible case that Alex was completely at the mercy of his military chain of command, and so when a superior told him to drive to a bank with a bunch of guns in the back seat he had no choice but to follow orders.
This theory was endorsed by none other than Philip Zimbardo, the psychologist who orchestrated the Stanford Prison Experiment in 1971. At one point, Zimbardo and Alex appeared on the Dr. Phil show to explain how it all worked in Alex’s brain. “So what you’re telling me,” Dr. Phil says at one point, speaking for the entire world, “is that you did not know that you were involved in an armed. Robbery. Of a bank.”
Blum shares Dr. Phil’s skepticism. The author is careful to note the holes in this explanation, and as the book progresses those holes grow and shrink. The book reaches its climax when Blum has an 8-hour interview in a federal penitentiary with Luke Elliott Sommer, the ranger who orchestrated the heist. Blum contemplates whether Sommer is a psychopath—with the help of a clinician from Washington’s McNeal Island—to uncertain results.
What’s clear is the guy is highly manipulative and fucking nuts, a dangerous combo if there ever was one. He was prone to forcing subordinates to do “suicide checks” at Fort Lewis, which entailed giving soldiers a gun and demanding they hold it to their head and pull the trigger, to prove loyalty and trust. Blum writes that he could empathize with those who obeyed the crazy orders.
“At the distance of a small table from Elliott, there was a strange double quality to my consciousness,” Blum says in describing falling into Sommer’s trap, “one half telling myself I could see right through him, the other half helplessly interacting on his terms.”
More than anything else this is a book about uncertainty: Uncertainty in one’s consciousness, in one’s family lore, in Dr. Phil, in what we can call free-will. Uncertainty in why the robbers didn’t cover up the Audi’s license plate.
“It was like walking onto the surface of the moon,” Graham Elwood says of his first experience walking off of a C-17 in Afghanistan.
His experience was not unlike many of our own first times deploying to a far-off edge of the world. We take a long, long C-17 (or god help you, C-130) ride for seemingly endless hours. There are no windows. The plane is packed. Forget about an in-flight movie or looking out the window. And when you walk off, it’s invariably the middle of the night and you and the hundred or so people you’re with walk off the flightline in a single file.
From there, who knows? There’s a good chance the “hurry up and wait” has just begun. For civilians visiting war zones for the first time, it’s no different – except they have no idea how to speak the acronym language.
“They said ‘When your bird hits the LZ, find your POC, they’ll take you to the MWR tent then you can go to the DFAC,'” he jokes. “It’s like… what are you saying to me right now, man?”
Elwood is a Los Angeles-based comedian with appearances in comedy clubs across America, on college campuses, and even CBS’ Late Late Show. He’s also a veteran podcaster with shows like Comedy Film Nerds, and The Political Vigilante, and he’s a co-creator of the Los Angeles Podcast Festival.
None of that prepared him for performing for U.S. troops deployed in combat zones. His first documentary, Laffghanistan: Comedy Down Range, is about his first time volunteering to go do just that. It’s amazing how fast you can go from playing the Hollywood Improv to playing Bagram Air Base.
Elwood’s film documents his personal journey from the sunny beaches of Southern California to the sun-baked moonscape of Afghanistan, where the military’s Department of Morale, Welfare and Recreation enlisted him to entertain the troops. Elwood’s psychedelic travels through a war zone are simultaneously hilarious, harrowing, and heartbreaking. His journey becomes unpredictably personal, creating a documentary that no one expected, least of all Graham.
For someone who admits he’s pretty far removed from the Global War on Terror, it all came home to him when went around the small firebases of Afghanistan. It was his first time in helicopters, driving in unarmored vehicles on the ground in Afghanistan, and seeing minefields. It got real for him for him real fast.
“What was said to me and what I’ve said to other comedians,” he says. “Well don’t go over there if you don’t want to be changed. It will change you. You have no idea. This is no joke.”
Now that Elwood has done a number of these shows and tours around deployed military bases, he looks back at his first experience in this episode of Mandatory Fun.
Nothing could adequately prepare him for performing a comedy act in Afghanistan. All the dive bars and sh*t holes he played as a young comedian is the best thing he could do to prepare. He was still freaking out but couldn’t help but put himself in the shoes of young troops.
“I’m here for two weeks,” Elwood says, “and MY family is freaking out. Imagine them and their families and how much they’re freaking out.”
But they quickly realized that they need to be the comics. They were there for a reason: to give American troops fighting overseas a few laughs, a taste of a normal night, and a show to help ease their tension, even if it was only for a short time.
Mandatory Fun guest: Graham Elwood has been a stand-up comic for over 20 years working comedy clubs, colleges, TV shows, Holiday Inn Lounges, war zones, dive bars, and one time on the top of a double-decker tour bus in Chicago (not joking) . You’ve probably seen him on the TV as the host of the socially relevant game shows “Cram” (GSN) and “Strip Poker” (USA), along with making the world a better place by appearing on shows like “Best Bodies Ever” on VH1. Don’t forget the time when he told jokes on “The Late Late Show” (CBS). He has also starred in the theatrical plays Speed the Plow, Light Sensitive, and Cash Flow, and co-wrote the one act play Brothers. Learn more about Elwood:
It’s that time of year when everyone turns on their TVs, sits down with a nice bowl of popcorn, and gets a little spooky. That horror flick you’re watching for the 13th time isn’t throwing any curve balls. Obviously, the supernatural killer with a highly marketable mask/face is going to slay those oblivious teenagers who’ve never heard of strength in numbers.
But there’s one glaringly stupid trope that happens in nearly every zombie film or show ever made.
At one point, the lone survivor of the group ends up stumbling across the remains of what used to be a military unit. Turns out, the odds are so stacked against mankind that even the world’s best-trained fighters didn’t stand a chance against a swarm of undead monsters. Our protagonist then arms themselves with the leftover military gear and sets off in search of a more pleasant ending.
In reality, however, this just wouldn’t happen. Not in a million years. In fact, it’s more difficult to find a single scenario in which the zombies did stand a chance against the U.S. Armed Forces. — but we tried, anyway. Let’s take a look at what kind of damage those lifeless shamblers could do, given a perfect scenario, before taking yet another trip to the dirt.
There are countless different types of zombies, depending on the fiction to which you subscribe, but, in all likelihood, the U.S. military actually does have a plan to counter each and every one of them outlined in CONPLAN 8888. From your standard Romero/Walking Dead zombies to the 28 Days Later, rage-virus zombies to voodoo zombies to, hell, even the Plants vs. Zombies zombies, all accounted for. Sure, each plan may be written by a bored staff officer as part of a clearly tongue-in-cheek thought experiment, but it’s still official military doctrine.
But for the sake of this article, we’re going to need to make a few assumptions:
First, we’re going to stick with the standard zombies — you know, the slow, shuffling type you’re used to seeing in pop culture.
Second, we’re going to face those zombies off against the military at its lowest level of self-sufficient operations: a battalion-sized force. Shy of any single platoon going on a patrol, military commanders would never spread their units any thinner than this in such a dire emergency. A battalion has enough of every type of support troop to keep the operation moving along until they can reconnect with a larger force.
Finally, the zombies are going to exclusively face infantrymen in engagements because once you add the might of an A-10 Warthog or an Abrams tank, it’s just unfair. In the event of an actual world-ending apocalypse at the hands of brain-eating zombies, the military has thousands upon thousands of vehicles that wouldn’t take a scratch from corpse claws.
So, a battalion of infantrymen it is.
There are only a handful of ways that the zombies could ever gain a tactical advantage: surprise or vastly superior numbers. Both are lost after a battalion sets up a perimeter and holds off an area. The U.S. Army has finely honed an ability to create a fully functional forward operating base in just 72 hours. This time frame is good anywhere in the world. That number would presumably be even lower if said base was needed near an existing military installation and they have the means to production.
There will be guards posted at every angle of approach, so there’s no way any zombies could get past the constant guard duty. Even their number advantage is negated when impenetrable barriers are placed. Given enough zombies, they could probably push down a chain-linked fence, but the military makes good use of hastily-made and ready-to-go Hesco Barriers and concrete T-walls. This impassable wall would force any attacking zombies into a funnel, moving towards the one and only entrance, which we can assume is heavily guarded.
If the zombies fail to overrun the troops in those first 72 hours, their only bet is to pick them off slowly as they patrol outward. Even then, the outcome doesn’t look so great for the visitors.
Troops live by the military strategy of asymmetrical warfare, meaning that there’s no such thing as “fair fight” in war. Since zombies are a clear-cut bad guy that troops have been itching to fight, don’t expect them to go easy on ’em just because they’re slow. Even pitting one troop against a swarm of the undead would likely end in favor of the living. Not only are Zombies slow, they also tend to stack up their weak points (the head, for those who’ve never seen a movie before) in a nice row, all lined up for a rain of machine gun fire.
But let’s pretend that the troops and the zombies play a game of attrition and see who lasts the longest. The troops would still win. Depending on weather conditions, a lifeless body left outside starts decomposing in about 24 hours and turns to goop after about a month. So, supplies, both scavenged and rationed, for a month? The military knows logistics.
Okay, let’s say they don’t decompose while “alive.” The only thing troops would need a constant replenishment of is food, and there are MREs left in Connexes found all over military installations. The shelf life of an MRE in moderate conditions is five years.
That said, the military’s got gear that might give Zordon (played by Bryan Cranston) some inspiration.
1. M1A2 Abrams tank
This is one tough vehicle. In “Armored Cav,” Tom Clancy related the tale of how one Abrams tank survived being hit multiple times by T-72 main gun rounds from as close as 400 yards!
The Abrams also has superb firepower in the form of its 120mm main gun, a M2 .50-caliber machine gun, and two M240 7.62mm machine guns. In essence, this tank is already a Zord in many respects.
Might as well make it official.
2. B-1B Lancer
This plane carries a lot of firepower – 84 Mk 82 500-pound bombs – and that is considering that its external weapons carriage was disabled as a result of the United States signing the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty. The plane is also fast, and capable of flying at treetop level.
3. A-10 Thunderbolt
There is no reason why the A-10 – and its ability to BRRRRRT the bad guys with the GAU-8 — shouldn’t be a Zord. It is very tough (remember how Kim Campbell brought back a busted-up A-10?). It also carries a lot of bombs.
Put it this way — even a skyscraper-sized minion of Rita’s would be hard-pressed to stand up against a squadron of baseline Warthogs, but against an A-10 Thunderbolt Zord?
4. M270 MLRS
This vehicle gets the nod for its firepower. The various rockets it fires can spread bomblets or a unitary charge. That ruins the day for infantry and enemy vehicles, but when it uses the MGM-140 ATACMS – or the Army Tactical Missile System – it could probably put the hurt on one of the skyscraper-sized monsters as well.
5. M50 Ontos
This is more a blast from the past. That said, the six 106mm recoilless rifles provide a huge punch. The rifles could fire anti-personnel or anti-tank rounds.
In Vietnam, the Ontos was deadly against enemy infantry – and given that the fighting against Rita’s minions is likely to involve a lot of hand-to-hand fighting (until she calls in her big guns), the Ontos makes sense.
6. M1097 Avenger
A lot of this has been focused on the air-to-ground aspect. But it never hurts to be ready for some ground-to-air action. DefenseNews.com notes that Boeing is proposing some upgrades to the baseline Avenger, notably the AIM-9X Sidewinder and the Longbow version of the AGM-114 Hellfire.
Now, we have no idea what any Megazord from these vehicles would look like, but given their firepower – would they need a Megazord configuration? We doubt it. We’d also like to know, what military vehicles do you think Zordon should use as the basis for his next generation of Zords?
There’s a widespread belief that MPs will look the other way for other MPs in certain situations. Now, I am in no way saying that there should be unfair advantages given when it comes to the law. That being said, there is no denying that this practice exists in various ways.
MPs hold one another to a standard that is often a few pegs above the written, established standard. So, a lot of times the “looking out” comes in the form of keeping other MP to task and up to snuff when the human element rears its head. Sometimes, “looking out” means offering just a ride home — it depends on the variables.
4. People want to be cool with you… when they don’t hate you
Everyone wants to be cool with MPs. It means they’ll probably get through the gate on personal recognition a little more frequently and, if they have an encounter with an MP, it’ll likely be pleasant.
This rapport is typically built through politeness, a few well-timed store runs, and some glazed pastries.
3. Face of the base
These days, we hear a lot of references to the ‘tip of the spear.‘ The expression is typically reserved for those special few among us who are truly and undeniably badass.
As a Military Policeman, not only are you the first face to greet every single visitor and vehicle to enter the base, you are, by definition, the tip of that extremely local spear. Not to pat ourselves on the back too much, but hey, that is a pretty big deal.
2. Rapid maturity
Having an authority that supersedes rank can be a lot to handle. With young MPs, you typically get one of two types:
Type A is someone who has walked with a big stick for most of their life and now they have some actual weight behind their actions. They are likely to push the limits of their authority a bit further than most until they learn better.
Type B is someone who is timid and unsure of how to impose their authority the right away. They’re more likely to tiptoe towards competence with fewer mistakes along the slower road.
Both of these guys are going to have to make their way through the gauntlet fast if they hope to survive through their enlistments.
“If you think of the first 18 minutes or so of ‘Saving Private Ryan,’ ” Dye said, “This will be that but airborne. This will be guys coming out of those aircraft and sky full of tracers.”
Dye wrote the script for “No Better Place to Die” from a story he’d studied during his active duty days. He felt the story perfectly exemplifies what Americans troops can do when they come together after everything goes wrong.
It’s about the 82nd Airborne Division paratroopers during the D-Day invasion and their contribution to winning the war. If it weren’t for these troops, the German’s may have pushed the allied beach invasion back out to sea, according to Dye.
While the filmmaking world knows him as Hollywood’s drill sergeant, Dye has reserved the director’s seat for himself.
“Given what I’ve done in my 30-year career the only way this going to get done right — the only way this is going to blow people right out of their seats — is if I direct it because I know how,” Dye said. “I know how to do this cool.”
As for hiring veterans, Dye is looking to fill on and off camera roles to make a filmmaking statement.
“My absolute promise is that I’m going to make this movie with as many veterans in front of the camera and behind the camera as I can find,” Dye said. “That’s the way I’m going to do it. I’m hoping that it will serve as a showcase to Hollywood. It will show them the talent that’s out there and what these folks can do. What they bring to the table and how motivated they can be, and I want to demonstrate that.”
Before Dale Dye was making some of our favorite military movies, he was fighting America’s wars overseas, eventually retiring as a Marine Corps captain. Having been around infantrymen all his life, he knew we were badly represented on film. The majority are intelligent, creative, and full of heart.
He felt the image of the dumb boot blindly following orders was a grave disservice to those brave service members who had risked and often gave their lives so that our nation could survive and prosper. So he looked for the best medium available to reach the hearts and minds of the public to spread his message — film and television.
Bishop and motion capture actors for EA’s Battlefield4 video game.
Greg Bishop advanced from private in the Army to Lieutenant Colonel, across a spectrum of specialties from Infantry to the Signals Corps and finally to Public Affairs. He had a dream to work in Hollywood when he was young which he fulfilled through his military service. Bishop runs MUSA Consulting now for the entertainment industry advising on different projects. Bishop has produced his own feature Ktown Cowboys and worked on projects such as Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen, The Day the Earth Stood Still, GI Joe: The Rise of Cobra, Battlefield4 and Snitch.
1. Can you share about your family and your life growing up?
I grew up in the suburbs of Louisville, KY, in a normal, all-American, middle-class family and experience. I was the third of four boys, I had loving parents who are still married today. My father, who was a Marine Corps officer and Vietnam Veteran, was tough but a great role model. My mother took great care of us boys and she was our superhero. We grew up in the pre-home-video game era, so we spent most of our time outside, playing sports, riding bikes, chasing girls and getting into normal boyhood trouble complete with skinned knees and elbows, broken bones and hearts.
2. What values were stressed at home?
With my father being a Marine, and having four boys within six years of one another, discipline, hard work and personal responsibility were paramount in the Bishop household. A strong work ethic was instilled in all of us, so all of the Bishop Boys worked as soon as we were big enough to rake leaves, shovel snow, or cut grass. Our family also pretty much had a newspaper delivery dynasty in the neighborhood for several years. All of us delivered papers until we were old enough to have a regular job, and that was back in the days when newspapers were delivered two times a day. Once old enough, we all had after school jobs washing dishes, busing tables, working in fast food, or whatever we could do to make money legally.
We all went to private Catholic high schools and we were expected to pay half of our tuition for the first three years; our parents covered all of it in our senior year. At the time it was tough. My friend’s parents were giving them money for their hobbies and entertainment while I had to work to pay for the things I wanted or wanted to do. My Mom would slide us a couple bucks if she knew we were tight on cash, but for the most part if I wanted to go to the arcade and play video games, those were my quarters going in the machine. I bought my first car at 15 before I even had a driver’s license. It was a lot of work for a kid, but in the end, my parent’s lessons paid off. All of my brothers currently work for themselves in one capacity or another.
3. What made you want to become a soldier and what was your experience like?
I wasn’t the best student in high school. I had to go to summer school my freshman year, and I think I only had two A’s in my four years…one in Physics and one in Film Appreciation. Don’t ask me to explain that. In my junior year I was cast as an actor in a local educational video on teen suicide. The director allowed me to tag along throughout the production and post-production process. That was my first taste of video production and I really loved it. My senior year, in the film appreciation class, I made a Super-8 movie as the final project, and that’s when I really fell in love with film and video production. I loved the process and everything about it. I knew I needed to go to film school.
Now, there were no film schools in Louisville, so I attended a couple regional colleges for a couple of years, but it wasn’t really doing anything for me. I desperately wanted to go to film school. Then one day I saw an Army commercial promoting the GI Bill and the Army College Fund which just so happened to be the amount of money I needed. I went to see a recruiter; told him I wanted the college money and if I was going to join the Army, I also wanted to paint my face green and run through the woods with a gun. I signed up for the infantry and I shipped off to Basic Training February 27, 1989. While at Fort Benning, I was offered the opportunity to apply for Army OCS (Officer Candidate School). I was accepted and made it through OCS. I was commissioned a year and a day after I arrived at Basic Training and spent the first half of my career as an Army Signal Officer serving in Korea, Fort Campbell and Germany. I wasn’t really thrilled with being a Signal Officer.
While at Fort Campbell I met, fell in love and married my amazing wife, and then the Army let me finish my degree through their Degree Completion Program. I got my bachelor’s degree from Austin Peay State University, which is right outside of Fort Campbell. I studied public relations there and did a summer internship in an advertising firm. At this point the film school dreams began to dwindle, but I enjoyed advertising because it was still very creative. So while still serving I took the GMAT, applied for MBA programs, all with the intention of getting out of the Army and going to work in advertising.
I still owed the Army a few years because of the time they gave me to finish my degree, so fast forward a couple of years, in the mid-90’s, I was stationed in Germany and deployed to Bosnia. One day I stumbled on an article in the Stars and Stripes, about Army Advertising, that changed my life. I learned that I could do advertising IN the Army. I loved being a Soldier, I just didn’t like the Signal Corps. I learned I needed to become a public affairs officer to get that job, so after my company command time in the Signal Corps, I transitioned over to Army Public Affairs, and my first job in that career field was with Army Recruiting Command’s Advertising Directorate at Fort Knox.
While stationed at Fort Knox I was accepted into the Army’s Advanced Civil Schooling program and I went to USC (University of Southern California) where I got my MA in Strategic Public Relations. While there, I learned about this awesome job in LA where a Public Affairs Officer served as the Army’s liaison to the entertainment industry. I really wanted THAT job one day.
While at USC, OIF and OEF started, so after graduating I was assigned to Fort Campbell and deployed to Iraq with the 101st Airborne Division from ’05-’06. I was one of the first brigade combat team PAOs during the Army’s “Transformation” period. I had a great team, an important mission, and was part of one of the best divisions in the Army. It was a tough but rewarding year.
After Iraq I was assigned as the Deputy PAO for the Headquarters of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in downtown DC. After serving there for a couple of years it was again time for a reassignment. I learned an important lesson from a senior officer once and it was to not just accept any assignment the Army offers you. If you want something, you have to fight for it. I fought very hard to get the PAO job in Hollywood. My branch manager told me that the entertainment office position was open, but he would not fill the slot because the Chief of Public Affairs (2-star general) believed it didn’t need to be filled. I told my branch manager that that position was one of the most important public affairs jobs in the Army, but he assured me the general had made his decision, and it was “final.” I told him that I was going to write a white paper on why it was such a critical position and why I was the right guy for it…I asked him to promise me that he’d read it. He did, and he agreed, but now had to go change the mind of a 2-star general to put me into that position.
The general called me into his office a couple weeks later, told me my white paper made sense and he thanked me for keeping him from making a mistake. I admired him for his humility. He told me to pack my bags, you’re going to Hollywood. A few months later, I was on the set of Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen and I thought to myself, “Holy shit, the Army got me to Hollywood.” It was a surreal experience. I retired from the Army about 10-years ago and have been working in the entertainment industry ever since.
Bishop with his Drill Sergeant on Basic Training graduation day.
4. What are you most proud of from your service in the Army?
I am most proud of just being a soldier and serving. I am proud to represent our country. I’m proud that I began my Army career as a Private First Class with no degree and finished as a Lieutenant Colonel with a master’s degree. My proudest achievement in service was the year I spent in Iraq where I like to say we fought the information war. Serving as a PAO doing media relations with major news agencies was interesting but working with the Iraqi people to set up their own newspapers and media outlets was the most rewarding. I helped Iraqi citizens run their own businesses, instructing them on how to create a revenue model for their newspapers, radio and TV stations. I also helped my two interpreters create a market research company that helped the local government, the U.S. Army and the U.S. State Department understand the concerns and opinions of local Iraqi citizens. We advised the police, fire and government public affairs of what it means to tell their citizens the truth. We were there for the first election in Iraq and I got to be a small part of it. It was an incredible experience.
Bishop (top left) deployed in Bosnia.
5. What values have you carried over from the Army into Hollywood?
The military and entertainment business are very similar. I told Michael Bay once that, “you shoot film and we (the Army) shoot bullets, everything else is the same.” People in entertainment might be shocked to hear this, but both industries require teamwork, leadership, planning, and even OPSEC. You deal with fiefdoms, budgets and timelines. Hard work and discipline are key. Understanding the commander’s intent, or the director’s vision, it’s the same. Neither culture suffers fools for very long. Both are meritocracies for the most part. I think it’s more so in the military than in Hollywood, and Hollywood is more nepotistic that the military, even though that exists in both worlds. But if you’re good at what you do, you’ll succeed. I knew the Army trained me to be a producer, I just needed to learn the entertainment industry language.
6. What project did you most enjoy doing while working in Hollywood?
I worked in Hollywood as a soldier and as a civilian. As a soldier, Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen was the most fun. It was a Michael Bay movie, so we blew things up and we fired thousands of rounds on set. We had nearly everything in the Army inventory in that movie. There were so many explosions. We shot live rounds from Abrams tanks and Bradley Fighting Vehicles on set. The set caught on fire a couple times. Everybody was out there putting the fire out. Even Michael Bay had a hose in his hand putting out the fire. Every day was just a blast.
As a civilian, it has to be producing my first movie Ktown Cowboys with my business partner Brian Chung. We took it from script all the way to distribution. It premiered at SWSX (South-by-Southwest) in 2015 and it was a nerve-racking experience having so many strangers watching our film. But there’s nothing more rewarding than watching an audience laugh and enjoy a film that your team made. Finishing a movie is very tough. Making a bad movie is hard, making a great film is almost impossible. The military trained us to face challenges and solve difficult situations. That’s true in a military operation and it’s true in the film business.
MLRS from the Army in Transformers Revenge of the Fallen. Photo credit Paramount Studios.
MLRS from the Army in Transformers Revenge of the Fallen. Photo credit Paramount Studios.
The film that Greg produced. Photo credit IMDB.com
7. What was it like transitioning to Hollywood?
Even though I had worked in the Entertainment industry for the Army it was harder than you may think. The industry doesn’t have the time to help anybody else achieve their dreams unless it’s a family member. Most people stop returning my phone calls once I no longer “had the keys” to Army helicopters, troops, vehicles, locations, etc.
I knew some people at Electronic Arts who worked on the Battlefield franchise. Working with them was one of our first gigs. One of the early challenges we had was knowing how much to charge for our services. As a Soldier, you work as long as it takes to accomplish the mission and your pay is the same regardless of outside circumstances. There’s really no relationship between pay and time in the military. I remember in one of our early phone calls with EA one of the producers asked us how much we charge for our services. At the time we had no idea what our time and expertise was worth. We threw out a number and the EA guys laughed at us. They literally said, “We can pay you more than that!” Lesson learned.
We probably wasted a lot of money and time starting a business immediately after retirement because we were career military guys and not trained businessmen. We made some mistakes, learned a lot, but we’ve been doing this for more than 10-years now.
One other similarity between Hollywood and the military is both cultures tend to slap labels on people. In the military we literally wear those labels on our uniform. That’s one of the things that always bothered me about the military culture. Promotions and career paths tend to be very rigid and bureaucratic. In the civilian world there are 25-year old CEOs and they’re judged on performance of their leadership and the company. There aren’t any 25-year-old generals. The entertainment industry is similar though because if you’re a consultant, in their mind you’ll always be a consultant. It’s tough to use that role as a stepping stone into something bigger like acting, or directing, or producing.
Our consulting company was essentially our film school. It helped us learn the language of the industry. In 2012 we created our production company, and while our consulting company is still operating and growing, our production company is our primary focus these days.
Bishop working with Norman Lear on Netflix’s reboot of “One Day at a Time”.
Keanu Reeves in The Day the Earth Stood Still. Photo credit IMDB.com
A screenshot of Battlefield 4. Photo credit imdb.com.
GI Joe: The Rise of Cobra released in 2009. Photo credit IMDB.com.
8. What leadership lessons in life and from the Army have helped you most in your career?
I have a few leadership lessons.
For big challenges, eat the elephant one bite at a time. Don’t let the scope of the challenge intimidate you. Take it on incrementally.
You have to do the work. A lot of young people think accomplishing something is as easy as Googling it. It isn’t. You have to do the work, and oftentimes the work is more difficult than you imagine.
Don’t take “no” for an answer. Write the white paper telling the two-star general he is making a mistake.
Teamwork. It’s critical that you come together to achieve a common mission or objective. You won’t do it alone.
For those getting out of the military soon, I recommend that you find and do something you’re passionate about. Do something that excites you. Do something that will make you look at weekends as a distraction and look forward to Monday mornings. Whatever you are passionate about and love doing, find a way to do it and make money from it. If it doesn’t work, you can always get a government job or contracting job or whatever job other retired military people do.
9. As a service, how do we get more veteran stories told in the Hollywood arena?
In 1927 the first Academy Award for Best Picture went to the Army for a movie called Wings. The military has been part of Hollywood ever since and military stories have always been a part of the DNA of filmmaking and storytelling in Hollywood. For decades Hollywood was patriotic and told mostly pro-American stories portraying our troops against foreign enemies. Yes, it was probably borderline propaganda, but it was a unifying effort from people who loved their country. After the Vietnam War, and even more so after 9/11, most films and television programs about our troops were about fighting their own government, their chain of command or themselves. The politics in the industry shifted along with the way Hollywood portrayed our military. Hollywood struggles with telling authentic stories about our military. It seems we’re mostly portrayed as superheroes or broken mental patients. To answer your question, the only way we can change Hollywood is to do it ourselves. That is the only way it is going to get done authentically. We need to work to become the writers, or producers, or financiers to fund our own content. It’s easier to do that today than it’s ever been, but it’s still extremely difficult.
A scene from Wings in 1927 that won the first Oscar for Best Picture. Photo credit Paramount Studios.
10. What are you most proud of in life and your career?
Personally, I am most proud of my marriage to my wife of 25 years. She is my life’s purpose. Career wise, building three businesses with my business partner Brian Chung. But I am not done yet, so we will see what comes next.
Today, Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson is an actor and all-around American treasure. But things were almost very different.
On June 12, 2018, Johnson revealed his long-held dream to be a CIA agent on Instagram. In the post, The Rock said he would have pursued his dream if his academic advisor didn’t give him a reality check.
“In college, my goal was to eventually work for the CIA,” he wrote. “Until my criminal justice professor and advisor (Dr. Paul Cromwell) convinced me that the best operative I could become for the agency is one that also had a law degree.”
But Johnson realized that wasn’t exactly the right path for him.
“I thought that’s a great idea until I realized no respectable law school would ever let me in with my pile of steaming s— grades,” he wrote.
At the time, Johnson was a self-described “Smirky Beefy McBeef,” 22-year-old football player for the University of Miami in Miami, Florida. After college, The Rock went on to play football for the Calgary Stampeders, a football team based out of Alberta, Canada. However, he was cut from the team two months into the season, The Globe and Mail reported.
But, you know, things turned out just fine for The Rock.
The “Miracle at Dunkirk,” when 338,000 troops were evacuated in Operation Dynamo where optimistic estimates topped out at 45,000 might be rescued, was a turning point for the allies, allowing them to salvage troops that would fight in North Africa, at D-Day, and beyond.
In 7 steps, here’s how the British Expeditionary Force was trapped on the beaches of France and then rescued in Operation Dynamo.
The military maneuvers and buildup between the two sides were dubbed the “Phoney War.” Belgium, the Netherlands, and other countries across Europe prepared for the likelihood of a German invasion.
2. The Germans invade
On May 10, 1940, the “Phoney War” came to a violent end as the Germans invaded the Netherlands and Belgium. The Germans quickly took ground and captured bridgeheads on the River Meuse, allowing them to invade France through the Ardennes Forest.
4. The French and British withdraw towards the beaches
As army after army and country after country surrendered to the German war machine, those still fighting were forced to withdraw further and further east and north. They were pushed against the beaches of France. Panzer forces attacked and captured the French deep-water ports at Boulogne and Calais on May 25 and 26, limiting the potential evacuation options.
5. The Panzers stop
The 48-hour timeline was agreed upon because it was the longest that forces could reliably hold out against German armor. But the German tanks had mysteriously stopped their push towards Dunkirk itself on May 23 by order of Gen. Ewald von Kleist. The next day, a full “stop order” was given by Hitler.
The Allies responded by quickly shoring up their defenses as best they could. What was a loose line of troops on May 23, likely to be brushed aside quickly, became a much more formidable line of dug in but exhausted forces.
One of the most shocking events in the evacuations began on May 27 when the Royal Navy requisitioned small vessels for use in the evacuations. Most of the ships were manned by the Royal Navy, but some ship owners insisted that they would pilot their craft to assist in the evacuation.
When the “Top Gun: Maverick” trailer was released, it took the internet by storm with its exciting shots of legendary Navy fighters doing incredible things and legendary actors looking a bit older than any of us would have liked. Responses were largely positive at first… that is, until some people began noticing changes made to Maverick’s old jacket. Namely, that both Taiwanese and Japanese patches had been removed.
For those of us who have been following China’s influence over American cinema, it didn’t take long to figure out why these patches had been removed. It isn’t simply about winning over Chinese audiences; it’s about winning over the Chinese government. See, unlike here in the United States where our movie rating system may be corrupt, but it isn’t legally mandatory, Chinese censors decide which movies are suitable for release in Chinese markets… and as big-budget action flicks of recent years have proven, Chinese markets are too lucrative for studios to pass up.
As a result, studios have taken to playing ball with China’s censors just to ensure Dwayne Johnson doesn’t have to rely on American theaters to pay for his next giant gorilla movie, and if you think removing patches from Maverick’s jacket is as bad as it gets, you’re in for a rude awakening.
The Ancient One wasn’t always a white lady.
(Marvel/Walt Disney Studios)
Marvel’s Doctor Strange white-washed “The Ancient One” to appease China
The Marvel Cinematic Universe may be among the most lucrative film franchises in history, but that doesn’t mean they’re immune to Chinese pressure. This presented a serious problem in pre-production for “Doctor Strange,” as the titular character’s storyline heavily involved a comic book character known as “the Ancient One” — historically depicted as a Tibetan monk.
Chinese censors likely wouldn’t have allowed the release of a movie that so prominently featured a character from Tibet (a nation China doesn’t recognize as independent), so they instead chose to cast the decidedly white Tilda Swinton and take a media beating for “white-washing” the role instead.
The studio swapped China out for North Korea after the film was already finished.
The “Red Dawn” remake changed villains after the film was already wrapped
The 2012 remake of “Red Dawn” was, for most of us, a real disappointment. The beloved original depicted desperate teenagers fighting an enemy invasion in a very personal way — forgoing flag-waving patriotism for an understated kind many service members can truly appreciate: a quiet but steady resolve to protect one’s home. The remake lacked that insight… as well as a believable villain. The idea that North Korea could render American defenses useless and capture a large portion of the U.S. mainland seems laughable… but then, it was never supposed to be the North Koreans in the first place. The entire movie was filmed using China as the invaders.
After Chinese media voiced concerns about their nation’s depiction in the film, the studio panicked and hired not one, but five special effects companies to remove any sign that the invading force was Chinese, replacing all flags with North Korean ones.
You can’t stop time (or China’s influence on Hollywood)
Looper changed locations and its cast to replace Paris with Shanghai
As if it isn’t weird enough to see Joseph Gordon Levitt walking around with Bruce Willis’ nose, the 2012 sci-fi action flick “Looper” also saw significant changes in order to meet Chinese film regulations. After a deal had already been struck between the studio (Endgame Entertainment) and a Chinese studio called DMG, the Chinese government stepped in to mandate a number of changes to the story.
While the original story would have featured a future Paris heavily, Chinese censors mandated that at least a third of the film take place in China in order to maintain the production deal with DMG. Any scenes meant to take place in Paris were then rewritten to take place in Shanghai, with Willis’ on-screen wife changed to Chinese actress Summer Qing.
Rampage made 3 times as much on the international market than it did in the U.S.
Many new blockbusters aren’t even aimed at American audiences
It’s been said that America’s chief export has become culture, and that may well be true. There are few places on the planet where American movies and music can’t be found, but increasingly, being produced in America doesn’t necessarily mean the intended audience is American.
Movies like “Rampage,” “Skyscraper,” “Venom,” and “The Mummy” all have at least two things in common: they underperformed domestically, and they still went on to make a fortune. These movies (along with just about every entrant in the Transformers franchise) may be panned by critics and moviegoers alike, but Chinese audiences absolutely eat them up. If you’ve wondered how poorly written action movies without a plot keep being made — this is the reason.
Even movies that are widely considered good get the Chinese market treatment, with so much Chinese product placement throughout “Captain America: Civil War” that a more appropriate name may have been “Captain China: Check out these Vivo Phones.”
The HBO series “Game of Thrones” (or GoT for short) is based in the mythical world of Westeros and Essos, continents of the Known World. Westeros is where most of the storylines in the show take place. The continent of Westeros is broken down into Seven Kingdoms made up of nine regions: The North, The Iron Islands, The Riverlands, The Vale of Arryn, The Westerlands, The Reach, The Stormlands, The Crownlands (King’s Landing), and Dorne.
Essos is located east of Westeros and separated by the Narrow Sea. Each location has its own unique geography and culture.
Many U.S. military bases, located both domestically and overseas, have similarities to the fantasy world of GoT. Here is a list of military bases that could parallel them:
Fort Drum, NY (Castle Black and The North)
Just like The North in GoT, the winters at Fort Drum are cold and harsh. Along with the large amounts of snow each year, Fort Drum, home of the U.S. Army 10th Mountain Division, is located near the Canadian border.
For those familiar with the show, Castle Black, located on the Wall, is the headquarters of the Night’s Watch, a military order charged to guard the Wall that separates Westeros from creatures who are Beyond the Wall such as the White Walkers. Although we hope our Canadian neighbors don’t turn into mythological undead ice creatures anytime soon, one thing is for sure with the North and Fort Drum: “Winter is coming.”
Bagram Air Base, Afghanistan (The Vale of Arryn)
The Vale of Arryn is home to the Mountains of the Moon, a large mountain range with some of the tallest peaks in all of Westeros. Bagram Air Base is located surrounded by impressive snow-capped mountains ranging as high as 25,000 feet.
In GoT, the Mountains of the Moon are also home to mountain clans who reject and resist the House Arryn (the governing body in Vale). Sounds familiar.
Offutt Air Force Base, Nebraska (The Riverlands)
The Riverlands is a fertile region known as the Kingdom of the rivers and the hills. It’s located in the center of the continent.
Offutt Air Force Base, home to the 55th Wing, is sandwiched between the Missouri and Platte Rivers in the rolling hills of southeastern Nebraska. The base is smack dab in the middle of the Continental U.S. Both regions may be prone to flooding.
The Pentagon (King’s Landing)
King’s Landing is the capital of the Seven Kingdoms, and the site of the Iron Throne, where the King sits. The Pentagon is the headquarters of the Department of Defense, and it probably has some very impressive office chairs. Both places wield great power and can at times be ruthless. Just seems logical.
Fort Knox, KY (The Westerlands)
Westerlands is rich in gold with mountain ranges and home to the port of Lannisport. Although Fort Knox does not have the exact geographic characteristics of The Westerlands, Knox does have plenty of gold being the home of the Knox US Bullion Depository used to store the U.S. gold reserves.
West Point (Old Town)
Old Town located in a region called the Reach is the oldest city in the Seven Kingdoms. West Point is the oldest active military installation founded in 1802, and home to the U.S. Military Academy, the nation’s oldest military service academy.
Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam (The Iron Islands)
The Iron Islands is a group of seven rocky islands off the Western coast of Westeros. Despite being the smallest region in the Seven Kingdoms, the people of the islands enjoy great mobility due to their ships and superb naval skills.
Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam is located in Hawaii and is the only U.S. state comprised of islands just like The Iron Islands. The base is a strategic location for operations in the Pacific theater and serves as shore side support to surface ships and submarines for the U.S. Navy Fleet.
National Training Center, Fort Irwin, CA (Dorne)
Dorne is a vast desert land isolated from the rest of Westeros. The NTC, located in the Mojave Desert, is much like Dorne because it is very far from large populated areas.
Military personnel who rotate through NTC feel they are in the middle of nowhere, much like the people of Dorne they feel isolated from the Seven Kingdoms.
Camp Pendleton, California (Vaes Dothrak)
Located in the Essos continent, Vaes Dothrak is a warm land ruled by a fierce tribe of warriors called the Dothraki. Camp Pendleton, located near San Diego, is home to the famed I Marine Expeditionary Force. Both forces need to rely on a great fleet to cross large bodies of water.
Not many film sets have to scan for unexploded ordnance before production can begin — but filming “Dunkirk” required just that. Luckily, nothing was left behind from a battle now more than 75 years old, and director Christopher Nolan was able to bring “The Dunkirk Spirit” back to life.
In 1940, the outcome of World War II looked bleak for Europe. France fell within weeks of the start of the German blitzkrieg, and the British Expeditionary Force — along with its French and Belgian allies — was trapped on the beaches of Dunkirk by the Nazi war machine.
Their salvation wasn’t coming from the Royal Navy or Air Force. No reinforcements were on the way. There would be more battles to fight, and those ships, planes, and men would be needed for the coming days.
Prime Minister Winston Churchill and Vice-Admiral Bertram Ramsay put Operation Dynamo, a planned evacuation of the British forces from Dunkirk, into action. In Dynamo, the British military enlisted the aid of British civilians and their personal boats to ferry the men off the beaches and take them back to the home island.
The 400,000 stranded at Dunkirk would just have to survive.
Sometimes, survival is enough.
Survival is what Christopher Nolan’s new film “Dunkirk” is about. The director has said numerous times that “Dunkirk” is not a war movie.
“People will call it what they want to call it when they see it,” Nolan told We Are The Mighty. “For me, having never fought in a war, the idea of diving in and telling a war story is daunting, it felt presumptuous. This is not something that I profess to be knowledgeable about. What I was fascinated by was the evacuation itself which to me, it’s not so much a conventional war story, it’s an honor story. It’s a race against time.”
The men on the beach at Dunkirk had to maintain their grit and their stiff upper lip in the face of an enemy that had them outgunned and surrounded. This spirit of determination became known in British culture as “The Dunkirk Spirit.”
“It has a deep meaning for the English people,” says Mark Rylance, who plays one of the Little Ship captains who sails for Dunkirk. “We were the underdogs on that beach but we rose to the occasion and eluded the enemy. The Dunkirk Spirit has to do with that perseverance, endurance, and also selflessness.”
An experience is an apt description of Dunkirk. The movie is shot on 65mm IMAX film, making for a truly immersive WWII moviegoing experience for the viewer. “Dunkirk’s” visual beauty comes from the attention to detail Nolan brings to telling the stories — from filming the movie at the beaches of Dunkirk, to the British .303 rifles, and the use of the real “Little Ships” (as they came to be called) in the film.
Nolan even crossed the English Channel on a small vessel, similar to one of the little ships. His voyage took 19 hours in the choppy seas of the channel.
“It was a very arduous crossing,” the director notes. “And that was without anyone bombing us. What really stuck with me was the notion of civilians taking small boats into a war zone. They could see the smoke and the fires for many miles. So their willingness to do that and what that says about communal spirit are extraordinary.”
The director was even able to sit down with veterans of the BEF at Dunkirk, who told him of their experience and added to the historical value of the film.
“There are very few left since 1914 so it was an honor for me to experience,” Nolan says. “They very generously met with us and told us of their experiences. It’s one thing to study history with books. It’s another to sit across the table from someone who’s actually lived it and listen to their story.”
Dynamo’s plan was to save at least 40,000 men from encirclement and destruction. The Little Ships helped pull a total of 338,000 troops off the beach.
The “Dunkirk” story extends beyond the beaches and seas of the French coast. Nolan’s film tells the story from three points of view, using fictional characters to tell the full story of what happened on the land, seas, and in the air. It took about a week for ground troops to get off the beach via a mole (a large breakwater, often with a wooden pier built atop it), a day to cross the channel by boat, and an hour to cross by air.
Nolan’s story spans all three time frames and he faithfully recreates the extraordinary measures everyone at Dunkirk — including those in the skies above — took to survive. The operation to pull the recreation together was like a military operation in itself: thousands of extras, real French destroyers, and roaring British Spitfire and German ME-109 engines.
The effort took a toll on the filmmakers as well.
“I chose to really try and put the audience into that situation,” Nolan says. “Make them feel some degree of what it would be like to be there on that beach. I’d like the audience to go home with an understand of what happened there and hopefully some interest and respect for the war and the history of the real-life events”
And for the military chef, the job is a lot more than just filling bellies with fighting fuel.
Cooking for the Armed Forces concerns the Art of Building Morale. And if an army marches on its’ stomach, then it follows that an Army chef operating at the highest level — who’s able to create culinary magic under the demands of budget, field deployment, and operational extremity — can have a huge individual impact on the health of the mission.
That holds true for every branch, in every situation, from boot camp to battlefield.
Searching for inspired military cooking and meeting the chefs responsible is the central mission of Go90’s series Meals Ready To Eat. And host August Dannehl, a Navy veteran and chef, has a nose for this type of story. For his first foray, he paid a visit to Fort Lee, Virginia to reconnoiter some of the U.S. Armed Forces’ top chefs, who’d gathered there for the annual Military Culinary Arts Competition and Training Event.
Modeled after the World Culinary Olympics and sanctioned by the American Culinary Federation, the 40-year-old event is a bubbling cauldron of ideas, inspiration, and good old-fashioned inter-service rivalry. But at its heart, the event, like Dannehl’s series, seeks to champion the importance of culinary artistry to the overall operational effectiveness of the military.