09 May 2016

Book Review: Terminal Lance: The White Donkey

Terminal Lance has been around for a while, and is kind of a guilty pleasure to me, a non-combat veteran and a Navy type. However, Maximilian Uriarte has been one of the first and consistent voices on military life and issues in the past few years. He’s covered everything from the insanity of uniform issues (see here) to garden variety gripes and notes like how unpleasant MRE’s are. His three times a week strip is largely slice of life humor, but The White Donkey is a more serious work. Here, Abe and Garcia go from a pair of junior enlisted jokers that are easily transformed into guys the (military reader) would be familiar with to far more real Marines.

The plot question is largely Abe trying to understand why he joined the Marines, and what he was looking for when he joined. The story is fairly episodic, with it kicking off on a training exercise that culminates in an extension because the very green platoon leader misplaces his rifle. There’s a flashback sequence with Abe’s not-quite-girlfriend where the question comes up as well. The next episode is a pre-deployment exercise at Twenty-nine Palms, CA, and then some leave time. Abe and Garcia are inseparable buddies here, and being from the same state, end up on the same flight home on leave that serves as another major episode. Mr. Uriarte handles the dealing with family members as well, with the leave episode, and an unpleasant exchange with Abe’s sister. The pre-deployment section ends with a briefing on where the Iraq episodes will take place.

Operation Iraqi Freedom is a major event in the story, and it was for the Army and Marine veterans who served during that time frame. The titular white donkey appears, and it stops the convoy that Abe and Garcia are in. The minutiae of war from the bottom appears in several stories. Sweeping for fragments of IED’s, working with the Iraqi police (who initially lacked uniforms, so wore day-glow belts to denote their status), and little operations as well. However, the story goes from slice of life, to a much darker tone when Abe ends up shooting an innocent man who was charging a checkpoint. He is shook up about it, yet his NCO comes in, and talks with him about how what he did, was not a bad thing. Next it’s back to slice of life, but Abe’s crisis gets worse. A conversation with and Iraqi police officer, at this point uniformed, shows how out of touch Abe has become. It culminates when the normal vehicle commander cannot do a mission, and he makes Abe the commander for one. On this fateful mission, it gets worse, and events lead to Abe, seen as a guy who has potential, going out of control. Once he goes home on leave after Iraq, he does little but drink, and leaves a bar he’s met some old friends with because he can’t stand the “Did you kill anyone?” question. In a drunken stupor, he drives off, and it comes to an emotional end.

This is a good story about what happens, yet its rawness maybe off putting to some. In some ways it reminds me of King Rat, and The Things They Carried, as both are wartime stories written to help the author come to terms with what he saw. And combat, especially combat, is hell on our minds. We train and socialize ourselves from infancy that violence to others is not acceptable, and this is the one time that taboo goes away. About the last third of the story is dealing with that stark fact.

Applying this to Traveller is fairly straight forward. The US Marines have been an influence, even subconsciously, on how American players have seen the Imperial Marines, but this can also be for any veteran character, particularly single term troops of any service. An issue that came up from his personality, or other reasons. Also, the episodes of the training and combat sections are useful in ideas for scenarios in military and mercenary games. The boot lieutenant forgetting his weapon, cadre instruction on finding IEDs, and joking around with some buddies when a round comes through randomly are nice little starts for a session. Also, the characters can serve as valuable NPC portrayals as ideas for how to play troops on the front line.

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