Darren Cullen: Unto the Breach
No stranger to controversy, we ask Darren Cullen some probing questions about Join the Army, his inevitably divisive concertina comic on the horrors of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars and the shameless recruitment drives making them possible
The Skinny: Hi Darren. Could you start by telling us a little bit about the genesis of Join the Army? What was your initial idea? Was it always going to be a comic?
Darren Cullen: I've always been interested in army recruitment ads. The way they show military life as something between an adventure holiday and a computer game. The focus is on action and excitement. They never show a soldier lying in a cold ditch holding in his guts and crying for his mother. I liked the idea of taking the bombast of the adverts but switching the bullshit with something more resembling the actual, horrific truth.
TS: The comic features a number of different elements on one side, most of it inspired by the army recruitment ads you mention. The message is clear enough, in that the armed forces deliberately lie to the young and vulnerable about the reality of life in these far off countries. Is this direct attack an attempt to engage with, and in a very public way, redress the balance of propaganda?
DC: Yeah I think the fact that recruiters lie about what you're signing up for is so obvious that you'd think it would hardly need stating. But the advertising budgets for these campaigns are astronomical and there's almost nothing in the media that ever tries to redress the balance and tell the other side. You might have a few documentaries about military bullying or sexual assault, or the odd news report about soldier suicides. But our culture is so pro-military that it's almost impossible to criticise any element of the armed forces without a disclaimer about the "fine work of our soldiers risking their lives… etc etc." The boundary for debate has been intentionally narrowed. Overall I didn't want to make something that was just anti-war. That seems too easy. Obviously, war is the worst thing ever, according to everyone, surely, right? Some people who have never been anywhere near a war will disagree with that. But I thought it'd be more interesting to focus on recruitment, the carrots and sticks they use on innocent people to turn them into professional murderers. That they're able to convince people to act so clearly against their own interests for such an ignoble cause is fascinating.
- Bayeux Tapestry, Iraq War, detail
TS: The reverse side is a horribly beautiful reworking of the Bayeux Tapestry, offering a brutal timeline of the Iraq war and its victims. What were you trying to achieve with this part of the comic and how does it relate to the other side?
DC: I think the inside of the comic is generally sympathetic to the plight of soldiers, it's about the reasons why you shouldn't join if you enjoy having eyes and limbs. But I didn't want to ignore that this is a multi-victim horror story. Being on the receiving end of the army is much worse than being inside it. So I wanted to show some of the civil cost, in terms of lives and destruction. But showing the Iraq war in the style of the Bayeux Tapestry was really about how imperial wars like this have been part of the English and British national stories from the very start. Holding up someone like Tony Blair as the reason we invaded Iraq ignores the wider historical context. These wars are what the UK does, all the time, and it will continue to do them as long as it has the power to do so.
TS: I know that you had problems getting the thing printed at all. Why do you think this kind of work makes people feel uncomfortable?
DC: The first two printers I think rejected for commercial reasons. They just didn't want to take the chance that it might lose them a client. It's lame, but that's their prerogative. The last printer actually sent me a screed about why what I was doing was wrong, because these soldiers were out there fighting for my freedom. The irony of censoring me due to this seemed to have been lost on him. The military have done a good PR job of deliberately confusing individual soldiers with the institution of the military. So if you say something bad about either war or the army, people instinctively feel like, ‘how can you attack those poor boys?'
I think also that the public has a very tenuous grasp on the moral justifications for invading Afghanistan and Iraq. Deep down I think that the majority of us know that the million plus people that have died as a result of these invasions is an absolute atrocity and we all share some responsibility for it. But we'd rather forget. We've been at war with two countries for over a decade now, but you wouldn't know it by talking to people in the street. We don't want to think about it. When we go to war these days it's something that happens to other people.
"That the UK is one of the few nations in the world that still recruits 16 year olds is shameful" – Darren Cullen
TS: I'm sure you saw Harry Smith's piece recently about wearing a poppy for the last time due to the way the symbol has been twisted. Do you feel as though we are still trying to pull ourselves out of conflating a responsibility to honour the memory of dead soldiers and attacking the machinery of government that propels us into further conflict?
DC: Yeah it's difficult. When I was growing up the poppy seemed to be about WWI and the senseless slaughter of it all. It was easier to imagine yourself in that position because they were conscripts and the history of why it started at all seemed like the greatest example of how pointless armed conflict is. But when they use the same symbol to commemorate soldiers killed in Northern Ireland and Afghanistan it confuses the meaning and I find it much harder to support. The original message of Remembrance Sunday was 'Never Again.' But instead we use this symbol as a garnish for our aggressive military campaigns against other nations, over and over again.
TS: What would you say to those that suggest your projects, like your Baby's First Baby doll, are tasteless attempts at self-promotion, choosing subjects that you know to be controversial to gather press attention?
DC: I don't tend to choose the subject in advance. I'd love to do something satirical about misogyny or the NSA/GCHQ dystopian spying nightmare. I just haven't had any ideas that are funny or could say anything interesting about those things. If I get an idea which ends up being controversial that's usually a side-effect rather than the intention and most of the time the subject I'm criticising is far worse than anything I could think of. The Baby's First Baby doll was inspired in part by a pair of baby groom and baby bride dolls in Argos. That's far worse than my doll, at least mine was intended as a piss-take, someone in a business actually thought two babies getting married was a good idea for a toy and went through with manufacturing and selling it to the public.
TS: Another story recently in the news was the publication of David Gee's report, arguing that younger soldiers are more susceptible to PTSD and are targeted by the slick marketing employed by the forces. Do you believe the government has a specific agenda when it comes to the recruitment of its youngest members?
DC: I know for a fact they have an agenda! In the report the Ministry of Defence says it's harder to recruit people over the age of 18 and that they "wish to recruit people before they have made other lifestyle choices." That the UK is one of the few nations in the world that still recruits 16 year olds is shameful. There's also their official toy range, HM Armed Forces which are Action Man style dolls, very realistic in every way, apart from not showing any of the actual effects of war on a human being. There isn't a single reason the military should have its own range of toys. It's purely for recruitment. They're directly marketing war to kids, which is obscene. I tried to address this in the comic with a poster for Action Man: Battlefield Casualties. They're toys which focus on what happens after the heroic battle – so there's PTSD Action Man, Paralysed Action Man in a wheelchair and one in a body bag with a medal. This goes back to what you were saying about controversy. Some people will think these are offensive, but how can they be any more offensive than the fact the military are using toys to get children to grow up and have their legs blown off in some war? The reality is far worse than anything I could produce.
TS: The comic addresses in its individual sections various aspects of day-to-day life in the forces, such as long periods of tedium followed by sudden violence, institutional bullying and the widows left behind. What kind of research did you do to understand these issues and implement them in the work?
DC: I've kind of been researching this since forever, it's pieced together from every war film, documentary, book and newspaper article I've ever read about military service and war. But some of the more disturbing stories I read recently were to do with the Deepcut barracks supposed 'suicides' and how 20 US ex-soldiers kill themselves every day.
TS: Much of your work is darkly satirical, pulling at the truths hidden in plain sight around us. I saw recently on your website you have been putting up those missing drone posters. What do you hope to achieve with small acts of civil disobedience like that? Would you say you have an overall manifesto or project?
DC: I don't for a second expect any of these actions to change anything on a larger scale. I just feel an urge to make jokes about how terrible everything is. You could say it's preaching to the choir, but I think maybe I'm just trying to reassure the choir that they're not insane. It's society that's insane, clearly.
TS: The comic launched with an exhibition in London. What was the reaction there and more broadly? Has anyone been in touch to tell you what they thought of it?
DC: The response was fantastic and no one tried to physically attack me, which was a bonus. I know my mum was worried about that. A few ex-soldiers came to the show, Ben Griffin (ex-SAS and paratrooper, now co-ordinator of Veterans for Peace UK) and Joe Glenton (first soldier to refuse to return to Afghanistan), both came down and it was great to know that even though I'm coming from a position of relative ignorance, they both thought I'd hit the nail on the head. They were saying that soldiers have a gallows humour about the job anyway, they're more than aware about the risks once they're out there. It's usually civilians who take offence on their behalf over things like this. Like the few chumps from the EDL who were giving me abuse online.
TS: Finally, what's next in the pipeline? I saw you had extended your Bayeux Tapestry idea to encompass other armed conflicts Britain has been involved in. Is that kind of brutal narrative art where you see your work moving?
DC: I'm working on opening a pay-day loan shop that gives children an advance on their pocket money. Pocket Money Loans it's called, and it's going to have a pawn shop for exchanging your old toys. I think it might actually be illegal, I need to speak to a solicitor before I open for business.