Set in a near-future New York City where the country is at civil war, Brian Wood’s “DMZ (Books One to Three)” pits two forces – the federal government of the United States of America and the Free States armies – against each other. Within the city, a planned evacuation of Manhattan goes awry, and it is consequently turned into a demilitarised zone. The plot is centred around protagonist Matthew (Matty) Roth, who starts out as a photo journalism intern for a news network, and who later achieves celebrity status for his reporting of and from the DMZ. And from his perspective – with the allusions to American interventionism and misadventures abroad, in the real-world context of a country making sense of and reeling from the September 11 attacks – the plot is further anchored by two themes: That of war and politics juxtaposed against real-life implications on the ground, and that of the supposedly impartial role of news and journalism.
First, both the political and military developments in the DMZ of the island of Manhattan as well as the lives of the 400,000 inhabitants living in it appear to mirror that of the foreign cities the United States has invaded and occupied (“another Mogadishu [Somalia], another Monrovia [Liberia], another Port-au-Prince [Haiti]”). After all, today, war for the average citizen seems distant, and with New York City as the centre of a civil war the (American) readers are forced to confront not just the physical destruction of the city, but also uncomfortable questions surrounding the conduct of warfare, such as the military-industrial complex, the role of private security contractors, and the problematic rhetoric of winning “hearts and minds”. In particular, one of the best story arcs highlighting challenges faced by soldiers and the chain of command was “Friendly Fire”, which documented the incident on Day 204, when a squad of American soldiers gunned down close to 200 protestors by mistake.
The second theme on the impartiality of news and journalism (and the privilege of the journalist or reporter, even in conflict areas like the DMZ) – a challenge which is initially embodied by Roth, and who further bumbles along to eventually take sides – is fascinating too. Granted, Roth was thrown into the DMZ with no training and with no background in journalism (and the fact that in many situations he is thrust into a conflict, with the helicopter crash upon his first arrival, and the suicide bomb on his first undercover mission) and even though he grows more adept and cognisant of the political dynamics as the only source of news coming out of Manhattan, his naiveté and cluelessness are defining features. His extensive involvement with the government of Parco Delgado marked the official moment he crossed the supposed line of impartiality, assuming too that he had consistently toed the line.
“DMZ (Books One to Three)” as a whole is therefore a great story, though – individual issues aside – I thought the character development was a little lacking, even for the main characters such as Roth (whose back-story is sparse, and the sudden appearance of both his parents also felt awkward) and medical student Zee Hernandez (whose future is kept open-ended thus far). The conclusion thus far, however, with its emphases on the system and its orders as well as the individuals within this system (of perpetual violence, vengeance, and dehumanisation) allowed the plot to come full-circle, highlighting the complexity of insurgency. Themes surrounding the fallout from the political election, the continued nature of the asymmetric warfare, and the legacy of the United States and its foreign adventurism, in this vein, should feature in books four and five.