Review by Karl Verhoven
Journalist and author Robert Young Pelton spent time in Iraq with the private contractors working there in 2004, and what he was told is among the material related in his book Licensed to Kill: Hired Guns in the War on Terror. Billy Tucci has adapted the experiences of the Mamba Team, named after their protective vehicle, whose job it was to provide security for those being ferried between Baghdad airport and the Green Zone, the city’s safe area. It was an eight minute journey, but one fraught with danger, a daily gauntlet of life-threatening terror.
The Mamba Team are the recruits who’ve pissed off the wrong people, who’ve been sacked from the cushier jobs available to the upward of 100,000 armed specialists working for contractors such as Blackwater. Many are former service personnel with a chip on their shoulder about their previous employers, and after winning their trust and respect Pelton was able to present what was surely the most authentic experiences of the place and era. His book is a 21st century equivalent of Michael Herr’s Dispatches about the American troops in Vietnam.
An incident referenced here where some Blackwater men were isolated, murdered and hung from a Fallujah bridge has since become the focus of further controversy with allegations that the company prioritised profit over safety. In context it’s the worst example of the daily dangers faced by the contractors, well presented by Pelton and Tucci. They don’t tone down the macho behaviour of the occupying force, a helicopter shown dragging a rooftop washing line away, for instance, yet this is coupled with a shaking head sense of wonder that the people the interviewees are trying to protect want to kill them. In the sections adapted at least, there’s no consideration of how Texans might feel if 100,000 armed Iraqis patrolled the streets of Houston, Lubbock and San Antonio behaving pretty well how they pleased.
The Contractor’s Creed, a widely circulated e-mail, is printed on the back cover, and provides chilling insight over its ten statements: “I am my country’s scapegoat, the plausible deniability warrior, and I love it.” or “I will carry more weapons, ammunition, and implements of death on my person that an infantry fire team, and when engaged I will lay waste to everything around me.”
Putting aside the possibly blinkered views, Roll Hard is very good indeed at conveying the tension experienced every day. Intelligence has suggested the Mamba Team may face attack from a white Toyota, a car as common as sand in Iraq, and the paranoia instituted by the warning plays out as white Toyotas are encountered throughout.
A main strip details Pelton’s time with Mamba Team, and a briefer follow-up from a year later calls back in on them. Tucci’s dynamism ensures a consistently engaging page, and though there’s a stiffness to his figures, he transfers the authenticity of Pelton’s book. This is probably the grittiest and most realistic war comic since the best issues of The ‘Nam back in the 1980s, and for anyone wanting more than a political or surface understanding of Iraq in 2004 it’s thoroughly recommended. The more general reader may find the lack of broader perspective off-putting.