June 10, 2015 | by Andy Waterfield

(Note: Spoilers for Fury: My War Gone By ahead – I’d strongly advise reading it clean, then coming back to this piece after – Andy)

Whether we choose to recognise it or not, the Cold War continues to define our geopolitical landscape, and our perception of the world, almost a quarter of a century after the dissolution of the Soviet Union. The recent increase in tensions between Western powers and the Russian Federation are couched in Cold War terminology, as commentators and journalists struggle to come to terms with Putin’s implacable propaganda war. Dissent from within Russia is threatened, repressed, or silenced. Show trials and labour camps greet young women for the crime of dancing and singing in a church. LGBT people are ostracised, and even hunted in the streets, as authorities ban advocacy groups, and turn a blind eye to the harassment and violence.

Putin and his ministers repeatedly deflect questions of their human rights record, not to mention the invasion and annexation of Eastern Ukraine, by inviting the world’s press to challenge the rights records of the Western powers. Every revelation of coalition atrocities in Iraq and Afghanistan, every NSA wiretap, every outspoken torture victim or Guantanamo survivor becomes a shield against scrutiny for Putin and his allies.

The regime pays for the state-controlled propaganda supplement Russia Beyond The Headlines to be included in otherwise respectable Western newspapers. Meanwhile, the ‘news’ outlet Russia Today is broadcast throughout the West, it’s broad attacks on the United States and Europe, frequently justified, are shared, retweeted, and reblogged throughout the progressive Left on both sides of the Atlantic, giving it the veil of authority when it broadcasts conspicuously one-sided stories on Russian foreign and domestic policy, it’s target audience seemingly oblivious to the fairly simple notion that the enemy of your enemy is not your friend.

A world power is headed up by a hyper-masculine ex-KGB man who rules through a potent combination of misdirection, misinformation, Russian nationalism, and fear.

Make no mistake, the Cold War is still very much with us, and we would do well to understand it as best we can. Even if we garner some small portion of that understanding through popular culture, in this case comics.

Garth Ennis, Goran Parlov, and Lee’s Loughridge’s Fury: My War Gone By is a masterpiece of both war comics and historical fiction. Part of Marvel’s mature-rated Max line, it follows Colonel Nick Fury from Vietnam in 1954 (then the French colony of Indochina), through Cuba in 1961, back to Vietnam in 1970, Nicaragua in 1984, then onto Washington in 1999.

As Fury’s particular set of skills, and pathological attraction to warfare, we see him earmarked over an over again for off-the-books missions. He is our viewpoint character, the lens through which we come to understand the political machinations and state and private interests which drove the bloody proxy wars that stood in for a full-scale US-Soviet cataclysm.

Ennis has long been established as one of the finest war writers of his generation, with an astonishing attention to detail informing and enriching his prolific body of work. Said work is typically pessimistic, but deeply humane, refusing to overlook the human cost of warfare, either civilian or military. There is very little in the way of jingoism or nationalism in Ennis’ war stories, tending instead to explore the grey areas and steady strings of moral compromises through which good intentions and idealism can turn into unspeakable horrors. That Ennis was born in Northern Ireland in 1970 should surprise no one.

There is a grim pragmatism, a sense of crushing bleakness to his war work that one might easily imagine gestating in the mind of a young man raised on World War II movies and Westerns during the worst of The Troubles. Ennis’ protagonists have grit, and fire in their bellies, but they are rarely what one might reasonably call heroes. His Nick Fury is no exception.

Parlov’s line is organic, imperfect, and betrays a strong Joe Kubert influence, which is frankly the highest praise one can offer the artist on a comic of this kind. While he doesn’t shy away from depicting violence, gore, and indeed scenes of war crimes and atrocities, Parlov at no point sensationalises his subject. Where violence erupts, it does so abruptly, and with terrifying pace. This approach, stressing the chaotic nature of the combat is underlined neatly by an exchange between Colonel Fury and his friend and comrade George Hatherly:

“Colonel? Last night, when it got bad… I mean when it got really close in and crazy… I’m pretty sure I shot one our guys.”

“I’m pretty sure I did too. Sometimes it just gets like that.”

Loughridge’s colour palette focusses on greens and oranges, and the scenes on missions are markedly brighter than those back in the US, or even on the streets of Saigon. This choice serves not just to stress the sense of place, the sense of brutal vitality and adrenaline when Fury is at war, but stresses his mindset as a man who craves combat, because it’s the only thing he knows how to do.

The first section of the book, a snapshot of the French colonial collapse in what was then Indochina, is chronologically the closest to the Second World War, and Ennis uses this context to examine the aftermath of that war, and the moral compromises that were allegedly made by some of the allied powers. The embodiment of these alleged compromises is a German sergeant in the French Foreign Legion by the name of Steinhoff. It’s well known that certain of the Nazi war criminals were given work for the rapidly adjusting Cold War powers, most notably the rocket scientists who were instrumental in the Russian and American space programmes. However, there are some accounts which report SS officers finding employment within training and combat roles, particularly the French Foreign Legion. While it’s not clear how robust these claims are, some alleged war criminals defected and joined the Legion before the war was over. For example, in May of 2015, the Ukrainian Vladimir Katriuk died in Canada at the age of 93. He was the second most wanted man on the Simon Wiesenthal Centre’s list of Nazi war criminals, and was alleged to have been an active participant in a massacre during his time as part of an SS battalion.

Which is to say, there is some evidence that these people existed, and given his usual attention to detail and tendency toward hanging his stories on the historical facts, we can reasonably assume that Ennis takes the position that they did. His Steinhoff character does not hide his past, however, and leans dangerously toward charicature as he delights in the retelling of his atrocities, oblivious to any notion that he may have done wrong.

Hatherly, the idealist, naturally goes after him alone, and gets his arse handed to him in fairly short order. Fury is more pragmatic. Or defeated. It’s never quite clear which.

The next section of the story sees Fury and Hatherly sent on a CIA covert ops mission to assassinate Fidel Castro, as part of the US-trained, US-orchestrated, but definitely-not-involving-the-US-if-it-ever-found-it’s-way-before-a-court debacle that was the Bay of Pigs invasion. Having trained hundreds of Cuban ex-pats, and once again craving combat himself, Fury finds himself manipulated by the Congressman ‘Pug’ McCuskey into leading the assassination attempt. Fury also happens to have been fucking the Congressman’s fiancee Shirley DeFabio since Indochina, and continues to do so for decades afterward.

Shirley is the moral and emotional core of the book, a secretary from the South Side of Chicago who is determined to escape poverty once and for all, and is not above sleeping with a Congressman, and indeed marrying one, in order to do so. As her longtime affair with Fury becomes deeper, she comes to understand that, although she loves him, and he may love her, he loves war even more. Their romance, if it can be called that, is a grim mirror of the combat – brutal, inevitable, and ultimately crushingly, irrevocably destructive.

The third section of My War Gone By sees Fury returning to Vietnam in 1970, this time alongside a stoical young sniper called Frank Castle, who shares his pathological love of combat, and will eventually carry it back to the streets of New York as the Punisher. Again, it’s more agency-backed black-ops, this time in Laos, as the machinations between some parts of the CIA and the Washington elite become ever murkier, and Fury and Castle are sent in to kill a Vietcong General by the name of Giap. Giap allows Ennis to examine the utter bankruptcy of any notions of just war when it comes to Vietnam, the atrocities on both sides, but also addressing the fact that the US lost tens of thousands of troops, where Vietnam lost millions of civilians, mostly peasant farmers desperately trying to survive in a warzone.

By Nicaragua in ’84, the political will to fund wars against communists and other collectivists was drying up, and so Ennis explores the grimy world of off-the-books funding, namely through the export and sale of Nicaraguan cocaine. Fury is sent to check on a group of US service personnel training Contras to fight the Nicaraguan Government, again, another proxy war against Soviet-allies. What he finds is greed, corruption, and atrocity.

As the story wraps up in 1999, with Fury recording the last of his remembrances in a filthy hotel room, we are treated to a perfect scene between him and Giap, who is visiting Washington DC for a conference, and happens across Fury at the Vietnam war memorial there.

The book is an unrelentingly bleak journey through the underbelly of the American national consciousness, and tears away at many of the popular myths of late 20th century political discourse, and indeed Western hegemony altogether. The defining myth of the Cold War era, the so called ‘domino effect’ is given short shrift, with Ennis putting very little stock in the idea that small communist states could pose any serious threat to the US militarily. So how did the country that helped save the world from Nazism go so far wrong? Was it all just good intentions, and the slow creep of moral compromise for an ideological aim?

There are no easy answers, no concrete conclusions to hold onto. Rather, we are left with the story of a war hero, a saviour who couldn’t let his war go, who stumbles from massacre to massacre for the rest of the century, as any semblance of his idealism slowly falls away, leaving a tragic husk where a soldier used to stand.