Professor Carol Burke Vs. Tina Fey on Women in War Journalism

By Michelle Turken

Tina Fey is hilarious. Her iconic high school flick “Mean Girls” taught us that “grool” was the new “cool,” and her scathingly brilliant impression of “Crazy” Sarah Palin on Saturday Night Live offered up a hysterical yet hauntingly realistic riff on Palin’s bewildering Iowa endorsement speech.

Needless to say, I had high expectations of Fey’s most recent dramedy, “Whiskey Tango Foxtrot.” In this film, set in Afghanistan, well-known conflict journalist Kim Barker is reincarnated as the fictionalized “Kim Baker.” Baker, your stereotypical “fish-out-of-water” character, breaks from the confines of her mundane work and private life in search of adventure as a TV foreign news correspondent.

Culture shock hits Baker instantly upon her arrival in Kabul, as her headscarf slips and an Afghan woman jeers, “Cover yourself, you shameless whore.” The easy laughs continue as Baker enters the wild Kabul “animal house,” which serves as home base for the foreign press.

However, there is more to “Whiskey Tango Foxtrot” than hollow humor. Moments of uncharacteristically deep introspection penetrate comical scenes of drunken warlords, sex and nighttime partying as Baker is thrust into the combat zone. Initially unprepared for the trials of battle, Baker is forced to confront the costs of war, becoming a successful journalist in the process.

At first, I didn’t know what to make of this “raunchy” sex comedy sprinkled with tidbits of tantalizing revelation. The misogynistic sex references couldn’t be more Hollywood, but are the images of the wartime journalism fabricated as well?

Clarity came in the form of UCI’s very own Kim Barker. For Professor Carol Burke, life in Afghanistan was a reality. Burke, who has been part of UCI’s literary journalism program since its inception, spearheaded multiple oral history projects, traveling throughout the globe to gather stories from soldiers and civilians alike. Her most striking project yet? Deploying to Afghanistan as a U.S. Army cultural advisor from November 2010 to August 2011.

Did Burke, like Baker, spend her nights getting wasted in a metropolitan party house? No way. On base, drinking was prohibited out of respect for Islamic dietary laws, which forbid the consumption of alcohol and other illicit substances.

After spending her first few evenings in Afghanistan huddled in her tiny hooch; her hastily-constructed plywood B-Hut, Burke was eager to leave the base:

“It was so boring at headquarters, and I just wanted to get out of there as soon as possible. I was keen to go into challenging areas. You want to find out what’s happening. You want to talk to the people that see it firsthand. And you can come back with some really interesting and important information that nobody knew before you went out to get it.”

Like Baker, Burke traveled into heavily-contested areas, spending the bulk of her deployment working in the Ghormach district. Located in northern Afghanistan, the district had reverted back to tribal control due to persistent warfare and a weak central government. During her first night in the combat zone, the small, remote base where she was staying took heavy mortar fire. Burke remembers hurriedly throwing on her body armor and boots as she ran towards the shelter, tracers flying closely overhead. Although terrified that first night, Burke quickly acclimated to the wartime environment and the persistent gunfire became mere background noise after a few weeks of deployment.

During the day, Burke would go into the nearby villages to interview tribal elders and religious leaders about the problems facing their people. Often, the elders complained of the dysentery contracted from contaminated water sources. Hunger was also a persistent concern, as drought had all but eliminated the wheat crop, the villagers’ primary source of food and income. Burke would identify areas in need of medical care and food relief.

Although Burke’s work was centered on culture rather than combat, her days were anything but mundane. Her company was targeted by Taliban fighters on multiple occasions. While in Ghormach conducting a series of interviews with local merchants, Burke’s team of three was fired upon while interviewing Afghan National Army police officers outside their station headquarters. When these incidents occurred, Burke and her team would quickly wrap up their business and head back to base. Luckily, no one in her group was injured during their deployment.

Is “Whiskey Tango Foxtrot” a terrible Hollywood flick about some white foreigner dumped into the heart of Afghanistan? No, not really. Drinking and partying aside, the premise of Baker’s fictionalized experience is not all that different from Burke’s. Both were thrust into intense combat environments that demanded preparation and vigilance.

Should Fey have scaled back on the sex? Probably. In typical Hollywood fashion, Fey exaggerated the more glamorous aspects of war while diminishing the more consequential ones in order to make her movie a commercial success grounded in a semblance of truth. Nevertheless, “Whiskey Tango Foxtrot” is far from a documentary. While entertaining, one must separate reality from the fictional, and while we can use humor to contend with these harsh realities, the fact remains, war is no party.