I'm an hour into an interview with Comedy Central's curmudgeonly commentator Lewis Black and a year into a job as a staff writer for DRILL magazine. Black has just finished a photo shoot in his favorite New York theater. He's smoking like a chimney and ranting, and I'm catching it all on the spiffy new MP3 player/recorder I got as a perk from a gadget review. A Yale grad who lived through the Vietnam era, Black is bitching about how the historically ignorant Bush administration thinks force-fed democracy in Iraq will inspire the entire Middle East to join the Jim Jones Kool-Aid-slurping McFree world. Anyone who thinks this invasion will work, he says, should watch the end of "Lawrence of Arabia" -- Arab tribal leaders are at each other's throats, despite efforts by Peter O'Toole as British liaison officer T.E. Lawrence. A month later, Frank Rich makes the same comparison in The New York Times, proving Black is ahead of his time.
Too bad his thoughts never saw the light of day in DRILL. Just before the interview was scheduled to run in the glossy "laddie" magazine for military men, it was killed. But not for the reasons you think.
Just ass for all
If you're in the military, you've seen DRILL at your PX or BX and wondered when the hell the next issue of your new favorite magazine is coming out. The rest of you might have read about it in The New York Times or seen it on Fox or CNN or MSNBC or even scanned it at Barnes & Noble or 7-Eleven. If you're a real media nerd, you saw it named one of the year's 30 most notable launches by Samir "Mr. Magazine" Husni in Folio. We hawked DRILL among young soldiers on the premise that this wasn't Stars & Stripes -- this was something all their own. We won over critics with our stealth marketing to military men and smartass wit that would even make a Nader voter chuckle.
To the brass, we presented DRILL as a tasteful version of raunchier men's titles. They still griped, though, especially the old birds in the Air Force, where sex scandals were fresh. Plus, the Army and Air Force Exchange Service (AAFES), the linchpin of our business plan that stocked the magazine at on-base Wal-Mart-type retail stores, wouldn't let us do in-store promotions with our cover model, Miss USA, Susie Castillo. But we pressed on and took her to Marine bases instead. The low-level grunts were our readership base, anyway, the guys short on stripes but loaded with discretionary income. The average enlisted man in our audience made $42,500. Sounds meager, but consider that their food and shelter were often covered. They had government checks burning holes in their BDUs.
We tailored our look and appeal to what we knew about these men. Instead of an "Entertainment" section, we had "At Ease." The up-front "A.W.O.L" section featured bite-sized items on everything from "panty parties" to a profile of the guy who jacks off killer whales for Sea World's artificial insemination program (that one was mine). Instead of "Sports," we had "Blitz," where we did a story on a motorcycle drag racer with no legs and a world-record female free-diver who was breathtaking in a bikini. We reviewed the latest MP3 players, not guns and ammo. You'd never find the hottest new camo for this fall's occupation in DRILL's fashion section (called "WARdrobe"). But we did showcase civilian clothes for guys rotating back into civilian life -- gear made of bulletproof, fireproof, waterproof materials -- fashion for guys who hate fashion.
We always featured a gorgeous, semifamous woman in military-inspired skimpiness on our covers. Never did we use a real uniform and never flag bikinis -- our military advisers assured us that the American Goddamn Flag was made for waving and waving alone. We were clean enough to pass muster in the barracks and just dirty enough to turn to in a lonely foxhole.
Locked, loaded (and left)
We toured bases, planned promotional parties for soldiers and saluted their service earnestly and constantly. Beyond the patriot games and the business plan, though, DRILL was backed by a British company. And the closest any of us came to prior military service was a trip to the Salvation Army. Plus, the editorial staff had a secret: We were all pretty left-leaning -- I'm a flaming liberal (and the aforementioned chuckling Nader voter). We were the military man's lad magazine because we said we were. But we quietly hoped this quirky publication would develop a nonmilitary buzz, too. It had started to.
Even a month after my last day at DRILL, the Times' media reporter David Carr was praising it again in an April 29 article saying we deserved a posthumous National Magazine Award "for giving the magazine, which was intended for a military audience, a name and a slogan -- Ã?For men who serve' -- that produced a T-shirt which became a cult classic -- but not among the intended audience."
I like to think we were less Maxim for the military, more SPY for the G.I. -- our editor in chief, Lance Gould, was executive editor of that irreverent '80s bible for a while. Under him, we toed the yellow ribbon with whip-smart wit and political ambiguity. We hired freelancers like Ted Rall, who, as a nationally syndicated cartoonist, was a piercing military critic, a favorite of the liberal journal The Nation and war correspondent for the Village Voice. For us, he wrote a feature on Buzkashi, a pololike sport in Tajikistan where a dead goat is used for a ball.
I also recruited columnist Chuck Pfarrer, author of "Warrior Soul: The Memoir of a Navy SEAL" and a former commander with the covert SEAL Team Six. He was a top-level writer and frogman who would also call bullshit on the same sort of stuff that pissed off the privates.
Freedom's not free
So there were ideological compromises I made for my job. I had to interview Toby Keith, the porky prince of pop-country (and Ed to Alf's Johnny in phone commercials). And I resisted the urge to demand he pull his mullet head out of his fat ass for the 15-minute phoner. That hurt. But I also got to fake-flirt with hot Hollywood starlets for Q&As and hang out with the stunning star of "Species," "Species 2," "The Whole Nine Yards" and "The Whole Ten Yards," Natasha Henstridge, while she promoted DRILL on "Late Night With Conan O'Brien." I had to hunt down soldier stories (for our "Maneuvers" section) at the Veteran's Day Parade from reluctant MPs, but for another feature I learned how to drive a 700-horsepower dragster. It didn't suck.
For the first time since leaving the Orlando Sentinel, I got to use in stories the words "shit," "bitch" and "douchebag," words that struck a chord with the enlisted crowd. We never got a straight scoop from backer John Brown Publishing or the two fat-cat investors from Miami, but even the most conservative numbers showed DRILL's first issue threatening FHM, Maxim and Stuff on base newsstands. We had no marketing team, no marketing budget, but we'd found a niche in the packed men's magazine market -- I could take pride in that.
Troops wrote in with rabid praise. In giving away a motorcycle, we asked readers to send us a picture of themselves riding something other than motorcycles. These lunatics gave us Evel Knievel poses on everything from warplanes and tank gun barrels in Iraq to a lump of snow and ice in front of a Coast Guard ship in the Antarctic. Weird thing was, most of them were naked or near naked in the pictures. Even in the pressure cooker of Baghdad, dudes found time to send us pictures of themselves wearing nothing but machine guns. Men Who Serve, indeed. The letters from enlisted readers revealed them to be rabid fans or rabid critics -- either way, they were reading it. "Finally someone puts out a magazine just for us!" they'd write for our "Permission to Speak Freely" section. They tended to end with "AIRBORNE!" and various spellings of "HOOAH!" a lot -- if I'd joined the service only to become cannon fodder for Halliburton, I'd try to make the best of it, too.
By the time the third issue hit the stands, we had hit stride. In spite of any personal political leanings, we had our talking points down and did interviews with TV, radio and print publications all over the country. Unlike those other men's magazines, we weren't trying to be all things to all men, we said. We were the first-ever men's humor/adventure/lifestyle title created specifically for the most elite group of men out there. When someone like Fox's resident towhead John Gibson asked our editor whether he thought a skin mag in camouflage was insensitive in a time of war, he'd answer something like, "No one wants the troops safe more than DRILL -- they're our readers!" Others who didn't get it wanted to know how we'd handle news of prolonged unrest in Iraq, casualties or protests. "DRILL doesn't cover politics or break news," we'd say. "We entertain the troops, the hardest-working men on the planet."
We were the US-fucking-O with boobs.
Our plans were as big as our model's cup sizes, but apparently just as fake, too. They were trumped by bad business -- at least as far as I can figure. We'd just started planning a party to be thrown during "Fleet Week," the May landing of thousands of sailors in the New York harbor for a few days of furious seduction of bored Manhattan women. (You remember that "Sex and the City" episode.) We had condom and lube companies on board to help provide goodie bags. Our publisher led us to believe we'd be doubling our production from bimonthly to monthly any day now. In editorial meetings, we actually started talking about service journalism aimed at improving the lives of these soldiers. We were working on an investigative piece on predatory military loans. For a feature, I was about to go into the Mojave Desert with OPFOR, the most hated unit in the Army. They play the opposing force in desert training skirmishes. The editor and I were close to landing a goodwill mission to Iraq with a bunch of hot bartenders from Tampa. I was on a waiting list to go with a Defense Department squad that searched for MIA/POW remains in South Korea and Vietnam, the CSI of the military.
Plus, I had this great interview with Lewis Black, whom I respected even more now that I'd listened to him talk all of this trash about our leaders and still come out as an ally to soldiers who were stuck in the desert. He knew the DRILL.
As I sat down to write the interview in our offices around the corner from the Empire State Building, the publishing director called the entire staff into a meeting, told us what a wonderful job we were doing and how he admired our dedication. Then he fired us all on the spot. The investors, we learned, had pulled out months earlier for foggy reasons. But if we didn't meet expectations for short-term profits, I say, someone set them unrealistically high. Even after our two sugar daddies bailed, we sustained and grew the magazine for months. Ads were rolling in. We got press, even one year in. Hollywood agents were calling us back, and our last cover model, Brooke Burke, was about to go on "Howard Stern" to support DRILL.
There's a part of me that's relieved that I don't have to explain anymore why the job I have isn't really about shilling for the military. I'm a guy who learned his first political lessons from Jello Biafra records. I listen to Al Franken at least three times a week on Air America Radio. I subscribe to Harper's and The Nation and The New Yorker. I'm not on board. None of us were. But I'll miss the smart staff, the ideas, the humor, the travel, the free stuff. Plus, we were unique in our support for the troops, the hardest-working men on the planet, the Men Who Serve, America's Heroes. And what real patriot is against that?
Tyler Gray is a former writer for the Orlando Sentinel and currently lives and works as a writer in Brooklyn, N.Y.