On Friday, I attended the New York premiere of The War Tapes, the true story of National Guardsmen who filmed their own tour of duty in Iraq. (My original photos: here, here, and here.)
"The War Tapes" is a milestone in journalism. For the first time in this war, citizen soldiers became citizen journalists. The result is a movie unlike anything you've ever seen about the war in Iraq.
In 2004, Deborah Scranton got permission to become an embedded journalist in Iraq. However, instead of embedding herself with a unit, she distributed small digital video cameras to 10 soldiers in Charlie Company, 3rd of the 172nd Infantry (MOUNTAIN) Regiment. As a director, Scranton's genius was to figure out how she could take herself out of the story and let the soldiers record the war as they experienced it. It's impressive that she directed the movie remotely, primarily through emails, instant messages, and uploaded Quicktime "dailies."
The film's principal subjects and cameramen are Sergeant Steve Pink, Sergeant Zack Bazzi, and Specialist Mike Moriarty. Pink joined the Guard for college money. Bazzi is a career soldier who joined the Guard to go to college after several years as a full-time soldier. Moriarty is a self-professed super-patriot who resolved to fight in Iraq to avenge the 9/11 attacks.
"The War Tapes" works because it honors the first rule of storytelling: show, don't tell. We see the war from the first-person perspectives of the soldiers fighting it. To supplement their hand-held cameras, the Guardsmen mounted tripods on their gun turrets and the dashboard of their Humvee. They also attached cameras to their own helmets and body armor. An embedded reporter would have gotten an observer's perspective on the fight. Whereas, "The War Tapes"' Iraq footage was captured by the participants as they worked, fought, and survived from day to day in a war zone. You can feel the difference.
The Guardsmen spend most of their tour protecting convoys of supplies for KBR, a private military contractor and subsidiary of Halliburton.
Some of the most powerful sequences are shot from vehicles moving at high speed. Steve James' editing makes you feel as if you're peering through the windshield of a fast-moving Humvee, dwarfed by a massive convoy of KBR trucks looming over you like white elephants. As the convoy hurtles down the road, "your" Humvee has to weave in and out of this juggernaut, passing oncoming cars on the two-lane desert highway, and swerving to avoid the Iraqi civilians in their subcompact cars (any of which could be a car bomb). There's no margin of error because IEDs are detonating left and right on the shoulders. The night missions, shot with infrared cameras, are even more terrifying--the same crazy driving, the ever-present IEDs, and all unruly civilian traffic (vehicular and pedestrian)--except that our guys are now sharing the dark road with a lot of people who can't see them.
Nor can our guys maintain radio contact with the trucks in the convoy they're trying to protect. Most of the drivers are so-called "third country nationals", guest workers imported from distant countries to risk their lives for a pittance. Most don't speak English.
The Guardsmen curse KBR's treatment of its TCN workforce. One night, they stop to treat a TCN with a leg full of shrapnel. We see that he has been driving a truck with no windows and no windshield. The soldier with the camera bitterly explains that the truck was like that when it left the depot. KBR doesn't care, his life is cheap.
So, what's in these marvelous trucks? Cheese, frequently. Sometimes septic waste. Or cheesecake. Occasionally, fuel. The soldiers start making jokes about the war for cheese. We see that KBR is doing very well on this operation. We see how US soldiers risk their lives to protect cheese and other sundries. Then we watch KBR selling it all back to them at exorbitant prices.
KBR sells the swag to the government (meals, haircuts, styrofoam plates for $20+ bucks a pop) and to the troops. There's a great scene of soldiers packed into KBR's amply stocked commissary after a hard day of escorting. They're there to buy DVDs, Pringles, Becks beer, and soft drinks from KBR. Suddenly, you realize that every copy of "Armageddon" and every bottle of Mountain Dew was trucked in through the same hellish corridor as the cheese.
"The War Tapes" doesn't tell us how the war is going, or speculate about the probability of success. Instead, it shows us how much blood and treasure is spent to deliver a single convoy of cheese to an American camp just a few miles outside of Baghdad. The implication is clear but unspoken: The Americans don't control the main roads around key bases. The fight to keep Camp Anaconda supplied is a war unto itself. You find yourself wondering how the Americans could ever go on an offensive against the insurgents when they have to fight so hard to stay alive in their own base.
The subjects are smart and likeable. We readily identify with these guys, even as their war begins to seem ever more absurd and incomprehensible. Michael Atkinson of the Village Voice totally misses the point when he excoriates "The War Tapes" pro-war propaganda:
On a strictly experiential level, Deborah Scranton's The War Tapes is remarkable, tactile, and affecting; as a piece of sociopolitical culture with context and ramifications of its own, it's a worthless ration of war propaganda—ethnocentric, redneck, and enabling. [...]
In fact, for all of the firsthand, edge-of-battle immediacy, the upshot of Scranton's assemblage is concern for the feelings of tremendously sympathetic American grunts as they bulldoze through the Arab landscape and disdainfully observe the indigenous populace from a distance as if they were hyenas on the veld. It's no surprise that the soldiers are largely prone to mercenary self-regard and care only about getting home, not about where they've been, what they've done, or why.
I'm not sure what kind of attitude Atkinson expected from soldiers fighting an insurgency. Besides which, the soldiers are not unremittingly disdainful. Their relations with the Iraqi population are complex and ambivalent and "The War Tapes" does a good job of explaining why U.S. troops are so isolated from the people they're trying to help.
The language barrier is a major problem. You'd think that Bazzi is the only soldier at Camp Anaconda who speaks Arabic (and he may well be). Moreover, the Guardsmen are pinned down inside an armed camp when they're not enclosed in Humvees. Insurgents are constantly trying to kill them, and virtually any Iraqi they meet could be an insurgent. These conditions are hardly conducive to mutual regard and understanding.
Scranton doesn't mean for the viewer to endorse the troops' detached and ambivalent attitudes towards the Iraqis. Her goal is to document these attitudes and shed some light on the conditions that shape these Americans' view of Iraqis.
In fact, the soldiers express a range of emotions towards the Iraqis--wary affection for local kids, genuine camaraderie with Iraqi police recruits, selfless compassion for the civilian victim of a tragic accident... At one point the Guardsmen risk their own lives to recover a woman's mangled body from the road. Of course, they also want to kill insurgents close enough to watch them die. But what does Atkinson expect? These are soldiers who are trying to fight an enemy that's equally determined to kill them (not to mention Iraqi civilians).
Sgt. Bazzi even stresses his respect for the insurgents as warriors. As a career soldier, he understands that the enemy has its reasons, just as the Americans do. He notes that if Canada invaded the U.S. to save the country from George W. Bush, a lot of Bush-haters would still wage guerilla war against a Canadian occupation.
Motives are a major theme in "The War Tapes." In their own words, the subjects try over and over to explain themselves and the war. Interestingly, nobody ever mentions WMDs. Once they're in Iraq, nobody talks about Al Qaeda or Bin Laden, not even Moriarty who ostensibly joined up to fight the 9/11 attackers.
Over many months, and numerous conversations, the soldiers' settle on three main theories about why they're fighting: to do a job, to make money for KBR, and (a distant third) to make Iraq a self-sufficient democracy. You get the sense that nobody views any of the reasons as entirely satisfactory, but also that everyone is convinced in his gut that there's something deeply worthwhile about what they're doing (or that there had better be something worthwhile, because the alternative is just too horrible to contemplate).
"The War Tapes" has its share of gore, including closeups of the faces of dead insurgents putrefying in the sun, and tracking shots of the ground where the cameraman explains that human flesh is squishing under his boots. The only footage that the military censors blocked was a sequence in which a US soldier started throwing up as a stray dog gorged itself on the bodies of dead insurgents.
Steve Pink later explained that the authorities told him he should have shot the dog. Pink said he'd never been briefed on shooting dogs, and that if the dog wanted to eat the insurgents, good for him. Watching Pink tell the story on his Massachusetts front porch, wearing a backwards Red Sox cap is probably more chilling than the lost footage.
By far the saddest part of the movie takes place after the subjects have returned home. Now that their tour is over, they are struggling to justify their role in a mission that often strikes them as hopeless, if not pointless.
Despite his misgivings, Zack Bazzi ultimately finds some solace in professionalism:
I see this deployment as another part of my job and not as this super patriotic struggle to protect “our freedom and our way of life.” Being a soldier is a fundamental part of my identity. It is something that I love and enjoy doing. Being deployed to go to war that is being questioned back home does not affect my passion for the job. I will do my professional duty regardless of the political context or my personal feelings on the matter. [...] I love being a soldier. The only bad thing about the Army is you can’t pick your war.*
In the end, gung-ho Moriarty, who left his beloved wife and kids to fight the 9/11 terrorists, insists that it was all worthwhile, and that his view of the war is unchanged. You get the sense that he is trying really hard to convince himself of what he's saying:
I’m so glad I went. I hated it with a God awful passion and I will not go back. I have done my part and I feel like it’s someone else’s turn. My views of the war haven’t changed. You’ve heard people say, you know, “We’re over there for the oil.” You know. “It’s the only reason we’re over there in Iraq. It’s oil, it’s oil, it’s oil.” Well listen, no. We’re not there for the oil. If it were for oil, would that not be enough reason to go to Iraq? You bet your ass it would be! If you took oil away from this country tomorrow, what do you think would happen to this country? It would be, it would be devastating. So let’s all stop crying about whether we had reason to go in there or not because we can fight about that forever. It’s a done deal. We’re in Iraq. Support what it takes to make this thing work, or shut-up!*
Steve Pink's final comment is perhaps the most heart-breaking of all. Of the three Guardsmen, Pink seems to bear the most visible emotional scars. His blue eyes flash with rage and bitterness as he struggles to reconcile the truth about the war as he understands it with his own ineffable conviction that his service was worth more that:
Why the fuck are we there? We better get that oil, right? The US Army is not the fucking Peace Corps. The Marines are not the Peace Corps. That’s not why we’re in Iraq. We’re in Iraq for money and oil. Look at any other war in the history of the world and tell me it’s not about money. This better be about money and if we don’t get that oil and that money then all the lives that are gone right now, what is it? 1800 it’s at, something around there? They’re all in vain. You don’t put 150,000 troops from all over the country in there and say we’re there to create democracy. We’re there to create money, you know? We’re there to make money for us, you know. Somebody other than Dick Cheney better be getting their hands on it pretty soon.*
I hope every American will see "The War Tapes", regardless of their position on the war. If you live in New York City, please consider taking in a show tonight. The movie needs a big opening weekend if it's going to open in more theaters around the country.
Quotes from the film reproduced from The Press Notes section of The War Tapes website.