Judge Jennifer Malkowski thinks that a year of filming her deployment at UC Berkeley's grad school would be a lot less interesting than these soldiers' filmed year in Iraq.
Soldier: "We're not supposed to talk to the media."
Warning: This review contains a graphic image of an Iraqi corpse, taken directly from the film.
Sgt. Stephen Pink is training a camera on a fellow soldier in the run-up to their year-long deployment in Iraq, but he is right to insist that he is not the media—at least in part. In the documentary The War Tapes, director Deborah Scranton equips Pink and two other soldiers from the New Hampshire National Guard with DV cameras to document their time in Iraq, and the results are very different from what we see in the mainstream "media." By turns deeply committed to and deeply critical of "the mission," these soldiers reveal in the first-person the dangers and dilemmas of fighting this controversial war.
Facts of the Case
Sgt. Pink, Sgt. Zack Bazzi, and Specialist Mike Moriarty are about to ship out to Iraq with the New Hampshire National Guard's 172nd Infantry Regiment, C Company. Once there, they set up at Camp Anaconda, the most heavily attacked canvas encampment in the country. They spend most of their days driving busted-up Humvees through the sweltering Iraqi heat to escort KBR / Halliburton supply trucks past all manner of unseen threats, most commonly Improvised Explosive Devices (IEDs). The War Tapes edits together footage shot by the three soldiers in Iraq and adds a more traditional interview-heavy "coming home" segment at the end.
Pink is a carpenter in civilian life, but he is also a writer, at heart. He keeps a journal during his deployment, snippets of which are included in voice-over to give the footage a more personal touch. Bazzi was born in Lebanon and has a fretful Lebanese-American mother back home who wishes he were anywhere but Iraq. Seemingly the most liberal of the three, Bazzi raises questions about the way the war is being conducted, but always remains committed to his individual duties as a soldier. On the other end of the political spectrum, Moriarty joined up partly because of 9/11 and continually emphasizes his patriotism.
The idea and mission of The War Tapes is simple: give soldiers cameras, let them record their experiences directly, edit the footage together. Apart from that last step, which I'll get to later, the project provides audiences with the closest thing to a first-person video account of what it's like to serve the U.S. military in Iraq. We see everything from tedious daily missions to terrifying combat to leisure time to intimate late-night confessionals to the camera. The snippets of combat, violence, and carnage are perhaps the most shocking—particularly the shots of charred corpses burnt up in IED explosions and gory Iraqi bodies blown apart by American troops in Fallujah. Bold footage like this is the gut-wrenching antidote to the distancing simulations that characterize military training in this documentary and others, such as The Ground Truth. As The War Tapes opens, we see a scene of a smug officer enticing trainees with projected, highly mediated footage of insurgents getting blown apart. The footage is straight from a U.S. soldier's weapon viewscreen; it's a thermal image with a blazing white silhouette identifying the moving human target. Crosshairs fix on his form, an order comes to fire, and the man is engulfed in a fiery blast and killed. The trainees cheer, but hopefully it would be harder for them to work up this level of excitement if they were confronted with images like this one from Pink's camera that graphically display the human cost of such a sequence:
Interestingly, this sight does not have such a sobering effect on Pink, the soldier behind the camera, whose aggressive and vengeful commentary while recording these bodies was suppressed by the army's censors. He is glad that the Iraqis are dead, and says as much to their lifeless corpses. Excerpts from Pink's journal similarly reveal a dark side to the psyche of the American soldier. His first entry confirms, "I want to kill," and upon leaving the country, he admits that "I still want nothing more than to kill insurgents at a range close enough that I can see them fall to the ground and die." While we thankfully don't get any footage quite like that in The War Tapes, there is a fascinating sequence that replicates the first-person shooter video game tone of much of the military's training for this war, complete with "your" weapon jutting into the lower right corner of the screen.
Experiences like these affect the troops long after they leave Iraq. Pink describes his "reoccurring epiphany" that, "This is happening and will have a lasting impact on me for the rest of my life." He then repeats in disbelief the story of, "the debate we had earlier in the day about the consistency and texture of a severed limb [that] was not some far-off, grotesque assumption. It was a genuine argument between the guy who swears it resembles hamburger, ground up but uncooked, and the guy who believes it looks more like a raw pot roast." Such details are not easily forgotten, and all of the soldiers seem in some way haunted by Iraq upon returning home. Moriarty's temper flares up frequently, often triggered by flashbacks to traumatic experiences at war. When his wife shrieks about a spider on the dashboard while driving, he freaks out, reminded of a time that his Humvee struck and killed an Iraqi pedestrian. Back home, we also get a taste of what the year has been like for the women in these soldiers' lives—be they wife, girlfriend, or mother. Moriarty's wife confesses when he comes home that her husband "wants [so badly] to be okay that he's just going to believe that and everything will be fine."
During their deployment and back in the United States, the soldiers sometimes reflect on the broader political implications of their work, with each of them questioning at points the way this war is being conducted. In particular, they express concern about who is financially profiting from all the mortar blasts and bloodshed. Escorting KBR / Halliburton trucks driven by non-KBR "third-country nationals" willing to take this dangerous job, Bazzi, Pink, and Moriarty question national priorities—as when Moriarty, the hardcore patriot, worries that, "the priority of KBR making money outweighs the priority of safety" for the troops. With their camp equipped with Burger King and Pizza Hut counters, it's not hard to spot opportunistic capitalism at work in this war zone. After his deployment finishes, Pink reflects on the reasons for the war and freely admits that it is all about "money and oil," but adds, ruefully, that "somebody other than Dick Cheney better be getting their hands on it pretty soon."
Although The War Tapes is quite bold in its graphic depiction of a soldier's life in Iraq, it is perhaps more censored than it seems. Pink does make reference to the military censors that reviewed their footage before it was handed over to Scranton, and in the additional interviews, Bazzi confirms that he turned in his footage from every mission to his superiors, not to his director. We're left to wonder about what material might have been suppressed by the military, but on the special features, we get hints of the kinds of clips Scranton excluded from the finished film. Among other things, the most prejudiced and hateful comments from U.S. soldiers do not make the final cut. Asked for a reaction to the prisoner abuse at Abu Ghraib, one soldier jokes, "I don't think they should have stacked 'em more than two deep." Another balks at an accusation that he has sexual dreams about his mother or his sons and exclaims that is he is not "a fucking Muslim." A third witnesses a fellow soldier picking up trash as a good deed and calls him a "treehugging faggot." If Scranton aspires to give us a raw sampling of military life in Iraq, perhaps she should not exclude the upsetting reality of these kinds of prejudices any more than she should exclude the realities of combat and duty.
Docurama, as always, provides a fine presentation of this film on DVD. Audio and video are the best quality one could expect from a doc truly shot in the middle of a war by non-professional cameramen. The special features include a theatrical trailer, 28 minutes of follow-up interviews with Pink, Bazzi, and Moriarty, and 80 minutes of additional footage from Iraq. The interviews are divided into ten topics, such as "Views on the War," "Life Post-Iraq," and "Audience Reaction." Here we learn that Bazzi has re-enlisted for a mission to Afghanistan, that Pink got a book deal as a result of the film, and that Moriarty thought he was portrayed as more negative about "the mission" than he really was and is. The additional footage is incredibly rich and well-edited. Several segments are mini-documentaries in their own right, telling brief stories of other soldiers with cameras who didn't make the final cut. Sgt. Jon Worrall, for example, is a 50-year-old National Guardsman who is discharged after being injured and then given minimal medical treatment by the VA upon his return. His young daughter voices her politics on camera, wondering "Why can't they just bomb the place, and there you go? We don't have to kill all our soldiers."
Wherever our political feelings about the war in Iraq lie, as citizens whose soldiers are killing and dying overseas, it is our responsibility to try to understand their war and their personal experiences there as best we can. A documentary like The War Tapes is a great tool for that kind of informal education, but we have to remember that it still presents a highly mediated reality. As a World War II veteran reminds us in a letter to Moriarty: "[Being a soldier at war] is an entirely different reality, and one has to experience it to understand it." By definition, a civilian cannot experience that reality, but The War Tapes offers an earnest and much-needed dose of it for those back home.
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