One of the more puzzling aspects of our current war on terrorism is how little tangible support for the troops seems to come from people who claim to support the troops. “Supporting” our troops, apparently, means sending them into a dangerous situation with inadequate numbers, outdated equipment and a near total lack of clear-cut goals and then keeping them there indefinitely. So long as you’ve attached a little yellow bumper sticker on the back of your Ford F-1000, though, they’ll be just fine. Perhaps, supporting our soldiers--regardless of whether your motivations are pro- or anti-war--might entail making some attempt to understand what it is they’re doing. The president has explained it very clearly and concisely: They’re defending our freedom abroad. But, one suspects, there’s a little more detail to it. What, on a day-to-day basis, are these men and women actually doing?
Deborah Scranton’s new documentary, The War Tapes, joins a small but growing list of films (Oliver Stone’s soon-to-be-released World Trade Center would certainly be included) that eschew politics to take a completely neutral look at the people stuck on today’s frontlines. This movement comes at a time when America is at its most polarized. (Republicans overwhelmingly conservative, pro-war, pro-Bush. Democrats are still split on the war. Independent voices virtually nonexistent.) Perhaps a little perspective is finally in order.
Scranton’s solution to understanding the situation in Iraq was brilliantly simple: Give digital cameras to several National Guard troops being called up to service in Iraq. Let them film their own stories. No imbedded journalists, no patronizing narration, just a compilation of these soldiers’ brutally honest video diaries.
What emerges from Scranton’s elegantly edited collage (with an able assist from Hoop Dreams honcho Steve James) is an enlightening look at exactly what it is liberals and conservatives have expended so much of their spleen arguing over.
The film concentrates on three men. Steve Pink is a cynical citizen-soldier who joined the military for college tuition money. Mike Moriarity is a gung-ho family man who volunteered in a fit of post-9/11 rage. Zach Bazzi is a cool-headed Lebanese-American, one of the few troops who can actually speak Arabic. Each provides his own unique perspective on life (and death) in the Sunni Triangle.
What strikes viewers most immediately, staring out through the POV camera of these soldiers, is the stark terror that accompanies their job. The nightly news is awash with terms like “IEDs” and “insurgents,” none of which give much insight into what is actually happening in-country. Traveling along sandy highways in endless convoys, warily watching trucks pass gives an eerie sense of the kind of tension these soldiers face every day. You never know when an improvised explosive device will go off or when one of those seemingly innocent pick-up trucks will turn out to be a car bomb. It’s no wonder so many soldiers come back from war so psychologically damaged.
Fear of sudden death and the inevitable mistrust of ordinary Iraqis pervades nearly every frame of this film. We witness deadly mortar attacks, bloody reprisals and tiny moments of average, everyday humanity (a soldier gets some gawking roadside kids to mimic the “YMCA” dance). We are introduced to the anguish mothers and wives back home feel. We see, up close, the frequently absurd nature of combat (as when the soldiers are given the choice tactical duty of guarding septic waste trucks). In time, we start to understand (if not necessarily condone) the casual racism and bleak black humor these men adopt to steel themselves against the horrors they face.
While the soldiers remain resolutely patriotic about their duty, they do begin to question the day-to-day details of it. These particular troops seem to spend an inordinate amount of their time protecting the financial interests of Halliburton. “Why the fuck am I sitting out here guarding a truck full of cheesecake?” laments one soldier in a not-so-rare fit of insight.
While the film seizes up just short of perfection (a final act in which the soldiers try to reintegrate with civilian life feels like a too-conscious attempt to impose a narrative on things), The War Tapes does provide a crucial glimpse into the lives of our frontline soldiers. It should be essential viewing for all Americans. After all, if we’re going to either praise or condemn their work, we should at least understand what it is we’re asking them to do.
Michael Moriarity, one of the film’s soldiers/cameraslingers, will be in Albuquerque on Monday, Aug. 7, for a Q&A following the 6:30 and 8:30 p.m. screenings at Guild Cinema.
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