In 2004, as the insurgency was spreading across Iraq, Deborah Scranton got an offer to embed with the New Hampshire National Guard. The documentary filmmaker made an inspired counter-offer: “I called up the public affairs officer and asked if I could give cameras to the soldiers instead.” The Guard agreed to the proposal but said she would have to recruit her own participants.
Scranton hopped on a flight to meet the soldiers at Fort Dix, New Jersey, and was met with skepticism. They quizzed Scranton about her politics and motivations. She promised that she would work with them to tell their story. Of 180 soldiers, ten volunteered, and five were selected and equipped with Sony miniDV cameras. Deployed with Charlie Company 3rd of the 172nd infantry at LSA Anaconda in the dangerous Sunni triangle, three of the five soldiers would eventually produce the bulk of The War Tapes, a rare war movie filmed by soldiers. It premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival, where it was named best documentary feature. It is currently playing in New York and will be seen on screens around the country in coming weeks.
With cameras mounted on gun turrets and dashboards, and even rigged helmet mounts for POV shots, the soldiers record the battles and the downtime in between, as Scranton recorded the drama of family life back home. They recorded more than 1,000 hours of tapes, which were edited with precision down to ninety-seven minutes by Steve James, director of the groundbreaking basketball documentary Hoop Dreams. The result is astounding: A film shot by US soldiers in Iraq and sanctioned by the military may turn out to be the most powerful statement yet against the Iraq War.
From the opening sequence, the audience is confronted with a visceral experience of battle unlike any reporting from Iraq to date. The frame in these scenes resembles something like a first-person video game–the weapon extended before us as we flinch from the sound of enemy fire and feel the vibrations of the rapid-fire weapons. But it is clear that this is no game.
The War Tapes offers a different view. Televised reports from Iraq by mainstream media–a firefight or the mop-up of an insurgent bombing–enter the scene from the outside. Often the footage has little to do with the accompanying narrative by an anchor in the studio or by a reporter on the scene. They provide the basic facts–estimates of the number of killed or injured and speculation from the usual suspects on who might be responsible–but little about the battle itself and its impact on those fighting it. Often televised scenes from Iraq have nothing to do with the topic under discussion, reducing human tragedy to B-roll for cable commentators grinding political axes.
The War Tapes radically changes the frame, drawing the audience inside the firefights, bringing them close to the car bombings and IED explosions. We are insulated voyeurs no longer–and the truth is sometimes hard to take. When a soldier describes letting a dog eat the flesh of a dead Iraqi insurgent, there is nothing to feel but revulsion, unredeemed by his explanation that he is trained to kill, not to empathize. Balancing that, when a fast-moving Humvee strikes and kills an innocent Iraqi woman, a soldier envisions his mother on the street among the crumbled cookies, and there is nothing to feel but sorrow–for her and for him.
There is no commentary in this film on war strategy, just moment after dreadful moment filled with fear and loathing. But what do such moments mean in the context of a war from which there seems to be no exit? That’s the question facing the soldiers.
Battle scenes punctuate the film; but combat is just an exclamation point to the downtime discussions in which the soldiers come to terms with where they are and what they have become.
There is Spc. Mike Moriarty, a mechanic from Beverly, Massachusetts, who joined the Army in 1988. He was never deployed in the first Gulf War, but after 9/11 a swell of patriotism inspired him to enlist. He left a wife and two young children at home and endures criticism from friends and family who consider him a bad father for choosing to be a soldier.
“I supported the mission and I support a lot of things, but I’m starting to say to myself, ‘What the fuck? Shit or get off the pot!’ ” he tells the camera. “I don’t give a fuck if that means nuking this fucking country!” Moriarty may not think the war is going well, but he’s not interested in questioning the reasoning. “Support what it takes to make this thing work, or shut up.”
Sgt. Zack Bazzi, a Lebanese-born student of international affairs and psychology, previously served in Bosnia and Kosovo. His family escaped to America when he was 8, and it clearly breaks his mother’s heart that he’s chosen to willingly go to war when she worked so hard to save him from it. His knowledge of Arabic brings him closer to the Iraqis than other soldiers and allows him to see the humanity in his enemy. “The insurgents have their principles and we got ours. You gotta respect that,” he says, adding, “on a practical level, when I’m on the road, it’s my guys versus them.”
Bazzi, a self-described political junkie, introduces himself by showing off a copy of The Nation; “Not a pro-Bush magazine,” he says. When a fellow soldier asks why they can’t just build a wall around Iraq and leave, Bazzi reveals his attitude toward the war: “Let’s just leave it alone and leave. Fuck the oil, man…. I’ll walk everywhere in the US.”
Finally, there’s Sgt. Steve Pink, of Kingston, Massachusetts, who acknowledges he made a “rash decision” when he signed up with the National Guard to help pay for his English degree. Pink is the soldier archetype from old war films: quick-witted with a dirty mouth. But he’s also a writer influenced by Bukowski and Vonnegut. Throughout the film he reads passages from his journal on the war-is-hell violence he encounters:
Today was the first day I shook a man’s hand that wasn’t attached to his arm. I was the first one there and immediately clamped Reggie’s brachial artery. I looked down and he had his hand dangling from the exposed bone that used to be his elbow like a child’s safety clipped mitten dangling from their winter coat.
“Why the fuck are we there?” asks Pink. “You don’t put 150,000 troops from all over the country and say we’re there to create democracy. We’re there to create money…. Somebody other than Dick Cheney better be getting their hands on it soon.”
The War Tapes is engaged in the politics of the war, but it never veers into polemic or propaganda. The filmmakers don’t push an agenda, but there are a couple of points on which the soldiers seem to agree. They don’t tend to see the war as an exercise in promoting democracy. Another point of agreement is that Halliburton subsidiary Kellogg, Brown and Root is there to turn a tidy profit.
The men of the 172nd, charged with escorting the KBR convoys of food, fuel and supplies, complain that they make less than one-seventh the salary of the KBR drivers, even though they do the most dangerous work. One of the soldiers explains that KBR bills the military a full $28 per meal for each plastic plate, with or without food. The absurdity of the war (and its profiteers) comes to full light as one soldier explains his assignment to stand guard over a KBR truck full of valuable cheesecake. It is “the war for cheese,” he says.
These observations–the minutiae of daily life in a war zone–give the film its power. Halliburton’s war profiteering, for example, has been previously reported, but the story takes on a new life when you hear it from the guy who’s actually watching the cheese.
Francois Truffaut argued that it is impossible to make a true antiwar film because audiences are too often awed by the excitement of battle and bond with the unit against the enemy. The War Tapes avoids that trap by concentrating on the unglamorous downtime and the random, unglorified violence, leading the audience to bond with the soldiers, not the venture. And this soldier-made documentary may demonstrate that the best way to support our troops is to bring them home.