As the desert sun beats down on Medina Wasl–its stone-faced houses, its barren souk, its scrawny minaret casting a finger’s shadow–filmmakers embedded with a battalion of the First Cavalry ride through the dusty streets, capturing the bad on its way to worse. This is Full Battle Rattle, in which Tony Gerber and Jesse Moss have assembled one of the most complete pictures yet to emerge of how an Iraqi town fragments into civil war, given the well-meaning but clumsy nudges of its American occupiers. It is a work of direct cinema, which like all such documentaries demands to be valued for the intense labor that went into it: the weeks of filming, the months of editing. Paradoxically, though, Full Battle Rattle may also be the most conveniently made of all records of US military failure in Iraq–because everything you see in it happened in just three weeks, about forty miles outside Barstow, California.
Here, in the Mojave Desert, hundreds of Iraqi-American role players live in Medina Wasl and the dozen other stage-set villages of the National Training Center at Fort Irwin. Motivated by love of their adopted country, housed in a simulation of desperate poverty and equipped with scripted backstories that would be the envy of any Method actor, the performers interact on a round-the-clock basis with Army units that are about to be deployed to Iraq and that have been sent here to find out what it will be like. Full Battle Rattle takes you through one such three-week training mission as seen from both sides, with Gerber living in the stage-set Army base and filming the soldiers’ activities and Moss living in Medina Wasl and filming its residents. Which of the two producer-directors was responsible for filming the insurgents (played in these exercises by US soldiers rather than Iraqi-born civilians) I don’t know; but whoever it was caught such niceties as the whiteboard sign hanging in jihadi headquarters, marked with a helpful reminder to attack the Army base at 4 am.
Like any documentary about putting on a show, Full Battle Rattle abounds with mirth-provoking incongruities between the effect aimed for and the means used to achieve it. After a firefight in town–or, rather, a very chaotic game of laser tag–you hear an officer with a bullhorn order, “If you’re a casualty, leave your bandage on,” while medics rush to the triage station bearing ghastly, mutilated mannequins and assorted plastic body parts. An officer charged with making a jihadi video of an assassination coaches the insurgents to put a little more oomph into their Allahu akbar! and reminds the victim, with exasperation, that when he’s shot he can’t throw out his hands to break the fall. From time to time, when the players need refreshment, an ice cream truck rolls into the main street of Medina Wasl, tinkling its mechanical tune.
It’s “surreal comedy,” as more than one reviewer characterized Full Battle Rattle when it premiered last February at the Berlin Film Festival. Somehow, though, I don’t much feel like laughing. The Iraqi role players of Medina Wasl–“deputy mayor” Bassam Kalasho, “shopkeeper” Azhar Cholagh, “deputy police chief” Nagi Moshi–break my heart when they marvel that in the off hours, when they’re out of character, they get along beautifully, with no Sunni-Shiite divisions. “For real, we’re family,” one of them says, boasting of a harmony that scarcely seems possible now in the real Iraq but has been achieved in an imaginary one. For the Army role players, I can feel only respect and sorrow, starting with Lt. Col. Robert McLaughlin, commander of the 5-82 Battalion, who comes into the exercise fully determined to bring peace and prosperity to Medina Wasl. That is his job, and he takes it with the utmost seriousness–though the main lesson he can draw after three weeks’ training is that, in reality, he probably won’t be able to do it. “Am I a failure?” he asks late in the film, then answers despondently, “Actions speak louder than words.” The last we see of McLaughlin, he and his soldiers are back in Texas, at Fort Bliss, getting onto an airplane bound for the real Iraq. Their kids are in costume. It’s Halloween.