'The War Tapes': Three Soldiers on Shifting Sands
Friday, June 30, 2006
Is it too much to ask that "The War Tapes," a riveting, audacious new documentary about the Iraq war, be required viewing in every classroom and living room in America? Or at least the Oval Office?
Make no mistake: "The War Tapes," in which three National Guard soldiers deliver graphic first-person accounts of their year serving in Iraq, is not an overtly political film. It appears to grind no partisan ax, nor score either red or blue points. Whether viewers support the war or not -- or find themselves somewhere in the mushy middle -- "The War Tapes" won't fit comfortably into the pigeonholes of their preconceptions. What it does do, with grim and often gruesome honesty, is show the realities of war to a public that has been largely shielded from its cost.
In 2004 Stephen Pink, Michael Moriarty and Zack Bazzi, all members of the New Hampshire National Guard, were given video cameras to take with them while they trained for and eventually deployed to Iraq. "The War Tapes" is the edited version of the footage they shot, with contributions from fellow soldiers Duncan Domey and Brandon Wilkins. With no narration except from the men themselves, "The War Tapes" offers an unvarnished, un-spun and finally deeply depressing portrait of men who for a variety of reasons -- patriotic, economic or psychological -- enlist to be citizen soldiers, only to have their idealism and longing replaced by cynicism and a host of physical and mental ailments.
Pink enlisted in the Guard to pay for college; Moriarty because he was motivated by the events of Sept. 11, 2001; and Bazzi, who had already served in the U.S. Army, because he loves to travel. All three undergo profound changes in Iraq, documented not only in the videos they shoot but the e-mails they send home (Pink leaves behind a girlfriend, Moriarty a wife and Bazzi a mother). And all three witness -- and allow filmgoers to witness -- unspeakable violence, cruelty and death, serving on the base in the Sunni Triangle that is nicknamed "Mortaritaville" for the number of insurgent attacks it sustains on a regular basis.
Like the 2004 film "Gunner Palace," "The War Tapes" offers a rare firsthand glimpse of life during wartime, conveying the camaraderie, danger and gallows humor that characterize the soldier's experience. But unlike the earlier film, which largely unfolded in the context of no context, "The War Tapes" follows a distinct narrative arc -- from training to deployment to homecoming -- and raises questions that, while not political in themselves, carry profound political implications, and that can broadly be organized under the heading: War, What Is It Good For?
The main function of the New Hampshire unit in Iraq is to protect convoys of supply trucks owned by the private contractor Kellogg, Brown and Root (a subsidiary of Halliburton). Risking their lives alongside semis carrying fuel and fast food, the men are soon calling Operation Iraqi Freedom "the war for cheese."
Not pretty. Nor are the moments of chaos and terror during the frequent skirmishes the men are involved in, or the searing sequence in which a convoy mistakenly runs over an Iraqi civilian. One of the most horrifying passages occurs mostly off-screen, involving the death of several insurgents, Pink's attempt to film the aftermath and the hypocrisy of a military that trains troops to dehumanize the enemy, then reprimands them when they behave accordingly.
Profane, contemptuous and embittered, the filmmakers offer a complex group portrait of men whose own views of what they're doing in Iraq are constantly shifting, often in dizzyingly contradictory ways. The most complicated of the three is Bazzi, the Lebanon-born soldier who speaks Arabic, reads the Nation, is one of the few in his unit who didn't vote for President Bush and who may be the most gung-ho soldier of them all. As capable of empathy toward Iraqis as he is of offhanded misanthropy, Bazzi presents an unsettling, finally mysterious figure of both dedication and almost existential skepticism.
As commendable as "The War Tapes" is for giving voice to those on the front lines who are often voiceless, it's just as important for what it leaves out in the form of cant or bias. The film's director, Deborah Scranton, has scrupulously made sure that some questions remain unanswered. The most looming one, of course, is why U.S. troops are in Iraq in the first place, and each man comes to terms with that issue in his own way. Maybe one of their National Guard colleagues puts it best at the beginning of "The War Tapes," when a camera eavesdrops on a stateside telephone conversation with his family. "Daddy's gotta go to work," he says resignedly. "Why? Just because."
The War Tapes (97 minutes, at Landmark's E Street) is not rated. It contains pervasive, strong profanity and graphic scenes of war-related violence, injuries and death.