Factual · Powerful · Original · Iconoclastic
In announcing The War Tapes winner of the "best documentary feature" at the Tribeca film festival in New York in May, judge and documentary filmmaker Ken Burns labeled the film a "remarkably clear-eyed view of what’s going on there." I’ve been over there doing my own war taping and he’s right. The movie is a desperately-needed antidote to the mainstream media-produced baloney broadcast daily into our homes that rarely includes anything but (1) bombs exploding in Baghdad; (2) bombs exploding in Baghdad; and above all (3) bombs exploding in Baghdad.
Critics have described the film as "disturbing," "humbling," and "truly a grunt’s eye view of the war." Believe it or not, that last one was criticism. It came from leftist screenwriter-director Nora Ephron. The views of grunts and embedded reporters are worthless, Ephron says, because they’re "too close" to the war. Better, apparently, to do all the reporting out of Baghdad’s Al-Rashid Hotel or – better still – from ivory towers. (Stunningly, Ephron also thinks embedding was an evil idea dreamed up for this war. Ever hear of Ernie Pyle, Nora?)
But The War Tapes simply shows the war as it is, for better or worse, primarily through the eyes of three apparently quite average National Guard soldiers. (Two are actually pudgy, unlike the lean, mean fighting machines I was surrounded with on my two deployments.) Producer Deborah Scranton gave them, and other soldiers from the New Hampshire National Guard’s 172nd Infantry Regiment deploying for a year to Camp Anaconda in the Sunni Triangle, mini-DV camcorders. With these they show the boredom, the horror – and yes, the humor – of men given the nasty job of accompanying primarily food convoys past IEDS, RPGs, machine-gun ambushes, and worst of all, suicide car bombers.
The jobs of the three – Zack Bazzi, Steve Pink, and Mike Moriarty – are not the most dangerous in the Army, certainly. They spend most of their time as little more than sitting ducks. Only once, during the Battle of Fallujah, do they have a chance to go on the offensive – they thoroughly relish the opportunity.
The soldiers become increasingly resentful of Halliburton and its subsidiary KBR, and no doubt were delighted with the news last week that their current contract is being canceled. Charges of profiteering aside though, it seems their biggest gripe might come down to it being Halliburton that necessitated most of their harrowing convoys. But you needn’t be familiar with the observation attributed to Napoleon that "an army marches on its stomach" to know that somebody is going to be sending out those trucks. Some of the animosity is also aimed at the pay of Halliburton’s drivers – civilian contractors in Iraq routinely earn more than the troops they serve. Finally, while the 172nd suffered no deaths or maimings during the deployment, we watch as numerous contractors have their vehicles blown up beneath them, with several fatalities.
Mike Moriarity being filmed while filming The War Tapes
None of the Americans has the least bit of sympathy for the enemy. Far from it. Indeed, the only footage withheld by their company commander is that of bad guys literally ripped apart by American machine guns while Pink displays blood lust in his narration. But we still see them in still photos Scranton got from an anonymous guardsman, while Pink narrates "I’m glad these guys are dead" and says he envies those who killed them.
On another occasion, a soldier quips, a la Jimmy Stewart’s daughter in It’s A Wonderful Life: "Every time you hear a boom [from an American weapon], somebody’s going to heaven."
Unfortunately the vast majority of booms are from enemy bombs, which routinely go off in sequences. Trucks are blown to smithereens, sometimes with miraculous escapes by the drivers, and sometimes without. Moriarty, a turret-gunner, has his Humvee blown out from beneath him. The most horrific scene is of a woman who stepped in front of a Humvee and was hit, perhaps dead but perhaps merely unconscious. Not seeing her, 10 trucks run over her and slice here into ever-smaller pieces. The soldiers then have the heartbreaking job of picking up those pieces and putting them into a body bag.
Another startling scene is entirely peaceful, that of the equipment graveyard at Camp Anaconda. One vehicle after another is rusting in a heap after being blasted by IEDs, the terrorists’ weapon of choice. Most viewers assuredly don’t know that the vast majority of IEDS that explode kill or injure no one because—again contrary to what the Baghdad press corps would have you believe—our vehicles and soldiers have excellent armor. But I knew that and it was still an eerie scene. At the least, it brings to mind the irony of how an uneducated goon with perhaps $30 worth of explosives, a wire, a battery, and a blasting cap can destroy a $50,000 vehicle in the blink of an eye.
Scranton says she had no political agenda in producing the film: She simply wanted Americans to see the soldiers’ experiences, whether good, bad, ugly, or heroic. "I believe in the power of empathy," she told a reporter. "So often, people see a soldier and they see an armed cipher."
Ultimately, how did the soldiers feel about their tours of duty? Bazzi cynically points out all the people who make money from the war, but adds that this includes himself. Moriarty asserts we’re there for the oil and that’s as it should be. "This better be about money and if we don’t get that oil and that money then all the lives that are gone . . . they’re all in vain."
But Pink declares, "You’ve heard people say, ’We’re only in it for the oil.’" Listen, he says, "we’re not there for the oil. If it were oil, would that not be enough reason to go into Iraq?" But, he adds, "Let’s all stop crying about whether we had reason to go in there or not because we can fight about that forever. It’s a done deal. We’re in Iraq. Support what it takes to make this thing work or shut up."
Iraq, he says, "will be a better country in 20 years because we were there. I hope."