For the first time in nearly two generations, war has become a daily focus for Americans. Every day it’s in the papers and on the nightly news. And with good reason: since Mar. 19, 2003, 1,600 U.S. troops have died in Iraq—at a rate of slightly more than two per day. More than 12,000 soldiers, sailors, airmen and marines have been wounded. No one knows how many Iraqis have died, but the best estimates top 22,000.
Sent to topple dictator Saddam Hussein’s murderous regime and neutralize his supposed weapons of mass destruction, the U.S Army and Marine Corps have instead become guardians of a disintegrating state wracked by ethnic divisions, murderous sectarian violence and a jihadist insurgency. There is no end in sight or timetable for U.S. withdrawal.
Gunner Palace is a new documentary that represents the latest attempt to show civilian audiences what it’s like to fight this war. It’s played on the Mainland to rave reviews. It’s a gritty, tragic, humorous and compelling portrayal of young soldiers caught in a bloody maelstrom few stateside understand or care about. The hour and a half documentary screens here for the first time at the Maui Arts and Cultural Center on June 1 as part of the Maui Film Festival’s Wednesday film series.
“I walked into Gunner Palace in September 2003 with a simple desire to tell the soldiers’ story—to capture what we didn’t see on the news,” said director Michael Tucker. “To do so, I left my personal opinions and my preconceptions about the war at the gate and tried to get as close to the subject as possible. I looked at the subject not as news, but as living history; an experience, not an event.”
Palace focuses on soldiers of the 3rd Field Artillery Regiment’s 2nd Battalion—trained to fire big howitzers and cannons—who’ve been cannibalized into infantrymen. At the time of filming they were based in one of Uday Hussein’s ostentatious though bomb-damaged palaces in the heart of Baghdad—a strangely luxurious backdrop for an already surreal war.
Tucker joined the unit four months after President George W. Bush stood on the deck of the U.S.S. Abraham Lincoln and said, “Major combat operations in Iraq have ended. In the battle of Iraq, the United States and our allies have prevailed.” As we all now know, 1,500 U.S. servicemen and women have died in Iraq since then and another 10,000 or so have been wounded in what the soldiers of Gunner Palace deride as “minor combat operations.”
The documentary is considered intensely realistic, so much so that Tucker fought the Motion Picture Association of America’s (MPAA) January 2005 ruling that the film’s numerous instances of soldiers saying “fuck”—probably the most common word uttered on the battlefield—it would be Rated R. Tucker wanted a PG-13 rating so young people could see it before reaching enlistment age.
On Feb. 24, Tucker got his wish. The MPAA Appeals Board voted 9-3 to re-rate Palace PG-13. Even teens, the movie industry’s most powerful lobbying arm seemed to admit, would benefit from seeing actual combat footage.
One of the first to attempt an extended filming of the American combat infantrymen’s life was John Laurence of CBS News. In 1970—five years into the Vietnam War—he, two cameramen and a soundman began traveling with a unit of the 2nd Battalion of the 7th Cavalry Regiment. It was a storied outfit that achieved fame by being massacred at Little Big Horn in 1876 and was then nearly wiped out again 89 years at the Ia Drang valley in Vietnam’s Central Highlands. Laurence’s resulting documentary, The World of Charlie Company, won every major broadcast award in 1971.
“If we spent enough time with one small unit, a squad perhaps, the soldiers might trust us enough to talk honestly about the war,” Laurence wrote in his 2002 memoirs The Cat from Hue. “Some of the soldiers in the squad might be wounded or killed. And that, we believed, would give viewers a measure of individual human loss in the war.”
At first, Laurence got more resistance from his bosses at CBS than the army, which initially loved the idea, though they insisted on picking the unit Laurence and his crew would document. Still, they went to great lengths to help—at one point, senior officers even offered to delay rotating out the company commander if Laurence thought the move would harm the continuity of his film.
At first, things went well. The soldiers—many of which were draftees who chose serving in Vietnam instead of fleeing to Canada or going to jail—loved having the CBS crew around. After the novelty of having a camera crew trail them wore off, the soldiers freely talked of how they hated the war, had no idea why they were still fighting and resolved to avoid killing. But when Laurence filed an Evening News report about how the unit had balked at a new commander’s order to walk down a road—their previous commander had drilled into them that such actions invariably led to ambushes—the Army freaked out.
Commanders began asking for editorial changes in Laurence’s reports, which he refused. Then they ruled that no news organization could visit troops in the field without a public information officer. When Laurence ditched his assigned handler, the Army banned him from returning to Charlie Company barely three weeks after they arrived.
There’s no question Laurence and his crew produced an extraordinary portrait of war, but Laurence’s memoirs show he left a lot out. At one point early in the project, Laurence wrote in The Cat from Hue that he found himself in the middle of a surreal drug-fueled party, complete with rock music and the playful firing of live ammunition into the brush. None of it appeared in his documentary.
For 24 years following the CBS project, the Pentagon banned reporters from getting anywhere near combat units. Then a few months before the Iraq invasion, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld suddenly lifted the restriction and allowed the press to “embed” themselves with soldiers and marines.
The Public Broadcasting news magazine Frontline took advantage of those new rules. Their hour-long documentary A Company of Soldiers aired Feb. 22 (you can watch it at www.pbs.org/wgbh/pages/frontline).
This new documentary chronicled the life of the 8th Cavalry Regiment’s headquarters support company throughout November, 2004. Whereas Laurence filmed draftees openly wearing peace symbols and cursing the Army, the Frontline crew found professional, regular army volunteers who strongly supported their presence and mission in Iraq.
Normally a rear-area unit manning desks, the realities of the Iraqi counter-insurgency war converted them to a combat unit hunting insurgents in armored Humvees and manning checkpoints. Though operating in an urban environment, one soldier says on camera that the troops can “never fully relax.”
Like the Vietnam troops filmed by CBS, these soldiers play chess when back at their base, worry about their loved ones back home and try to get on as best as they can as their friends are killed and wounded.
“[W]e were left to our own devices and allowed to film everything, with no restrictions,” wrote co-producer Edward Jarvis on the Frontline website. “We selected the unit we wanted to be with and we chose those whom we wanted to film.”
Jarvis added that the crew’s “embedding agreement” required them to show the completed film to the Pentagon before broadcast, but for “security clearance only.
“Their only request was blur the name of an intelligence officer named in a document which appears briefly in the film,” wrote Jarvis. “Everything else is a faithful documentation of this company of soldiers during the month we spent with them last November.”
Faithful, that is, except where language is concerned. Worried about trouble from the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), Frontline actually offered an edited version of its documentary to the 170 PBS affiliates around the country. Fearing a backlash from the notorious anti-“smut” FCC, most went with the clean version.
Documentaries like Gunner Palace provide superb snapshots of soldiers in the field, but they have limitations. Sam Fuller, who directed the outstanding war movie The Big Red One and fought in Europe during World War II, thought movies and film documentaries could never capture the true realities of war.
“You can never do it,” he said. “The only way is to fire live ammo over the heads of the people in the movie theater.”
Eugene B. Sledge knew that well. A freshman in college when he joined the U.S. Marines in late 1942, Sledge fought in two of the bloodiest battles of the Pacific War. His 1981 memoirs With the Old Breed—based on a secret diary he kept during the war in defiance of Marine Corps regulations—illustrate the absolute impossibility of conveying the full wartime experience to an audience sitting in an air-conditioned home or theater.
As Sledge made clear, horror was everywhere in the Pacific during the war. Neither side thought the other was completely human, and each acted accordingly. Japanese soldiers considered prisoners dishonored. They starved, beat and killed them with a ferocity that made the Nazi treatment of American prisoners seem gentle.
On the American side, soldiers and marines collected the skulls of Japanese soldiers killed in action—even mounted them on the hoods of Jeeps. The barbaric practice became so widespread that Washington had to issue an official ban.
Consider the following incident from the battle for Pelelieu, in which Sledge watched a fellow member of Tom Brokaw’s “Greatest Generation” use his kabar knife to extract a gold tooth from a living prisoner:
“Because the Japanese was kicking his feet and thrashing about, the knife point glanced off the tooth and sank deeply into the victim’s mouth,” wrote Sledge. “The Marine cursed him and with a slash cut his cheeks open ear to ear. He put his foot on the sufferer’s lower jaw and tried again. Blood poured out of the soldier’s mouth… Another Marine ran up, put a bullet in the enemy soldier’s brain, and ended his agony. The scavenger grumbled and continued extracting his prizes undisturbed.”
The problems presented to a documentary producer by such a scene are staggering. But that assumes troops would simply let a civilian film crew document their atrocities.
And that begs a whole new round of questions: Do troops in the field act differently in the presence of a film camera? Is it possible for them to forget there’s a camera watching them? Are the images we’re watching authentic or played up for visual effect?
For the sake of argument, let’s say a camera was able to record Sledge’s buddy plunging his knife into a prisoner’s jaw without his realizing it. But even if an audience is willing to sit through it, they still won’t have a completely “realistic” view of war.
That’s because the true nature of war transcends visual imagery. War degrades, desensitizes and demeans. War is long periods of boredom in which nothing whatsoever happens. War is an indeterminate yet unmistakable smell of black powder, rot, sweat, garbage and decay.
During the bloody battle for Okinawa in 1945, Sledge and his unit found themselves pinned down for days in a muddy wasteland. All around them were maggots feasting equally on the corpses of dead Americans and Japanese.
“The stench of death was overpowering,” Sledge wrote 36 years later. “The only way I could bear the monstrous horror of it all was to look upward away from the earthly reality surrounding us, watch the leaden gray clouds go skudding over, and repeat over and over to myself that the situation was unreal—just a nightmare—that I would soon awake and find myself somewhere else… I existed from moment to moment, sometimes thinking death would have been preferable. We were in the depths of the abyss, the ultimate horror of war.”
Both Frontline’s A Company of Soldiers and Gunner Palace have earned rave reviews across the political spectrum. Unlike John Laurence’s Charlie Company, the current documentaries on Iraq are completely bereft of politics. They make no judgment on the merits of the invasion and occupation of Iraq.
If done well, war documentaries like these appeal to all sides. Pacifists see in them evidence of good, young men sent far away to risk death for hazy goals while jingoists see the same men performing an ancient duty honorably and professionally.
The flaw in that arrangement is that the soldiers on screen become arbitrary pawns bereft of any ideology at all. Anyone who’s seen Das Boot already knows this—that movie is so compelling most people forget they’re sympathizing with a Nazi U-Boat crew.
But war is political. Politics—specifically President George W. Bush’s promise to destroy the “stockpiles” of nuclear, biological and chemical weapons he insisted Saddam Hussein was hiding—sent a couple hundred thousand men and women to Iraq. And politics will keep those soldiers there for many years to come—weapons of mass destruction or not.
Gunner Palace runs 89 minutes and is Rated PG-13. It will show Wednesday, June 1 at 5 p.m. and again at 7:30 p.m. at the MACC’s Castle Theater in Kahului. Tickets $10. For more information, call 572-3456. MTW