In talking to people who support the administration's Iraq policy, I've gotten used to hearing them say that they know all this bad news on TV is blown out of proportion, because they know someone in the military who's over there, or know someone who knows someone who's in the military over there, and this phantom is always calling up to say that it's actually heaven--like Mr. Roger's Neighbor with cheaper hookers.
I thought about how many times I've heard that while watching Michael Tucker and Petra Epperlein's documentary Gunner Palace, which was shot among the members of a field artillery unit stationed in the remains of "Uday's party palace" during two visits the film crew made to Iraq in late 2003 and early 2004. The soldiers interviewed in the movie keep referring, almost reflexively, to the people sitting at home watching the news "as a movie" or a reality show who have no idea what it's like for them, stuck in an unofficial combat zone (the period captured here begins after President Junior's famous declaration of an end to "major combat"), surrounded by people who hate them and may try to kill them, and assigned to duties they don't understand and have no real training in. (They're acting as policemen and "truant officers" when, as Tucker puts it in his narration, they "live to blow stuff up.") I especially thought about them when one wiry, mildly distraught-looking dude says that when he tries to explain to people in the States what it's like, they can't process it and just zone out. He describes what conditions he's working in and what it's like and how scary it is and they go, "So, you can just go shopping all day?"
Gunner Palace is the movie that Ken Tucker recently scolded in New York magazine for being "inept at conveying in what sense it's on the soldiers' side," thus earning him an ass-whipping from James Wolcott for the suggestion that there's anything wrong with attacking American soldiers for their lapses into bully-boy behavior. Actually, the movie that I saw seemed to almost bend over backwards to make it clear that it's on the soldier's side. The worst part of it is Tucker's terse narration, which in its manly deep tones and reserved-tough-guy swagger suggests a put-on of Joe Frank. There's an episode early on showing the soldiers checking out a possible "improvised explosive device" IED that turns out to be an empty paper bag flapping in the road. "They shut down traffic going both sides for fifteen minutes," Tucker says, "and the Iraqis are laughing at us." That gratuitous reference to "the Iraqis" mocking the scared American boys is a thumb on the scale tipping the scene towards a demand that we not just feel for the soldiers and share their rage--rage that we can see erupting when they bash in doors on raids and taunt a trussed-up Iraqi journalist, yelling at him to shut up over and over, or when one of them giggles while talking about the fear he managed to inspire in some captives he'd been terrorizing.
Gunner Palace has a simple, modest aim: it focuses on what these kids are going through and what it does to them. They're at their most winning when they engage in what comes across as a post-Letterman version of Bill Mauldin-style dogface comedy--when a soldier does an absurdist monologue about what he's been through contrasted with the slow pace of change back in his home town while one of his buddies, standing alongside him, engages in a put-on of a sign-language interpreter, or lies in the pool at Uday's improvising a commercial pitch for Snapple. This veers into something politically charged when one guy brags about the generous funding that's allowed them to "armor" their Humvees with scrap metal, so that "it slows down the bullets so they don't pass through your body", while his pals literally roll on the ground laughing. The filmmakers don't want to get into the issues of the war, but as the Humvee scene (which would never make it into a GOP promotional video) shows, they're not out to whitewash those issues. They take their cues from one of the soldiers, a rapper, who says that we may not like his situation but demands that we respect it. (The movie ends with a long quote from one of the soldiers spread across the screen, saying that he and the others are dodging bullets and bombs "not for a betterIraq" but just "to stay alive.") If Gunner Palace, for all its jangly fascination--and for all its raggedness, it's a fascinating movie--feels frustratingly unresolved, it may because theIraq situation is still so unresolved that it may be too early to look at these lives without considering all the other issues they touch upon. The guys keep going out on raids and trashing people's houses and slapping them in cuffs, and the narration keeps saying lamely that, by the way, there wasn't any evidence found that the people we see being tied up and yelled at were up to anything at all, but they got shipped off to Abu Ghraib anyway. In the footage shot during the filmmaker's first trip toIraq , the supporting cast includes an Iraqi translator called "Mike Tyson"; when the filmmakers return, he's sitting on a couch crying for the bonds tying his hands to be loosened while the Americans tell him to stuff it; they now suspect that he's a spy who's been feeding information to the insurgents. "If it's true," says Tucker, "he's guilty of at least three murders"--which I'll admit to finding a strange choice of words in a combat zone--"and he'll be sent to Abu Ghraib." The problem is we know now that from the moment someone in an American uniform looked at him cross-eyed for whatever reason, there was a pretty surefire chance that he'd be sent to Abu Ghraib whether he was guilty of anything or not. Looking on this sad scene, Tucker can only intone that inIraq , "Nothing is black and white." Especially if you've made up your mind that to pass judgement on anything the Americans do would amount to besmirching the honor of our boys.