Thanks to my proximity to Fort Bragg, I had the opportunity tonight to catch an early screening of Jake Rademacher’s Brothers at War, a documentary that details Jake’s journey to Iraq to learn more about why his two brothers serve in the military and what their service is like. Because many of the soldiers depicted in the film are stationed at Fort Bragg, Fayetteville proved to be an ideal audience for the film. Other screenings were held this week in Columbus, GA, and Jacksonville, NC, cities near military bases, as well as Chicago and Washington. The screening is part of a larger planned roll-out that will have the film expand to 20 cities next Friday. Rademacher’s film seems to defy the conventions of most Iraq War documentaries. Roger Ebert, for example, comments that he has “been waiting for this film since the early days of the war in Iraq” and credits the film’s honesty and authenticity. Soldiers and spouses in attendance, including several participants in the film, all described the film as a “real” portrait of the war. But I found myself unable to reconcile the narrative of war and military life depicted in Brothers at War with other images, other documentaries I’ve seen, although I think the storiy that Rademacher has told has helped me to understand my fellow citizens here in Fayetteville a little better, and for that, the film deserves a lot of credit.
Because of my place here in Fayetteville, writing about this film presents unique challenges. In fact, I’ve likely seen many of the soldiers depicted in the film here in town, perhaps at a local grocery store or watering hole. They may have held the door open for me as I was entering a convenience store or restaurant. Living here has put a slightly more human face on the war, even as my opposition to the war has deepened. I’m prefacing my response to the film with these comments because I’m still grappling with the material in the film and the conditions of its production.
In many ways, Brothers at War appears to be a relatively straightforward documentary. Jake, the oldest brother, wants to learn more about his two brothers’ military service and becomes embedded with his younger brother Isaac’s unit. The first third of the film gently mocks Jake’s relative softness as compared to his younger brother. We see that the barracks in which Isaac is stationed are surrounded by cement walls nine inches thick, and Jake records footage for about three weeks, goes on a relatively eventless mission, the biggest highlight a mysterious car that appeared briefly, and Jake goes home. Still feeling as if his younger brother, Joe, doesn’t fully respect him, however, Jake returns, and during the second trip, he does witness a brief skirmish in which several soldiers are wounded, including several Iraqi soldiers the unit has been training.
These scenes clearly convey the sacrifices the soldiers are making, and I don’t want to deny that, but this is also a moment that seemed to illustrate a limit, either to the grunts-eye documentary in general or to Brothers at War in particular, in that the film is unable to place the soldiers’ actions inside of any meaningful context other than the ideal of being a soldier. All of the soldiers and family members return to the idea of sacrifice and duty, and yet there is almost no connection to a larger political context. In one barracks shot, a soldier’s “W ’04” bumper sticker is clearly visible, but that’s about the only “politicized” image we see. This lack of overt political statement prompted Ebert to see the film as not offering a pro-war position, and yet, the meaning the soldiers get from the war, the degree to which they are seen as “becoming men” by serving seems to suggest otherwise. In fact, in writing this review, I am reminded of Chris Hedges’ thesis that war gives us a sense of meaning: “Only when we are in the midst of conflict does the shallowness and vapidness of our lives become apparent. Trivia dominates our conversations and increasingly our news. And war is an enticing elixir. It gives us resolve, a cause. It allows us to be noble.”
This contrast between triviality and seriousness is an ongoing theme in the film. Soldiers talk about returning home and going to the local Wal-Mart and feeling offended when customers complain about their cell phone bill or about the quality of the meat at the deli counter. Others mock the gossip rags that obsess over Tom Cruise’s latest antics. All of the soldiers Rademacher interviews argue that war has matured them and given them a sense of purpose. And this is where I began to find Bothers at War to be a little unsettling: we see the sense of meaning that is derived from the war. I think this is where many soldiers complain about documentaries that are more explicitly ambivalent about the war, such as Gunner Palace and Occupation: Dreamland: these films are less willing to find “meaning” in the war and therefore seem to obscure the successes and “good things” accomplished by the soldiers. To be clear, it’s not that I don’t believe that soldiers aren’t doing “good things;” I’m just skeptical of the suggestion, implied in the film, that depicts (as Hedges suggests of previous war narratives) “the ensuing suffering as necessary for a higher good.”
I also struggled a bit with the assertion that Hollywood is unfriendly to pro-war or pro-military narratives. Those of us who opposed the war often see things through the opposite lens, believing that the mainstream media was largely supportive of the war in Iraq until the insurgency made it relatively unpopular. In fact, if anything, the film’s final sequences, complete with the use of downbeat music and perfectly lit soldiers and their families suggested nothing more to me than a cross between Deborah Scranton’s The War Tapes and Steven Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan. And yet the claim by Rademacher and by the film’s executive producer, Gary Sinise that Hollywood refuses to tell such stories seemed to be taken at face value, allowing the filmmakers to depict the film as “oppositional,” if not to any political institution to the institution of Hollywood itself. Of course, Hollywood is far from a homogeneous culture, and even Sinise admitted that Hollywood’s primary motivation is money.
That being said, Rademacher has powerfully told a story about his family’s experience with the war, about the role of military life for himself, his brothers and sisters, and his parents, and for anyone who wants a better understanding of the sacrifices experienced by military families, this film provides that. Rademacher knows how to tell a story, and his subjects are very candid about their experiences. Despite any political reservations I might have, Brothers at War is an important contribution to our ongoing attempts to doucment the Iraq War and should be seen by a wider audience.