I’ve just returned from a special screening of Deborah Scranton’s The War Tapes (IMBD), and like many reviewers, including Mick LaSalle, I find myself with a lot to process. As I’ve mentioned here before, The War Tapes takes a novel approach to documenting the soldiers’ experiences of the war in Iraq, with the director Scranton equipping members of Charlie Company, 3rd of the 172nd Mountain Infantry with cameras, allowing them to film their experiences of the war while Scranton remained in communication with the soldiers via IM and email. Ultimately, five soldiers filmed for an entire year, with the stories of three soldiers, Sergeant Steve Pink, Sergeant Zack Bazzi, and Specialist Mike Moriarty featured prominently in the film. The result is a remarkably candid and unsettling portrait of the soldiers’ experiences in Iraq and their struggles to cope with those experiences after the war.
Many of the events depicted in the documentary are remarkably familiar. Much like Michael Tucker’s Gunner Palace, The War Tapes opens in the middle of a battle scene, the first-person camera recording the soldiers’ P.O.V., his gun extended into the bottom of the frame, and like Garrett Scott and Ian Olds’ Occupation: Dreamland, the soldiers in The War Tapes witness the mounting insurgency as it builds momentum in Fallujah. But perhaps because the soldiers themselves were involved in the film’s production, Scranton’s film offers, as LaSalle notes, “an exploration of the soldier mentality,” not to mention an exploration of how that mentality affects those left behind by the soldiers–the wives, mothers, and girlfriends who watch the war from home.
The three soldiers whose stories are depicted in the film, Moriarty, Pink, and Bazzi, also offer three very different perspectives on the war, with Moriarty, who originally joined the Army in 1988 deciding to reenlist and volunteer to deploy to Iraq after September 11, starting out as perhaps the most enthusiastic supporter of the war. During his self-introduction, Moriarty describes taking time off of work to help out with rescue efforts on Septmber 11th. Pink describes the “rough decision” he made to join the Guard in order to pay for his education, while Bazzi, who immigrated with his family from Lebanon when he was ten, explains his desire to become a soldier while also acknowledging that he regrets not being able to choose the war in which he serves, gesturing at one point towards a copy of The Nation, which he sardonically notes “is not a pro-Bush magazine.” Gradually, over the course of the film, Moriarty and Pink in particular become increasingly disillusioned with the war, with both Moriarty and Pink becoming acutely aware of their role in protecting and furthering American financial interests, namely those of Halliburton-KBR. Several of the scenes feature the soldiers escorting Halliburton trucks filled with cheese along perilous roads, protecting drivers who receive salaries that far exceed those of the typical soldier. This ambivalence becomes most explicit when we see the soldiers emptying a sewage truck and noting that the light shining through the sewage is creating a rainbow. One soldier sarcastically wonders whether there’s a “pot of gold at the end of that rainbow.” Perhaps for stockholders in KBR. And while the film cuts from the truck dumping raw sewage to a speech by President Bush, I’ll assume that’s just a coincidence. These scenes also emphasize the plight of “third country nationals,” workers who are hired from outside the US or Iraq to complete dangerous work, often at low wages.
While I appreciated the honesty of all three soldiers, I found Bazzi’s story and perspective most compelling. Because Bazzi was born in Lebanon and relatively fluent in Arabic, he offers a sort of double consciousness, recognizing his role as a soldier but also conscious, at least to some extent, of the perspectives of Iraqis who are seeing their homes and communities destroyed. He also recognizes the process of “othering” that makes the destruction possible, hearing this in the sodliers’ derogatory references to Iraqis as “hajis,” while speculating that Iraqis have similar dehumanizing terms to describe the US soldiers. As a result, Bazzi admits that he often finds himself in the middle, to the point that he eventually declines requests to act as an impromptu translator.
Despite this remarkable candor, I couldn’t help but watch the film with some degree of skepticism. During one early sequence, a soldier recites the Bush administration spin on the war, with Sgt. Pink teasing him to tell us his “honest” opinion about the war. When the soldier demures, Pink responds, saying, “I’m not the media dammit!” In another sequence, a soldier complains that he wasn’t permitted to show footage he had taken of Iraqis killed by an IED. But by including these scenes, Scranton, Moriarty, Pink, and Bazzi are at least acknowledging the potential limits of a soldiers-eye documentary. And the soldiers often demonstrate a powerful literary touch in describing their conditions, with Pink’s journal often working to structure the film while Moriarty takes us on a tour of the “equipment graveyard,” a junkyard filled with trucks, humvees, and other vehicles destroyed by IEDs and RPGs, noting that each of these destroyed vehicles recalls, for him at least, the people who were injured or killed in those vehicles.
The War Tapes concludes with interviews of all three soldiers and their families after they have returned stateside. In all three cases, the soldiers have been changed by the war, with Moriarty’s wife noting that her husband now loses his temper more frequently and Pink noting that many people ask him “ignorant questions” about his experiences. And I think these stateside interviews are the major strength of Scranton’s film, allowing it to provide something unavailable with other embedded documentaries by providing the experiences of soldiers after they’ve returned from the war, and for that reason, The War Tapes is an important contribution to our on-going attempts to understand how wars affect the lives of the soldiers as well as the people around them.