Self-Pitying Rowdies and Mean Slackers

I want to go back to James Wolcott’s discussion of Ken Tucker’s Gunner Palace review because I think this debate illustrates my point about the film’s political ambivalence. As Wolcott notes, Tucker initially implies that the film seems to be “bashing the troops,” specifically that directors Michael Tucker (no relation to Ken) and Petra Epperlein were “were like the people who used to spit on Vietnam veterans when they returned home.” Tucker later withdraws that charge, but in my reading of the film, it seems clear, whatecer your politics, that the point of identification is with the soldiers themselves.

In this sense, Tucker almost thoroughly misreads the film, suggesting that what Palace shows us “is a portrait of self-pitying rowdies.” Ken Tucker points to scenes that portray the soldiers “barking orders laced with obscenities” and “brash soldiers, many not yet out of their teens, running rampant in the bombed-out remains of Uday Hussein’s Azimiya Palace.” Ken Tucker’s review virually ignores the real fears that many of the soldiers articulate, including their subversive jokes about the Humvee “armor” made from scavenged metal sheets. He ignores the fact that Michael Tucker worked to gain the sympathies of the soldiers in order to get them to talk freely on camera. It’s hardly an unsympathetic portait.

Wolcott’s comments on Tucker’s review are also worth noting. Specifically, Wolcott taps into the representational challenge that seems to be so prevalent in discussions of the Iraq War, especially when it comes to portraying soldiers after the Vietnam War. Stories about the treatment of Vietnam vets by anti-war activists, however true, have gained such wide currency that representing the destructive actions of the US military has become a much more difficult task.

Wolcott adds that “No one wants to ‘bash the troops,’ but excusing their behavior as the hothead reaction of ‘kids who happen to have guns’ ‘blowing off steam’ and ‘luckless souls’ makes them sound like the juvenile delinquents in fifties dramas and sociology, not bad, just misunderstood.” Wolcott’s right to note that some actions by the soldiers, the actions at Abu Ghraib to note one example, ought to be criticized, and there are several scenes throughout Gunner Palace where we learn that captured Iraqis have been sent to Abu Ghraib. Because of the focus on teh sodleirs’ experiences, Tuicker never follows through on what happens to these captured “enemy combatants,” but the name Abu Ghraib is probably enough to unsettle us. And staying with the soldiers here may in fact convey the degree to which they are part of a larger machine, much of which is beyond their control. When another soldier comments that he’s “just doing my job,” the scene is utterly chilling.

In confronting these representation issues, the troops appear to be a blank slate, aginst which multiple political narratives can be written, whether that’s Michael Moore’s exploitation argument in F911 or Ken Tucker’s “mean slackers” argument. What I find interesting is that Gunner Palace seems to permit both readings, and possibly many others as well.

Update: The cinetrix discusses this story in further detail, specifically Wolcott’s reference to Jerry Lembcke’s The Spitting Image: Myth, Memory, and the Legacy of Vietnam, which explains that stories about anti-war folks spitting on Vietnam vets were impossible to document or verify.


  1. Andrew Watkins Said,

    March 4, 2005 @ 11:30 am


    I’ve just finished my write-up of Gunner Palace, which I got to see early this week — I talk a bit about this, and link back to you as well, I really liked your review…I’d appreciate you stopping by, hearing what you think.

  2. chuck Said,

    March 4, 2005 @ 12:03 pm

    Andrew, I caught the trackback earlier today but was prepping to teach. I’ll read it this afternoon and leave a longer comment later. Glad you found my review productive.

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