There Wasn't a Front Line

Interview with Michael Tucker and Jon Powers

by Cynthia Fuchs


Mike Tucker is a tall guy, weary and earnest. He’s made films in and about Vietnam, the Philippines, Cuba, Bosnia and Croatia. And now he’s made a documentary (Gunner Palace), with his German-born wife/partner Petra Epperlein, about US troops in Baghdad, during two months in 2003. He’s promoting the film with one of those soldiers, Jon Powers, now home, after long months of stop-lossing and uncertainty. Compact, careful when he speaks, and also quick to laugh, Powers believes the film shows his experience accurately, while acknowledging that “truth” remains elusive.

PopMatters: The film evokes Michael Herr’s Dispatches, in its original form especially, a series of articles for Esquire that tried to capture what it felt like, day-to-day, to be in war. Even as the war in Iraq is purported to be so accessible to media, it eludes description and comprehension.

Michael Tucker: I think there’s a myth about access. It’s a dual myth, one that says that it’s like a stage-managed war, there are minders and censors crawling all over and the truth will never come out. But I think that’s more of a convenient excuse for networks who don’t [follow through]. News has changed, totally. There are too many channels, it’s happening very fast, low attention span. But if this was 30 years ago, people would have made films like this. Morley Safer would have gone, like he did to Vietnam, and would have made a 60 minute film about a company in Bin Hua. There was The Anderson Platoon, Charlie Company, and those are definitely inspirations.

But I think the other side of the myth is a kind of self-censorship, in people who walk into a situation knowing what they want from it. So they walk in wanting to hear soldiers say, “Screw Rumsfeld.” And I’ve gotten emails like that, people asking me to find soldiers who will say something specific. Of course I can. But that’s the surface. The other stuff, if you read Dispatches, you’ll hear references to LBJ, as part of the language, as the Long Binh Jail or LBJ. If you read The Things We Carried, is that political discourse, in the soldiers’ day to day existence? No. But because this war is so politicized right away, and because there is such a separation between public perception and ground reality, they expect the soldiers to voice their dissent. But it’s a volunteer army, a professional army. And while some of those elements do exist, there are so many other things the soldiers are worried about. People ask to hear about the fraggings. As far as I know, there’s been only one fragging, and that was before the war even started.

PM: And that was in Kuwait.

MT: Right. But there are all these preconceptions about what the war is. Or people ask me all the time, “Where’s the violence?” but when I screen it with soldiers in attendance, they look at someone who asks that like, “What are you, a dumb shit? What part don’t you understand?” It doesn’t meet your definition of violence… because the violence is casual, like punctuation, not climax. It’s hard to comprehend. Look at the uproar about [NBC correspondent] Kevin Sites’ videotape of the Marine shooting an Iraqi in Fallujah. What a terrible position he was in. I think he did the right thing, but he couldn’t win.

PM: Do you think that “uproar” has to do with the ostensible split between supporting the troops and opposing the war?

MT: I think that division no longer holds, that there are larger issues, like stop-lossing and the military being overstretched, and the families carrying the burden. And there are social issues within the military, like how do you survive these repeated deployments, or how the returning wounded are being treated. Then there’s the National Guard and the Reserves, issues you didn’t have to deal with in Vietnam. People also ask, “How are the soldiers when they come home?” Well, most don’t come home. They go back to posts and play professional solider again. What we—my wife/co-director [Petra Epperlein] and I—struggle with is how do you keep it honest and accurate? The news media temptation would be to make a greatest hits compilation.

PM: Or to narrate it, so it has a clear beginning, middle, and end.

MT: Yes. But what would be the end? The war isn’t over, number one. And we don’t even know where the beginning was. The structure of Gunner Palace represents the experience: it’s fragmented, chaotic, changing constantly. And unit cohesion is very different in this war than in previous wars. These guys in the film are doing it as a group, but some units are rotating in and out.

PM: Jon, how long were you in Iraq?

Jon Powers: Fourteen months. I personally got stop-lossed, when Sadr’s militia started up. Our replacements were on the ground, we were training them up to take over the sector, but we got extended for two weeks, then three weeks, then 90 to 100 days. Even then, we didn’t have a countdown. No one knew.

MT: When you got there though, how much longer did you have on your contract?

JP: I was supposed to get out of Iraq, like February. One of the scariest things is, we had 10 guys who literally drove to the airport in Baghdad in January, only to be told that morning that stop-loss had come into effect. We were shocked. Their families on the other side were waiting for them to come home, too. And then they didn’t leave until July. That was pretty heartbreaking.

PM: Can you talk about how the hip-hop works in the film, or maybe how it shapes or helps to capture experiences in the war?

MT: The freestyle was kind of an accident, because those guys just started materializing. Like, during that scene at the pool, the “Gunnerpalooza,” they gathered in a room and we did a crude recording. And we did others when I went back the second time. To me that was a good component, as was Stuart with his guitar. You didn’t mean it to become a musical, but they were hard to resist. The rap tells the story, it’s a little bit like cadence, in army tradition, which comes from chain gang songs. It’s a good way to twist words.

PM: Did you find that expectations have been shaped by media?

MT: Totally. You see some reporter getting off the bus from Jordan or something, and he looks just like John Malkovich from The Killing Fields, and he has his scarf around his head and like, six Leicas on his neck. To the soldiers, same thing, that’s how you learn behaviors.

PM: But it’s a different thing to come to war having watched Full Metal Jacket or Apocalypse Now, as opposed to Sands of Iwo Jima.

MT: Yeah, they’re conditioned to think war is this kooky, postmodern thing. Like, there’s no reason to tap your magazine on your helmet, except that it looks cool.

JP: (laughs) Absolutely no reason. But people take those images and transplant them into the position they’re in now. Guys in Vietnam were walking around in the jungle and flying in helicopters while we’re riding around in Humvees through town.

MT: At the beginning of the film, you see one guy in the Humvee, his leg hanging out, and you know he’s imagining himself a door-gunner. When I was a kid, that’s all I wanted to be. It’s the greatest recruitment material in the world. I remember that [legendary Vietnam war journalist] Tim Page wrote in his autobiography that the New York Times wanted him to write a piece that took the glamour out of war, but he knew, you can’t take the glamour out of war. War is glamorous. It’s seductive, cinematically.

JP: From the outside. The American people love it when it’s in the news or it’s a burst of excitement. But when it persists over time, like Fallujah, it’s not so thrilling.

MT: We were with some Congressional aides the other day and these young guys were asking, “So, there wasn’t any violence?” He was judging the war based on what he thought he saw, which is like less than three percent of what’s going on.

JP: The biggest threat is those IEDs [improvised explosive device]. Those are the violence that hangs over our heads. We weren’t worried about turning the corner on Omar Street and finding a platoon full of insurgents with guns. It was rolling around a corner and a garbage bag blowing up, ripping to shreds the Humvee, and then a five-second burst of small arms fire, and that was it. The violence just hung there. There wasn’t a front line… There’s that scene where Captain Garcia is walking up to the IED on the side of the road. And everyone’s waiting for it to explode. It doesn’t, and it’s such a relief. But then you come on the next garbage bag and you go through it all again.

PM: So how does this policy develop, that you keep sending people out to check these devices, without a front line?

MT: Someone has to do it.

JP: They had a dead dog once, stuffed with an IED. Luckily someone saw the wires. It’s sick.

MT: They were also opening up the curbs at night and putting explosives in them. So the guys who had to roll down the streets first thing in the morning might see something that looks suspicious and fire their 50s at the curb.

JP: There’s also a robot, from EOD, but that’s so much effort, and there are so few of them. And there are tons of IEDs.

PM: How does boot camp help to prepare you for war? Or can it?

JP: One of the things that is now changing is that since we’ve been in this for two years, we have Operation Iraqi Freedom vets to come back and tell new recruits what you’ll face and what you need to train up to do. We were, I won’t say test bunnies, but we were the initial ones. And we developed into that group of vets who are now going back. That was one of the major stresses, was having artillery guys and having them be flexible enough to go into a house. They definitely don’t teach that in basic training. Now you’re policing, you’re the mayor of the town, you’re everything.

PM: What was the feeling you got from the Iraqis in the area around the palace where you were staying?

JP: The palace, since it was Uday’s, was something they’d never seen before, so they were in shock to see what he had there. But it’s not like when we got there we opened it up for public display. We turned it into our base.

MT: One thing was that Saddam’s name was everywhere, like written 99 times on the ceiling. “Saddam is great, Saddam is merciful, Saddam is supercool.” It’s emotional for the Iraqis to be without this icon in place. It’s a long process, just to adapt. Not that it’s a perfect situation, because it is extremely violent, but commerce has exploded there. There are two levels of things going on, the insurgency and the transformation to a commercial culture.

JP: We were at a shop one time and a kid cut his foot open and I went into a medical bag and pulled out a band-aid to put on his foot. And I was suddenly surrounded by kids. They’d never seen a band-aid before, and they were 10 years old.

MT: I knew this guy who was running a program where the kids, for “back to school” day, would have book bags and pencils, which was kind of cool. But shortly after the schools were open, the violence erupted. So no one could go to school.

JP: But there’s got to be those occasional flashes of optimism, just to keep people going.

MT: But wait, where those guys were, the CPA said that nine billion dollars went missing. My favorite story is the 12 million dollars delivered by the CPA in a truck. They wanted to pay teachers. They sent in the truck and left it, and meanwhile, the soldiers were begging for money to pay for garbage pick-up. If they had only worked with the people who were already there, the soldiers, the local administrators, the NGOs, so many great things could have been accomplished. But the command was so centralized, there was no way they could know what was needed in any specific place.

JP: I could have picked up garbage in my sector, which hadn’t been picked up in more than 120 days, for $30 a week, and we could not get a contract. Two months later, after it had been built up even more, the contract comes up for thousands of dollars. But by then, the damage was done, to morale and trust. There was no plan for reconstruction.

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