Hey, Camera Guy
“Holy shit,” says Isaac Rademacher when he sees his brother Jake come back from a mission outside Mosul, in Iraq. “You look like fucking poop.” Isaac is a captain in the marines. Jake is a civilian, a filmmaker who has come to Iraq to discover what it is his two brothers—Isaac and Joe—do exactly.
Jake’s self-appointed mission forms the basis of Brothers at War, in which he seeks to understand his brothers by experiencing a version of the war they’re fighting. His version is not theirs, of course. Cpl. Frank McCann, leader of the sniper team that takes him out during one segment, calls him “Hollywood,” less derisively than descriptively. Jake takes a camera with him wherever he goes, which makes him different, as does the fact that he’s not a trained shooter or technician in the military. His documentation is subjective and sentimental—he makes no bones about that—and it is also na•ve, frankly awed by what he sees and feels and unafraid to express it.
This means that what Jake finds in Iraq can’t be quite what he was looking for. He cannot know what it has been like for Isaac, whose multiple deployments (he’s on a third tour) keep him away from his young wife Jenny and baby daughter Hunter (when you say goodbye to a loved one going to war, she says, “You just hope you can see that person again”). He also can’t quite know what Joe’s life is like, being the youngest of five brothers and, especially, watching his bipolar brother die of his suicide effort. “It was a vey traumatic moment for me, you know,” Joe says, “Seeing him on the couch, not breathing and having to perform CPR. The most traumatic moment so far, nothing has topped that so far over in Iraq. It hurts to lose a fellow soldier, but nothing hurts as bad as watching your brother die.”
It is striking that Brothers at War approaches this profound and complicated relationship between brothers by way of trauma and death. As Joe speaks over images of him as a child alongside young Thad, before his diagnosis, smiling and suntanned, the film suggests that a particular loss drives Joe. Jake, on the other hand, seems motivated to please Joe, to measure up in some way. Though he says more than once that he’s not like Joe or Isaac (“I’ll never be hard enough for Joe, which is fine with me. I’m 30 now, I’m a big pussy, I’m fine with that”) he nevertheless decides to go back for a second “tour” himself, following an initial three and a half weeks in Iraq. “I don’t know what Joe needs,” Jake says, “Joe needs me to kill somebody, go out and get some confirmed kills. Then he’ll be able to sit with me at the dinner table.”
Even as Jake goes over again, this time tagging along on multiple cordon searches and raids, his feelings aren’t quite Joe’s. Though neither brother is especially voluble, Joe is occasionally terse, often emphatic. “You have to have force,” Joe asserts, “A sheepdog to protect the sheep from the wolves… A sheepdog is organized chaos.” Jake’s response to the nighttime raids is slightly different. Though the film shows him bonding with the guys, riding along in NVG green frames, tense with anticipation of what can’t be known, he also feels something else, he says, a “deeper empathy for the Iraqi people and their struggle.” The film remains focused on the questions of brothers—by blood and by military unit and so doesn’t illustrate this evolving empathy; yet, infrequent shots reveal Iraqi civilians, waving and watching, their feelings left unexpressed, their “struggle” mostly unseen.
Jake’s feelings, by contrast, are everywhere in his film. In order to discover what his brother Joe, a sniper, might experience on combat missions, he accompanies sniper McCann and his partner Cpl. Brandon Mongo Phillips. As they scope targets or eat M&Ms, the men discuss their work. McCann observes, “There’s only one way to get rid of the bad guys and that’s to just kill ‘em. To beat these people, you’ve gotta act just like ‘em. It’s a little strange when you shoot ‘em, especially when you watch ‘em and their eyes go white. It’s a little weird.” Still, he insists, killing can become pleasurable, or at least desirable, “Like when you get a tattoo, you kinda want another.”
Brothers at War doesn’t dig too deeply into the training that produces the capacity for killing, or the politics of the mission (some of the men Jake interviews in country claim they don’t know why they’re there or fall back on that most tried and earnest motivation, they’re only in it for their fellows). One unit that brings Jake along jokingly calls him “camera guy,” setting him safely inside a vehicle as they head off into the night. Another is training Iraqi soldiers (to shoot not in the air, but straight at “the terrorists”), and yet another breaks down an encounter with him back at Buckeye Base: “Did you get some good footage of them blowing up that place?” one asks. Jake admits that he ran out of tape, but thinks he has some decent images. “We got somewhat of an honest journalist,” the men laugh, and Jake smiles along with them.
For all the film’s focus on the brothers (and their parents’ pride in them, too often accompanied by an overbearing score), such exchanges between Jake and other soldiers, other sorts of brothers, are most compelling. Intimate but also abstract, immediate and metatextual, these glimpses of what war might do, how it affects and overdetermines relationships among soldiers, suggest that the process of war will remain unfathomable. The film doesn’t pretend to discover how men (or women) are convinced to participate, despite all odds, in such trauma. It does offer one experience, less representative than multiply resonant.