I had the strangest, most thrilling kind of illusion there, looking at those hills and thinking about the death and mystery that was in them. I would see the thing I knew I actually saw: the base from the ground where I stood, figures moving across it, choppers rising from the pad by the strip, and the hills above. But at the same time I would see the other too; the ground, the troops and even myself, all from the vantage of the hills. It was a double vision that came to me more than once there.
—Michael Herr, Dispatches
I’m protecting life from in the present. No need to like this, but please respect it. This is life.
—Richmond Shaw, Gunner Palace
The members of the 2/3 Field Artillery (the Gunners) know they’re lucky, relatively speaking. They’re in Baghdad’s Adhamiya district, but they’re stationed in “The Love Shack,” one of Uday Hussein’s now-bombed-out pleasure palaces. Each patrol might be their last, but they have access to a swimming pool (still chlorinated, by the looks of it—the U.S. military takes care of its own). Each raid of a suspected bomber’s home or bump-up against an edgy civilian on the street might fatal. And yet, they know, they are alive for now. And that’s more than too many of their fellows can say.
In the remarkable Gunner Palace, Mike Tucker and his partner/wife Petra Epperlein document the two two-month stints he spent with the 2/3. (They go home abruptly midway, his first-person camera revealing family photos on a refrigerator door in Germany, as he wonders aloud about his newfound friends, left behind). Tucker’s voiceover introduces some scenes, expresses the soldiers’ conditions (with “major combat” over, they now face deadly and daily “minor combat”), and explains some terms (an IED is an improvised explosive device, typically left roadside in a plastic bag or a can, just waiting to be investigated by some hapless U.S troop or driven over by an inadequately armored U.S. vehicle). Graffiti indicates as much: “Fuck you USA army go home”), and so the soldiers find respite in one another. As one notes, “When we first got here, they were waving at us. Now, they don’t care too much about you.”
The soldiers feel equally abandoned by an abstract “nation” back home (defined most often as tv viewers, and distinct from their solidly supportive families and networks, themselves frustrated by lack of communication from the military and the administration). “When those guns start blazing and our friends get hit,” raps Spc. Raymond Shaw, using a most eloquent form of narration and self-expression. “That’s when our hearts start racing and our stomachs get woozy. / ‘Cause for y’all this is just a show but we live in this movie.” In country, the troops focus on their duties right now, duties at once routine and unrealistic. They know how to fight and kill (“These guys were trained to stop a Russian advance,” observes one officer, “They live to blow stuff up”), but they’re not quite prepared to police or train Iraqis to police each other. But that’s what they’ve been doing for the past two years. Sgt. Beatty sums up: “This is not my country. When I’m out of here, I’m fucking gone.”
Such sentiment underlines the soldiers’ sense of dislocation, displayed by their disparate activities and the film’s own aptly disjointed structure. Occasionally hard to parse, Gunner Palace emulates the relentlessly herky-jerky rhythms of its subjects’ experience. They’re not gung-ho and they’re not anti-war, they just want to survive. For the most part, Tucker appears to let the camera roll and the soldiers speak for themselves. (It’s worth noting too, that the MPAA Ratings Board granted the film a PG-13, despite 40-something uses of the f-word, rationalizing that the language is a function of the environment, not used salaciously or sexually. What this means for future ratings scuffles or FCC censoring is unknown, but it suggests that images of the war, if nothing else, might disrupt efforts to resist or reframe its definitive and traumatizing violence.)
Because so many journalists spend limited time with military units, and because most of the troops are carefully instructed on what to say and not say, the apparent openness of this film’s subjects is surely striking. For the troops, young and passionate, underprepared and underequipped, life in Baghdad is part adventure, part waking nightmare. Asked “what’s so great about this place,” Spc. Stuart Wilf—pale, skinny, a Hendrix fan—answers readily: “Lovely sights, happy people. And I’ve got a gun.”
As their nickname indicates, their guns define the 2/3’s sense of mission and identity. They spend their nights on “Rough Rider” raids (looking for weapons or enemy planners), while their days are comprised of patrolling or making best efforts at “civic” work. They train the Iraqi National Guard, teach Iraqi women to shoot, go to hospitals where they hold babies and hand out Spongebob toys (“He’s one of my heroes,” asserts Lt. Bill Rabena, solemnly, and you believe him, however you want to). For Spc. Devon Dixon, the war also involves killing. His time, he says, “tore me up pretty bad, but after a while, I learned to deal with it, because I look at as, it’s either gonna be him or it’s gonna be me. And you know, I’m not doing the wrong thing. I’m just following orders.”
As the film underlines in its brilliantly raggedy assembly of fragments, following orders, focusing on the next step, might save your sanity. It’s telling that the troops are so easily distracted by immediate mini-crises, say, a rat in the bunk area. “Dude,” asserts one man in earnest pursuit of the intruder, “It was in my bag!” Managing the small stuff makes the more daunting catastrophes seem like more of the same, as if they might be contained, one moment at a time.
The patrols can be mundane or erupt suddenly into trouble, as when a bomb explodes and a Gunners team arrives to investigate. “The crowd is getting angry, not because the bomb went off,” observes Tucker, “But because we’re there.” The folks on the ground begin to throw rocks, and the troops back off, not wanting to incite more emotion. “That motherfucker almost hit me!” cries out one soldier. And the convoy decides to leave. You have to pick your battles, and this one just isn’t one worth escalating.
Measuring what’s worth engaging takes valuable energy. The difference between truth and lies is hardly easy to see, what with the presumptions that all sides have something to hide, meaning, the U.S. command, the Iraqi “friendlies,” and the Iraqi opposition. Interpreters are assigned to help the intel analysts “figure out if [suspects] are telling the truth or not,” reports one analyst, but it’s clear enough that interviewees—prisoners or invited sheiks—have reasons for not opening up. Gunner Palace thematizes the hopelessness of locating a single truth, in its form and respect for its subjects.
And so, it provides a series of contexts, from jokes at the administration’s expense to solemn veneration for their soldiers’ bonds to music. If the Vietnam war is often remembered by its media soundtrack, generated at the time and imposed by movies afterwards (Hendrix, Country Joe and the Fish, Wagner), the war in Iraq is in the process of developing its own beat, in large part created by its participants. The film uses hip-hop over images of patrols, and also has the soldiers perform their own raps. “I noticed that my face is aging so quickly,” raps Moncrief, “‘Cause I’ve seen more than your average man in his 50s.”
Such declaration of the costs of war seems familiar from films and literature. But Gunner Palace takes Moncrief and his fellows seriously, doesn’t try to explain or sum up their feelings, their sense of commitment to one another and their sense of outrage at the situation. In part, the film achieves such critique by evoking the images that have shaped the troops’ (and your) expectations, then dismantling them. From Apocalypse Now and Full Metal Jacket (a decidedly deconstructive representation) to reality tv, the allusions in Gunner Palace underline the impossibility of comprehension and the need for sincere effort toward that end anyway. As Tucker notes, even his time in Iraq doesn’t make his story representative; he only uses it as a means to tell the troops’ stories, however incompletely.
At times, the kids on patrol resemble the figures in Cops, dark and unreadable in handheld frames. The shots reflect their immersion in an utterly strange environment, briefly interrupted by traces of “home” (laptops, months-old magazines, video games) or the death of their fellows. When one is killed early on, his friends gather to console each other, quoting scripture (John 15:13, “Greater love has no one than this, that he lay down his life for his friends”) and remembering the broad outlines of their guy’s courage and commitment. And then they head out. “Maybe this whole war thing will never end,” says Wilf. Even the glimpse of “this whole war thing” offered in offered in Gunner Palace makes you wish more than ever that it might.