The War Tapes (2006)

[20 July 2006]

By Cynthia Fuchs

PopMatters Film and TV Editor

Moving Cheese

If you didn’t have any faith, you’d probably have a really hard time leaving that wire every day.
—Specialist Mike Moriarty, The War Tapes

“I have a re-occurring epiphany,” writes Sergeant Steve Pink in his journal. “This is happening and will have a lasting effect on me for the rest of my life.” He’s in Iraq, where the war is happening, its effects incalculable, for Pink, his fellow U.S. troops, and millions of Iraqis.

Considering some of these effects, the The War Tapes is primarily comprised of footage shot by New Hampshire National Guardsmen during their year (2004) in the Sunni Triangle. Directed by Deborah Scranton and edited by Steve James (best known for Hoop Dreams), the film (culled from over 1,000 hours of DV tape) focuses on three Guardsmen—24-year-old carpenter and aspiring writer Pink; 24-year-old college student Sergeant Zack Bazzi; and 35-year-old Specialist Mike Moriarty, a mechanic and combat engineer in the Guard since 1988—and their loved ones (Pink’s girlfriend Lindsay, Bazzi’s mother, Moriarty’s wife Randi).

Their observations are acute and harrowing, sometimes funny and always revealing. And they begin at Fort Dix, New Jersey, where fellow troops express their distrust of “the media.” “I’m not the media, damn it,” sighs Pink. But he does wonder whether “there’s any way to truthfully tell a story without putting a slant on it.” His concern with slant, he says, has to do with his being “a substantially patriotic person” who, following 9/11, asked his recruiter to make sure he was sent to Iraq.

Moriarty’s understanding of the war and especially, its execution, changes over the course of The War Tapes. When his young son asks why “daddy’s gotta go to work,” Moriarty says, “Just because,” his duty clear and his dedication earnest. “Every soldier in the past, they’re my heroes,” he says. “Hopefully I’ll be someone’s hero.” Bazzi, as self-described political junkie who reads The Nation, is more pragmatic (he was born in Lebanon to Shiite Muslim parents; his mother notes ironically that they left Lebanon to escape 20 years of civil war and now, her son “is in the worst place in the whole world”). “A lot of soldiers,” Bazzi says, “dramatize that you’re this patriotic… guy, selfless. Ultimately, the average soldier is somebody like you [who] got the call. Yeah, it sucks, but you go.”

On their arrival at Camp Anaconda in Iraq, he’s noting the impressive four inches thickness of the Humvee glass as a mortar hits near the base. He turns his camera to records the explosion: “This still remains a pretty damn dangerous place.” The New Hampshire Guardsmen are assigned mostly “logistical stuff,” that is, providing security for KBR/Halliburton delivery trucks “We’re moving cheese,” says one soldier). KBR, one soldier observes, “have their hands in everything you could think of,” from food to DVD players to Styrofoam plates at $28 a piece; “Everybody who’s there stands to make money, the longer we’re there.”

On the road, they look out for IEDs and RPGs. Pink says what they all know: “You see people out there walking on the road and automatically you assume that they may have something to do with an IED going off. It’s unfortunate for the civilians, but any guy’ll tell you, it’s gonna be our safety before theirs.” Images of detonations are chaotic, the camera hectic, the sound harrowing. Still, the soldiers maintain self-preserving distance: “Today is the first time I shook a man’s hand that wasn’t attached to his arm,” writes Pink in his journal, as he describes his efforts to keep a fellow soldier alive while awaiting medical support.

The film punctuates the soldiers’ footage with (illustrative or ironic) news reports: “The war in Iraq is back on, big time,” says Tom Brokaw on a TV; elsewhere, Bush extols the world’s “newest democracy”) and remarkably candid images from back home. Randi describes Mike’s situation (downsized at a forklift company, he’s been a stay-at-home dad). She supports his decision to go, admitting “If I had held him back he would have been bitter towards me.” They exchange emails illuminating Moriarty’s thinking: “I want you to be proud of your husband,” he writes, “and for the kids to see their daddy as a good man who was brave.” His son carries a backpack from daddy marked “Operation Iraqi Freedom.”

Cut to Moriarty watching children on their way to school. “Here we are in a fighting position,” he says, looking at a boy who “kinda wanders around talking to himself and torturing his little chickens. Moriarty’s voice overlays the image. “He’s in his own little world in the middle of all this stuff… You just hope that they don’t turn bad when they get older, like many of ‘em do.” Moriarty’s camera then shows himself, his dark sunglasses hiding his eyes as his head moves mechanically, back and forth, “securing the perimeter.”

The sense of constant threat, the film suggests, emerges in lack of context and training. “Occupation doesn’t really come naturally for an infantry outfit; it’s there to be an efficient destroying machine,” says Bazzi. Fluent in Arabic, he speaks with locals and also observes the wartime ritual of dehumanizing others by language. “We had ‘gooks’ in Vietnam, this war has ‘hajjis,’” he says. “The bad guys, or the insurgents,” he says, “I’m sure they have their own terms for derogatory term towards us. Maybe it’s just part of human affairs, in war.”

These “affairs” are framed relentless by violence. The citizen soldiers of the Guard tape encounters and results, charred vehicles and blood spots on the ground. They are not allowed to include tape of bodies or severed limbs, though they contend with such trauma daily (Pink says that his footage is “deemed unappropriate footage, probably because of my commentary,” and so he provides commentary over still photos instead). As they’re increasingly unable to make sense of what they’re doing, the guys lament their diurnal assignments (to guard the “poop trucks” and “KBR’s cheesecake”).

Pink begins to wonder about the mission per se. “Do I think we’re making progress?” he asks. “Any country should be allowed to have its own civil war without us interfering.” Moriarty comes at it from another direction, not doubting the charge so much as the implementation. “I support George Bush and everything,” he says. “But for him to say that major combat operations are over kind of conflicts with what we’re seeing every day.” His anguish is most palpable when a convoy truck hits a woman who has run out on the street. “We had to get what was left out of the road,” he says. “I will remember that for the rest of my life, that guy rolling the body onto the body bag and zipping her up,” he explains, while his camera shows the procedure through the windshield. “The Iraqi people are who we’re there to help, and we just killed one of them.”

While the war will eventually be declared over and, perhaps, as Pink hopes out loud, “It will be a better country in 20 years because we were there,” the effects of war never end. Back home, they find it hard to talk about what they’ve been through. The War Tapes, as much as it’s manipulative filmmaking—soundtrack music provides emotional framing, slowed-down action emphasizes distress—helps to communicate their experience.

“They could offer me $500,000 and I would never go back there,” says Moriarty. “I’m so glad I went. I hated it with a god-awful passion.” The documentary doesn’t pretend to resolve such conflict. Lindsay says of Steve Pink, “He doesn’t like to talk about it, it’s still there and it still hurts and I still feel it.” Sana Bazzi remembers her experience while her son was away: “Wake up Iraq, close my eyes, Iraq.” Bazzi remarks the “big demand now” for patriotism, flags, and yellow ribbons. Everyone is making a living off the war, from the ribbon maker, to the companies that make smart bombs to the filmmakers talking to him. As much as it’s dressed up as duty, honor or ideology, war is, in the end, industry.

Beyond reasons or contexts, however, the war is also specific and the effects are, as Pink says, “lasting.” When coworkers ask Moriarty to see pictures he took in Iraq, he resents their subsequent inability to see or comprehend what he shows them. “You look at my f-in’ pictures,” he tells the camera, reconstructing his rage. “Do you have any idea what I’ve done? If I gave them 10 minutes to feel that fear, that loneliness and that sacrifice, they might pay a little bit more attention.” And that’s the point, to pay more attention.

The War Tapes - Theatrical Trailer

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