The War Tapes (2006)

[28 May 2007]

By Cynthia Fuchs

PopMatters Film and TV Editor

Lasting Effects

Most times, civilians or people who haven’t served think of soldiers as this monolithic group in lockstep thinking the same way. And in a way that’s kind of insulting. The fact is, many soldiers are aware of the political dynamics behind our being in Iraq and a lot of them have their opinions on it.
—Zack Bazzi, “Views on the War”

Jon Worrall deployed to Iraq with Charlie Company at age 50. This is the introduction to Sergeant Worrall’s 11 minutes of footage on the The War Tapes. Assigned to serve a year as an MP in Iraq just after Christmas in 2003, he joined his (younger) fellow New Hampshire National Guardsmen. In nearly every scene where he appears in this jumble other men’s footage, someone makes a crack about his age. On the shooting range, someone jokes that he’s an “old crusty chief,” another observes that the vaccination he’s about to receive is “embalming fluid.” He adds, “There’s some things the Army’s gotta realize I just can’t do at 50. My mind wants to, my body’s strong enough, but I don’t have the stamina that I used to have.”

In country, he describes an IED explosion, while the camera looks over the effects: his truck is burned and broken. “I think every bone and muscle in my body hurts right now,” he smiles, relieved that he lost no men during the attack. Asked if he saw his attackers, he sighs. “That’s the problem with these IEDs,” says Worrall. “There’s no retribution, there’s no payback. It’s just boom. There’s not a fucking thing you can do about it.”

Worrall’s segment is one of nine included as “extended footage” on the DVD. The theatrical release, culled from over 1,000 hours of DV tape shot by at least 10 Guardsmen, directed by Deborah Scranton and edited by Steve James, focuses primarily on three Guardsmen, as well as their families back home. Worrall’s story is very different from that of the three in the film—24-year-old carpenter and aspiring writer Sergeant Steve 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.

His wife worries that he’s got to have knee replacement surgery on his return, his daughter cuddles a teddy bear outfitted with an Operation Iraqi Freedom t-shirt while remembering that her classmates teased her while her father was in Iraq. “They say, like, dad has to go to the bathroom in the middle of the field and he stinks. He can’t take a shower.” She makes a face: “Nnnnh: I just wanna strangle them.” Krista’s frustration is all kinds of affecting. Her family’s situation is a function of her dad’s specific role in this specific war, called up when he shouldn’t be, a function of the military being “stretched thin.” Krista says, “I’m mad that it’s happening to our soldiers. Why can’t they just bomb the place and there you go: we don’t have to kill all our soldiers.”

I guess that’s a kind of payback, a next generation made angry.

That’s not to say the men—adults, after all—display such resonance. “I think,” says Bazzi in a section of post-war comments included on the DVD, “The worst thing you can do as a veteran is live in the past, and be a ‘professional veteran,’ as some people call it, where for the rest of your life, Iraq is the defining moment in your life. I don’t want to be that sort of guy.” And he doesn’t appear to be. Bazzi describes himself in the film as a “political junkie,” his camera indicating that he reads The Nation. Born in Lebanon to Shiite Muslim parents, his deployment disappoints his mother, who notes ironically that they left Lebanon to escape 20 years of civil war.

Now, she says, Zack “is in the worst place in the whole world.” He says, “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.” He clarifies his attitude for the DVD, asserting, “I’ve always believed that other courses of action, wiser courses of action, could have been taken rather than invade Iraq. Now that view is common. People used to be called ‘unpatriotic’ and ‘un-American’ for having that point of view.” And yet, he says, he “enjoy[s] being a soldier,” and as of the revisiting interviews, he has re-upped to train and fight alongside trainees in Afghanistan.

Moriarty decides otherwise, though he confesses that, two years after his return, he understands, at least a little, how soldiers might “miss it.” (“Being in the Army,” he says, “there’s a certain youthfulness to that… I’m ready to move on.”) While Moriarty reports in the DVD extras he’s disappointed that some unit members felt The War Tapes did not reflect their own experiences accurately, Moriarty also worries that his sections suggest he wasn’t as “on board” with the mission as he felt then. Back home and suffering from costochondritis, a breathing muscle condition, he’ll take medication for the rest of his life. Still, he notes, “It’s better than being dead and it’s better than having no arms and no legs, I can work and I can do what I need to do. It’s a small price to pay, as far as I’m concerned.”

Now, he’s determined to watch his two young children grow up (he missed his daughter’s first and second birthdays while in Iraq), but he appears skeptical when, in the film, he first arrives at Camp Anaconda in Iraq. Turning his camera on a mortar explosion that rocks the base, Moriarty observes, “This still remains a pretty damn dangerous place.” Most assigned to “logistical stuff,” the Guardsmen provide security for KBR/Halliburton delivery trucks (“We’re moving cheese,” says one soldier).

Pink’s understanding of the war is filtered through his own inclinations toward literature; a former English major, he keeps journals whose pages appear throughout the film, his voiceover indicating his increasingly conflicted feelings over what he sees. “I think,” he says in the DVD extras, “that maybe I wouldn’t have reflected so much about our presence if I didn’t have the camera.” (Moriarty also recalls the camera as “somewhat therapeutic. It gave me something to latch onto that occupied my mind during off hours… Idle time is probably one of your worst enemies ‘cause you start thinking about the fact that you’re away from home.”)

Pink does reflect, repeatedly, throughout War Tapes. Though he insists he’s not “the media,” even with is camera in hand, he does wonder out loud whether “there’s any way to truthfully tell a story without putting a slant on it.” In the film, he describes the constant threat of IEDs: “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.” And so, as Pink makes clear, soldiers maintain a self-preserving distance: “Today is the first time I shook a man’s hand that wasn’t attached to his arm,” he writes, describing his efforts to keep a fellow soldier alive while awaiting medical support. (He says in the DVD extras that he’s received an offer to write a book about his experiences in Iraq, based on his journals.)

The film punctuates the point-of-view footage with 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. She admits, “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” include 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 of bloody, busted up corpses instead). Pink wonders 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.” In the DVD extras, he says, “It would take a lot. It would take a really important war, I think, for me to reenlist.”

In the film, Moriarty sighs: Bush’s assertion that “major combat operations are over kind of conflicts with what we’re seeing every day.” Moriarty’s 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.”

The conflict such experience engenders can’t be undone. Pink’s girlfriend Lindsay says, “He doesn’t like to talk about it, it’s still there and it still hurts and I still feel it.” 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 an industry. That politics and partisanship are laced through that industry only makes it more distasteful.

“I have no problem as a soldier being sent—and most soldiers have no problem being sent—outside the wire to face potential danger,” says Moriarty in the DVD extras.

What I found a lot was that you were sent outside the wire to face unnecessary danger. That was the only real issue I’ve had until this day with the mission in Iraq. It’s not the mission itself, it’s how it’s being conducted. It needs to be treated with a little bit more intensity and basically we need to either decide whether this is a war or not. If it’s not, we need to get out. If it is, we need to treat it with the intensity needed to get the job done.

With the soldiers’ harrowing imagery and intelligent observations, The War Tapes makes a case that administrators and officers need to treat the war with what Moriarty calls “intensity.” If the in-country chaos has beginnings and endings, its effects are, as Pink says, “lasting.”

The War Tapes - Theatrical Trailer

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