“We do everything just like we are in Iraq,” says Bassam Kalasho. “Sometime, I believe I’m in Iraq.” He nearly smiles, his western dress shirt open at the neck, dust blowing gently behind him. Iraqi Role Player #3214, Kalasho is currently working as the Deputy Mayor in Medina Wasl. It’s a fake Iraqi village in California’s Mojave Desert, circa 2006.
This is the setting for Full Battle Rattle, a documentary on the U.S. Army’s simulation of Iraq. The enterprise employs about 300 Iraqis and Iraqi-Americans as Role Players. During any given three-week exercise at the National Training Center at Fort Irwin, they are given character backgrounds (dead or displaced relatives [a consultant terms them “out of town”], previous interactions with American troops, even political ambitions) and basic instructions. Hired to prepare U.S. troops for deployment to Iraq, they have earned salaries, respect, and friendship among their fellow performers, including Army officers and professional “simulation consultants.” Still, as Kalasho notes, the job has its drawbacks. “After three years” playing deputy mayor, he says, now, “I want to be a mayor.”
Subtly but undoubtedly, the film poses questions concerning the point of such training, its costs and efficacy. It also raises broader, more complex questions regarding truths and fictions, as these shape intentions and actions, memories and histories. Opening on a simulated battle, the film at first resembles other war documentaries you’ve seen: soldiers wield weapons, a chopper whirs overhead, a tank explodes and people, bloodied and fallen, begin to scream. And then, the chaos stops. “If you’re a casualty,” an instructor yells, “leave your bandage on.”
What follows is part conventional documentary (observational sequences, talking heads) and part pomo meta-narrative, as actors discuss their parts alongside their past, current, and future war zone experiences. Producer-directors Tony Gerber and Jesse Moss followed a full three-week training period (in a Directors’ Statement, they express surprise at the Army’s willingness to grant access and also note they had a written agreement as to final cut). Each took on a section of the simulation, Moss among the Iraqis in Medina Wasl and Gerber with Army Brigade in training, combining their footage to produce a series of interrelated chronicles, complete with protagonists and plot turns. Some characters’ storylines sound ambitious, clichéd, and extremely complicated (“My number one priority is to give hope to the people,” says one designated officer, “to control the crowd”). Others are more realistic, which is to say, daunting but necessary (when, during one “simulation interject,” the mayor’s son is killed, the newly arrived American troops have to figure a way to offer hope for local order and justice, while maintaining focus on U.S. objectives).
The plots collide and overlap, the players work to resolve conflicts, make themselves understood, and actually hear what others have to say: the characters range from soldiers and Iraqi police to civilians, TV reporters, and insurgents. At some level, it sounds like a game. Indeed, “The Center can be seen as a giant stage,” explains Lt. Col. Cameron Kramer, Chief of Plans and Operations, seated at his desk in an air-conditioned office. “It can be seen as one big, large reality TV show.” The soldiers apparently respond with enthusiasm: “By the second or third day of the training,” Kramer says, they “get into the reality of what they’re doing, they get lost in what they’re doing.”
It’s hard to gauge how “lost” the soldiers become, but they put on a good show of same for the Full Battle Rattle cameras. While Kalasho asserts, “We train the Army how to deal with the Iraqi people, for the safety of the U.S. forces and the Iraqi people,” the U.S. reps are more immediately focused on minute-by-minute results. One man, driving to his first scene on his first day of simulation, remembers what his commanding officer has told him: “We’re gonna make ’em realize real quick that they can have no better friend and no better enemy.” The cost of not comprehending this deal? “We’re gonna rain a fucking shit storm on ’em everyday.” At the same time, the Iraqis the soldiers are about to meet, including Kalasho, are told to keep their initial conversation’s focus on the dead mayor’s son: “That’s all that’s on your mind.”
As Lt. Col. Robert McLaughlin tries to forge an agreement with the mayor, the insurgents plan and enact assaults. Sgt. Paul Green, assigned this time to play an insurgent, has already served in Kirkuk and Baghdad (where, he says, he and his mates “just patrolled the streets, looked for the bad guys, kicked down doors”. He’s reenlisted in order to role-play at Fort Irwin. “It’s fun,” he says, “I get to act, to be a bad guy [and] run around here causing chaos.” (Not so “fun,” Green learns by film’s end that he’s been redeployed to Iraq.) The soldiers are ostensibly learning how to be better soldiers, to be able to collaborate with locals, manage the occupation, and appreciate and preserve native customs, a point underscored when a second “simulation interject” stages a Sunni-Shiia wedding, which draws literal (simulated) fire from the nearby insurgent group.
As difficult as the roles may be for the Americans – whether playing “bad guys” or “good” — Full Battle Rattle effectively exposes the inherent tensions for Iraqis working for the Army. Azhar Cholagh appears intermittently throughout the film, out of character, studying for a U.S. citizenship exam while also worrying that her parents are reluctant to leave their home in Iraq. As she paces against a setting sun (a gorgeous orange backdrop), she speaks to her father on her cell phone. “I’m like, ‘Dad, just leave your house there, go to Jordan, go to Syria.’ I just want him, like, out of there,” she laments, feeling vaguely guilty that she’s safe and in the U.S.
Nagi Moshi, who plays Medina Wasl’s Deputy Police Chief, tries to keep a focus on his work (“I feel important person, you know, people respect me”), even as he seeks asylum in the States. “Every day that I’m here,” he says, “I’m thinking about my court day,” worried he’ll be sent back, because he entered the country illegally. His lawyer says he’s done well to work for the Army, that it will help his case: only 569 Iraqis, the film notes, have been granted asylum since 2003. Another sort of irony emerges when Kalasho shows his family in California a tape of his performance (in a different simulation exercise, he’s assassinated), his wife begins to cry. “It looks like it’s real,” he comforts her, “But I’m still here, right next to you guys.” Again and again, Full Battle Rattle makes this case concerning the simulation and the war, as each is real and not real, confusing, painful, and horrific, for the refugees working as role players.