You asked me two years ago, would I have been in the Army, I woulda told you no. I’d tell any man, hell no. Me in the Army? Shit. Fuck hell no. but like I said you get put in certain situations in your life where you gotta stand up like a grown ass man, and take responsibility. I gotta keep my end of the game. I keep my wife and my child in the rear of my head so my mind won’t get lost while I’m out here. So I won’t slip… ‘Cause the minute you get complacent, you know, book, that might be your day.
— PFC Elliot Lovett, a.k.a. Little E, “Being a Grown Ass Man” (deleted scene)
We live from Baghdad, man. It’s so sad.
— Spc. Richmond Shaw, Gunner Palace
“Most of us don’t see this on the news anymore,” overtones Michael Tucker at the start of his Iraq War documentary, Gunner Palace. “We have reality tv instead: Joe Millionaire, Survivor. Well, survive this: a year in Baghdad without changing the channel.” As Tucker speaks, the frame shows the chaos of urban warfare: the camera careens, shots are fired, soldiers take cover. Tucker and his partner/wife Petra Epperlein will spend two months in country with the troops stationed at Gunner Palace, Uday Hussein’s former “pleasure palace.” While these months can’t match the multiple tours demanded of troops, their reconstruction here summarizes life “without changing the channel.”
While Tucker clearly draws from some previous war chronicles — Michael Herr’s brilliant Dispatches comes to mind, as it takes a similarly impressionistic form — his film is also original. It lets the troops speak for and to themselves (in edited fashion, of course), but it also comments on the nature of war, in general and specific senses. The members of the 2/3 Field Artillery (the Gunners here) know they’re lucky, relatively speaking. They’re in Baghdad’s dangerous Adhamiya district, but in “The Love Shack,” they enjoy certain amenities — swimming pool, putting green, stocked fish pond, “gaudy furniture,” and barbeque facilities. Each raid of a suspected bomber’s home or bump-up against an edgy civilian on the street might fatal. But they are alive for now. And that’s more than too many of their fellows can say.
Gunner Palace, newly released to DVD (with minimal but worthy extras, including 17 deleted scenes, and a section of gunner freestyles), features Tucker’s voiceover and interviews with his subjects (“These guys were trained to stop a Russian advance, artillery, the guns of Giessen. They live to blow stuff up”). With “major combat” over, they must be “policemen, social workers, and politicians.” As well, they face deadly and daily “minor combat,” primarily in the form of IEDs (the improvised explosive devices 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. Such weapons and graffiti (“Fuck you USA army go home”) indicate the troops aren’t completely welcome, 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.”
Some 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 aptly disjointed structure. A couple of guys try to put their experience into words, but usually fall back on something like Private Michael Commisso’s language: “There’s nothing else like it… I talked to just some friends I have back home, and their just perception of this is totally different… You try to explain the streets and the way these people have to live. And they can’t grip it… I don’t think anybody can.”
Occasionally hard to parse, Gunner Palace emulates the war’s relentlessly herky-jerky rhythms. The soldiers aren’t gung-ho and not anti-war, they just want to survive. Because troops are carefully instructed on what to say and not say, these kids’ apparent openness is striking. Young and passionate, underprepared and underequipped, they see life in Baghdad as 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.”
Their weapons define the 2/3’s sense of mission and identity. They spend their nights looking for arms or enemy planners, their days 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). 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 perfectly 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 one soldier. The convoy decides to leave. You pick your battles.
Measuring what’s worth engaging takes valuable energy. The difference between truth and lies is hardly easy to see, as all sides presume the others are lying. The U.S. command, the Iraqi soldiers, the “friendlies,” and the Iraqi opposition all have doubts. “Maybe this whole war thing wasn’t even true,” says Wilf. “Maybe it’s all burned into my mind now. I’m just imagining all of it. Who knows?” Interpreters are assigned to help intel analysts “figure out if [suspects] are telling the truth or not,” reports one analyst, but 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 (the camera holds on a crooked angle shot of the pool with palace behind, as you hear a news report: “Secretary Rumsfeld says that terrorists are starting to realize things are changing in favor of the Iraqi people”) to solemn veneration for their soldiers’ bonds to music. If the Vietnam war is often remembered by its rock soundtrack, 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 expectations, then dismantling them. From Apocalypse Now and Full Metal Jacket to Cops, Gunner Palace‘s allusions represent a situation that eludes comprehension. As Tucker notes, 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. Gunner Palace‘s glimpse of “this whole war thing” makes you wish more than ever that it would.