I walked down near Ford's Theater this afternoon to catch The War Tapes at E Street Cinema. The concept is simple. Along with the rifle, assault pack, body armor and other gear issued to the typical American soldier, five members of a National Guard unit from New Hampshire set for deployment to Iraq were equipped with a less conventional tool: the hand-held video camera.
The embedded journalist is one of the American military's notable, if not altogether significant, innovations of the Iraq War. The unkempt scribe in khakis and shades, mail-order helmet askance, packing his bags and enlisting to travel with an individual unit, ceding independence in return for access. If softening coverage was, as many allege, the Pentagon's intent, then this film should theoretically be an even greater realization of its mission. The bothersome vulture is disposed with entirely. Where the embedment program would cast the journalist as soldier, The War Tapes casts the soldier as journalist.
But the result isn't the upbeat infomercial we've come to expect from the White House and the Pentagon's civilian leadership. It's a ground-level chronicle of the frustrations, dashed hopes and anxieties that have, unfortunately, come to characterize the occupation. Arriving for their tour well after the fall of Baghdad, our guides aren't witness to much in the way of valor, or even combat. Instead it would seem that they spend most of their days sheparding contractors and support staff through a minefield of improvised explosives amid the palpable unease of the natives. Measuring success proves as elusive as understanding the enemy, whose appearances are limited to a few gruesome bodies strewn by the side of the road after a frenetic spasm of automatic gunfire.
Cynicism pervades the barracks, eventually afflicting even the once idealistic Michael Moriarty, a husband and father who rushed to New York after the attacks of September 11, 2001, and who, like many Americans, earnestly viewed the invasion as an unavoidable challenge imposed by the destruction of that day. He was so inspired by what he saw at Ground Zero, he says, that he was moved to leave his family behind and follow the president's call to action. By the end of their tour, the common sentiment among the soldiers treats the war not as a benevolent, if flawed, liberation, but instead a brutish power grab in the war of all against all. Power and money is what war has always been about, Stephen Pink says after he's returned home to Cape Cod, and his hope is that at least some regular Americans get to taste the profits from this one.
The majority of the venom we hear from the soldier's lips isn't directed at insurgents or Iraqis, but instead the American contractors Kellogg Brown & Root, a subsidiary of Halliburton that has been outsourced billions of dollars worth of logistics work. The most frequent target is vice president and former Halliburton executive, Dick Cheney, who the soldiers routinely lampoon as a war profiteer.
And after the relief and joy of their safe homecoming fades away, the story turns grim again, as the soldiers struggle to overcome physical and psychological infirmities and grapple with the challenge of reconnecting with family and friends who are largely unable to relate to their distant experiences.
The recipient of nearly universal critical praise, having scored points for â€œnot being preachyâ€ and offering an â€œunvarnishedâ€ view of the war, it's worth remembering that, as the Village Voice's Michael Atkinson emphasizes in the lone dissent I could find among major critics, there's one very important point of view that's been left out of this and most other visual depictions of the war, the Iraqi perspective. Indeed, as Atkinson observes, although I will add the exception of a Lebanese soldier who speaks Arabic and strives to connect with the natives, the voices in the film almost exclusively "disdainfully observe the indigenous populace from a distance as if they were hyenas on the veld.â€
While the American psyche may yearn to withdraw and nurse its wounds after the shock of the Iraq experience, can this country truly understand the global challenge issued on Sept. 11 or the responsibilities it accepted when it invaded Iraq simply by looking in the mirror?