Two years ago, the Iraq war began with the bombast of "shock and awe," and Saddam Hussein's vastly overrated military melted away after providing little resistance. Within weeks our tanks rolled through Baghdad, and President George W. Bush declared "the end of major combat operations" while dressed in a flight suit and standing on an aircraft carrier before a huge banner that read "Mission Accomplished." Four months later, as the bloodshed continued, American filmmakers Michael Tucker and Petra Epperlein went to Iraq to profile the soldiers in the Two-Three Field Artillery. Their documentary, Gunner Palace, makes more personal what we know in the abstract: War is hell. Soldiers don't fight for politics or even, save vaguely, for flag and country. They fight for the guys next to them who have their back. They fight to stay alive.
The 400 men of the Two-Three are housed in Uday Hussein's vast former mansion. The palace was bombed in the early days of the war. Walls are missing. Some rooms are reduced to rubble. But what remains still exhibits its former ostentation, its grand public rooms, sweeping staircases and cathedral-sized master bedroom. So where Uday used to party, American GIs now sprawl across the dusty furniture or stretch out on their cots. The plumbing and electricity have been restored. The huge pool in the back is recreation central for warriors at leisure bobbing about in the water on inner tubes.
The crusty grandeur of the palace is where the soldiers take their refuge, targets for mortar attacks but relatively safe from sniper fire. Their daily ventures into the city are another matter. These are the soldiers who drive Baghdad's streets in Humvees, machine gunners with their weapons at the ready. If their patrols have any purpose other than the display of American power, no one steps forward to inform us what it is. A given patrol is almost comical, the heavily equipped Americans in their beige desert battle fatigues, low-slung helmets and face-obscuring sun-goggles riding alongside Iraqis on the way to work or out to run errands.
In the absence of a reliable Iraqi authority, the Americans play a host of roles, none of which they've been trained for. They provide police protection for civilian organizations otherwise afraid to meet. They break up fights. They counsel teens on dope. They order truants to go to school. And none of this seems dangerous until suddenly it is. Bullets fly around them from assailants firing from the shadows. An IED (improvised explosive device) blows up near or under their vehicle. As a result, they see themselves as hated and targeted. They may wish to befriend the Iraqis, but they don't trust anyone. The man with the smiling face may try to kill them once their backs are turned.
The film quotes Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld assuring an election-year American public that things are rapidly improving in Iraq, that the streets are safer and that Iraqis are embracing their new freedom. Rumsfeld doesn't use the phrase, but we are reminded of his predecessor, Robert McNamara, returning from Vietnam to declare seeing "the light at the end of the tunnel," in a war that would rage on another decade. In Vietnam we practiced "pacification," which consisted, literally, of burning villages to the ground "in order to save them."
Our policies a generation ago fueled the recruiting efforts of our enemy, and I am not alone in fearing that we are making the same mistake again. Tucker and Epperlein accompany the Two-Three on midnight raids to arrest suspected insurgents. They kick in doors and overwhelm the occupants of the houses they invade. They handcuff, often blindfold and hobble, and through interpreters (one of whom turns out to be informant for the insurgency) interrogate the suspects. We do not see them abuse the prisoners, though they clearly berate, humiliate and intimidate them. On one raid they expect to find a family of bomb makers, but a search of the premises finds no explosives. Three brothers are sent to Abu Ghraib prison nonetheless. It's not clear the soldiers themselves understand this, for they are just following the orders of their superiors, but such actions are inevitably resented and play into the hands of those who would endeavor to foster hatred toward our country. As Michael Moore illustrated in Fahrenheit 9/11, most of our soldiers come from small towns with limited economic prospects. They joined the military, whether regular Army or National Guard, in hopes of bettering their circumstances through training and a chance at college. Now they are in a foreign land despised by the people they are ostensibly sent to help. They want to survive, and they are jittery. And future tragedies like the wounding of kidnapped Italian journalist Giuliana Sgrena and the death of her rescuer, Nicola Calipari, are the result. Though as jumbled as the war it covers, Gunner Palace provides a sad context for the unspeakable.
- Sgt. Robert Beatty takes a break in the Baghdad sunshine in the documentary Gunner Palace.