Public Nuisance

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The first Republican president once said, "While the people retain their virtue and their vigilance, no administration by any extreme of wickedness or folly can seriously injure the government in the short space of four years." If Mr. Lincoln could see what's happened in these last three-and-a-half years, he might hedge a little on that statement.
-Ronald Reagan

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Tuesday, June 27, 2006
The War Tapes

I was able last night the watch a preview showing of this new documentary. Last night's showing was the first except for some very limited appearances on the East Coast. I was able to get in because of an arrangement between the producers and WesPAC - Wes Clark has already seen and praised the movie.

The movie opens in limited release on Friday. Although it really isn't an anti-war film, it opens largely in deep blue areas, which is doubtless appropriate - we are, after all, the reality based community, and this is nothing if not real.

The filmmakers gave video cameras to a group of National Guardsmen from New Hampshire as they were deploying to Iraq. The soldiers recorded their own tape, recording about 1,000 hours of material which was then edited down to a movie. The movie is essentially recordings from three of the soldiers.

It's difficult to summarize the movie beyond that. It doesn't really have a storyline, simply recording events as they happen, although it does reach an ending of sorts with the unit's return to New Hampshire and some material, which is powerful, about the soldiers' struggles to return to civilian life. It goes to some lengths to avoid being either pro-war or anti-war; just showing the conflict as the three protagonists see it. Of these, two are generally pro-war and pro-Bush, even though one comments extensively on the role of Halliburton in the war. The third,
a Lebanese immigrant named Zack Brazzi who speaks fluent Arabic, introduces himself in his first scene as a regular reader of 'The Nation', and isn't shy about expressing opinions on the overall mission.

The film shows much of the experience of being a soldier at war: the generally poor living conditions, the cynicism and humor of the troops, and the general boredom of daily life interrupted by unpredictable and terrifying spurts of violence. Mixed in with this is footage of the families at home, struggling with fear and helplessness. It also shows the power of documentary - the combat scenes, for all the shaky cameras and scratchy soundtrack, have emotional impact rarely matched in even the best made fictional war movies. The GIs come across as ultimately ordinary guys, patriots put into a situation of almost impossible stress who just want to do their duty and get back home.

The movie shows the tragedy of the war. In one memorable scene, a convoy traveling at high speeds runs over and kills a young woman, and we see her remains being put in a body bag. You can understand why the tragedy happened - the convoys are targets that are forced to move at high speeds to be less vulnerable, and in other scenes we've scene pedestrians taking wild risks running across the road right in front of convoy vehicles. But the actions of the pedestrians may well not be as absurd as they appear - Brazzi talks in one scene about a time when his unit had been ordered to prevent anybody from crossing a road which had a hospital on one side. He was repeatedly forced to tell families they couldn't take their relatives to the hospital just across the road, until finally he just refused to continue translating.

All footage used in the movie had to be approved. Some of the scenes I was actually surprised they were allowed to show - some conversations, especially taken out of context, make the characters sound pretty bloodthirsty. It seems the filmmakers dealt primarily with the NH National Guard rather than the Pentagon during the project, which may explain why they were able to show such unguarded footage. During a Q & A after the showing, the producers said that very few scenes were censored and none on grounds they thought unreasonable.