Heroes and Victims
Documentary film Gunner Palace shows what it is like to be an American soldier in Iraq.
Thursday, March 10, 2005
Watching Gunner Palace, which makes sensational
viewing even though its most compelling scenes involve not
rocket-grenade launchers but chatty testimony from a chosen
few of the 400 soldiers billeted at Uday Hussein’s baroque
pad, I was thinking less of its impact on America’s youth than
on Vietnam veterans, many of whom will see it and weep for the
sympathy they never got back home from opponents of the
GUNNER PALACE ( * * * ½ )
Directed by Michael Tucker.
Starring members of the 2/3 Field Artillery
(Rated PG-13, 85 mins.) At the Osio Cinemas.
Thankfully, the left has quit blaming the victim. Gunner Palace’s casually hectic vérité style—Michael Tucker did most of the camera work, while Petra Epperlein edited—overflows with the feverish identification of the deeply, if fleetingly, embedded outsider. Tucker bunked with 2/3 Field Artillery, also known as “The Gunners,” for two periods of a month each in 2003, not long after George Bush had blithely proclaimed major combat operations in Iraq over and done with.
The sumptuous palace sits in a now-volatile quarter of the capital, pocked with gaping craters but with its enormous swimming pool and putting green intact so that the soldiers can frolic between mortar attacks and their own forays into the city’s dangerous back alleys. The palace is home base for what the soldiers, with the characteristic gallows humor of those who live in the teeth of death, call “minor combat,” and its ravaged splendor is made for the movies.
The film shows how the soldiers, too, draw on cinema to define themselves, donning Hawaiian shirts as in M*A*S*H, or striking macho attitudes like extras from an Oliver Stone movie. Tucker himself doesn’t lack for melodramatic flair: He jumps aboard any vehicle that leaves the palace grounds; rides with Humvee patrols through a city that greets the soldiers with gratitude, contempt and indifference in equal measure; takes full emotional advantage of the perilous house raids, conducted in total darkness relieved only by the unit’s livid flashlights; and, gilding the lily with a quotation from Apocalypse Now!, drops a rocked-up version of Wagner’s The Ride of the Valkyries into the score.
Still, there’s no exaggerating the terror of sidling up to an unattended bag, or turning a corner into an alley potentially crawling with terrorists. And it’s impossible to watch any of this without reference to the pop images of war we’ve been fed by CNN and Hollywood. One motor-mouthed, guitar-strumming young specialist, who joined up when he was 17 and looks it, is so funny and engaging, so full of piss and vinegar, he comes across like a Steven Spielberg bit player, predestined to die an agonizing death in the second act while saving the life of another young hero. In the random realities of war, though, the only difference between heroes and victims is survival, as Tucker discovers when he goes home for a break and gets the bad news about several members of the unit.
It’s easy to see why he got so attached: Nothing could be further than these men and women from the public image of mindlessly patriotic dim bulbs who sign on to the military because they have no other options. Patriotic they are, but many are also keenly aware that they are victims not only of an increasingly sophisticated insurgency, but also of the muddled ideology behind the occupation. We see them playing happily with children in a Baghdad orphanage, then followed by little boys throwing rocks; hugging their Iraqi interpreters, one of whom turns out to be an insurgent plant; training local men in civil defense, then rooting out the “motherfucker” insurgents in brutal house-to-house searches.
They know, as many anti-war activists often do not, that it may not be possible to go into battle without working up a head of steam against the enemy. Yet they understand precisely what a no-win situation both they and the Iraqis are in—that it is psychologically and practically impossible to function as policemen and social workers at the same time. They know they are hated, and what hurts them most is their perception that back home, a public—not hostile this time, but desensitized by the nightly news—doesn’t understand what it feels like to be them.