A Day at the Movies

SPC Tom Susdorf: This morning, um, the Shiites were having their holy day, doing their usual walks around Baghdad, and their pilgrimmage to some of the holy shrines in the area and they went over to Kadhimiya, and, uh, a couple explosions went off. The doctors at the hospital say at least seventy-five people were killed, thus far. When the QRF from the Knights and Dakota went over to assess the situation and try to help with medical support they got there only to be pelted by rocks and sticks and bottles and chairs and anything the Iraqis could pick up and throw. It was a wonderful morning.

It’s sad but true: we haven’t really seen a good, up-close look at the Gulf Wars in terms of movies. Well, we have Three Kings, which was good if odd flick, and Jarhead, which was decent and probably turned off a lot of people because (spoiler alert) it was a tale of failed objectives and doing abso-fucking-lutely nothing, and the less said about Stop-Loss the better. There’s a lot more documentaries coming out about the wars now, probably because it’s such a complex and relevant topic, but even then they’re independent films. Nothing against indie films, but they get less publicity, so it feels like nobody watches each specific documentary except vets, their families, and history buffs.

However, one of my professors promoted the title Gunner Palace as an interesting film regarding the Iraq War (as in the Iraqi Freedom Iraq War), promoting it as an up-close and personal view of the war, the war as soldiers saw it. Documentarian Michael Tucker lived with the 2/3 Field Artillery, “The Gunners,” in one of Uday Hussein’s bombed-out pleasure palaces for two months.

Gunner Palace is a hard movie to review because, to be blunt, nothing happens. Much like the Iraq War, there’s very little action, very little shock-and-awe, and almost no combat seen by the troops. Instead, it’s a harrowing combination of hurry-up-and-wait, caught between driving through crowds of hostile, rock-throwing civilians and swimming at the palace, pulling raids for people who aren’t home and holding a post-raid Gunnerpalooza party.

What really hits home is that these soldiers are just kids in the 17-23 age bracket—the scene-stealing Stuart Wilf, for example, is a two-time high-school dropout. Most of them come from Podunk, USA, and are required to fulfill jobs which they’ve had absolutely no training in. In one early scene, they act as truant officers to pull a glue-sniffing Iraqi kid off the streets; in another, they distribute candy and Spongebob toys to an orphanage; in yet another, their officers attempt to calm down a group of Iraqi government officials, acting like kindergarten teachers (to paraphrase: “remember what we talked about last week about respect?”).

So, with no real war on, and little else to do, the American kids are free to do whatever they want. They play video games and guitar, write poetry and freestyle rap, go swimming in the pool and utilize some new putting greens their CO has installed. It’s almost like a summer camp, only with guns, in a hostile foreign country, where your daily job is to break into a suspect’s house looking for guns and money. Yes, there’s still mortar attacks on the palace; yes, there is still the threat of IEDs (in one case, a squad ties up traffic for fifteen minutes to “diffuse” an empty bag); yes, the unit is in one of Baghdad’s most volatile districts and frequently has to deal with riots and demonstrations. The contrast between the high-tension, high-stress of battle conditions, and the male juvenile fantasy of army life is an interesting take here. These are men who are more interested in killing a rat in their bunk than about mortar or RPG fire.

It looks like a college frat right after rush week, but things start taking a more cynical tone near the end of the movie. The last quote, another by Wilf, tells Tucker that if he “sees any politicians be sure to let them know what while they’re sitting around the dinner table…we’re here under attack nearly 24 hours a day, dodging RPGs and fighting not for a better Iraq,  but just to stay alive.” SGT Beatty, one of the soldiers assigned to train the Iraqi Civil Defense Corps (ICDC) talks frankly to Tucker near the end of the movie:

SGT Beatty: Someone being sympathetic to this? I don’t know if I’d be sympathetic if I wasn’t in the army. After you watch this, you’re gonna go get your popcorn out of the microwave and talk about what I said, and you’ll forget me by the end of this. Only people who remember this is us.

In the end, the movie is all about contrast. Pleasure and pain, life and death, reality and absurdity. One of the key techniques is a running AFRTS news bulletins regarding the “improving” situation in Iraq to the daily monotony of the troops of the 2/3, much like with M*A*S*H* and its news bulletins. These positive comments are swept aside by the absurdities caught on film, such as the inability for the in-training ICDC troops to coordinate marching or jumping-jacks. Or, Wilf’s commentary on Humvee appliqué armor:

SPC Stuart Wilf: Part of our eighty-seven billion dollar budget provided for us to have some secondary armor on put on top of our thin skinned humvees. This armor is made in Iraq, and it’s high quality … metal … and it will probably slow down the shrapnel so that it stays in your body instead of going clean through. And that’s about it!

There’s been a lot of criticism about the amount of rap shown in the film, with a lot of casual reviews—looking at you, Amazon!—turning it off in disgust and walking away, calling it a “music video” or what have you. To be honest, it mostly reflects on the troops of the 2/3, who actually created the raps themselves, as well as the poetry later on. For balance, there’s also scenes of Wilf shredding his guitar and throwing death grunts back and forth between an elderly Iraqi interpreter, Basil. (Wilf: This is the coolest Iraqi dude ever! Basil: We both want to fuck! Wilf: Well, not each other!) Since it accurately reflects the perceptions of the soldiers on the ground, I think the bigger crime would have been cutting it. Honestly, the bigger complaint from people should be that it narrowly avoided an R-rating, squeezing by with its 42 variants on “fuck,” more than in any other PG-13 movie. Interesting to note that rap music is more offensive to reviewers these days than a lot of swearing.

Regardless of people bitching about the rap, I think the movie is a view into the Iraq War we don’t normally see, which is why I think people should see it. It’s absurd, it’s in your face, it’s downright juvenile at points. Nothing ever really happens—there’s no big battle, and the “great success” is finding three RPG launchers. Soldiers enter and exit the film randomly, with few carried over from scene to scene except Wilf and the CO. All of it adds together to the chaos, the absurdity. And in the end, I think it does what it should do: give viewers a look inside a soldier’s perspective. The film’s not really interested in the morality or legality of the war, though it does gain a strong anti-war and anti-death vibe near the end. It’s interested in the lives and outlooks of the soldiers captured on film.

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