Akin to the Vietnam in-country documentaries, Gunner Palace offers a grunt’s-eye-view of the Iraq war.
Gunner Palace suggests a way of getting to know the troops through the mediated intimacy of personal interviews.
Gunner Palace depicts the postmodern war through the codes of the music video format: freestyle rapping on the “costs of war.”
Gunner Palace caption: "The changes that have taken place since then are extraordinary. Baghdad is bustling with commerce." Ironic counterpoint in setting up a collision between what is seen and what is heard.
Gunner Palace: The Gunners, in their guise as “truant officers,” help “a glue-sniffing kid” off the streets.
Gunner Palace: “One of those heartbreaker stories” — in which visual testimony contradicts the official discourse.
Gunner Palace earnestly depicts the soldiers as reluctant heroes in what appears to be the humanitarian effort behind the occupation.
Gunner Palace caption: "Scaring the Natives." The film’s “tone” shifts to sardonic humor with a PSYOP mission to scare “the natives,” set to death metal guitar.
Gunner Palace: Commander of the unit conducts a pre-raid rehearsal that begins a key sequence to the documentary’s stylistic and political repertoire.
Gunner Palace: “The Majid Raid”: The troops are shown riding shotgun, to the sound of Wagnerian opera, through the streets of Baghdad.
Gunner Palace: In raiding a house of suspected insurgents, the soldiers yell out, “Give me security!”
Gunner Palace: Not unlike the reality TV of Cops in Iraq, the documentary unknowingly captures both the occupiers and the occupied.
Gunner Palace: Suspects taken in the raid are said to be transported to Abu Ghraib prison.
Gunner Palace: “Helicopters with wheels”: Despite their insistence that civilians lack the direct experience of war, soldiers reveal the continuing influence of Apocalypse Now.
Gunner Palace: “The total haul”: The film succumbs to genre conventions in narrating the mirthless reckoning of the spoils of war.
Occupation: Dreamland: Yet another view of war from a soldier’s perspective.
Occupation: Dreamland: In their ground-level account of the war, the filmmakers join Alpha Company’s Second Platoon on patrol in Falluja.
Occupation: Dreamland: “Mission objective: Detain suspected insurgents and search for rocket propelled grenades.”
Occupation: Dreamland: During a brief debate on the politics of war, the soldiers are warned, “We’re not gonna bash the Administration on camera.”
Occupation: Dreamland: “Retaining ‘An Army of One’”: The documentary includes a scene revealing heavy-handed re-enlistment tactics supplementing the “poverty draft.”
An interview in Gunner Palace with Pfc. Michael Commisso: “How many people can say that they’re combat veterans?”
The “noble-grunt” of Platoon: The post-war U.S. culture aimed to depoliticize the Vietnam War through emotional narratives of personal drama.
Michael Tucker on Gunner Palace: “I spend most of my time with the younger soldiers — this film could be called ‘Jackass Goes to War’.”
Sands of Iwo Jima: The “master metaphor” of WWII has been mobilized anew with attempts to transfer the “awe and reverence” of the Good Fight to the Iraq war.
In the Year of the Pig: The slow, steady recovery of the stature of the common U.S. soldier has been in evidence since the trauma of Vietnam.
Rambo is emblematic of post-war cultural texts that sought to “rewrite” the Vietnam War through the strategy of victimization.
Platoon: “They’re scared? What about me?” The common grunt claims the mantle of victimhood.
Bush at Ground Zero amplifies the sentiments of a wounded nation, a vengeful nation.
Gunner Palace: Failing “to deal with the ambivalent location” of the U.S. soldier “as simultaneously the agent and the victim of imperialism” (David James).
Platoon: "Dedicated to the men who fought and died in the Vietnam War": Cultural texts from a guilt-ridden society yearn to offer symbolic compensation in the post-Vietnam era.
Gunner Palace: "Purchasing this video helps military families." In an era of compulsory patriotism, we must support the troops at all costs.
Distantly reminiscent of The Anderson Platoon in its formal reliance on what Bill Nichols theorizes as the expository mode, Gunner Palace (2004), produced, written and directed by partners Michael Tucker and Petra Epperlein, emerges from the historical intersection of new technologies of representation, the cultural logic of reality television, so-called, and the post-Vietnam military management of information involving conflict zones. With Tucker unofficially embedded for two months between September 2003 and April 2004 with the Army’s 2/3 Field Artillery Regiment — nicknamed the “Gunners” — the film, constructed entirely in the guise of a personal video diary format, offers a ground-level, grunt’s-eye-view of the war, one that appears to extend the claims, if not the promise, by such documentary work of directness, intimacy and immediacy.
Verité-ish hand-held camerawork and fast-paced editing, corresponding to the chaotic events of night-time raids on supposed insurgent households or daytime patrols of busy city streets, are interspersed with more stable renderings of soldiers on watch or at rest. Several interviews with soldiers are conducted in a straight-forward manner, with the subjects directly addressing the camera. Curiously, many of these segments are cropped so that the image is inset, bordered by a black frame that resembles a TV screen (or perhaps streaming video on a computer screen), one of the few reflexive moments in which the film acknowledges that mediation is at work.
The soundtrack is a complex mix of Tucker’s voice-over narration, “live” location sound (including the occasional distant wail of muezzins calling prayers), and plenty of music both diegetic and extra-diegetic, making great use in particular of original free-style rapping by a number of the soldiers, some of whom openly declare the “costs of war,” as Cynthia Fuchs notes in one of her incisive pieces on the film for PopMatters (Fuchs). Gunner Palace also incorporates snippets of radio broadcasts transmitted by the U.S. Armed Forces Network, not unlike perhaps the use of broadcasts punctuating the narrative soundscape of M*A*S*H.
A more common formal strategy operating across Gunner Palace is the use of ironic counterpoint, the occasional collision of juxtaposing text or official discourse heard on the soundtrack with images that more or less qualify, if not undermine altogether, the party line. For example, following the opening title — “September 5, 2003, Baghdad, Iraq” and a shot of U.S. soldiers apparently on break, accompanied by the faint presence of a likely diegetic recording of John Philip Sousa’s clichéd patriotic march, “The Washington Post,” playing in the background — the image track superimposes part of a speech by Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld:
The text is laid over a shot of soldiers unloading military equipment, a rather different form of commerce.
A more complex example of subtle criticism created through the tension between what is seen and what is heard arrives a few minutes later during a scene exemplifying, we might well imagine, the other war — the winning of “hearts and minds.” Tucker introduces the scene in voice-over, referring to the “Gunners” by stating that:
During a seemingly typical patrol through the city, the squad has spotted a teenage boy who’s identified as “a glue-sniffing kid,” one they’ve apparently come across before. Soldiers are shown gently lifting the child (who appears to be no more than 15 years old) on to the back of their truck. A shot of the boy, who, looking rather dazed and quietly moaning, struggles to put on a badly torn t-shirt, is accompanied by an off-screen voice of one of the soldiers who describes their evidently futile efforts to help the boy off the streets:
As the truck moves through the city, the camera pans down the boy’s body, past his bruised legs to linger for a moment on his bare feet. Tucker juxtaposes this shot with the official discourse conveyed by a radio broadcast, one of the intermittent military news casts peppering the tape:
The image of “one of those heartbreaker stories” clearly spoils the good news delivered by the upbeat voice of the radio announcer — not the last time that the government-sanctioned public face of the Iraq war will be unmasked. Yet this particular scene also reveals the limits to Gunner Palace’s convictions, for it never bothers to ask how the boy (whose name we never learn) came to be orphaned in the first place. Similarly, another scene at a local orphanage, where U.S. soldiers are shown tenderly cradling babies in their arms and giving the children candy and toys like Spongebob Squarepants dolls, provides us with a glimpse of the war re-written as humanitarian mission, as the film here comes within proximity of flirting with propaganda. Since the film’s conditions for spectatorship have already been sufficiently structured to align primary identification with the main “characters,” one’s sympathy is not directed toward the pitiful orphans but rather is further attached to the soldiers themselves who remain, of course, blameless in the mass production of orphans, reluctant heroes in a war not of their own choosing.
Such a portrait accords with David James’s argument, in Allegories of Cinema, with at least some Vietnam War documentaries (such as those from the trenches examined here) that failed, in his words,
Accordingly, Gunner Palace’s relatively one-dimensional perspective is secured in part by an uneven distribution of affect, in which the victimization of “our boys” over there is treated with utmost earnestness, while the unsavory aspects of their obligations in this so-called “war on terror” are treated with a vague sense of detachment achieved through sardonic humor. In other words, the documentary’s potential criticism of the war is effectively stifled by shifting away from the same kind of emotional resonance given over to its dominant structure of feeling, what I would call empathic nationalism. This shift in the “tone” of Gunner Palace is struck, for instance, when a scene of a PSYOP speaker truck, blasting death metal guitar full tilt through the residential streets of Baghdad, is introduced with the joke, “Scaring the Natives.”
In order to illustrate both the film’s stylistic features and its somewhat problematic politics, I want to scrutinize more closely one sequence in particular that encapsulates a range of issues raised by these early attempts to document the reality of the Iraq war. The sequence in question opens with an outdoor scene at twilight of Ltc. Bill Rabena, Commander of the 2/3 Field Artillery, bathed in the setting sunlight of Baghdad’s Adhamiya neighborhood. Holding a “pre-raid rehearsal” for his troops, Rabena outlines that evening’s mission to abduct Sheik Majid, a “well-connected” local leader who is said to be involved in “some shady business” like “dealing in weapons trafficking,” although Rabena admits that the “counter-intelligence” is thin. “Even the children in here,” Rabena adds, “give early warning as to troop movement in the sector.”
The scene cuts to the start of “the Majid Raid” at “0300 Hours.” To the sound of Wagner’s “The Ride of the Valkyries,” a convoy of military vehicles is shown leaving the base, as we hear one of the soldiers quip, “Let’s go have some fun.” Shot in low-resolution digital video from atop one of the moving trucks, the hand-held camerawork bumps with the road, and the already palpable tension is heightened with several quick cuts between soldiers “riding shotgun” through the dark streets of Baghdad. The audio track carries the ambient sounds of diesel truck engines and weapons being loaded, along with the distinct sound of Wagner’s charging horns, apparently from a recording played to accompany the raid. The diegetic music, heard in low fidelity as if emanating from weak portable speakers, is overlaid at one point with the extra-diegetic music of a “symphonic” rap track. As the convoy enters a compound of buildings, the music drops out, replaced by location sound of the raid itself.
A relatively stable shot from the ground catches a truck ramming down the doors of one house. Hand-held camerawork resumes, as we follow a group of soldiers bust through another door. The jittery frame and the zooming in and out of focus give the footage a “raw” quality, intensifying the effect of seeing live action as it unfolds. With guns raised, the soldiers begin shouting to the off-screen inhabitants to “get down.” An elderly man is escorted from the house, followed by two women. Cutting to a shot of the interior from the doorway, we see an elderly woman in her nightgown gingerly making her way down the stairs, surrounded by soldiers yelling for “security.” At the top of the stairs stands a young girl in pajamas. The tape then cuts to what is identified as “Sheik Majid’s house.” A quick pan across a room reveals several soldiers with weapons raised, standing over two men laying face down on the ground. In voiceover, Tucker states:
The camera lingers for a moment on a close-up of a photograph, presumably of the Sheik.
In a brief interview with one of the soldiers outside, we learn how the troops were able to breech the gate by slamming their Humvee into a car parked in front of the door. “It worked out pretty well,” the soldier smirks. The sound of a car alarm wailing loudly coincides with a shot of Iraqi men who, being led out of a house in handcuffs, must step over a door that had been “breeched” in the raid. The scene cuts to a medium shot of numerous suspects being transported on the back of an open-air truck. The soundtrack here swells up with one of the soldier’s recorded raps, which closes out with these lines:
The backing music bridges a cut to the last scene in the sequence. A title, “Later…Gunner Palace,” introduces a shot of several soldiers arrayed across a room, taped in the process of emptying boxes and handling what look to be large bundles of money. A medium close-up on hands counting out cash is accompanied by Tucker’s voiceover:
The two most recognizable intertextual components of this sequence are of course the use of Wagner’s “Ride of the Valkyries” — forever linked to the famous helicopter gunship assault in Apocalypse Now — and the reality TV entertainment of Cops, as Cynthia Fuchs and others have noted. Substituting Humvees for helicopters, and presumably “natives” for “gooks,” the raid’s operatic menace is here muted by evidently inadequate speaker power, thus requiring the extra-diegetic supplement of rapping soldiers. Meanwhile, Gunner Palace had already invited the reality TV comparison through Tucker’s initial voiceover near the beginning:
With the profilmic event invariably shaped by the conventions of a familiar televisual spectacle — few establishing shots, low-resolution night footage, the sound of urban drama signaled by car alarms, the sight of the public indignity, and absurdity, of armed men escorting elderly women and children out of their homes in nightgowns — other genres also come into play. Tucker’s voiceover, for instance, heard in that low, resonant male voice delivered in a near affect-less tone, echoes that world-weary dispensation characteristic of the voice-over device in film noir (or, perhaps more appropriately, Captain Willard’s in Apocalypse Now). No doubt inadvertently, the final shot in this scene of soldiers soberly counting the cash from “the total haul” suggests the mirthless reckoning of spoils of the gangster heist from countless B-grade crime movies.
Documenting a soldier’s perspective on the Iraq War: Occupation: Dreamland
A rather less “cinematic” treatment of the Iraq war marks Occupation: Dreamland, a documentary by Garret Scott and Ian Olds released in 2005. Eschewing voiceover narration and devoid of a musical “score” altogether (thus corresponding to the observational mode constitutive to A Face of War), the film is comprised entirely of interviews with U.S. soldiers, interspersed with footage of their patrols through the streets of Falluja. Similar to Gunner Palace’s grunt’s-eye-view of the war and sense of immediacy, Occupation: Dreamland also seeks to capture the difficult day-to-day experience of modern urban warfare from the lone perspective of the troops themselves. Refraining from intervening in the presentation of ground-level events with commentary from “above,” and without resorting to any semi-reflexive techniques or intertextual references, the documentary’s reality effect comes even closer than Gunner Palace in echoing the conceits of direct cinema. Yet consistent with Gunner Palace’s “reflection” of a soldier’s subjective experience, the concession to “realism” in Occupation: Dreamland likewise works to isolate its historical moment, effectively decontextualizing the very reality it aims to convey.
Filmmakers Scott and Olds were embedded for six weeks in early 2004 with the Army’s 82nd Airborne Division and were apparently given “unrestricted access” to its operations. Stationed in Falluja, the 82nd Airborne occupied an abandoned Ba’athist resort on the outskirts of the city, known locally as “Dreamland.” The filmmakers follow an eight-man squad on patrols in Fallaju, mere weeks before what will become the first siege of the city in April. Their “mission,” states a title: “Maintain order and suppress resistance.”
As with Gunner Palace, Occupation: Dreamland provides a fleeting glimpse into the daily strife of the occupation. Daytime encounters on the streets with local citizens reveal the same struggle over profound language barriers, the same stunning inability at even basic communication. Night-time raids of homes of suspected insurgents are here shot through a night-vision lens that casts an eerie green glow onto the image. Shots of cowering women and children, facing an occupying force armed to the teeth, take on an other-worldly quality, as faces occasionally glance at the camera with pupils reflecting back white spots in the dark. Occupation: Dreamland offers a bit more in the way of screen time for the occupied than is afforded in Gunner Palace, allowing several Iraqis on the street to challenge the Western view of their “liberation” and generally to upbraid their occupiers. Still, this remains primarily a portrait of “our boys” over there.
While both documentaries “personalize” the war at the expense of historical understanding, accentuating in particular the working class origins of most of the soldiers, Occupation: Dreamland winds up with some slightly different shading to the scenario of today’s military from the front ranks. For example, a more explicit discussion of politics ensues among the squad in Falluja, in which a fairly wide-range of opinions are expressed, including direct criticism of the Bush administration. Warned against “bashing the Administration on camera” by their staff sergeant, one GI nonetheless holds court on the war profiteering of Halliburton, asserting at one point that “war is money.” Another soldier questions the motives behind the “war on terror,” while others share degrees of concern for the Iraqi people. A continuum from belief to doubt is in evidence within the single squad. Yet if a general tone settles over the proceedings by film’s end, it’s one of exhaustion, resignation, even despair over their conflicted role in the war.
The soldiers themselves, largely drawn from what Marx called the “reserve army of labor” and what Arundhati Roy calls a “poverty draft,” often appear on camera in these documentaries to address the daily grind of urban guerrilla warfare, with the filmmakers conducting interviews that are formally framed by a narrative structure designed to elicit sympathy from spectators for the plight of otherwise faceless heroes. By highlighting the economic pressures (rather than patriotic posturing) behind why these young people enlist in the service in the first place, Gunner Palace and Occupation: Dreamland may serve to remind viewers in America at least of the class dimensions of modern soldiering, if not the less heroic aspects of occupying another country. Yet not unlike the point-of-view of the Vietnam War in The Anderson Platoon and A Face of War, Gunner Palace and Occupation: Dreamland, under the guise of documentary realism, mobilize a sympathetic portrait of the class-bound U.S. soldier that comes at a cost, one that ironically reflects, even as it reproduces, the evacuation of history and the politics of the Iraq war.
Such a position is particularly pronounced in Gunner Palace, in which any appearance of the “political” is reined in, subsumed under the sign of the personal. Consider, for example, what happens during an interview with one of the young soldiers, Pfc. Michael Commisso, who turns the entire “war on terror” rationale on its head by stating:
The filmmaker immediately asks, “Are you still proud to be a soldier?” To which Commisso replies:
This bit of prompting reveals the extent to which the filmmakers have yearned to produce a rendering of the Iraq war as “apolitical,” as they proudly put it elsewhere. As such, Gunner Palace has severed ties to the tradition of political documentaries, including In the Year of the Pig and Hearts and Minds, and instead has extended a different tradition of cinematic codes — that of the combat subgenre of the war movie. In what Pat Aufderheide labels the “noble-grunt film,” such post-Vietnam fiction films as Platoon and Hamburger Hill sought to “replay history as an emotional drama of embattled individual survival,” offering narratives of rehabilitation that amounted to “the revisioning of history as personal tragedy” (86; see also Martin, Receptions of War). By strenuously aiming to capture the at times incomprehensible impressions of guerrilla warfare from the perspective of the frontline soldiers themselves, Gunner Palace conceptually aligns with the “noble-grunt film” that largely privileges personal experience over historical understanding, an allure by which, to quote Adorno in The Jargon of Authenticity, “Simply to be there becomes the merit of the thing” (21).
Yet even being there guarantees little in the way of genuine insight into the larger significance and ramifications of the Iraq war. “Some war stories will never make the nightly news,” claims the film’s ad copy, and perhaps its top war story is that war is a story — that even first-hand experience is thoroughly riddled with prior representations of war. And for today’s kids of war, soaked in the aura of U.S. mass culture, the film does work to confirm their experience in the same language with which they’re obviously familiar. As Tucker wrote in his blog, Gunner Palace could be called “Jackass Goes to War,” which sits as more of an observation than a judgment. Indeed, the film foregrounds the insoluble mediation of modern wartime experience even as it perpetuates the realization that, as one participant, Spc. Richmond Shaw, puts it, “For y’all this is just a show but we live in this movie.”
Support the (shock) troops: the trauma of empire and the cloak of victimization
Right before his visit to Vietnam in November 2006, a visit that set off all manner of commentary on comparisons between wars past and present, President Bush spoke at a dedication ceremony for the new National Museum of the Marine Corps in Virginia. “And years from now,” imparted the President,
Reaching for the always handy “master metaphor” of World War II, Bush’s remarks manage to pull double duty here, first, by maintaining the familiar rhetoric of associating the “war on terror” with the Good Fight of WWII (see Jackson; Martin, “Narratives”), a discursive gesture which additionally implies that, as evinced by the immediate experience of war by the troops, war always operates also at the level of representation. Second, and more central to my argument here, Bush’s speech, given the occasion of dedicating such a museum, accelerates the on-going process in the post-Vietnam era of rehabilitating the image and stature of the common soldier, whose warrior iconicity had lost some of its luster and allure during and immediately after the trauma that was Vietnam.
In “Never Having to Say You’re Sorry: Rambo’s Rewriting of the Vietnam War,” Gaylyn Studlar and David Desser analyze the ways in which the trauma to U.S. national identity over the Vietnam War has been tapped and given cultural expression, particularly through narrative films, during the Reagan era. They argue that since the national sense of loss and defeat have been perceived to be too painful to confront directly — a confrontation that would require recognition of culpability in the traumatic event and admission of guilt — a “strategy of displacement,” which maintains the repression of collective guilt over the war, seems to have been at work in the cultural efforts at “rewriting” the trauma of Vietnam. According to Studlar and Desser,
As the authors contend, one of the key strategies in this process of displacement has been an “appeal to victimization.” Yet the turn to victimization exceeds any particular political persuasion, an appeal found coursing throughout many prominent war films on Vietnam in the 1980s, from the early “right-wing revisionism” of Uncommon Valor and Rambo to the later “ostensibly more realistic strain” of Platoon and Hamburger Hill:
What I would suggest here is that the cultural work performed by those Vietnam films that displaced or even buried culpability through this “strategy of victimization” has helped to prepare the ground for the more current treatment of the U.S. soldier not as invincible warrior but rather as abstract victim, a venerable sense of victim-hood that has been compounded by the traumatic events of 9/11.
As Richard Jackson argues in Writing the War on Terrorism: Language, Politics and Counter-Terrorism, the attacks on September 11 were deliberately framed by and interpreted through a specific set of cultural references and signifiers, discursively constructed as an “exceptional tragedy” to the U.S. body politic. The “official” discourse honed by the government worked to “fix” the meaning of 9/11 as a national tragedy, a “wound to our country,” as Bush famously put it. This rhetoric of victim-hood, as Jackson charges, “is a powerful discursive act which goes some way to constructing a collective sense of exceptional grievance” (32), to effectively “establish America’s status as the primary victim” (35), all of which has served “to prevent any interpretation that implicated American foreign policy” (5).
What we might consider the post-9/11 structure of feeling guiding U.S. national identity, that of “exceptional victim-hood,” emerges within a sustained era of compulsory patriotism in which we all must “support the troops,” who often appear defined as victims of circumstance, the foot soldiers guarding an entire nation of victims. This overdetermined sense of victim-hood is the context within which to return to the representation of the U.S. soldier in documentary films on the Iraq war. These films not only seek to make an epistemological argument by which the truth of the Iraq war, and perhaps every war, can only be had from the soldiers themselves, that their experience alone grounds the reality of war. These documentaries also offer an implicit moral or ethical argument—not about war and whether or not it is just, but about nationhood and the relation of citizen to soldier. Much more directly than the Vietnam War films, these documentaries ask: What do we as a nation owe them?
Conceivably, such work could trigger reflections on the class and racial dimensions of “our fighting forces,” and potentially even lead to the unexamined notion of sacrifice — as in finally coming to terms with exactly who is asked to die and why — rather than settling for the empty platitudes of dying for god and country. Not unlike the grunt documentaries on Vietnam, however, the substance of Gunner Palace and Occupation: Dreamland emphasizes the class-bound role of “victim” while erasing that of “agent,” a characterization that raises troubling questions on the nationalist limits to our understanding of the Iraq war. Indeed, these films seem to operate in the mode of symbolic compensation — the merest of offerings by a society riddled with guilt — in which the compensatory act, taking the form of recognition, gestures toward acknowledging the pain and suffering of soldiers only at the level of the individual.
Yet by privileging personal experience over historical awareness, these accounts construct a version of the war in which it becomes impossible to apprehend such atrocities as Haditha, Ramadi, Abu Ghraib. Given what we do know about widespread war crimes and the “atrocity-producing situations” in Iraq and elsewhere, it is necessary to realize that massacres, torture, and civilian deaths have not been perpetuated by a “few bad apples,” as the Pentagon claims, but instead have been the result of systematic policy and the embedded culture of dehumanization demanded in prosecuting the war.
But then to confront such issues as military policy, government decision-making and the like would be to “politicize” the war, and thus in the logic of these documentaries somehow betray the troops. Yet by foreclosing the political and historical context that would help to explain why soldiers are sent to the front in the first place, these documentaries perform a disservice to the very subjects of history they otherwise claim to defend, failing to arm them with the vital knowledge to grasp their own role in the maintenance of empire and thus perhaps begin the process of questioning why we fight.