copyright 2007, Jump Cut: A Review of Contemporary Media
Jump Cut, No. 49, spring 2007

The winning and losing of hearts and minds:
Vietnam, Iraq, and the claims of the war documentary

by Tony Grajeda

By summer 2003, with the Iraq war mutating from “mission accomplished” to urban guerrilla warfare and counter-insurgency, the “ghost” of Vietnam, believed to have been “exorcised” in the Persian Gulf War by Bush the First, had returned to haunt the political and cultural landscape. Talk of endless “quagmire” and the winning of “hearts and minds” had summoned the traumatic memory of the Vietnam War, even as its historical memory proved to be so elusive during the 2004 presidential election. Although comparisons between the two wars have entered the arena of political discourse, bound up with the struggle to yoke the “war on terror” to the Good Fight of World War II, such comparisons initially drawn upon the rhetorical level of a disputed discursive field have more recently been augmented by documentary films on the Iraq war.

Such feature-length independent documentaries as Gunner Palace and Occupation: Dreamland offer intriguing accounts of how the war is being represented as it is still taking place and, therefore, how it is likely to be remembered; these audio-visual texts already stand, then, as evidentiary documents contributing to a history of the present. The limits and possibilities of their historicity will be taken up in this essay, which will examine their formal and rhetorical framing of truth claims, in part by contrasting them with such Vietnam-era documentaries as the early in-country films The Anderson Platoon (1966-67) and A Face of War (1967), as well as the more well-known In the Year of the Pig (1968) and Hearts and Minds (1974), films noted for their historical contextualization of the Vietnam War and now recognized as documents of the past themselves. These Vietnam documentaries serve to forestall the act of forgetting the war as a national trauma, the consequences of which include to this day the guilt-ridden treatment throughout U.S. society of the common soldier as pre-eminent victim of war, lionized recipient of a nationalistic devotion to forever “support the troops.”

What is at stake then in the Iraq war documentaries, as I hope to demonstrate, is precisely the representation of the U.S. soldier as a figure of overflowing empathy, a figure whose personal experience of war as portrayed by these films tends to override or even cancel out any political or historical consideration of what the war might mean, beyond individual stories of suffering and tragedy. The challenge, finally, posed by these films to students and scholars of media and culture during the current crisis is one that demands an engagement with both the social and political questions of our time and theoretical and textual ones regarding cultural production. More specifically, given the degree to which the documentary form generally still carries an ethical burden of veracity, often promising spectators with seemingly direct access to an otherwise unknowable world, it is vital if not necessary — especially at a moment when the real itself has never been more in doubt — to continue scrutinizing documentary means and methods for conveying that very same world.

In what follows, I position this first generation of documentaries on the Iraq war in relation not only to these earlier documentaries on Vietnam but also to narrative films from the war film genre such as Apocalypse Now and Platoon, cultural texts which acutely act as frames of reference for both the documentarists and the participants to war themselves. Michael Herr’s landmark account of the Vietnam War, Dispatches, was not the first — and unfortunately not the last — to recognize the extent to which young soldiers on the battlefield seem to be acting out fantasies acquired especially from the combat genre. More recently, Anthony Swofford’s Jarhead, which chronicles his experience as a Marine during the Persian Gulf War, reveals that even the “antiwar” Vietnam films, such as Apocalypse Now, Platoon, and Full Metal Jacket, have been re-functioned, appropriated as “pro-war” stimulants by U.S. soldiers who, writes Swofford,

"watch the same films and are excited by them, because the magic brutality of the films celebrates the terrible and despicable beauty of their fighting skills. Fight, rape, war, pillage, burn. Filmic images of death and carnage are pornography for the military man; …The supposedly anti-war films have failed. Now is my time to step into the newest combat zone. And as a young man raised on the films of the Vietnam War, I want ammunition and alcohol and dope, I want to screw some whores and kill some Iraqi motherfuckers" (6-7).

The subsequent “band of brothers” bears the traces of yet further mediation, now riddled with a wider array of cultural influences that shape and structure experience of the real itself. In his account of the initial invasion of Iraq in March 2003, journalist Evan Wright points to a generational difference in 21st Century soldiers, many of whom “are on more intimate terms with video games, reality TV shows and Internet porn than they are with their own parents.” Wright describes one 19-year-old Marine who is “beside himself” with excitement while in action:

“I was just thinking one thing when we drove into that ambush, Grand Theft Auto: Vice City. I felt like I was living it when I seen the flames coming out of windows, the blown-up car in the street, guys crawling around shooting at us. It was fucking cool.” (5)

Although nothing quite so “fucking cool” as the (male) fantasy of de-realization — a psychic process of perceptual dissociation, here of inhabiting a video game and encountering the real through a prism of simulation — will occur in the documentaries under consideration, the question of cultural mediation nonetheless remains for both filmmakers and their subjects.

My more specific purpose here is to offer a close analysis of Gunner Palace and Occupation: Dreamland in order both to track the work of history, as well as to gauge the evolution of formal techniques and practices endemic to the documentation of war and atrocity. A brief comparison at the level of film form suggests that while a 1970s work like Hearts and Minds seems lodged in the familiar tradition of the realist documentary, one some 30 years later like Gunner Palace— with its highly stylized logic of fragmentation and disorientation evidently indebted to the music video—appears to fall within the generic domain of the “postmodern.” Yet this strict dichotomy in a “politics” of documentary form breaks down when we recall that Hearts and Minds made liberal (and ironic) use of Hollywood movies, while Gunner Palace’s digital video feel of immediacy could be aligned with at least the U.S. variant of direct cinema.

What I will argue then is that, in light of its precedents in the war documentary, Gunner Palace’s formal strategy of “MTV-style” construction to capture the media-saturated participants of modern war (pop culture references, rap music, self-conscious performances playing to the camera) implies less an innovative approach to the form than, ironically, a reflection model of the real, in which the accretion of referentiality in our thoroughly mediated world suffuses phenomenal existence, even and especially in wartime.

Historicizing the Vietnam War through documentary film:
Hearts and Minds

“The specter of Vietnam has been buried forever in the desert sands of the Arabian peninsula,” declared President George H. W. Bush, in the wake of the Persian Gulf War in 1991. “It’s a proud day for America,” he trumpeted, adding, “by God, we’ve kicked the Vietnam syndrome once and for all.”[1] [open notes in new window] Yet the “specter” of Vietnam has seemingly risen from those very same desert sands. A year into the Iraq war, Ari Fleischer, President George W. Bush’s press secretary, stated that, “slowly but surely, the hearts and minds of the Iraqi people are being won over as they see security increase in their area.”[2] With this war for winning the “hearts and minds” of Iraqis dragging on into its fifth year, a protracted conflict half-way around the world has triggered increased use in a national debate of such loaded metaphors as “quagmire” and the “Vietnam syndrome.”[3] The return of such politically-charged language signifies the uneasy presence of the past in the present, a condition that symptomatically reveals both the fraught historical memory of the Vietnam War and the potential trauma of realizing that, as one current bumper sticker puts it, “Iraq is Arabic for Vietnam.”

One way of imagining how the present is likely to be remembered or misremembered, whether the history of the Iraq war will be written in the prose of the Good Fight or that of a “syndrome,” especially with regard to the representation of the U.S. soldier, is to take note of how the Vietnam War itself was represented at the time and then subsequently re-written by both the political establishment of the 1980s and the culture industries of television and Hollywood. I want to begin reflecting on the potential historicity of the present by briefly recalling one of the definitive, and more controversial, documentaries on what the Vietnamese call the American War — Peter Davis’s Hearts and Minds, which won the Academy Award for Best Documentary of 1974 and was re-released on DVD in 2002. Adopting the model of the “document-dossier” established by Emile de Antonio’s In the Year of the Pig, Hearts and Minds mixes newsreel and archival footage, talking-heads and in-country interviews, and, perhaps most surprisingly (at least to those who somehow believed that Michael Moore had invented the form), short clips from such Hollywood movies as Objective Burma, My Son John, and This Is the Army, Michael Curtiz’s 1943 musical celebrating the United States military, a war-time production from the Busby Berkeley school of spectacle featuring hundreds of singing and dancing troops.

Becoming something of a social text right from the start, the reception of Hearts and Minds at the time and its subsequent place in the body of literature on historical documentaries warrants re-evaluation precisely at a moment when the meaning of Vietnam is at stake. Predictably met by largely “hostile reviewers in the national media,” according to Peter Biskind, it didn’t seem to fair much better in other quarters. Biskind’s Cineaste 1975 review, for one, takes issue with the film’s critique of U.S. culture — at least for Biskind “the arrogant, violent, hypocritical side” —that contributed to the war.[4] This position has been reinforced over the years in some academic circles as well. David Grosser, for example, finds the film exhibiting contempt for the working class, while Thomas Slater faults it for what he considers “blatant manipulation.”[5] Finally, Thomas Waugh compares it unfavorably to de Antonio’s In the Year of the Pig for falling into a “moralistic, bourgeois-humanist perspective of history.”[6] De Antonio himself, in a 1974 review of Hearts and Minds, condemns the film for “political emptiness” and “an inability to understand either the United States or Vietnam.” “Patronizing attitudes,” writes the filmmaker, beset the work at every turn, as “it sneers with a japing, middle-class liberal superiority.” Cutting to the bone, it is, according to de Antonio, “both heartless and mindless.”[7]

Such historically specific criticisms notwithstanding, revisiting Hearts and Minds during another time of war is indeed instructive, given the somewhat uneven and so far relatively ahistorical media representations of the current crisis.[8] While not as rigorously historical as In the Year of the Pig, Hearts and Minds still provides a quite thorough social context for understanding the Vietnam War, primarily by incorporating a range of perspectives, including combat veterans (both pro-war and disenchanted), a slew of political and military figures (from architects of the war to dissidents), and, most significantly, a number of Vietnamese voices.

The film’s specific argument on the war itself is augmented by a set of observations and textual materials on the more general cultural conditions of fear, racism and violence that, it is suggested, give rise to a militaristic society (Ryan and Kellner, 197). For example, the post-war, McCarthy-era structure of feeling dominated by fear and paranoia is illustrated through clips from both the mass culture of Hollywood features fueling the Cold War, as well as the government’s shrill anti-communist propaganda films. Another sampling of Hollywood clips exhibit an array of racist representations, from the Orientalism of Bob Hope road comedies to the vicious racism of WWII combat pictures set in the Pacific Theater.

Yet the documentary’s most provocative statement on U.S. culture issues from original footage of a nearly-rabid football coach whipping up his high school charges into a frenzy for the big game. The implication of socially-sanctioned masculinity compounded by everyday violence as the breeding ground for the cultural reproduction of militarism was, apparently, an unreasonable proposition to critics at the time, as Biskind’s review insinuates. From our own vantage point of the present, however — one marked by a popular culture of pervasive violent imagery that Vivian Sobchack has termed “the Postmorbid Condition” — Hearts and Minds viewed retrospectively suggests an argument still in formation, the incipient realization of which will garner only more evidence (and credibility) in the ensuing years.

As the current battle over the meaning of the Vietnam War and any “lessons” accruing around the Iraq war rages on, both In the Year of the Pig and Hearts and Minds continue to remind us not only of the vital contribution made by critical documentary filmmaking to the work of history; they also reveal, given the substance of their specific arguments, the ideological structuring of the war itself by Cold War liberals who sought to obscure Vietnam’s anti-colonial struggle for independence. Moreover, with the neo-conservative re-writing of the war since the Reagan era that has aimed to secure it within a revivified Cold War paradigm (see Martin, “Narratives,” 111), one that conveniently aligns with a post-9/11 Manichean worldview, these documentaries have never been more necessary to challenging reactionary interpretations — both past and present — of the Vietnam War.

Documenting a soldier’s perspective:
The Anderson Platoon

While In the Year of the Pig and Hearts and Minds utilized the formal model of the “document-dossier” — compilation documentaries weaving archival footage and still images with counterpoint testimony through rhetorical editing — the in-country Vietnam documentaries The Anderson Platoon (1966-67) and A Face of War (1967) were comprised entirely of “raw” footage shot among the troops, in the field and, sometimes shockingly, in the midst of battle. And unlike In the Year of the Pig and Hearts and Minds, which offer a fairly extensive political and historical context for apprehending the Vietnam War, The Anderson Platoon and A Face of War present the war exclusively from the point of view of the “foot soldier,” a formal positioning that extends back at least to John Huston’s WWII documentary The Battle of San Pietro (1945). As precedents then to the truth claims and experiential perspective on war underwriting the recent documentaries on Iraq, these Vietnam films fall on the putatively “apolitical” side of this artificially bifurcated approach to the representation of war, in which attempts to historicize events are set in opposition to accounts taken from the trenches.

Yet even such accounts from the same side of this divide—those that seem to share a similar disdain for history — require further differentiation in order to parse their claims on the reality of war. By referencing the typology of what Bill Nichols has theorized as the major modes of representation in documentary film, we can begin to distinguish the various ways in which the formal conventions and narrative strategies from the documentary tradition structure these interpretations of both the Vietnam and Iraq wars.

Roughly corresponding to what Nichols terms the expository mode, in which voice-over narration (the “voice of God” device) serves to organize the images and secure meaning (37), The Anderson Platoon (and to some extent Gunner Palace) relies on the “voice of authority” of the filmmaker that, along with a soundtrack mix of diegetic and post-production music, rhetorically arranges what is seen and heard within a seemingly “objective” view of soldiering. A Face of War (as well as Occupation: Dreamland), on the other hand, generally aligns with what Nichols poses as the observational mode (itself akin to direct cinema), which eschews voice-over commentary and non-diegetic music as a way of conveying, according to Nichols, “the sense of unmediated and unfettered access to the world” (43).

The French writer and filmmaker Pierre Schoendoerffer, a veteran of the decisive battle of Dien Bien Phu in 1954, produced The Anderson Platoon for French television, which first aired the film before an English version was broadcast on the highly-regarded and popular program The CBS News Hour in July 1967. The Anderson Platoon went on to win the Oscar for best documentary that year, and also had a brief theatrical run. Accompanying a U.S. Army platoon for several weeks in the fall of 1966, Schoendoerffer’s black and white footage is shot almost entirely in the field, with the exception of one sequence following a lone GI on leave in Saigon. The primary focus on the soldiers themselves both confirms expectations of military life (mail call, a field Mass replete with communion, fairly quiet patrols through the jungle), and arrests viewer attention, since the abrupt burst of gunfire or explosions always arrives without warning. Location sound is frequently laced with Schoendoerffer’s voice-over narration, delivered in his heavily French-accented English, which opens by stating:

“The Vietnam War is a tragedy, especially for us French who feel partially responsible.”

Aside from this rather loaded introduction, the narration confines itself to basically conveying events matter-of-factly in a terse, blunt tone, providing little in the way of political or even contextual commentary. At one point, however, in reporting the general outlines of a particular mission, Schoendoerffer elicits sympathy for his subjects by suddenly lamenting:

“But the Anderson Platoon knows little about the tactical plans. The platoon is only a small pawn in a big game.”

Excluded from knowledge that decides their fate, these “pawns” are treated here not as heroic actors but as unfortunate clients subjected to larger forces. While such forces go largely unexamined in the documentary, the soldiers themselves are afforded a modicum of individualization. Several times throughout the film Schoendoerffer identifies the troops by name as they appear on camera; without benefit of interview segments, these simple introductions manage to personalize the no less anonymous soldiers, a few of whom are wounded or killed within the period of filming. We learn as much when, on occasion, the film freeze-frames on a face as the voice-over flatly states, for instance, “wounded two weeks later,” or, in a less truncated way:

“Owens, sergeant. He will be wounded in an attack in a village.”

Such moments of freezing the narrative flow effectively lift the proceedings out of its “present-tense” temporality (Nichols, 40), thus also breaking with the observational mode as the documentary piteously divulges privileged information to viewers, whose powerlessness to affect circumstances mirrors that which will befall the soldier-pawns.

Apart from these jarring yet casual pronouncements (“Shannon—killed two weeks later. 18 years old.”), The Anderson Platoon presents its material in a relatively unadorned manner, still hewing to the observational as much as expository mode of merely recording events as they unfold before the camera. Yet other aspects of the soundtrack beyond these verbal revelations of impending calamity suggest more is at work. In particular, music plays a significant role (as it does in other genres) in creating an affective state of reception for spectators. For example, during one segment where soldiers tend to a wounded Vietnamese girl, Schoendoerffer’s voice-over states that one member of the platoon, identified earlier as a blues singer from Alabama, “sings some blues for his buddies.” The off-screen sound of a mournful voice with plaintive acoustic guitar accompanies a subsequent shot of soldiers standing around the body of a fallen comrade. Along with two distinct a cappella moments on camera by one of the GIs, Schoendoerffer incorporates music at several turns, perhaps most dramatically when this off-screen (and likely post-production or extra-diegetic) blues song is reprised near the end of the film. In the aftermath of a ferocious battle, a series of close-ups on weary, bloodied faces and on hands clasped of those who survived is given an aural rendering, as we hear once more the soft strumming of solo guitar and a voice sing out:

“I try so hard to keep from crying, but my heart feels just like lead
She was all I had to live for, I was just wishing it was me instead
She’s gone….”

A decidedly less mournful “score” appears early in the film when, following a scene of the soldiers on patrol, the film cuts to the platoon’s military base with a sound bridge of a broadcast from Armed Forces Radio. A shot from within the cramped broadcast booth hovers just over the shoulder of the DJ who, on the air, introduces Nancy Sinatra’s pop hit of the season, “These Boots Are Made for Walking.” As the song plays, a shot of reel-to-reel tape cuts to a medium close-up on army boots slugging through a muddy field. Two full verses accompany GIs on the march through streams, over the ground and into the jungle. This playful attempt at a light moment early on in an otherwise somber film could very well have given Stanley Kubrick ideas for the critical transitional figure crossing the two narrative halves of Full Metal Jacket 20 years later.

Documenting a soldier’s perspective:
A Face of War

Nothing quite so obviously contrived appears in A Face of War, the documentary debut by director-producer Eugene S. Jones, whose portrait of the common soldier seems even more direct and unmediated than that afforded by The Anderson Platoon. Against black and white footage of Marines on maneuvers through the Vietnamese countryside, an opening title states:

“The sights and sounds you are about to witness were filmed and recorded in Vietnam. The events and circumstances were experienced by a single American infantry unit over a period of 97 days.”

Some 75 minutes or so later, a closing title reads:

“The actions and incidents you have just witnessed were experienced by Mike Company, 3rd Battalion of the 7th Marine Regiment, and are representative of the day-to-day encounters of the United States Marine Corps during that period in Vietnam.”

In between, the film offers an unflinching view of such encounters without relying on narration or non-diegetic music, basically holding to the observational mode that, for Nichols,

“stresses the nonintervention of the filmmaker. Such films cede ‘control’ over the events that occur in front of the camera more than any other mode” (38).

The central theoretical question thus raised by A Face of War — whether Jones worked to refrain from any telling other than bearing witness to events (the unobtrusive “fly on the wall” effect that conveys lived time) or whether the filmed incidents were edited in such a way as to construct a temporal order that effectively narrativizes the real —strikes at the very heart of the documentary project, a question no less pressing now as it was then.

Indeed, A Face of War has earned a rather vexed position in the debate over documentary form and representation. In Allegories of Cinema: American Film in the Sixties, David James takes the film to task not only for succumbing to “the fallacies of the cinema vérité model” (200), but also for its “covert appropriation of WWII as a master metaphor,” by which he means Hollywood war movies:

"Most of the motifs A Face of War employs — the man on point listening to the jungle and waving his troop on, the chaplain’s pre-battle address giving the imminent self- sacrifice a divine sanction, the football game in the mud, the communal bath in a natural pool, the smiles and gratitude of the natives, and even the birth of a baby—are recruited from Hollywood features; their silent intent is to rewrite imperialist invasion as the anti- fascist liberation of Asia from the Japanese, or of Europe from the Nazis" (201).

In his essay “Teaching Vietnam: The Politics of Documentary,” Thomas J. Slater criticizes James’ reading, arguing instead that the film “works to debunk such myths” perpetuated by Hollywood, especially

“the notion of American innocence—that we never ask for war, we only fight to protect peace and freedom, and we always act out of benevolence— [which] animated most World War II films” (276).

Against the ideological designs of this tradition, A Face of War, as Slater points out, recalls The Battle of San Pietro, “which also presents soldiers’ concerns as basically nonideological.” For Slater,

“Both directors place the camera at the front line, demythologizing death, showing it to be real, sudden, and shocking” (273).

Yet one could look to a classical messenger of the war movie genre like Sands of Iwo Jima (1949), which ended with the hero (played by John Wayne) dying in much the same way (fictionalized of course), implying that the “master metaphor” does not necessarily preclude the relative realism of Hollywood fictions. “Although Jones does borrow some standard sequences from WWII films,” concedes Slater, “his approach cannot be labeled as an attempt to justify the war” (277).

The persistence of WWII as a “master metaphor” can be heard resonating into the current debate over how to frame and rationalize the “war on terror” (which will be addressed shortly). For now I want to consider Slater’s defense of A Face of War as a “nonideological” document, one that remains faithful to the “soldiers’ perspective” and “their main concern: survival, not politics or ideology” (275). “The film’s reticence with regard to American war aims,” writes Slater, “clearly contrasts with the conventions of World War II films,” even as that legacy provides the documentary with an unspoken “metaphoric structure” (275). Neither Slater nor James dispute that the “sights and sounds” captured for A Face of War were “real” or that the events actually took place; rather what is at issue is the documentary’s overall structure, its formal sequencing of the filmed “actions and incidents.” Without the aid of voice-over narration or even interview segments to anchor comprehensibility and orient spectators, the film appears as a nearly impressionistic parade of disconnected events.

Yet this recorded take on the “chaos of war” has been clearly edited to form a complete narrative, with a recognizable beginning, middle and end. Deliberately constructed to make meaning, the film’s disparate elements gather together to forge at least an implicit argument, one that seeks assent to the inherent virtues of soldiering and its attendant values of courage, honor and sacrifice.

Consider, for example, one sequence near the end of the film that follows a particular scene of carnage in which a U.S. military vehicle has hit a landmine in a Vietnamese village, killing one Marine and leaving several more badly wounded. Following footage of the wounded soldiers carried on stretchers to helicopters and a few shots of the post-explosion wreckage that focuses on mangled equipment, the film cuts to a burst of brief shots in quick succession of heavy construction vehicles, including a bulldozer labeled “Honcho Hog,” moving into the village (presumably the same one responsible for the fatal landmine). Vietnamese peasants are shown being rounded up and herded into a massive transport vehicle. Packed with dozens of peasants and their meager possessions, the vehicle motors off as the roar of its engine descends into the distance.

The camera pans across a quiet, empty village, now bereft of life. Cut to a medium close-up on the face of a young Marine, who curiously appears to be wearing the slightest of smiles. The camera slowly pans down his chest to reveal that he’s cradling a puppy nestled under his shirt, its tiny head poking out for a moment from the safe confines of military fatigues. The film then cuts to a shot of the platoon marching away from the village, as we hear a voice via radio transmission asking whether the “evacuees” have been cleared out. Orders are given to detonate tunnels. A series of explosions that decimate the village is filmed from a distance, before cutting to footage from atop a tank, taken from an angle aligned with the barrel of its flame throwing cannon, which proceeds to burn everything in its path. A tremendous roar of blasting liquid fire accompanies shots of huts ablaze and trees scorched. Everything in sight is incinerated.

In the midst of such savage devastation, placed precisely between footage of the “evacuation” of rural peasants and the merciless torching of their village, blown up and burned to the ground, the filmmaker inserts a shot of a soldier holding a puppy — a fleeting glimpse of life within a world of death and destruction. Such a sequence points less to the “invented” image before us — that is, a rumination on the ontological status of the referent or its indexical trace — and more toward the prosaic act of willfully selecting the relations between audio-visual materials — the very constructedness of the documentary project. That Jones chose to edit in a shot that gestures toward humanizing the soldiers — somehow arising at the very moment when all humanity has literally been extinguished — suggests very much the “ideological” at work.

This unmistakable sight of the inextinguishable humanity of (U.S.) soldiers, while less familiar to the “master metaphor” family of motifs as the chaplain’s blessing or the birth of a baby, is no less affective, situated as it is within a narrative framing designed to coax emotional responses from (U.S.) audiences. Even as he becomes a generous repository for an entire constellation of spectatorial emotions — from pride to pity, much of it bound up with a specific denomination of nationalism — the soldier stands apart from his common audience back home, separated by his very identity as a distinct participant in the otherwise inaccessible experience of war.

Herein then lies the essential paradox of such documentary work: attempting to draw spectators closer to the reality of war by approximating a “soldiers’ perspective,” these films only exacerbate the otherness of their subjects by enclosing comprehension within the experiential. By foregrounding such felt experience as the exclusive means to the truth of war, documentaries like The Anderson Platoon and A Face of War, as James puts it, “propose the GI as the site of exemplary understanding” (198). James writes:

“The affirmation of presence in the film image supposes a parallel aesthetic of empiricism, a repression of knowledge that can be countered only by an engagement with what it must suppress: history” (201-02).

In other words, the truth claims by these documentaries based on proximity to the “action” require a seemingly simultaneous separation from the sphere of critical thinking (in particular historical knowledge), just as the fiction of “presence” requires avoiding undue attention to the material production of the work or indeed any sign (such as the formal device of voiceover narration, which again is absent from A Face of War) that might occasion reflection on the very process of documenting what Philip Rosen calls “a preexistent, profilmic field” (241).

We need to look no further for evidence of this dehistoricized approach to documenting the war than this same sequence in A Face of War, which likely is footage of the so-called pacification program in South Vietnam. With its roots in counterinsurgency doctrine dating back to the late 1950s, the “resettlement” of rural populations, as part of the larger program of “pacification,” was military-speak for the U.S. policy of forced relocation, the countrywide crisis that created the “refugee generation” during the war (see Baritz; Ngo; Hunt). Yet the sequence in question, appearing to reveal a measured military response to attack by an “enemy” village, unfurls as a humanitarian mission, in effect obscuring any realization that what took place before the camera was very likely indicative of a pre-determined strategy. What the film does indeed bear witness to, but fails to provide any context for, is its documentation of the waging of this “other war” in Vietnam — the winning (and losing) of hearts and minds.

With their temporal and spatial coordinates constricted to the visceral impact of combat experience — fixated on a present without a past and fastened to an event without any cause — documentaries like The Anderson Platoon and A Face of War go to great pains to valorize the warrior only to eclipse the war itself, providing a favored model in the documentary representation of war that will find its most recent manifestation in the first generation of documentaries on the Iraq war.

Documenting a soldier’s perspective on the Iraq War:
Gunner Palace

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:

“It is a pleasure to be back in your country. When I visited four months ago, the regime of Saddam Hussein had just fallen and I was pleased to be able to celebrate your liberation with you. The changes that have taken place since then are extraordinary: Baghdad is bustling with commerce.”

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:

“These guys were trained to stop a Russian advance….They live to blow stuff up. But out here in the streets of Baghdad, they become policemen, social workers, and politicians. Today — truant officers.”

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:

“He’s just an orphaned kid, he’s on drugs — one of those heartbreaker stories. Not really anything you can do; get him into some kind of a system.”

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:

“Children cheered on U.S. soldiers as classes started at two schools in Abu Ghraib City, Iraq. Officials say the schools had been gutted and used to store weapons and ammunition. But with hard work and cooperation from the local people, the troops were able to repair the damage.”

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.[9]

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,

“to deal with the ambivalent location of the GI as simultaneously the agent and the victim of imperialism” (198).

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 Sheik is out. Gone to Falluja they say. Don’t know when he’ll be back.”

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:

“We the raid masters, yo
We got the shit, we got the gun blasters, yo
Fifty cal, blowin’ your brains
I’m going insane
It’s all about this shit, right here, the sandbox…”

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 total haul was 48,000 dollars in Iraqi dinar, a couple of weapons, and some ledger books. Sheik Majid stopped by the palace a few days later. He was arrested, then released. Later that week, the Sheik stopped by with a home-cooked meal for the Colonel. As if nothing had happened, they were old friends.”

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:

“Most of us don’t see this on the news anymore. We have reality TV instead: Joe Millionaire, Survivor…. Well, survive this: A year in Baghdad without changing the channel.”

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.[10]

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.[11] 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.[12]

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:

“I don’t feel like I’m defending my country anymore and that kind of sucks. That’s the whole purpose when you’re a kid to join the Army — to defend your country. But we’re not defending our country anymore.”

The filmmaker immediately asks, “Are you still proud to be a soldier?” To which Commisso replies:

“I am. Because nothing beats it. We all talk about how when we’re gonna go home how proud we’re gonna be to be combat vets. I mean, how many people can say that they’re combat veterans? Nineteen years old and I fought in a war.”

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.[13] 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.[14] 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,

“when America looks out on a democratic Middle East growing in freedom and prosperity, Americans will speak of the battles of Fallujah with the same awe and reverence that we now give to Guadalcanal and Iwo Jima.”[15]

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,

“In the case of the recent right-wing Vietnam war films, the fundamental textual mechanism of displacement that has not been recognized is that the question ‘Were we right to fight in Vietnam?’ has been replaced (displaced) by the question ‘What is our obligation to the veterans of the war?’” (103-04).

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:

"At first glance, the comic-book heroics of the earlier films seem antithetical to the “realism” of the later ones, but in spite of such differences the films are actually very much alike in their dependence on the strategy of victimization. The films all work to evoke sympathy for the American G.I. (today’s veteran) and pay tribute to the act of remembering the war as private hell" (104-05).

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).[16]

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.[17]

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.


1. Peter Applebome, “War Heals Wounds at Home, but Not All,” A1, 12, and Dov Zakheim, “Is the Vietnam Syndrome Dead? Happily, It’s Buried in the Gulf,” New York Times, March 4, 1991, A17. For a comprehensive account of what must now be considered the first Gulf War, see Philip M. Taylor, War and the Media: Propaganda and Persuasion in the Gulf War (Manchester and New York: Manchester University Press, 1992). For a more specific reading of the “syndrome,” see Michelle Kendrick, “Kicking the Vietnam Syndrome: CNN’s and CBS’s Video Narratives of the Persian Gulf War,” in Susan Jeffords and Lauren Rabinovitz, eds., Seeing Through the Media: The Persian Gulf War (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1994). For a brief but critical view of the “Vietnam Syndrome” in light of the present war, see Christian G. Appy, “The Ghosts of War,” The Chronicle of Higher Education, July 9, 2004, B12-13.

2. Ari Fleischer quoted in Mike Allen and Karen DeYoung, “White House is Revising its War Message,” Washington Post, April 3, 2003.

3. A sampling of examples includes Walter Shapiro, “Hearts and Minds Prove Unreadable,” USA Today, April 1, 2003:
Susan Page, “Is Iraq Becoming Another Vietnam?” USA Today, April 14, 2004, A1, 2; Oscar R. Estrada, “The Military: Losing Hearts and Minds?” Washington Post, “Outlook” section, B1, June 6, 2004; “U.S. Representative Christopher Shays (R-CT) Holds a Hearing on U.S.-Iraq Diplomacy,” June 15, 2004, FDCH Political Transcripts, LexisNexis Academic; Douglass K. Daniel, “GOP Senator Says Iraq Looking Like Vietnam,” The Associated Press, August 21, 2005. For an incisive reading of the politics of language linking these wars, see Geoffrey Nunberg, “Iraq-Vietnam,” Fresh Air commentary, aired May 18, 2004, text posted at:

4. Peter Biskind, “Hearts and Minds,” in Lewis Jacobs, ed., The Documentary Tradition (New York: W.W. Norton & Co., 1979), 552.

5. David Grosser, “’We Aren’t on the Wrong Side, We Are the Wrong Side’: Peter Davis Targets (American) Hearts and Minds,” in Linda Dittmar and Gene Michaud, eds., From Hanoi to Hollywood: The Vietnam War in American Film (New Brunswick and London: Rutgers UP, 1990) and Thomas J. Slater, “Teaching Vietnam: The Politics of Documentary,” in Michael Anderegg, ed., Inventing Vietnam: The War in Film and Television (Philadelphia: Temple UP, 1991).

6. Thomas Waugh, “Beyond Vérité: Emile de Antonio and the New Documentary of the Seventies,” in Bill Nichols, ed., Movies and Methods, Volume II (Berkeley: U of California Press, 1985).

7. Emile de Antonio, “Visions of Vietnam,” in Douglas Kellner and Dan Streible, eds., Emile de Antonio: A Reader (Minneapolis and London: University of Minnesota Press, 2000), 359.

8. One notable exception to the largely ahistorical treatment so far of the Iraq war in the documentary field is Why We Fight, Eugene Jarecki’s 2005 film that demands its own full-length study.

9. One of the extra scenes on the DVD release also takes place at yet another orphanage, the accumulation of which forging an implication that U.S. soldiers fear being orphaned by an indifferent people back home.

10. The next sequence, titled “Gunnerpalooza 4: Post-Raid party,” is also heavily laden with intertextual allusions. Several shots of bare-chested young soldiers dancing together in the pool, to a live version of “My Girl,” are reminiscent of the scenes in Platoon depicting the homosocial underworld of the “heads,” with young male soldiers dancing together to the sounds of Motown. Additionally, an earlier pool scene in Gunner Palace further echoes degrees of mediation, this time much more directly, as one soldier floating in the pool recites nearly word for word the “interview” with Private Joker in Full Metal Jacket expressing the life-long dream of being the first kid on his block “to get a confirmed kill.”

11. For powerful counter-testimony on what it’s like to be on the receiving end of such raids, see Riverbend, Baghdad Burning: Girl Blog from Iraq (New York: the Feminist Press of the City University of New York, 2005).

12. This approach to representing the war that privileges the personal over the political appears to be the reigning trend in documentary work, reinforced more recently by Deborah Scranton’s The War Tapes (2006) as well as Off to War (2005), the 10-part Discovery Times Channel production that, claims the ad copy, “tells the story of a war in a way it has never been told before — through the eyes of the soldiers and families back home who endured it.” Even Patricia Foulkrod’s documentary The Ground Truth (2006), which is obviously critical of the war, refrains from contextualizing it in order to maintain a strict focus on the suffering of returning vets and their emotional struggles. And the documentary field is not alone in this individualized approach to the war. A spate of memoirs of the Iraq war by American soldiers similarly avoid the “big picture,” together insisting that, according to Lakshmi Chaudhry, the war is primarily “about them —their self-image, their needs, their emotions.” See Chaudhry, “Postcards From the Front,” In These Times, January 2006, 38-40.

13. The web site for the film features Tucker’s blog, “Baghdad Diaries,” which includes the following entry: “This has become their movie, not mine — each person with their own reference. For the older officers and NCOs it’s M*A*S*H. They brought aloha shirts for poolside BBQs. For others, it’s Platoon and Full Metal Jacket. You can see it in the way they ride in their Humvees: one foot hanging out the door—helicopters with wheels. For the teenagers, it’s Jackass Goes to War.” Entry March 1, 2004.

14. Besides the previously mentioned entry in Tucker’s blog, see also his entry for September 28, 2003. See also Kevin O’donnell, “Q&A: Michael Tucker,” Rolling Stone 979 (July 28, 2005). With the noticeable amount of horsing around on display, one might be tempted to connect Gunner Palace to the wayward lineage of war films that use “black comedy” as a means for commenting on war. Such films as Catch-22 and M*A*S*H, both released in 1970 at the height of the Vietnam War, called upon the critical edge of satire and dark humor to reveal the absurdity of war, while a film like Good Morning, Vietnam (1987) took an irreverent approach to the war in its mockery of military authority. More recently, Three Kings (1999) incorporated farcical elements to undermine the hollow triumphalism of the U.S. military in the first Gulf War. The overall tone and structure of Gunner Palace, however, is deadly serious, easily absorbing the occasional performance by soldiers to act out and blow off steam. To the extent that such comedic moments always take place during down time, this containment of comedy is actually “an indication,” as Michael Isenberg writes of WWI comedies,

“that the halo of serious purpose cast its aura around the battlefield itself, and that the fighting still was seen as part of a sacred cause…” (133).

15. “President Bush Delivers Remarks at Dedication of the National Museum of the Marine Corps, Quantico, Virginia,” November 10, 2006, Congressional Quarterly Transcriptions, LexisNexis Academic.

16. Richard Jackson, Writing the War on Terrorism: Language, Politics and Counter-Terrorism (Manchester and New York: Manchester UP, 2005). See especially pages 31-38. “The more powerful a nation becomes, the more it asserts its victimhood,” writes George Monbiot in a short commentary on the film Black Hawk Down and the post-9/11 “sense of unique grievance” to American nationalism:

“What we are witnessing in both Black Hawk Down and the current war against terrorism is the creation of a new myth of nationhood. The US is casting itself simultaneously as the world’s saviour and the world’s victim, a sacrificial messiah on a mission to deliver the world from evil. The myth contains incalculable dangers for everyone else on earth.”

George Monbiot, “Both Saviour and Victim,” Guardian Weekly, February 13, 2002, 13.

17. For a brief but valuable account of psychiatrist Robert Lifton’s notion of “atrocity-producing situations,” see Dahr Jamail, “How Massacres Become the Norm,” Truthout, April 4, 2006:
For a critique of the military’s “few bad apples” defense over Abu Ghraib, see my essay “Picturing Torture: Gulf Wars Past and Present,” in Andrew Martin and Patrice Petro, eds., Rethinking Global Security: Media, Popular Culture, and the “War on Terror” (New Brunswick, NJ and London: Rutgers University Press, 2006), 206-235.

Works cited

Pat Aufderheide, “Good Soldiers,” in Mark Crispin Miller, ed., Seeing Through Movies (New York: Pantheon, 1990).

Theodor Adorno, The Jargon of Authenticity, trans. Knut Tarnowski and Frederic Will (Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 1973).

Loren Baritz, Backfire: A History of How American Culture Led Us into Vietnam and Made Us Fight the Way We Did (New York: Ballantine Books, 1985).

Peter Biskind, “Hearts and Minds,” in Lewis Jacobs, ed., The Documentary Tradition (New York: W.W. Norton & Co., 1979).

Lakshmi Chaudhry, “Postcards From the Front,” In These Times, January 2006, 38-40.

Gary Crowdus and Dan Georgakas, “History Is the Theme of All My Films: An Interview with Emile de Antonio,” in Alan Rosenthal, ed., New Challenges for Documentary (Berkeley: U of California Press, 1988).

Emile de Antonio, “Visions of Vietnam,” in Douglas Kellner and Dan Streible, eds., Emile de Antonio: A Reader (Minneapolis and London: University of Minnesota Press, 2000).

Cynthia Fuchs, “Double Vision,” PopMatters, March 4, 2005, and “There Wasn’t a Front Line: Interview with Michael Tucker and Jon Powers,” PopMatters, March 29, 2005.

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