Spc. Richmond Shaw: "[F]or y’all this is a show, but we live in this movie.”

A GI ironically describes the improvised armor on his Humvee that had just come under attack.

Soldiers fall to the ground laughing at the ironic description of their inadequate equipment.

The scene could be a powerful critique of the military’s commitment to troops safety, but their laughter simultaneously rewrites their vulnerability as an example of their bravery.


Al Jazeera gave voice to the Iraqis on the ground.

The Al Jazeera control room represented in the 2004 Iraq War documentary Control Room.

Marine Josh Rushing articulates the Defense Department point of view to the world’s media.

Al Jazeera’s Hassan Ibrahim argues, “Democratize or I’ll shoot” does not work as a political strategy.

Al Jazeera shows footage of U.S. soldiers ordering Iraqis to the ground.

Producer Samir Khader speaking about Al Jazeera’s news coverage: “Rumsfeld calls it ‘incitement.’ I call it the only journalism in the world.”

Al Jazeera translates a speech by Donald Rumsfeld.

The death of a serviceman marked at the end of a news broadcast.

Profiles from the Front Lines, a short-lived TV program chronicling the U.S. soldiers in Afghanistan, became the model for embedded reporting in Iraq.

Shelby Monroe, a reporter from a Tennessee newspaper embedded for 101 days with the 101st Airborne: “When you ride around in a Humvee, you bond with the soldiers.”

An Al Jazeera reporter ducks to avoid US fire.

Al Jazeera reporter Tarek Ayyoub was killed in a U.S. airstrike that hit the network’s Baghdad headquarters.

Jane Fonda protesting the Vietnam war.

Jane Fonda explains in Sir! No Sir! that she was operating within the GI anti-war movement.

Eventually popular support and media coverage of the war began to fade.


Why we fight: the Vietnam syndrome

Just as troops are trained to support each other, so too the U.S. public has been trained to support the troops.

“For many Americans, a war ethics has given way to this warrior ethics — to a focus on bonds of fidelity experienced by fellow soldiers amid the inhumanity of war….Unlike the politics of American duty, the contemporary imperative of war is to stand by our soldiers regardless of political purposes” (Lucas and McCarthy 176-77).

This support connects us back to Vietnam and the national hand wringing over the treatment of returning soldiers. Indeed, most representations of the war in film and television argue that politics and principles do not really make any sense; all that matters is the band of brothers with whom one fights (Lucas and McCarthy).

So if soldiers fight mostly for reasons outside of the official national ideologies of spreading freedom, ensuring liberty, and protecting the rule of law, the U.S. people generally support them for reasons outside of those ideologies as well. And this sense of commitment to the soldiers’ unity has been translated to mean that support of the military is essential for the troops’ survival. The practice of training troops to fight for each other was now made manifest throughout the population; the United States would go to war to maintain bonds with the troops.

Here we must reconsider the so-called Vietnam Syndrome. It was not, as William Safire labeled it “that revulsion at the use of military power.” It was a reluctance to get into war for reasons that did not include the troops themselves. So too, the Cold War motives of the Vietnam War have largely been reframed so that the war is now often seen as a struggle over what kind of nation the United States was internally and how Americans victimized the troops.

And in answer to the pragmatic question that arose after the end of the Cold War — Why keep a huge military force if there is no huge military enemy? — the answer is provided in part by the mere existence of the force itself. This is not to deny that Americans value security and actual force strength, but it is to recognize that the reasons for militarization tend to be highly emotional. Regardless of the specific conditions of any military intervention post-Vietnam, the existence of the military helps provide its justification for its continued existence.

This circularity was fully realized in the Gulf War where a well-coordinated media campaign by the White House and Pentagon “conflated the objectives of war with those who had been sent to fight the war” (Lembcke 20). The initial goal as stated by George H.W. Bush’s Secretary of State James A. Baker of keeping Middle Eastern oil flowing uninterruptedly to the United States was apparently seen as too mercenary and was just not resonating. So a pathos-laden case was fabricated about Iraqi atrocities toward helpless Kuwaiti women and tiny Kuwaiti babies—and that helped move sympathy a bit. But what really created support for the war was the war itself. Certainly, the Powell Doctrine’s guarantees helped but ultimately it was putting the troops in “harm’s way,” as the cliché goes, that got the U.S. people behind the effort (See Lembcke and Kellner). Eventually, a desire to apologize to the troops for the national lack of gratitude about Vietnam became part of the war justification structure. Vietnam veterans were even invited to march in parades held to honor the US’s victory in the Gulf War.

So too the younger President Bush initiated his war in Iraq with a chaff-filled campaign of multiple ad hoc justifications for deploying U.S. troops, after which he just launched them into battle. But deposing Saddam Hussain and occupying Iraq as opposed to simply moving Saddam out of Kuwait as the United States did in the Gulf War would require more impetus than merely moving the troops into position; in the case of the Iraq War, 9/11 helped provide that, but it was the “Support the Troops” mantra that kept support steady for the war as it developed over the first few years. It was only when troops continued dying and the situation on the ground in Iraq did not significantly improve that support for the war broadly began to shift. But in supporting the war no less than in calling for its end, the justification is always the wellbeing of the troops (and, incidentally, not the Iraqi people!)

Gunner Palace operates precisely on this terrain. It attempts to be a representation of soldiers at war outside of politics and outside of history, not commenting on whether the war is right — just that the warriors deserve to live. One of the film’s most poignant moments comes when one of the Gunners makes an ironic commentary about their inadequate armor. He is captured in a medium shot as he guides the camera operator on a “tour” of a vehicle that had just been through an improvised-explosive-device (IED) attack.

“Part of our $87 billion budget, provided for us to have some secondary armor put on top of our thin-skinned Humvees. This armor was made in Iraq. It’s high-quality metal, and it will probably slow down the shrapnel so that it stays in your body instead of going clean through. And that’s about it.”

As he finishes, soldiers in his company literally fall to the ground laughing at the harsh reality of their life near death. A title is inserted over the image of a soldier overcome with laughter:

“With 18 Confirmed IED Attacks, Charlie Battery holds the Task Force record.”

It is in such moments that the film leans toward a much-needed critique of how the Defense Department failed the grunts on the ground. But the criticism is neither sustained nor substantiated, and the soldiers’ laughter, which lends the critique its poignancy, serves in the same minute to undercut it. We can write off their tragic vulnerability as another example of the soldiers’ bravery and honor. And because these soldiers joined of their own accord, their deep vulnerability makes them that much braver.

Failures of communication

From the soldiers’ perspective, their experience in Iraq is utterly incomprehensible to those who have not fought, and this claim serves to heighten the viewers’ attempted identification with them, even if audiences know they cannot fully comprehend the war from movie representations. The soldiers, however, do not acknowledge that their reality of war is not uncomplicatedly real and shaped by just being there; it too is shaped by war films and news coverage and by the fact that they are aware they are being filmed. Gunner Palace shows soldiers living their lives in a state of heightened self-awareness that is as essential for survival in war as it is for popularity in reality-TV or reality-TV-inspired cinema. As one palace poet, Specialist Richmond Shaw, explained it,

“But when those guns start blazing and our friends get hit/ That’s when our hearts start racing and our stomach’s get woozy/Cuz for y’all this is just a show, but we live in this movie.”

What the audience rarely saw “living in the movie” were the Iraqi people themselves. Americans might imagine that there was great suffering but actually saw very little of it—not just in this film but also in U.S. coverage of the war in general. Jehane Noujaim’s documentary, Control Room (2004) offers crucial insight here, even if the war she shows happens in the control room of the Arabic news network Al Jazeera and in the U.S. Army’s Central Command in Qatar — ground zero for media covering the pre-“mission accomplished” ground war before George W. Bush declared that the United States had won “the Battle of Iraq.” What Noujaim’s documentary does so well is show the constructedness of war while letting viewers see its Iraqi victims — even if our view of them is through Al Jazeera footage.

This documentary differs from Gunner Palace not only in showing the suffering of Iraqis but by individuating the subjects of the film and letting the audience know the people on the scene. These “characters” help the audience understand the war through somewhat different perspectives — especially by depicting Marine media manager Josh Rushing debate Al Jazeera journalist Hassan Ibrahim. Of course, what is missing in both this film and Gunner Palace are any developed Iraqi “characters” on the ground. Control Room is about the media and especially Al Jazeera’s coverage of the war, not exactly about the war itself. But at least this approach to the conflict is very different from the Pentagon’s. I cannot say the same thing about Gunner Palace.

There the Iraqis are nebulous, undifferentiated, except in notable instances such as when the translator betrays the troops. This is a point Control Room makes: neither the U.S. media nor military establishment understands the significance of the war to the people of the Middle East — which is not to make some essentializing argument that all people of the Middle East are the same. Again this is a point Control Room covers well: it shows the diversity of the region, which we can see just in the Al Jazeera control room itself. But the war did its part to at once exacerbate long-standing divides while at the same time heightening a popular sense of Middle Eastern unity — at least when it comes to dealing with the United States. And this U.S. unwillingness to see the Iraqi people, or the people of the Middle East, in little other than in the most generalized perspective is an old dynamic that Edward Saïd discussed decades ago when he argued that media representations give us little more than

“a series of crude, essentialized caricatures of the Islamic world presented in such a way as to make that world vulnerable to military aggression” (189).

Indeed, if Gunner Palace’s perspective mirrors the Pentagon’s view of the war, then we could see from that early representation that the war was not going to be won. For if the film — like the Pentagon — is self aware, it is not at all aware of the people of Iraq, even if it was the Iraqis who, in the midst of civil conflict brought on by the invasion and the power vacuum it created, were being killed at the rate of one hundred per day by summer 2006.

Gunner Palace reflects the undifferentiated pose of traditional media representations of the Middle East. In the end this unwillingness to make distinctions reflects the Pentagon’s attitude toward the war. The ideas and images that have emerged from official discourse were vague: the soldiers are noble; the reasons for the war are irrelevant; and the Iraqis are a heaving mass, a roadblock to an unexpressed goal and their resistance is a deadly nuisance. Therefore, on some level Gunner Palace illustrates failures of communication. We see officers who try to manage populations to whom they cannot speak. We see Arabic interpreters who betray their U.S. employers. And we see soldiers who maintain that the audience cannot understand the experience of war. But we can also see the film as itself a case study in the failure of communication because it fails to communicate who fought in this war despite its claims to cover the reality of the life of the fighting forces.

But more importantly, the film fails to communicate the dimensions of human suffering that are at the root of war. For instance, the narrator tells us that one of the Gunners dies, but we never get to know him. We hear the filmmaker had a special affection for the dead soldier, but we never really see that relationship. Indeed, this tendency in the film reflects in its own way, the Bush Administration policy that did not allow the public to see the coffins of dead U.S soldiers.[2] [open notes in new window] The most that was shown was a photo from before the soldier or Marine went to war, usually in a segment with a name like “Fallen Heroes” at the end of the evening news. Sometimes the picture was an official military photo, say of a serious-faced private in uniform, other times a guy sitting on the couch in a rec room in a suburban home; on occasion, it was a wide-smiling graduate in a cap and gown. These images were placed next to a name, rank, age, hometown. Occasionally, we might learn a little more personal information about the fallen like the number of children they left behind or their pre-war occupations or the sports teams they played on, but that was mostly it.

If the public felt any sorrow for the loss of thousands of U.S. service members in combat, it was a sorrow most people in the United States had to choose to feel. But there was little compelling most Americans to even notice any casualties at all since those were very deliberately placed in the background. That is the same choice Gunner Palace allows us as well. We can choose to care a little or not at all. And this too seems to be a failure of communication since the war is being fought in the U.S. people’s name, with U.S. tax dollars, and purportedly for U.S. safety.

However, from the dominant Pentagon perspective, failure of communication means something quite different: it means failure to control communication. And this according to many U.S. war apologists is the purported failure that led to the United States’ loss in Vietnam. For it was ostensibly the media that eroded domestic support for that war by showing the horrors of the battlefield. George H.W. Bush’s Pentagon dealt with the “problem” of battlefield journalism in the Gulf War by strictly controlling media access, keeping the press in tight pools, and deciding when, where, and who would be interviewed. The memorable images from that war were not the frontline troops but the impact video shot from the nose cones of missiles as they headed with deadly precision toward their targets (and failing precision, viewers could at least see that something was blown to smithereens). As many scholars have commented at length, this approach gave the U.S. viewer the unfeeling and unthinking point of view of the weapon (see Baudrillard’s The Gulf War Did Not Take Place).

George W. Bush’s Pentagon developed a whole other method for dealing with the media and the “failures” of communication they could cause. In the Iraq War, the media were managed not by limiting their access but by giving them full access to their subjects; that is, by embedding reporters with the troops. In pragmatic terms, because the reporters’ safety depended on these troops, the reporter would certainly be unlikely to relate anything controversial. Furthermore, that kind of constant monitoring of battle by reporters also meant that reporters were themselves subject to being closely monitored by troops. But that is not really the genius of embedding, for certainly a reporter could file any critical stories upon returning to the United States. The real genius from the Pentagon perspective is the same genius that goes into training today’s forces.

That is, both embedding and today’s training emphasize camaraderie. Like the military, the press is governed through its freedom and sense of loyalty to the troops. Indeed, the “success” of this approach was most evident in the emphasis of the media’s coverage: given the possibility of investigating the Pentagon’s claims about weapons of mass destruction or exposing the abuse and torture of prisoners, the embedded media chose to cover the human interest story of the troops in battle. As with WWII coverage, these media felt allied with troops. But unlike WWII, media had the legal possibility of disseminating critical or investigative stories but generally chose not to because of instructions from pro-war corporate ownership or fear of blowback from audiences and others charging them with demoralizing the troops.

Several points are important to note here. The first is that the idea for embedding as it was conducted in Iraq came from a short-lived program made by master ideologist Jerry Bruckheimer—the reactionary movie mogul behind Black Hawk Down, Pearl Harbor, Armageddon, and Top Gun — who teamed up with Bertram Van Munster — producer of Cops. The show Profiles from the Front Line, which got up-close and personal with troops deployed in Afghanistan, was such a success by the Pentagon’s reckoning that it authorized the process more widely resulting in embedding becoming the signature journalistic style of the war.[3]

This approach would seem to contrast with the footage from missile nose cones that was the signature style of the Gulf War. But what needs to be understood is that the two types of coverage — U.S. troop perspective and U.S. missile perspective — actually have everything to do with each other. Both are products of a biopolitical approach to warfare whose goal is to kill the ostensible enemy while “regenerating the race” by conditioning the U.S. public to support militarism. The nose-cone camera, like Shock and Awe, was a key strategy to promote U.S. support for war. Both approaches are perfect for wars in a mass-mediated society. So too the embedded reporter is ultimately a PR stunt perfect for wars in the era of the twenty-four-hour news network. It lionizes the troops, and because of the appearance of openness, ultimately shapes the message far more effectively than actual regulation and censorship of the media.

That this potential for extensive coverage also opens the potential for release of footage detailing abuse and civilian casualties is a point that could hardly have been lost on strategists. As it turned out, this was not a problem. Thus, despite Constitutional protections guaranteed the U.S. press, it was the international press who aired the stories the U.S. military did not want released. Most significant was their willingness to provide the graphic visual evidence of reported events: for example, day-to-day violence in Iraq, extensive Abu Ghraib photos, and the “Downing Street memo” revealing George Bush’s very early intent to go to war in Iraq. Indeed, the only reporters the Pentagon directly impeded were those who were not willing or able to embed: foreign media who covered the war from non-coalition perspectives and reporters who stayed unattached to any unit. In the early days of the war, it was these un-embedded reporters who were in the most physical danger, and the danger came less from Iraqi fighters than from the U.S. military, as evidenced, for example, by the shelling of Baghdad’s Palestine Hotel, well known to be the lodgings of the international press and resulting in five casualties (Committee to Protect Journalists) or the missile strike that hit Al-Jazeera’s headquarters in Baghdad that became a central event in Control Room.

In those early days of the war, such events, explained as accidents, were certainly made likely to happen because of Pentagon strategies like “Shock and Awe” that advocated unsparing levels of violence. And like embedding, Shock and Awe was born as much out of the Pentagon’s desire to avoid its “failures” of communication as to defeat an enemy. Indeed, to fully understand the Executive Branch’s attitude to war, we need simply note erstwhile White House Chief of Staff Andy Card’s explanation for the March start date of Operation Iraqi Freedom: “From a marketing point of view, you don’t introduce new products in August.”

All of these policies effectively work to contain opposition. But even representations that focus on opposition to war, such as the insufficiently recognized Sir! No Sir! (2005) — a documentary about the GI anti-Vietnam War movement — still operate along the support-the-troops logic. Indeed, Jane Fonda, the utter embodiment of troop hating for the militaristic set, makes a point of explaining in the film that she was working with GIs in opposition to the war. It is the service personnel who legitimize her opposition to the war, so yet again, the soldiers’ experience is privileged — not just because soldiers make up the focus of the film but as a justification in itself. Taking this perspective to its logical conclusion, the Iraq War should have ended when the soldiers said it was over. But of course, they are not really the reason the United States fights; they are the reason Americans support (and sometimes resist) the fighting. Thus, what we see is a kind of unit cohesion writ large upon the U.S. population that relates back to the earlier discussion of Cops. In that representational frame, the police are always the heroes. So too it is assumed that the people they arrest are always the bad guys. But really, their guilt or innocence does not matter: it is the showing up and arresting someone that is important. And that same representational frame was operating in the first years’ coverage of the war. If the troops were in a war, then the war was the right thing for the troops to be in and the right thing for the United States to be in. From Gunner Palace to Cops to the twenty-four-hour news, promises of showing everyday Americans the true stories of combat and crime ultimately erode political discourse and elevate the necropolitical perspectives that promote contemporary U.S. war law-and-order ideology. In Iraq, as soon as the war could no longer be easily seen in that framework, the war coverage began to fade and eventually so did the American people’s support.

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