The U.S. embassy in Baghdad is the world’s largest embassy.
A Gunner on patrol in the formerly upscale Adhamiya district of Baghdad.
Cops promotes a “law-and-order ideology.”
Gunner Palace often resembles an episode of Cops.
A “suspected bomb maker” expresses anger over the invasion of his house and his treatment upon arrest.
Wilf: the only Gunner fully personalized in Gunner Palace.
Part of Gunner Palace’s appeal lies in watching the surreality of GIs partying in the middle of a warzone.
Gunner Palace integrates multiple documentary modes.
Some interviews are set in a black frame to offer a perspective on the narrative, producing an effect analogous to the confessionals on MTV’s Real World.
Fahrenheit 9/11 portrays the sorrow of Lila Lipscomb whose son died in combat in Iraq.
One of the Gunners’ nighttime raids was on “#89,” a former director of a chemical weapons facility.
Troops enter #89's house.
In an act of apparent kindness, the troops allow “#89” to comb his hair before taking him away to an unknown fate.
Sometimes the arrested do not resist.
Part of the Cops formula involves reveling in the humiliation of the decontextualized “bad guys.”
Here the Cops-style humiliation appears in the form of a suspected insurgent financier taken into custody in his bare feet and nightgown.
A translator explains, “They call us the betraitors.”
“Mike Tyson” was accused of helping the insurgents.
Tyson is asked by the officer, “Do you want to be my prisoner or my guest?”
Roy pronounces Tyson’s fate, “[H]e’s going to be sentenced to Abu Ghraib for thirty years. That’s it. It’s easy.”
Detainees lying face-down in a truck.
The last of the combat troops was pulled out of Iraq in December 2011, marking the end of a nearly nine-year war with little fanfare or sentiment or even press coverage. But rather than forgetting Iraq and moving on as U.S. political leaders and media have done, this is precisely the time to look back on the Iraq War, especially as neoconservatives and other hawks try to drum up a case for war with Iraq’s neighbor, Iran. This paper aims to put contemporary U.S. war in a larger context to understand how the Iraq War was promoted in the United States. For the war in Iraq actually stands as an object lesson for how to win support for U.S. combat operations in our era of neoliberal capitalism, which integrates war into a prosaic corporate Americana.
I analyze the practicalities of contemporary U.S. war, including how troops are trained, supported by contractors, and represented in dominant culture. These practicalities are aimed as much toward producing fighters who win wars as insuring U.S. support of foreign and economic policy as well as the military-industrial complex.
Before beginning this exploration, it is important to recognize the Iraq War as a tragic debacle. Well over 100,000 Iraqis died, and some estimates actually put the death toll over 500,000. U.S. military fatalities reached almost 4500. Contractors are not included in that count and the number of their fatalities is not accurately known. Uncertainties about the monetary costs are even harder to break through, but noted economists Joseph Stiglitz and Linda Bilmes estimate that the war’s cost to the United States, including long-term expenses and losses, will total $3 trillion — which, it goes without saying, is substantially higher than the $50-60 billion the Bush Administration estimated. The cost of the destruction of Iraq’s infrastructure cannot be definitively determined. The lasting impact is also hard to determine; for the United States, what remains structurally is a U.S. Embassy that is the world’s largest building complex of its kind. Tellingly, at war’s end it was guarded by 200 service personnel, who were themselves supported by an army of thousands of contractors all holed up in what is basically a fortress. Barely recognized in the U.S. media, the situation in the embassy embodies the war itself — a massively expensive operation enabled by contractors whose engagement reduces U.S. troop involvement, thereby skirting public scrutiny and media coverage. Thus, the war that started as a spectacular twenty-four-hour news event ended as a back-page story of a backwater conflict.
The Iraq War had in its last years become widely known as a quagmire, a common description used to connect it to Vietnam — the U.S. conflict that has become synonymous with the term “quagmire.” Indeed the Vietnam War shaped U.S. understanding of war until Operation Iraqi Freedom. Responding to Vietnam, dominant culture has fetishized the fighters as a band of brothers, an image that works to gain support for the constant militarism required to maintain U.S. neoliberal capitalism. However, this fetishization is only possible through two strategies, both characteristic of the contemporary era:
These strategies work to distract the public and stifle debate about the human costs of war while significantly increasing the financial costs. I will show that U.S. war today depends on diverting attention away from the reasons for the war and redirecting attention to the U.S. troops who fight it.Gunner Palace
Cinematically, the war has been represented by U.S.-based filmmakers through dramatic fiction films such as In the Valley of Elah, Green Zone, and The Hurt Locker as well as documentaries covering a variety of aspects of the war including the troops in combat (such as Occupation: Dreamland, The War Tapes), the impact on the people of Iraq (Iraq in Fragments, My Country, My Country), and U.S. political implications (No End in Sight, Iraq for Sale) to take some key examples. But here I will use Petra Epperlein and Michael Tucker’s Gunner Palace (2004), the first theatrically released documentary about U.S. troops in combat in Iraq, as a touchstone for the larger exploration of how war is promoted in the United States and how dominant U.S. culture positions war and service personnel.
The film encapsulates the posture toward the troops and the Iraqi people that enabled neoconservatives to launch the war in the first place—not because the film is a right-wing propaganda piece but precisely because it is not. The film aims to present the troops objectively without comment about the legitimacy or reasons for the war itself. But, as I show, presenting the troops outside of that context actually works to reinforce a pro-war message. I will contrast the film with two other early Iraq War documentaries Control Room (2004) and Fahrenheit 9/11 (2004), but Gunner Palace is central to this analysis because it best reflects the ideology and rationality by which war is sold to the U.S. people.
Gunner Palace follows the men and women of the U.S. Army’s 2/3 Field Artillery (the gunners of the film’s title) who take up residence in one of Uday Hussein’s now-bombed-out palaces (the palace part of the title). As a veteran himself, filmmaker and voiceover narrator Michael Tucker was in a different position than many people in media industries who covered the war at the time. This position made his film’s neutrality on the war—whatever that means in relation to combat coverage—a privilege not generally allowed the diverse media covering the war in its earliest years. Indeed, given the barrage of pro-war propaganda coming from the mainstream U.S. media at the time the film was released, this soldier’s-eye view came across as quite an achievement in the eyes of many reviewers, even anti-war progressives such as Frank Rich of the New York Times who called the film “a true tribute to the American troops in Iraq” and scholar Cynthia Fuchs who judged it “remarkable” in a review for PopMatters. These reviewers saw the film’s capturing of the troops’ words and feelings as an achievement and even as a critique of the war itself. A real achievement, of course, would have been to make an unequivocal critique by taking an unambiguous stand against the war.
What stands out about Gunner Palace, beyond its timely release as the first documentary following the troops in combat in Iraq, is that visually and thematically it feels like an episode of the long-running Fox reality TV show, Cops. This similarity between the two texts is deeply telling. Gunner Palace draws from the same selection of representational techniques that are essential to creating the reality effect in Cops including
These features function in Gunner Palace as they do in Cops. In both cases, what the filmed spectacle lacks in complexity, it overcompensates for in “law-and-order ideology” — the idea that “society is seen to be in decline or crisis because of spiraling crime, specifically violent street crime of the underclasses” (Doyle 96). The solution this ideology offers to the alleged problem of the underclasses is tougher law enforcement. We don’t need civil rights; we just need more cops!
The ideology has no room for consideration of structural causes of crime such as unemployment or poverty, although it does mobilize “systems of meaning that construct people as us and them” (Doyle 97).
Translating law-and-order ideology onto the small screen dictates that audiences only see the officers’ perspective; the camera only follows them. But surprisingly these cops are not really differentiated. The identities of the officers are as irrelevant to the action as the identities of the presumed criminals. So too, the location of the officers and even the year in which an episode was filmed turn out to be fairly irrelevant. Part of the success of the Cops formula is that reruns are just not a problem since there is no significant historical or narrative development. The names and locations change to lend a sense of variety, but the stories and characters are the same:. The officers are undifferentiated heroes and the arrested are faceless criminals who deserve to be carted off to jail.
The Iraq War shows that this law-and-order ideology lends itself as easily to a suspension of the Geneva Conventions as to a suspension of Constitutional rights. Representations such as Cops and Gunner Palace help promote this ideology because in them we only see the viewpoint of the cops and U.S. soldiers on the “front lines.” We do not really get to know these figures in any substantive way. We understand their opposition even less. In Gunner Palace, with the exception of one Gunner named Wilf, who gets more screen time than the others because he provides comic relief and diegetic rock-and-roll guitar playing, the soldiers are interchangeable. We just learn in vague terms that they are brave and professional.
These vague presentations relate as much to the film’s style as content. Using Bill Nichols’ schema for analyzing documentary form, we can say Gunner Palace utilizes a great number of modes. Tucker’s voiceover might seem to make the film expository, a mode characterized by reliance on authoritative narration to make an argument that the images serve to illustrate. But Gunner Palace’s voice-over is in no way a voice-of-God commentary, unless God is also very confused about the events around him. The centrality of the profilmic events resembles the style of observational documentaries in that the filmmakers are recording experiences as they occur without controlling what is happening. But observational documentaries try to hide the presence of the filmmakers, while Tucker’s presence is all over the film. He narrates it in first person, and his voice is even audible asking questions, even though he does not appear on camera. The film is not in the participatory mode of, say, a Michael Moore documentary, but like Moore’s work, Gunner Palace does rely on interviews that highlight the centrality of individual experience. Some of the interview segments are even cropped and placed inside a small frame on screen so as to set the interview apart from the action. In a way, this stylistic device is reminiscent of the confessionals on MTV’s Real World where the housemates take time out from the action to go to a private space to comment on their lives and the events around them. In Gunner Palace, the interviews challenge the audience to feel for the soldiers while the soldiers themselves explicitly challenge the audience to remember them.
Ultimately, this combination of modes hints at something more than the film’s style. For Fuchs,
I would argue that this theme of confusion and hopelessness about “the truth” dehistoricizes and depoliticizes the war itself and thus reflects the politics that dominate representations of war in the mainstream media and in most Hollywood fiction films. In this way, Gunner Palace contrasts with the best-known documentary about the Iraq War, Moore’s Fahrenheit 9/11. Theunabashedly oppositional stance of Moore’s film comes across through his own commentary as well as other approaches such as dedicating significant screen time to discussions with a mom from his hometown, who tearfully expresses misgivings about the war after losing her son in combat.
For his part, Tucker can be said to be representing Operation Iraqi Freedom “objectively” because he does not make any such pronouncement on it at all. But his objectivity works both to present the possibility of critique and to undercut it. So while depicting the soldiers’ stories, including their hardships, feelings of loneliness, and struggles with insufficient equipment, would seem to make this an anti-war film, by not specifically commenting on what the troops were doing and why they were there, this objectivity actually reads as support for the war because it reinforces the message that the troops are brave and selfless and that the war is all about them, which is precisely what the Pentagon counts on to win and maintain support for all contemporary military operations. As Tony Grajeda’s insightful analysis of combat documentaries in Jump Cut 49 shows, the films’ “concession[s] to ‘realism’” that are meant to reflect the soldiers’ perspective ultimately decontextualize and dehistoricize the reality they aim to convey.
One of the most glaringly decontextualized aspects of Gunner Palace is the limited representation of Iraqis. As with its TV predecessor, Cops, if the heroes are decontextualized, the ostensible bad guys — in this case the Iraqis — are even more vaguely presented and tend to serve in the film as occasions for action by the soldiers. In Gunner Palace, we hear very little from the Iraqis on what it feels like to be at war, especially a war ostensibly for their freedom and their future. The exception here is the Iraqis who work within the coalition who are given a few minutes of screen time. A typical such voice is Shamil, an interpreter, who appears in one of the cropped-image “confessional” segments. He tells the camera
When the only Iraqis given voice also happen to work for the occupiers, it is hard to oppose the occupation out of concern for Iraqi lives. But even these characters are basically decontextualized. And as for the forces who oppose the occupation, they have no real opportunity to articulate their perspectives at all. All we learn of them is that they are the “bad guys” who do not want to see “everyone happy.”
Reinforcing this perspective, the Iraqis who do not work with the Gunners appear in the film generally as suspects or prisoners taken in nighttime raids of their homes. Even the random person on the street has to be suspect because the Gunners can never assume an Iraqi is not going to throw a rock or fire a weapon at them. Exemplifying this sense of mistrust, the soldiers find that even one of their translators, a man they call “Mike Tyson,” began to work with the insurgency.
He is identified by two other Iraqis who work with the Army, “Roy” and “Super Cop,” whom we learn “have captured over 300 insurgents.” In contrast to the invasiveness of the shadowy nighttime raids when soldiers burst violently into the homes of frightened Iraqis in various states of dress, here the Iraqi man is sitting in a brightly lit office next to an Army officer. He winces in pain as U.S. soldiers examine his tight plastic handcuffs. The soldiers offer to loosen the cuffs for him and ask if he’d like to be their prisoner or their guest. He opts for “guest” and his handcuffs are removed. He is scared, but he is treated decently. This is the only post-arrest or interrogation scene in the film. We never see the torture or imprisonment indelibly linked to Abu Ghraib, the prison to which the suspected insurgents are sent. Roy summarizes the situation:
It is unclear exactly what was given to him, so the audience is left to believe that perhaps what Tyson does not appreciate is the presence of the troops themselves. But unlike Tyson and his arresting officer who appear in a medium shot, the camera captures Roy’s analysis from an off angle that puts Roy in close-up, a shot that certainly can be read in contradictory ways. Is the close-up meant to show intimacy and Roy’s trustworthiness, or is it meant to make Roy seem suspicious? Tucker’s voiceover, with its tone and cadence reminiscent of Martin Sheen’s Willard in Apocalypse Now, reinforces the sense of confusion.
If Gunner Palace acknowledges the uncertainty of conclusions — “nothing is black and white here” — the ultimate effect is to see the Iraqis as dangerous to the troops and therefore dangerous to us. Tucker’s “if it’s true” qualifier in the quotation barely registers, in great measure because it functions just like the disclaimer at the beginning of Cops announcing that “all suspects are innocent until proven guilty in a court of law.” The statement lends the show a hint of fairness, but none of the profilmic events suggest there is any reason to doubt that the arrested are guilty. Cops’ lack of follow-up on the cases of the arrested lends to the certainty of their guilt. The Iraqis function in Gunner Palace in a similar way. They look guilty, and so they are taken away, and we never hear from them again. Tyson becomes just another busted insurgent.
All these aspects — barely differentiated Iraqi people, slightly more differentiated U.S. soldiers, and Gunner Palace’s resemblance to Cops — embody the rationality behind U.S. war today. A documentary about U.S. troops in the Iraq War looks a lot like an iconic reality show about U.S. police officers because it reflects the key change marked by the War on Terror. The new way of war contrasts with military actions of previous years. Then, as cultural theorist Leerom Medovoi puts it,