The Arabist

The Arabist

By Issandr El Amrani and friends.

The War Tapes

Arabist reader and friend SP sent me this interesting link about a US military documentary project, the war

Here are her thoughts on it…
The documentary is put together mainly from footage taken by three soldiers in the same battalion, with their commentary, and from interviews with their families back home, from 2004-2005. These are citizen-soldiers, guys who signed up for the National Guard post 9/11, rather than professional soldiers, real New England average Joes. Except for one extremely interesting Lebanese American chap (who looks so much like Ali G's Bruno persona that there's some cognitive dissonance at first) whose parents brought him to the US as an adolescent to escape the civil war in Lebanon (his rather dramatic mother is a treat). No grand patriotic fervour here, though most of them nominally support Bush and the war, many signed up for the military for pragmatic reasons without expecting to be deployed. One of the soldiers says he thinks it will give him a sense of purpose.

They are given cameras by the filmmakers and treat the project rather like a home movie, though they are often quite earnest about the job of documenting the war experience. One of them is a slightly tortured type who seems to enjoy playing the amateur journalist and composing authoritative-sounding commentary but what is striking is just how little the soldiers have to go on - they cannot possibly be expected to make sense of what's going on around them. They literally fly straight from snowy Fort Dix into camps in the Iraqi countryside with very little sense of the larger mission or their role in it - they don't know who the local people are, or anything about their lives or histories or what they are saying, only that they could blow them up tomorrow. They spend most of their time accompanying KBR convoys and making occasional rounds of surrounding villages, and develop a strong primeval suspicion of the locals even as they occasionally try to bond with them, teaching them how to give a high-five, for example - there are lots of really funny moments and the inevitable sickening ones.

The film cuts back and forth between the soldiers in their camps, sometimes with footage of them watching American news coverage of the war, and their families back home talking about them and emailing them, and recreates a sense of the "real-time" simultaneity of the war experience for the soldiers and for their families (emailing pictures, talking about their days) but of course it makes the disconnect all the sharper. The yellow-ribbon, flag-waving, "daddy's a hero fighting the bad guys," WWII-style cheering of Our Men in Uniform back home contrasts with the cynicism and aimlessness of the soldiers joking about the "war for cheese" - in which their job is to protect convoys of KBR food trucks and poopy sewage along country roads. But don't expect Vietnam vet style soul-searching, the frustration of their job only makes many of these soldiers more determined to make sure "we do it right and at least get some oil out of it." When they finish their deployment and go back to civilian life they seem torn between mild embarrassment at being treated like war heroes and more classic angst that their wives and families simply can't understand what they went through.

There are no deep insights or lessons on the American mission or the insurgency, and you quickly realize you can no more put what you see in a comprehensive framework than they can. I'm sure experts on cinematic technique and film critics will write intelligent things about the use of multiple cameras and hopeless amateur attempts at narrative to capture the uncentred, aimless nature of war, blah blah. The casual, bantering nature of most of what the soldiers say is actually what makes the film powerful because it makes you empathize with them without thinking about grand narratives. The one character who is the most thoughtful and makes the sharpest and most analytical remarks about the war - Zack, the Lebanese guy- is also the most matter-of-fact about his experience, and sees his soldiering as a job that it didn't matter if he believed in or not. The WWII music at the end (It's a long way to Tipperary) is a nice ironic little nod to the War of No Great Purpose or Moral Clarity.