Here’s how your life can get upended in a single day: At daybreak, you’re killing time making snow angels on a frigid New Hampshire tarmac with 179 of your fellow soldiers. Just before lunch, your airplane takes off and everyone onboard breaks into spontaneous applause. Then you land in scorching Baghdad, and before your company unpacks and settles into their tents, a little man in a training video tells you that, as of today, your life is in danger.
The three soldiers at the center of The War Tapes, Deborah Scranton’s straightforward documentary, aren’t frightened. They’re nervous, sure, about landing in Camp Anaconda, a.k.a. “The most attacked base in the country,” with its sprawling and eerie Humvee graveyard as proof. But Steve, Mike and Zack are here to do their jobs. Three very different men—a poet, a forklift driver, and a Shiite refuge of the Lebanon War—with three different motives for enlisting, they expected tension; what they didn’t expect was to serve out their year-long deployment as, essentially, the world’s most targeted grocery store security. Day after day, they find themselves safeguarding not freedom, but Halliburton-brand food, soda and gasoline.
Yup, I said the H-word. Ask a liberal (say, me) their take on Dick Cheney’s lucrative lemonade stand, and their frothings can be easily discounted as biased and uninformed. So Scranton lets Sergeant Steve, a man sent by our president to protect their trucks and eat their food, describe how they charge the government seven times the cost of their predecessors, forcing taxpayers to pony up for a minimum of 4,000 plates a meal at a prix-fixe of 28 bucks each. “Fifty-six dollars right here,” chuckles Steve, looking down at his tray of four slices of French toast and eight sausage links.
Of course, overpriced maple syrup is the least of their daily concerns. The commercial roots of the Iraqi conflict make it a war fought by suicide bombers on the highways, not clear-cut enemy combatants shooting from the trenches. Every slow car is a potential death threat; every stalled lane a potential terrorist plot. The round-the-clock us-versus-them tension leaves the men struggling for balance. One minute they’re pointing rifles at strangers, and the next they’re haggling with a street kid over the price of his cigarettes and porn (“Got anything with farm animals?” a sergeant kids to a blankly smiling child.) Back at the barracks, the soldiers vent by hosting death matches between the local scorpions and spiders and talking down the Iraqi police trainees like they’re the military’s moronic little brothers.
But as it is for everything, Steve, Mike and Zack find that it’s the little terrors that hit hardest—the sad truth that their presence sometimes hurts the women, babies, and pets of Iraq as much as it wounds their enemies. In the one scene their commanders refused to air, the boys come across the corpses of several insurgents being investigated by a hungry mutt. Amidst the gore, they’re asked to kill the animal. Steve balks, saying “We never got briefed on shooting a dog.”
None of the soldiers applaud when their plane takes off back to America. Their wives, girlfriends, children and mothers do, but later they all confess to Scranton’s cameras that the men who came home aren’t the same men who left. They’re quiet now, and over the course of the year we’ve seen the darkness creep into their eyes, even though each takes solemn, noble pride in their small mission’s accomplishment.
In this war-heavy film season (election time, anyone?), one thing distinguishes Scranton’s documentary: Independence. Scranton offered her cameras to every soldier in their unit, and only five out of 180 signed on. Coincidentally, only five out of 180 voted against George W. Bush. Not that anyone behind the camera admits to it—in fact, most have a conservative streak that doesn’t preclude them from sighing about being sent to fight more for Cheney and oil than God and country. (“It’s the War for Cheese,” groans Steve.) Scranton claims to be dedicated to truth over spin, and I’d like to believe her, though it’s hard not to suspect some preferential editing when a documentarian has to whittle 1,000 hours down to 100 minutes, and in the process sacrifice two of her five cameramen’s footage (were they too boring or too ill-suited to her vision?). Yet, when good ol’ Mike turns to his cameras and promises that Iraq “will be a better country in 20 years because of what we did . . . I hope,” no matter what your political affiliation, everyone nods in agreement.