Covering the war while fighting it

July 07, 2006|By CLARENCE PAGE

WASHINGTON -- When the Abu Ghraib prison scandal broke in early 2004, thanks to leaked photos taken by some of our soldiers, I suggested then that cameras should be issued to all of our soldiers. Then we wouldn't have to wait for the Pentagon or the White House to let us folks back home know what we should be outraged about.

I wrote as a Vietnam-era veteran who was appreciating - more than Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld was - the ability of today's digital technology to empower ordinary GIs to get their side of war stories out, warts and all.

Little did I know that filmmaker Deborah Scranton was in the process of providing video cameras to three National Guardsmen from New England so they could do what I was suggesting: record video journals of their unit's yearlong deployment in Operation Iraqi Freedom.

The result is The War Tapes, the first big-screen war movie to be shot by its subjects. It won the best-documentary award at the Tribeca Film Festival in May and has since opened in theaters across the country.

The result is riveting, poignant and chilling, but also, to coin a popular cable news channel's slogan, fair and balanced. As the ads for Patton beckoned during the Vietnam War, this is a must-see movie whether you support our current war or hate it.

In fact, as this film shows, it is not uncommon for combatants to love their mission and hate it at the same time. For those who complain that the media only show the bad news in Iraq, The War Tapes demonstrates how hard it can be to find good news, especially when you are stationed, as these men were, at a base that is getting bombed every week.

In a year shadowed by the possibility of something blowing up next to you at any moment, a complex and confusing reality soon sets in, followed by gallows humor.

They eat "Middle Eastern Swedish meatballs" and "Iraqi freedom fries." They debate appropriate descriptions of the various body parts that they have seen burned, mangled and blown up.

"We are bringing democracy and a lot of poop to Iraq," says an armed escort of a sewage truck unloading in a field. "Gonna be a lot of healthy grass and trees in this area."

"In a survival situation," says another, "you guys have my permission to eat me."

"Mr. Bush is getting elected ... for another four years," says another. "So I guess `Operation Iranian Freedom' should be next."

As they provide armed escorts for the extremely vulnerable truck convoys carrying food and other supplies for Halliburton and its subsidiaries, cynical comments about Vice President Dick Cheney, Halliburton's former chief executive officer, ensue: "Everybody there stands to make money the longer we're there [in Iraq]," says Sgt. Steve Pink, 24. "So that's why we refer to it as the war for cheese."

Like the war, it is not easy to simplify any of these men. Sgt. Zack Bazzi, 24, offers special insights. His family escaped war-torn Lebanon with him, only to see him volunteer to return to that region to fight in another war. Fluent in Arabic, he tries to smile his way through daily frustrations with the sometimes deadly cultural gaps between Iraqis and most Americans.

"It doesn't take a [psychiatrist] to tell you that ignorance is the first step to prejudice," he says, describing some of the ethnic slurs that have become this war's version of the slurs aimed at past wartime enemies.

Compared with the amazingly literate letters of Civil War soldiers that provided narration for Ken Burns' PBS documentary on that war, the simpler language of this film reflects an era in which storytelling is shaped increasingly by visual media. Over time, I expect to see more-eloquent accounts, tempered and enriched by long reflection and additional information.

For now, The War Tapes offers us a rough draft of history in the middle of its crazy confusion, even as its participants still are trying to get their mission accomplished.

Clarence Page is a columnist for the Chicago Tribune. His column appears Tuesdays and Fridays in The Sun. His e-mail is cptime@aol.com.

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