Take the war in Iraq. “Major combat” operations ended 20 months ago, elections have come and gone, and various hot spots of the insurgency have flared and been snuffed out. But hours of news broadcasts later, it is still hard to understand what it is like over there for the soldiers on the ground or for the Iraqi people.
And let’s be honest: Many people have grown exhausted of wartime images and have turned the television off.
Unfortunately, it isn’t that easy for the soldiers still serving in Iraq or their families.
This dilemma, and an urgent desire to tell the soldiers’ story, that inspired director Michael Tucker to produce the soon-to-be-released documentary “Gunner Palace,” which aired last week at two special screenings on Capitol Hill — the first hosted by Rep. Jim McDermott (D-Wash.) and the second by Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) with Sen. Jim Jeffords (I-Vt.) and former Sen. Max Cleland (D-Ga.) in attendance.
“I saw some similarities to what I experienced,” a pensive Kerry said after he watched the film, referring to his service in Vietnam. Kerry has been extremely critical of President Bush and his handling of the war in Iraq but supportive nonetheless of the soldiers serving there.
Officially in theaters March 4, “Gunner Palace” is an 86-minute documentary depicting the lives of the members of the 2-3 Field Artillery (FA), also known as “gunners,” stationed outside Baghdad at the bombed-out Azimiya Palace. Formerly owned by playboy Uday Hussein, the palace — complete with swimming pool, marble staircases and chandeliers — is located in Adhamiya, one of Baghdad’s most volatile neighborhoods. The gunners based here went on regular daytime patrols, completed nighttime raids, trained future Iraqi troops and offered basic humanitarian aid.
Tucker traveled twice to Iraq, spending 60 days with the gunners of the 2-3 FA. His first trip was in September 2003, after the declared end of “major combat.” The second followed the deaths of three of the unit’s members. The film endeavors to capture one day of the 410 days required of a U.S. soldier during a tour of duty in Iraq — the good, the bad and the gory.
There are plenty of scenes a viewer expects to see: soldiers on daytime patrol, stopping to gather intelligence, consulting interpreters, taking part in midnight raids and capturing detainees. This is stuff most of us have seen before, though never at such length, on the news or in TV documentaries.
More interesting are the scenes showing the soldiers attempting to carve out normal lives for themselves in what is an extraordinary situation. Each day, these men and women leave the palace prepared to suffer attacks from mortars, roadside bombs, rocket-propelled grenades, improvised explosive devices and snipers. That is their job.
But finding some semblance of normalcy requires something different for each of them. For one soldier, that may mean holding a newborn Iraqi baby in a local hospital and thinking of the baby he has never met back at home. For another, it requires spending time alone with his guitar. Others enjoyed sunshine and music by the palace pool, which the unit was encouraged to use as long as all the mortars from the night before had been fished out. Some composed poetry and rap, which makes up the soundtrack for the entire film, and all made a point of turning anything potentially serious into a joke.
In one scene, a soldier with a serious demeanor stands before his Humvee, pointing out newly fitted metal plating. “Now instead of going straight through my body,” he explains with a straight face and a shrug, “it’ll slow the shrapnel down so it will stay in you instead of going clean through.” A brief pause and he starts laughing wildly. The camera pans around and behind him. Two other members of the unit buckle over laughing; the third rolls on the ground, also choking with laughter.
But for all the joking, the backdrop of violence and fear is ever-present. “As soon as I got there I asked to be put up with a soldier,” Tucker says, “and I was taken by how normal all of this had become to them ... peppered with violence, and they just kind of dealt with it. They flip back and forth very easily.”
What’s it like being back in Washington?
“Surreal,” he responds simply, nervously taking a drag on a cigarette, looking uncomfortable and slightly annoyed. “Here the young people, the young staffers, are asking technical questions, but they don’t get that the violence and fear are everywhere.” He goes on to describe the film’s reception in other cities they had visited as being less uptight. People laughed; they didn’t get dragged down by the details.
It is clear that Tucker, in making this film, was wearing his heart on his sleeve. It isn’t hard to understand why. Within three weeks of Tucker’s leaving Iraq, Lt. Ben Colgan — who, like Tucker, is from Washington state — was killed by a roadside bomb.
A few months later, on Christmas Day, two more soldiers and an interpreter were also killed. The unit had just been featured on the cover of Time to represent the magazine’s 2003 Person of the Year. Overall, in the year it took to produce the film, five soldiers and three Iraqi nationals connected with the unit died. One of the first screenings of the film was done for Colgan’s parents in Seattle.
Capt. Jonathan Powers, a member of the 2-3 FA who returned home in September, recalls the screening for the Colgan family as being the most intimidating. “But they loved it,” he says with a relieved smile. Since then, Powers and Tucker have crisscrossed the country visiting a number of military towns — Colorado Springs, Colo. (Fort Carson), Killeen, Texas (Fort Hood) and Columbus, Ga. (Fort Benning) — screening the documentary. In Washington, D.C., Powers appears calm and unfazed by his surroundings; months of diplomacy on the streets of Baghdad made Washington seem relatively simple.
“Gunner Palace” is an effort to bring [the war] back to the front page from Page 7,” he explains patiently during the question-and-answer session after the screening. “People here are completely disconnected. We’ve become numb to the violence. I’ll talk to 17-year-olds and they’ll say they’re not interested in hearing more about the war.”
That is not the case for the families of the men and women still over there. “The TV was the first thing on in the morning and the last thing off at night,” says Anastasia DeFelice, fianc�e of 1st Lt. Brady Van Englen (also at the screening), who was honorably discharged after receiving a head wound.
Powers’s father echoes DeFelice’s sentiment. “Once he [Jonathan] crossed the border to Kuwait — it was on his birthday, July 23 — we were just so relieved,” he gushes.
“This movie is not about being for or against [the war], it’s about caring,” Tucker says. “It’s an incredibly emotional topic, and to try to remove that political front end is really important.”
In the end, the goal is to reach a wide audience, including those as young as 16 and 17. That is why the Powers-Tucker duo went to Los Angeles, to appeal the decision by the Motion Picture Association of America to give the movie an R rating. The rating, they explain, is not so much for the violence in the film but for the foul language, the 49 “F-bombs” scattered throughout the documentary. Given the context, a little bad language doesn’t seem too surprising. It is a war zone after all.
Language aside, “Gunner Palace” makes an honest attempt to capture a situation where the truth often falls victim to politics. “We fought against all the preconceptions and definitions of this war,” Tucker explains in his written director’s statement. “Oddly, people who hadn’t been there carried more strongly honed opinions than those in the middle of it.”
One flaw is the film’s narration, a monotone male voice (Tucker’s), which the director himself wishes he could have avoided. Basically, stick with it for five minutes and it won’t seem as jarring.
General highlights include the brilliant music selection — the rap composed and performed by seven of the gunners and the guitar solos by Spc. Stuart Wilf, who joined the Army at 17. The humor dotted throughout makes the violence almost bearable. So there are numerous moments of comic relief, which contrast with one especially disconcerting scene where Tucker is confronted by an Iraqi detainee claiming to be a journalist. The detainee is taken to Abu Ghraib, where Tucker says he remains.
As Tucker points out, what you see in “Gunner Palace” is reminiscent of other war classics: “M*A*S*H,” “Platoon” and “Full Metal Jacket.” There is the same underlying sentiment that survival means laughing at the situation you’ve found yourself in. As the old saying goes, “I’m too old to cry, but it hurts too much to laugh.”
The result leaves you laughing and groaning. It also leaves you amazed at the impervious and resilient nature of these young men and women, deeply proud of their efforts and more than a little frustrated over what they are being asked to endure.