The War Tapes

Two scenes especially struck me in The War Tapes, the 97-minute movie put together by Deborah Scranton from videotapes made by (mostly) three New Hampshire National Guardsmen during their tour in Iraq. The first was the portraits by Sergeant Steve Pink of the faces and destroyed bodies of some of the young men who had been defending Fallujah against the U.S. onslaught (actually digital images--army censors refused to allow Pink's actual video to be shown). We are rarely obliged, or permitted, to see the humanity of the enemy that Bush-Cheney et al. have created. The other is a detailed video tour (I think this was by Specialist Mike Moriarty) of a graveyard of U.S. military vehicles mangled, punctured, blown apart by explosions or bullets--each now-uninhabited chunk of twisted steel implying a story of violence done to the men who were in it. Again, the kind of image you're not likely to see on the evening news. Everything else--the mayhem, destruction of buildings, speeding convoys, IEDs--is unsurprising to anybody who has been paying attention, but it's especially vivid when seen through the windscreen of a HumVee.

Besides Pink and Moriarty, the other main contributor was Sergeant Zaher "Zack" Bazzi, a Lebanese-born, Arabic speaking college student and military nut, who reads the Nation and loves combat, to the great distress of his mother who lived, with him, through the terrible civil war in Beirut. He points out and analyzes the racism of his fellow soldiers, in this case anti-Arab, but sees it as inevitable and nothing to get in the way of his first responsibility, to see to the welfare and safety of his own men against Arabs who may very well be ready to kill them--or may not, it's hard to tell when you don't speak the language or understand the gestures.

What drives so many of the soldiers crazy, in fits of madness in the field or in more lasting PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder), is the impossible combination of immense power and immense powerlessness. Power: Their weapons have the power to blow away a whole family or building, their vehicles to careen through traffic forcing every civilian vehicle off the path and any pedestrian to leap for safety or get smashed. It is a degree of power they have never experienced in civilian life. The enemy is powerful, too, though "assymetrically"--improvised explosive devices instead of airborne missiles, for example--so the powerful U.S. military must continually exercise its power just to keep safe. But ordinary Iraqi citizens on donkeys or in cars or on foot just have to stay out of the way. Powerlessness: They can't control their own actions, leave when they want to, or--for the most part, those who patrol in those heavily armored vehicles--even piss standing up.

When they get back home, they lose that great power which was never really theirs, but that they exercised on loan from the military machine. And so feel terribly vulnerable even though the enemy is no longer near. They are also free of the military constraints and so get some of their own, individual power returned to them--but after being conditioned to vulnerability, and seeing their buddies killed or horribly maimed, it's not enough.

The War Tapes is not just a movie. It is an on-going interactive event, its reach extended through the website and with communications with these and other soldiers. Check it out.

(The film could not be more different from Army of Shadows, which fuses many stories to tell one clear one. But in that struggle, the French résistants never had the illusion of great power, and--since they were all volunteers, with the opportunity to drop out (or change sides) at any moment, they must never have felt themselves to be powerless, not even when taken prisoner.)

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