The War Tapes
On February 12, 2004, documentary filmmaker Deborah Scranton was given the opportunity to be an embedded journalist with the New Hampshire National Guard in Iraq. Scranton called up the National Guard’s PR department and inquired if she could instead give cameras to the departing soldiers, to obtain their own personal accounts of combat.
180 soldiers in Charlie Company were subsequently asked to keep a video diary. 10 accepted the mission, becoming what Scranton calls citizen journalists” in the field. Each soldier was given a one-chip Sony mini-DV camera, a tripod, a microphone, lenses and piles of blank tape. From her farm house in New Hampshire, Scranton maintained constant contact with the soldiers, prompting them to conduct self-interviews and elaborate on specific experiences. Meanwhile, her own crew shot an additional 200 hours of tape, documenting the unfolding lives of the soldiers’ families back home.
The War Tapes, which garnered the Best Documentary Award at the Tribeca Film Festival, distills those thousands of hours of footage into 97 minutes. Of the 10 guardsmen who chose to take on the project, only three had their stories reach the final cut. Those three are Sergeant Steven Pink, Sergeant Zack Bazzi and Specialist Mike Moriarty.
Oddly, I never had any interest in seeing The War Tapes. I assumed that everything intelligent you could say about the Iraq war—the root causes and experience of it—had been said. Moreover, if something new and interesting remained to be said, I didn’t necessarily believe it was going to come from the mouth of a man in uniform. (But then I’m a member of the urban middle class who feels badly for soldiers—seeing them as pawns of an insidious, profiteering system—while not really caring much for what they have to say.)
The War Tapes proved me wrong. While the frontline documentary footage of insurrection attacks is frightening to witness, the film’s real value is in its diary segments. Here, we see three officers stripped bare, openly confessing to why they are serving, how they feel about the roles they play in the conflict and their attitudes about their Commander-in-Chief. This testimony is remarkably sophisticated and surprising. There’s no “I’m here ‘cuz I love freedom and these bloody Hajis are gonna pay!” Nor are there the disillusioned, Michael Moore-esque tirades so many on the left would expect. Instead, we get real, complex people revealing complex responses to things they recognise as being much larger than themselves and more frightening than they can even imagine.
As soon as the men arrive in Iraq, they confront a real and horrifying reality. Not only are daily attacks rattling their confidence, but the war seems to be more about creating profits for KBR, Halliburton’s construction unit, than it does the expressed objectives. Even Moriarty—drawn into combat and given purpose by September 11—begins to question what he’s doing. Bazzi, the most interesting of the three soldiers, speaks Arabic to the Iraqi kids he meets on the street. He feels a strong connection to the people his comrades routinely insult and demean. He believes American politicians and soldiers are ignorant and sympathizes with Iraqi insurgents. Yet, as he explains, he’s still fighting to win.
As the bodies pile up, the soldiers’ frustrations and fear come to the fore. We hear things we’ve never heard about the war. Their situation becomes so overwhelming that the men lose themselves, break down. And when they return home, they are shells of their former selves. They don’t fit in anymore. After having watched them disclose everything in Iraq, we then watch them recoil from the women in their lives and the communities they once felt a part of.
With its camera(s) providing both record and participation in the conflict, The War Tapes gives us chesterfield pundits a taste of something real for a change. It may be the most revelatory first-hand account of warfare ever committed to film.
The War Tapes is now playing at the Bloor Cinema (506 Bloor St. W., 416-516-2330)