Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

April 22, 2006

The War Tapes

Filed under: antiwar,Film — louisproyect @ 5:16 pm

I love being a soldier. The only bad thing about the Army is you can’t pick your war.

–Sergeant Zaher Bazzi

As one of the features of this year's Tribeca Film Festival (a project initiated by Robert DeNiro), "The War Tapes" has the distinction of being a documentary about Iraq that was filmed by the GI's themselves. In February of 2004, director Deborah Scranton was invited to "embed" with the New Hampshire National Guard. Instead, she proposed that video cameras be allotted to the soldiers so they could–in her words–confront the wall of "objectivity" and smash through it.

Considering the fact that the three men whose footage comprises the bulk of the film had no professional training, the work is a technical achievement. Scranton has taken their raw material and transformed it into a polished work of art. On another level, it succeeds as providing a kind of insight into the terrible waste of lives and treasure–both Iraqi and American–that dominates the headlines today and that has made George W. Bush the most unpopular president in a generation.

Those who are looking for explicitly antiwar statements from the soldiers might initially be disappointed as they watch the film, since it mostly projects the gung-ho attitude that marked the war and occupation from the early period. However, as the film and the men's tenure drags on, there is more and more of a sense of futility about the whole project.

For students of popular culture, the film will evoke two other works almost immediately. When the GI's speak about their "job" in Iraq, they will remind you of the principals in "Cops," Fox TV's long-running "reality show". Speaking into the camera, the cops talk about how much their career means to them, even if it involves being immersed in their city's underbelly and being forced to confront "bad guys" on a daily basis at the risk to life and limb. This basically is the attitude that the New Hampshire National Guardsmen exhibit throughout the film, except that the "bad guys" are insurgents rather than crack dealers.

The film also reveals the basis for GI's feeling this way, since most of their day-to-day activity consists almost exclusively of what might be regarded as police work. Mostly, they patrol the streets of Baghdad in HUMV's or provide escorts for trailer trucks loaded with food and other necessities. The sole provider of such goods is Kellogg, Brown and Root (KBR), a subsidiary of Halliburton for whom the soldiers have little use despite their general support for what amounts to Halliburton's war.

You will also be reminded of "The Perfect Storm," another film about working class New Englanders filled with bravado and stoicism on another doomed mission. In close quarters either in a tent or in a HUMV, the New Hampshire National Guardsmen trade jibes with each other in dialogue that is strikingly evocative of the characters in "The Perfect Storm." Although all of the major characters in "The War Tapes" eventually arrive home safely, there is no question that their lives will never be the same.

Like many other National Guardsmen, Sergeant Steven Pink joined the military to help pay for college. After graduating, he worked for a local newspaper in Massachusetts or as a carpenter. His reading tastes include Charles Bukowski and Kurt Vonnegut, two authors who never wrote a gung-ho word in their lives. Of the three soldiers, Pink clearly has the greatest ability to render the horror that is present-day Iraq in words that are the likely product of his reading habits:

Today was the first day I shook a man’s hand that wasn’t attached to his arm. I was the first one there and immediately clamped Reggie’s brachial artery. I looked down and he had his hand dangling from the exposed bone that used to be his elbow like a child’s safety clipped mitten dangling from their winter coat.

Specialist Mike Moriarty was a Harley-Davidson mechanic before volunteering for duty in Iraq at the age of 35. His occupation clearly marks him as the sort of person who would be the least to think critically about his mission. Like Pat Tillman, the professional football player who was a casualty of "friendly fire" in Afghanistan, Moriarty joined up as a response to September 11, 2001. But unlike Tillman, who was making millions of dollars, Moriarity hadn't worked in a year.

Like Sergeant Pink, Moriarity comes back from Iraq with assorted long-term physical and disabilities. Looking back in retrospect, the mission now seems like a mixed bag:

I’m so glad I went. I hated it with a God awful passion and I will not go back. I have done my part and I feel like it’s someone else’s turn. My views of the war haven’t changed. You’ve heard people say, you know, “We’re over there for the oil.” You know. “It’s the only reason we’re over there in Iraq. It’s oil, it’s oil, it’s oil.” Well listen, no. We’re not there for the oil. If it were for oil, would that not be enough reason to go to Iraq? You bet your ass it would be! If you took oil away from this country tomorrow, what do you think would happen to this country? It would be, it would be devastating. So let’s all stop crying about whether we had reason to go in there or not because we can fight about that forever. It’s a done deal. We’re in Iraq. Support what it takes to make this thing work, or shut-up!

Even the Vonnegut-reading Sergeant Pink feels that the pursuit of oil is sufficient grounds to have fought the war:

Why the fuck are we there? We better get that oil, right? The US Army is not the fucking Peace Corps. The Marines are not the Peace Corps. That’s not why we’re in Iraq. We’re in Iraq for money and oil. Look at any other war in the history of the world and tell me it’s not about money. This better be about money and if we don’t get that oil and that money then all the lives that are gone right now, what is it? 1800 it’s at, something around there? They’re all in vain. You don’t put 150,000 troops from all over the country in there and say we’re there to create democracy. We’re there to create money, you know? We’re there to make money for us, you know. Somebody other than Dick Cheney better be getting their hands on it pretty soon.

Of course, now that oil is over $3 per gallon, one assumes that the war has been fought in vain. Perhaps one of the reasons that Bush's popularity ratings have gone subterranean is the fact that ordinary working class Americans–although by no means anti-imperialist–have long concluded that the war is not justified even on the naked utilitarian motives articulated by the two soldiers.

The most interesting soldier is Sergeant Zaher (Zack) Bazzi, a Lebanese-American Shi'ite, who escaped from the Lebanese civil war with his family as a child. He has memories of Lebanese soldiers commandeering his apartment and firing on militia men from his bathroom window, a scene that would remind him of his present-day service in Iraq. Unlike the others, Bazzi is a career military man who fought in Bosnia and Kosovo with the 101st Airborne. He is also more sophisticated politically than the other men (he describes himself as a political junky) and films some of his reading material, including the Nation Magazine. He is the polar opposite of the patriot Mike Moriarty and simply sees his deployment as another part of his job and not some mission to protect "our freedom and our way of life."

One of his most probing comments on Iraq has to do with his decision not to serve as a translator in Iraq any longer since it made him feel like he was violating his own ethical standards:

Most soldiers, they want to think that they’re there for a good cause, something noble. You’re fighting for freedom and everything that’s right. It was tough, because you have to do some not so nice things sometimes. I remember one time…My platoon became attached to a different military police battalion and the order was nobody is allowed on this road. There’s like a hospital on one side, a lot of people live on the other. Obviously it became very apparent that I was the one who spoke their language. This guy comes up and he’s like, “I got a sick baby, can I just cross the road to go to the hospital?” We’re a disciplined army, so I had to say “No.” But it didn’t make any tactical sense. It got to the point where I stopped translating, because the squad leader would come up to me and say “Hey, well tell this guy here that he can’t take a sick baby to a hospital.” Well, you know what, I’m just not gonna do that.

I love being a soldier. The only bad thing about the Army is you can’t pick your war.

All in all, the soldiers of "The War Tapes" strike one as a different sort than the draftee grunts of the Vietnam era who resented service from the day they reported to duty. To one degree or another, they supported their mission and likely would have voted for Bush. However, it would be a mistake to conclude that such soldiers cannot be reached with an antiwar message. In a very fine article in the latest Nation Magazine titled "When GI Joe Says No," Christian Parenti tries to capture the new mood of the military ranks and succeeds admirably:

This egalitarian mingling and the intense camaraderie, plus decent pay, housing for family and constant training opportunities, can make military life look a lot better than the atomized, segregated, economically stagnant world outside. And all of this creates a deep-seated sense of loyalty to the military, even among those who oppose its wars.

On the other hand, Cline, Braga and other activist vets all point out that unit cohesion can cut two ways: It works like Kryptonite to stop rebellion, but after a tipping point unit cohesion can serve to make rebellion even more intense.

To illustrate the point, Braga recalls the story of the 343rd Quartermaster Company, from Rock Hill, South Carolina. In October 2004 this Army Reserve unit (Braga worked alongside them at times) refused what they called a "suicide mission" to deliver fuel in a convoy of old, unarmored trucks. Eighteen drivers from the 343rd were arrested, but the media storm that followed–a whole company had openly refused orders!–helped pressure the military into delivering armor and retrofitting its trucks and Humvees. Similarly, when Reppenhagen the sniper joined IVAW, his spotter, the guy he'd spent a year with in Iraq, also joined–they remained a team.

The rebellion of the 343rd also pointed out the pragmatism of resistance. "Hey, protesting could save your life," says Braga. "I've seen it happen. The 343rd and that soldier who asked Rumsfeld that question about the body armor, those two things got the military to pay attention and buy decent armor."

If 1960s activism was fueled by disillusioned outrage, then today's activism is fettered by a type of world-weary cynicism. Braga says most of the guys in his unit assume the war is based on lies and that it's all about oil, but they won't get involved in peace activism because "They say, 'You can't change anything.' But if you read history you see that usually people already have changed things," he says. "Movements have made lots of things happen."

"The War Tapes" website: http://www.thewartapes.com/



  1. I’m a little reminded of U.S. soldiers & marines guarding convoys & bases owned and operated by KBR, the Halliburton subsidiary to coal companies in west virginia and kentucky around the turn of the last century paying miners in company money that was only good at the company store. No bank would accept it as legal tender = legalized slavery. Eventually the federal govt. stepped in and declared this practice illegal.

    Comment by m.c. — April 22, 2006 @ 5:31 pm

  2. I came to this site from the link that you posted in the comments of The War Tapes blog. I have to say that this entry has made me more interested in the film than the actual film site. As a National Guardsman, I had been whinging about whether or not I really wanted to check this film out. I didn’t know if I wanted to see real soldiers being real on camera for the world to see. It made me cringe thinking about it. For me, there is always a conflict of what I want civilians to see of my Army personality and what I don’t want them to see. I don’t want people to see my soldier side as some “other” that is so different from them that they don’t identify in some way with it. Soldiers are real people, but when we get deployed the “normal” part of our thoughts and behaviors gets altered or suspended altogether. This complexity is difficult to explore using only words – I hope that this film has captured at least a bit of this aspect of being a soldier.

    Comment by clare — April 22, 2006 @ 8:13 pm

  3. Thank you for referring to me as a Patriot, but let me make a couple corrections. I was not a Harley Davidson Mechanic prior to deploying or even after returning home. I was in the aviation business working as an aircraft refinisher right up until being activated. I returned to the same company upon my return. I eventually had to change jobs due to numbness in my hands,nerve damage in my arms,a chest muscle condition and unbearable back pain.
    I still support the mission and its intention. I also support the idea of getting back into “combat” mode, putting on our mean face and finishing this thing so we can get the hell out of that God forsaken place.
    I just want the American people to be productive in seeing what it will take to get this mission through its course quicker and successfully. It’s not that we shouldnt be there,its that we seem to be skipping along trying to be “nice” about everything.
    HELLO!!!!! its a war. Bad shit happens.It just seems to happen to us more than it should.
    Lets all put our experiences and heads together and be more productive and supportive so we can get the hell out.

    Comment by Mike Moriarty — April 24, 2006 @ 3:03 am

  4. […] April 22, 2006 I reviewed a documentary titled “The War Tapes” that was made up of footage filmed by the members of a New Hampshire National Guard Unit who […]

    Pingback by Restrepo « Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist — November 15, 2010 @ 8:30 pm

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