Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

July 8, 2008

Full Battle Rattle

Filed under: Film,Iraq — louisproyect @ 7:47 pm

It’s too bad that Jean Baudrillard died since he would have had a field day with “Full Battle Rattle”, a documentary about a billion-dollar simulation of Iraqi villages constructed by the U.S. military to train its occupying forces at the National Training Center at Fort Irwin in the Mojave Desert. The movie premieres at Film Forum in New York tomorrow and can best be described as unintentional satire.

In 1991 Baudrillard described the first Gulf War as existing more as media images (simulacra) than as actual combat. Simulacra would just about sum up the subject of Tony Gerber and Jesse Moss’s movie whose poster advertises it as “Fake Town, Real War”.

Gerber and Moss made the wise decision not to editorialize but to allow the events to unfold in classic cinéma vérité fashion. After convincing the military that they were serious film-makers and not bomb-throwing anarchists, the two directors were allowed to film inside Medina Wasl, one of the fake villages constructed by the army. Along with the other villages, it has a staff of Iraqi émigrés who seem motivated by a mixture of pro-American zeal and a desire for a quick buck. In other words, they are like their opportunist countrymen who have no problems working for the occupying forces. Other than the fact that they speak Arabic and once lived in Iraq, they are much more like average Americans. For example, the “Deputy Mayor” of Medina Wasl has a regular job as a liquor store clerk and two young women dressed in caftans and head covering would appear more comfortable in designer jeans.

The performances do not stop there. Jihadist raids on Medina Wasl are carried out by American soldiers in costume. When instructed by an officer in charge of the simulation to shout out something in Arabic during an attack, the grunt demurs—he doesn’t know a single word in Arabic. The officer tells him to fake it, to just say something (that sounded to my ears) like “Blubba, hushamusha, bubul, mgugul.” A New York Times article written by the hawkish Dexter Filkins and John F. Burns on Fort Irwin on May 1, 2006 notes: “The insurgents even get acting lessons, coached by Carl Weathers, best known for his portrayal of the boxer Apollo Creed in the ‘Rocky’ films.” It shows.

Since this action and many others are intended to be reviewed by the troops in training, there is always a camera crew taping them. Standing above them all and orchestrating the mayhem is a commanding officer who fancies himself a latter-day Stephen Spielberg. When one grunt, who is playing an Iraqi shot by a jihadi, puts out his hands to soften a fall to the ground after the fake bullet is fired into his skull, the director bawls him out. Since his fall was not “realistic”, he orders a second take.

Throughout the film, the military brass keeps explaining why the simulation is necessary. It was 2006 when attacks on the American military were at an all-time high. In order to decrease the number of attacks, the GI’s were supposed to go through training to make them less hateful to the local population. In an odd way the officers sound a bit like what you hear from “diversity training” managers at big corporations–as if the problems of Iraq can be reduced to communication techniques.

As such, the military simulations can be grouped with other “soft cop” follies churned up by an intractable imperialist war, including the placement of anthropologists in the field whose training will allow them supposedly to open up lines of communication between the army and the restless natives. Ultimately, the solution that seems to be working–at least for the time being–is to simply pay off the Sunni insurgents to the tune of $800,000 a day not to attack US forces.

Filkins and Gordon also note:

At a recent classroom seminar on counterinsurgency at Fort Leavenworth, about 25 Army majors discussed the conduct of the French in the Algerian War of 1954 to 1962. The French, who were trying to hold their colony, lost to the Algerian resistance, even after some French officers endorsed the use of torture to extract intelligence from the insurgents.

In a vigorous classroom debate, the Army majors discussed how and why the French lost. Iraq came up often; four of the majors had already served there and a half-dozen others were scheduled to be deployed there at the end of the academic year. One of the lessons, for instance, is that torture does not work, because of the resentment it generates among the civilian population. The widespread abuse of Iraqi and Afghan prisoners, some of it apparently with official approval, did not come up in class. ”Is it applicable to Iraq?” Maj. Sean Smith, a member of the class, said afterward. ”That’s why we do that in every class.”

As long as the Commander in Chief of the U.S. military continues to back torture and as long as a supine Democratic “opposition” continues to allow him to get his way, I doubt that the training at Fort Irwin will have any impact. And as I watch Barack Obama’s latest gyrations, I am afraid that a new president will make no difference either.

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