This time Iraq War soldiers film their own stories

War Tapes

on October 13, 2006 by Wade Major
The Iraq War and its lingering aftermath have undoubtedly confirmed one of the great paradoxes of the communications age, which is that as information is more easily acquired and disseminated, exponentially increasing the volume of available information, interest in that information drops just as exponentially. Take, for instance, the proliferation of documentaries offering firsthand, boots-on-the-ground footage from just about every corner of Iraq. Virtually all these films far exceed the previously unprecedented coverage that captivated nightly news audiences during the war in Vietnam, yet none have been able to arouse even a fraction of the same interest today. If there is one such film, however, that rightly deserves to be separated from the rest, it must be The War Tapes.

Rather than embed herself with soldiers shipping off to Iraq, first-time filmmaker Deborah Scranton gave cameras to her intended subjects -- a trio of New Hampshire National Guardsmen -- with which to record their own experiences firsthand. Scranton, meanwhile, monitored their efforts via email and instant messaging, devoting her own energies stateside to capturing the lives and anxieties of the loved ones the men left behind. The result, as skillfully pieced together by Scranton and producer/editor Steve James (of Hoop Dreams fame), is both provocative and disturbing, an indelible chronicle of warfare that turns inside-out nearly all facile assumptions about the conflict and those waging it.

Sergeant Steve Pink, whose equally penetrating journals provide narrative commentary throughout, is a tough and outspoken blue-collar guy, a straight-shooter both literally and figuratively. Specialist Mike Moriarty is the more seasoned family man -- a wife and two kids at home, all steeled nerves and business when in uniform. To whatever extent Pink and Moriarty seem to define the archetypal American soldier, Sergeant Zack Bazzi defies it. A Lebanese-American fluent in Arabic, his view of the conflict and his role in it is more sober and, predictably, more cynical. But all are devoted to their job and committed to the success of the mission, the dangers of which are lived out vicariously, every day, by Moriarty's family, Pink's girlfriend and Bazzi's openly fearful immigrant mother.

Scranton, to her credit, almost never editorializes or unduly embellishes the material -- what's here speaks for itself, and what it says is often surprising and deeply unsettling, regardless of one's political leanings. There's also no attempt to portray this as “definitive” of anything but the experiences of three New Hampshire Guardsmen, quite properly leaving unanswered questions as to how the same events might have been perceived by members of the regular army, Marines or even Iraqis themselves. Such questions are appropriate in the wake of an effort of this sort, and will no doubt contribute to its ongoing importance.

Routine encounters with the IEDs (improvised explosive devices), commonly known as “roadside bombs,” along with insurgent firefights and always-anxious moments of respite, are all part of life patrolling the Sunni triangle and seeing to the safety of the vital supply convoys. Most significantly, because the soldiers are capturing their own stories, they have no apprehension about sharing their own opinions, none of which easily conform to any kind of convenient political paradigm at home. It is precisely this aspect of the picture -- its courage and aptitude in addressing the chasm that separates the war's reality from the perceived reality routinely proffered by armchair pundits of various media organizations -- that sets it apart from other efforts along similar lines.

Unfortunately, in a polarized political atmosphere, acknowledging anything akin to moral ambiguity or, even worse, the existence of any kind of amorality is bound to be seen as a kind of equivocation, earning unfair scrutiny that invariably ends up tagging the film as some form of partisan propaganda. But make no mistake: Scranton leaves little wiggle room for partisans of either stripe. Opponents and proponents of American involvement in Iraq will be equally bothered by it and ought to be. For any reasonable solution will require them both to accept a reality far different from what they've come to believe. Distributor: SenArt
Cast: Sergeant Steve Pink, Sergeant Zack Bazzi and Specialist Mike Moriarty
Director: Deborah Scranton
Producers: Robert May & Steve James
Genre: Documentary
Rating: Unrated
Running time: 97 min.
Release Date: October 13

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