Saw Gunner's Palace last night. Like others already have, I recommend you check it out immediately. The film brilliantly succeeds in showing the routinization of life in a war zone, taking pains to neither demonize nor canonize the fresh-faced kids who serve as the stars. Unlike many documentaries, there is no plot, the editors have created no characters and they've taken pains to deny us a satisfying story arc. There's no CG added to create cool visuals, and there are no attempts to tie the movie into a larger political context. It's simply the camera's record of day after day after day in Iraq. Some are good, some are worse. Sometimes the troops show striking patience and compassion, sometimes they throw their quarry on the ground and demand they "shut the fuck up". Sometimes patrols are no more eventful than a stroll to the supermarket, and sometimes mobs form to pelt them with rocks. The soldiers spend a lot of time rapping, playing guitar, play games on the computer, trying to recreate the life of a teenager in conditions entirely unsuited to it. They throw pool parties in Uday's palace, where the few female enlists are in high demand, and enormous numbers of guys hang out in groups. They try and teach friendly Iraqis how to pick up women, and then later arrest former friends who turn out to be traitors. Some die, most don't. It's just life.
To me, the film's most affecting moment came during a raid of two brothers suspected of being bomb crafters. Both spoke English, were articulate and defiant, and proudly proclaimed that they were journalists, that the camera had better record the treatment they were receiving, that the troops were harassing them with no reason. No bomb-making materials were found at the home, but the brothers were detained and transferred to Abu Ghraib prison. For me, that recast the torture in an entirely different light. Like everyone else with a shred of conscience, I've been horrified by the pictures and stories emerging from the prison. But somewhere, in the back of my mind, their impact was lessened by the belief that these probably were pretty bad guys and so, in some way, they had a hand in their fate. The problem with Abu Ghraib, then, was what Americans were doing, not who they did it to. Go see these two brothers, defiant, sympathetic, and possibly innocent, and then try and soften the blow of our actions. Torturing innocents who refuse to submit was what Saddam did, knowing that we have likely done the same is devastating. And seeing who we did it to knifes your nationalistic pride and coping mechanisms in a way that news reports and NGO-releases with the same information can never hope to match.
In any case, see the movie. Don't go expecting your biases challenged, as Steve Clemons first wrote, they'll likely be reinforced no matter what your position. If you believe in the war you'll see brave troops adapting to a tough situation in order to courageously carry out their mission. If you don't believe in the war, you'll see a bunch of kids desperately trying to live under circumstances they should never have been thrown into. But in either case, the movie is brilliant and important and seeing it should be required for anyone willing to pontificate on the subject.
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