Following close on the heels of Patricia Foulkrod’s The Ground Truth — a documentary that will go down as one of the finest to come out of the current imbroglio in Iraq — comes a companion piece of sorts, Deborah Scranton’s The War Tapes. Like The Ground Truth, the goal of Scranton’s work is to expose the moral and psychological effects of the war in Iraq on those directly in its crosshairs, i.e. the soldiers and their families. The documentary’s most interesting departure point, though, isn’t the information gleaned from its contents — The Ground Truth covered identical terrain and, to my mind, to more incisive and poignant effect–but the technique Scranton used to gather it all. She distributed mini DV cameras to ten soldiers of the National Guard’s C Company unit, based in Iraq’s volatile Sunni Triangle. Of these, three soldiers — Steve Pink, Zack Bazzi and Mike Moriarty — managed to shoot video for the entirety of their yearlong tour, and made it into Scranton’s final distillation of the thousand or so hours of amassed footage.
There is a rough-and-ready arc to Scranton’s telling, beginning with the soldiers’ deployment, through their experiences in the war zone, then back home where they must contend with war’s domestic aftermath, arguably another war in itself. Where Scranton’s strategy really pays off is in the footage itself, as shot by Pink, Bazzi and Moriarty. There are moments here, a street ambush in Fallujah being the most striking, that have the nerve-jangling immediacy of a fiction-film set piece or a violent video game. The split-second realization that this footage is from an actual event as it actually unfolded, un-doctored by the media, makes it enormously startling. The direct-cinema authenticity that a soldier’s eye gives to this largely street-fought war, in which innocent civilians are the hardest hit, lends The War Tapes its primary strength.
Scranton devotes a lengthy segment to the activities of KBR, a subsidiary of Halliburton, which has a virtual monopoly on the housing and feeding of soldiers, as well as the transporting of consumer goods across Iraq. The latter involves hiring private drivers, some from poor countries, to haul these goods in semi-trucks across the country’s dangerous, devastated roadways. Moriarty’s commentary on the worth of human life relative to the contents of those trucks (“This is a war for cheese!” he proclaims) underscores the up-front nefariousness of KBR’s profit-driven tactics, and provides the documentary’s most damning, heart-rending information. Time and again, Moriarty, Pink and Bazzi (who is of Middle Eastern descent) remark on how, as long as corporations have money to make in Iraq, there will be no end to this war.
Where War Tapes badly hobbles, though, is in figuring out what to do with all this material. Long stretches of its 97 minutes feel monotonous, circling over the same ground, riddled with the soldiers’ grievances and their bullying, uncomprehending attitude towards the locals. Moriarty, Pink and Bazzi are understandably pissed off, fraught with bitterness. They can’t make sense of their situation once they’ve returned to friends and families who are equally confused. Moriarty defends Bush’s pursuit of securing Iraq for oil, because otherwise “it would be devastating to America.” Pink refuses treatment for his post-traumatic stress, and hopes, as a silver lining to all this, that someone out there, not just Dick Cheney, is profiting in Iraq. Ideologically, Scranton settles for the soldiers’ war-weary cynicism, but, after showing us all that she has, we feel short-changed. As with any documentary or work of art, we crave an insight deeper than what mere surfaces reveal–an interpretation of a maddening reality that these soldiers aren’t in a position to provide, and which Scranton can’t fully fathom in her search through the chaos.
Directed by: Deborah Scranton
Cast: Zack Bazzi, Duncan Domey, Ben Flanders, Mike Moriarty, Steve Pink, Brandon Wilkins