Fight for Your Right to Party

Being all that he can be: SPC Tom Susdorf in 'Gunner Palace'
Palm Pictures

If the soldiers enjoying their scant minutes of fame in Gunner Palace agree on anything, it's that no one back home in the U.S. can comprehend what they're going through in Iraq. Co-directed by Michael Tucker and Petra Epperlein, this documentary isn't necessarily going to remedy that deficiency: After all, how much can an 85-minute movie accomplish? It will, however, show you scenes and give you access to points of view that never appear on CNN.

Tucker, an America-born, Berlin-based filmmaker, embedded himself for several weeks in late 2003 and again in early 2004 with the 2/3 Field Artillery--barracked in the wreckage of Uday Hussein's playboy mansion in what became, after the U.S. invasion, one of the most explosive neighborhoods of Baghdad. "We dropped a bomb on it and now we party in it," quips one of the soldiers, improvising a tour of the movie-perfect location with its cratered floors, functioning swimming pool, and three-hole putting green.

Not that these soldiers have much time for R&R. Most of their days and nights are spent patrolling roads littered with deadly IEDs and raiding the homes of suspected terrorists. (The obviously guilty and obviously innocent alike are packed off to Abu Ghraib.) In less stressful moments, they cradle orphaned newborns, keep the peace at local council meetings, and drill Iraqi army volunteers. One soldier comments scornfully that the diffident Iraqi trainees have only enlisted for the money, which may provoke viewers to ask if the same cannot be said about most of the U.S. soldiers, despite the discipline and work ethic that helps keep them alive. (Perhaps some viewers will follow that train of thought straight to the issue of the minimum wage, stuck at $5.15 for eight years and bound to continue into the foreseeable future.) Tucker eschews any overarching analysis, but he gives us lots of raw material--including the soldiers' personal observations--with which to form our own.

Shot with a small DV camera, Gunner Palace has a diaristic immediacy. Tucker's refusal to make narrative coherence from the chaos of daily life during what the soldiers dub the "period of minor combat" (President Bush having proclaimed the "end of major combat" four months after the invasion, when the insurgency was just beginning to heat up) is what distinguishes Gunner Palace from TV war coverage and, indeed, from most war documentaries. Two-thirds of the way through the film, Tucker figures he has enough footage and goes home, only to return to Iraq a few weeks later upon hearing of the first three combat fatalities in the 2/3 FA. Hereafter, the film lurches on in much the same way as before. During the months in which Gunner Palace was shot and edited, five U.S. soldiers of the 2/3 FA and three Iraqi nationals who worked with the division were killed. The fact that the 2/3 was patrolling a hotbed of insurgency did not qualify them in the Pentagon's eyes to receive armor for their Humvees. "Made in Iraq from genuine scrap metal," jokes one soldier about the do-it-yourself armor on his vehicle, thus confronting us with one of the war's most appalling scandals, which only days ago became a front-page story in the New York Times.

In the end, what sticks in one's mind are the soldiers themselves. Young men, some still in their teens, they have a combination of gravity and gallows humor that makes them immensely sympathetic no matter what one's position on the war itself. Despite their contempt for the faked conflict of reality TV shows, which they rightly see as America's way of distracting itself from its anxiety about the war, they are the children of television and have an openness before the camera that's hard to resist. Perhaps Tucker has chosen the half-dozen soldiers who become his primary spokespersons because their points of view are compatible with his own, but none of them believe they're in Iraq either to defend the U.S. or liberate the Iraqi people. To quote from the spoken word poetry of Specialist Richmond Shaw: "Living only for the day is the motto we follow."

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