What The Bleep Do They Know?

With God on their side: 'A Company of Soldiers'

"Controversial" four-letter words aside, the PBS/Frontline documentary A Company of Soldiers couldn't bend over any further to be fair and polite in its portrait of U.S. military personnel based in Iraq. Of course those soldiers (any soldiers) deserve fair and polite coverage. But there's a PG-rated feeling here, as if emotions that don't fit into a nationally recognized safe zone have been chased away with warning fire. Not one soldier utters a word that wouldn't be gold-stamped by the Oval Office (including the rare fuck--officially approved by V.P. Cheney). Having seen the Iraq War doc Gunner Palace, I've gotta believe that the range of opinion and behavior among our soldiery is a little wider than PBS presents here.

A Company of Soldiers, directed by Tom Roberts, focuses on Dog Company, part of the Army's Eighth Cavalry regiment, during November 2004. The footage alternates between time at the base (men playing chess, cleaning guns, receiving briefings, mourning the dead) and missions in south Baghdad. At the base, the soldiers' interplay in front of the cameras feels forced; on the street, members of the film crew are forced into spontaneity (exploding bombs will do that). From the base commander down to the 19-year-old recruit, the men appear sincere and hardworking, with love for their brother soldiers and compassion for the Iraqi citizens--if they would only get out of the Army's way. The furthest anyone strays from the mission is a brief frolic with some golf clubs--and a superior quickly curbs that enthusiasm.

Gunner Palace (now playing at Edina Cinema) portrays soldier golf and pool time--along with songwriting and performing--as fragile pleasures thrown up against the daily chaos of patrols and raids. Director Michael Tucker discovers jokers, grouches, flirts, and rappers--even women!--alongside the straight-up company men. In Entertainment Weekly, critic Owen Gleiberman dismisses Gunner Palace's "rock & roll" perspective as "shriveled" next to that of A Company of Soldiers, which, he writes, "caught the bone-deep humanity of our forces, even at their most desperate." But I'd say that in choosing to witness only the "good" soldier at work, the latter actually dehumanizes our forces, reducing them to types familiar from wartime propaganda: the big lug with the big heart; the naive newcomer; the mouthy Southerner; the savvy career soldier; the hard-ass commander who loves his men. This being the "new Army," everyone cries, then hugs and affirms one another.

One of the pillars of wartime proselytizing is the idea of God on our side. In a depressingly unexamined way, A Company of Soldiers presents a Christian/United States-versus-Muslim/antidemocratic Iraq dynamic that comes darn close to claiming divine approval. The preraid Christian prayer and officer "God bless yous" depicted here may be inextricable traditions of the U.S. military. But I'd expect a public television documentary to understand the difference between the way that some people (radical fundamentalists of all stripes) would like to see our warring nations and the more complex reality (e.g., scores of Iraqi Muslims are losing their lives as U.S. collaborators). "This is where God wants me to be--here," says one major earnestly. "Doing this job." No "friendly" offers a competing opinion.

Just after the major's assertion, the vehicle driving him to the airport loses its biggest gun in a collision with another truck. A little joke from God? Or a tiny bit of commentary from the filmmakers? The viewer has to sweat to find any message beyond the usual Fox News line: "It's tough over here, but we are improving Iraqis' lives." The Iraqis whose words are translated make poignant points: An Iraqi Christian, standing in front of his car-bombed church, says brokenly: "Nobody save us. We like to be peace." And sometimes the soldiers' words reveal more than they think. The major, instructing his men, says, "This is Indian territory--this is enemy territory." Could there be a more succinct summary of the United States' continuing claim to the "right" and "duty" of invasion?

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