The "gunner" in Gunner Palace, which opens in Seattle on Friday, March 11, at the Metro and Meridian theaters, is any member of the U.S. Army's 2nd Battalion, 3rd Field Artillery Regiment. The palace is a tastelessly ornate Baghdad pad Saddam Hussein gave his psycho-sadist son, Uday, who reportedly used the place for poolside orgies replete with booze, hookers, heroin, and maybe the odd rape or whim killing. Soldiers call it "the Love Shack."
Dispatches from the Quagmire
So much has happened yet so little has changed since March 20, 2003. Nearly two years into the Iraq War, it's hard not to see parallels to Vietnam: a drumbeat of casualties, traumatized soldiers coming home, competing claims of success and failure. "Nothing is black-and-white here anymore," says one soldier. Was it ever? Here's a collection of war-weary perceptions brought home to Seattle by media and the soldiers themselves.
• Life and Death and Gunner Palace by Tim Appelo
• Weapons of Mass Improvisation by Rick Anderson
• Reality Show: Getting War on Film by Brian Miller
• Control Room's Iraq Flack is Back by Brian Miller
• Safe at Home, Soldiers Ill at Ease by Nina Shapiro
•Alternative War News by Geov Parrish
WASHINGTON'S TOLL: A complete accounting of 93 people with links to this state, killed since 2001 in Iraq, Afghanistan, and elsewhere. MORE
SPECIAL EVENT: Veterans reflect on the Iraq War, March 16 at Town Hall in Seattle. INFO
It was more dangerous when former Seattleite Michael Tucker went there in September 2003 and February 2004 to shoot his disheveled yet affecting documentary, even though the 400 U.S. gunners were forbidden to drink anything stronger than Snapple at their pool parties. The half-bombed-out palace, its grand spiral staircase ascending from rubble, is smack dab in the red-hot center of Saddam loyalism and anti-Americanism. The last place where Saddam felt safe enough to appear in public, borne on people's shoulders like Eddie Vedder at a grunge concert, was the nearby Sunni mosque, the most important one in Baghdad. "When we first got here, they were waving at us," Sgt. Robert Beatty says in the film. "Soon as we'd drive by, we'd get shot at. . . . You know, they will take your life."
Granted incredible access inside the palace, on patrol, on raids, during interrogations and riots and firefights, and at the airport as casualties got loaded aboard big-bellied planes, Tucker recorded it all, with interesting political restraint. He's on the soldiers' side, but not overtly against the commander in chief, and while he's sympathetic with the Iraqis, who bear the brunt of the war, his camera captures the hostility that keeps many of his young gunner subjects from being PC nice about the locals. Children run up to gunner Humvees with arms outstretched, then throw rocks. The gunners find weapons and $48,000 at a sheik's house. "Later that week," Tucker's somber voice-over explains, "the sheik stopped by with a home-cooked meal for the colonel, as if nothing had happened and they were old friends." "Good Amrika!" chirps one boy; "that little kid tried to spit on me!" notes a soldier. In one home-invasion raid, a terrified Iraqi woman says, "Thank you! I love you!" Does she know English? "A little! I'm sorry!" Miscommunication and paranoia rule, an effect heightened by Tucker's shaky-cam vérité.
And yet, Tucker's voice-over notes, "Some days it feels almost normal here, as Lt. Colgan and his team talk to the neighbors—people wave as they drive past." Second Lt. Benjamin Colgan's team was called the "Tomb Raiders," but he's the least gung-ho soldier in the film, the quietest, depicted shaking hands companionably with an Iraqi. An insurgent's improvised explosive device (IED) killed Colgan after Tucker left. It hit the filmmaker hard, because Colgan was from Kent, and Tucker "knew the mountains he dreamed of." Another tough thing: Colgan might have been fatally betrayed by Mohammad, aka "Mike Tyson," a U.S. interpreter and accused insurgent spy. "If it's true, he's responsible for at least three murders," a soldier reports. "He'll be sent to Abu Ghraib prison. Nothing is black-and-white here anymore."
Gunner Palace is a litmus test for an America scarcely less bitterly divided than Iraq. When right-winger Sean Hannity grilled Tucker on Fox News, he thought maybe the footage of GIs frolicking in Uday's pool might be a Michael Moore–ish slur on our brave boys. (Tucker noted that fun in the sun feels different when there's a mortar shell in the pool, and more are apt to fall at any time.) When left-wingers at the film's Telluride premiere last Labor Day demanded that Tucker denounce the scene in which punky young gunner Pfc. Stuart Wilf dons a sheik costume with a mop for a wig and mocks Iraqis, Tucker refused to bust him for cultural insensitivity.
The filmmaker is more affected by the insensitivity of Americans to the mostly rural kids from "lost America" dying on our oblivious behalf. The film's most apparently leftist moments are the snatches of laughably dishonest radio broadcasts by upbeat government bastards, which play like the satirical radio bits in the film M*A*S*H. "Hello, I'm Donald Rumsfeld! It's a pleasure to be back in the country. . . . Baghdad is bustling with commerce!" Tucker sarcastically answers this with scenes of the bloody "minor combat" that followed Bush's faux triumphant declaration of the end of "major combat."
The sharpest blow to Rummy's Dummies is a scene, shot long before the recent Rumsfeld press-conference debacle, wherein a gunner in mock-TV-news tones explains how safe he feels: "Our $87 billion budget provided for us to have some secondary armor put on top of our thin-skinned Humvees. This armor was made in Iraq. It's high-quality metal, and it will probably slow down the shrapnel so that it stays in your body instead of going clean through, and that's about it." Two guys fall to the dirt and roll around in hysterics.
But Tucker's overall tone is closer to the sweetness of the TV show M*A*S*H and far from the M*A*S*H movie's acidulous antiestablishmentarianism. The gunners have seen war movies, and they see themselves acting them out in ideologically ambiguous ways. When they broadcast Wagner's "Ride of the Valkyries" to Sunni mosque worshippers, they don't seem conscious of the ironic intent of the scene from Apocalypse Now, even though they know they're quoting it. They feel screwed and vengeful, mostly—toward the Iraqis they're supposed to help and toward the uncaring officials and society that sent them to this hellhole, canceled their leaves, cynically extended their deployment, and forced them to live 300 days without beer. They live amid circumambient betrayal.
Pfc. Stuart Wilf with guitar in hand.
They're surrounded by officials' manipulative happy-face lies and hilarious irrelevancies on radio ("Morale is high!" GIs "will not have to worry about their student loan obligations while fighting overseas!") and equally lethal IEDs, which lurk anywhere and everywhere: bags, pots, garbage piles, trees, cunningly molded into curbs. "This whole country is garbage!" says one soldier. On the barracks wall, somebody's scrawled, "I hate everyone equally—you can't tear that out of me."
Gunner Wilf strikes rock-god poses, playing a Hendrix-ified "Star-Spangled Banner" on his electric guitar atop his Humvee. More soldiers pour out their rage in rap:
Considered a ravenous beast if we just launch an attack,
Lose-lose situation we face an anticipation of hatin',
Although we're hunted by Satan, we're frustration abatin' the situation we facin',
Not only followed but chasin',
There's movable hatred,
That's why we feel so neglected, unprotected,
Like from the present,
No need to like this, but please respect it.
This is life.
Gunner Palace basically amounts to an argument for society to show soldiers more respect, but viewers glimpse in it reflections of their own views. When left-wing New York Times columnist Frank Rich watched the movie, he saw ample evidence that our policy was "doomed." Indeed, Tucker and his co-director, Petra Epperlein, do show the ineptitude of Iraqi "security forces" and the contempt of Beatty, who's training them. "They're here to get paid," he snaps, as the Iraqis pathetically approximate military drills. "I try to train 'em, I try to train 'em—I can't train someone who doesn't give a shit!"
Iraqi democracy looks great in U.S. headlines, but early on, it doesn't look so great at the blighted grass roots. Gunner commander Bill Rabena tries to soothe angry Iraqis at a political meeting: "Please remember, we had this conversation about acting civilly two months ago! I'm sure we can get the same discussion done without screaming across the table. Now, is the issue that we have one of our council members that's not showing up because he's been threatened?"
Right-wingers can view the chaos as justification for the war and sneaky Iraqi murderousness as justification for Abu Ghraib's brutality. Left-wingers can point out the scene where an Iraqi in handcuffs protests, "I am a journalist! You mistake this!" and the gunners tell him to shut up. "Just shut your mouth in Iraq," he bitterly replies, neatly nailing the hypocrisy of Bush's "democracy building." Right-wingers can see him as an insurgent. Left-wingers can see that he sure as hell will be if he gets out of the rape rooms of Abu Ghraib alive. When Tucker films a young U.S. intelligence agent bragging about how he reduced muscular 205-pound Iraqis to blubbering tears by threatening to send them and their families to Cuba, and the guy snickers about lying about the evidence against them (which they can't read because it's in English), rightists will snicker with him and leftists will weep for democracy.
Because of its ideological ambiguity and the universal wish to support the troops, Gunner Palace won an extraordinarily rare victory over the Motion Picture Association ratings board, which granted an appeal to change the rating from R to PG-13 ("parents strongly cautioned"). Variety calls it "the most profane PG-13 pic ever," and some ratings jurors reportedly wept over the landmark decision. Fahrenheit 9/11's similar appeal failed, even though its four "motherfuckers" are far outnumbered by Gunner's fusillade of F-words. Typically, two F's get you an R. But if the Army gets to recruit kids on campus, it's only fair that they should get to see a movie showing what happens to them thereafter.
But the denizens of Gunner Palace don't think Americans really care what happens to the troops. "After you watch this, you're gonna get your popcorn out of the microwave," predicts Beatty in the film. "And you'll forget me by the end." He's wrong. Gunner Palace sticks with you.