Inside "Gunner Palace"

Soldiers in the new documentary, and Iraq war veterans, discuss how filmmaker Michael Tucker captures the real terror and craziness of their lives and service in Iraq.

Published March 4, 2005 6:11PM (EST)

In the new documentary "Gunner Palace," soldiers of the First Armored Division's 2/3 Field Artillery do what most soldiers do in war films. They conduct security patrols, gather intelligence, and worry about incoming mortar fire on their home base -- a Baghdad citadel that once belonged to playboy sadist Uday Hussein. But they also chow down on Burger King Whoppers, play warrior video games on laptop computers, and break into freestyle raps about the horrors of watching their buddies get torn apart by shrapnel from a roadside bomb. Says Spc. Kenneth Simpson, standing in a bombed-out section of the palace, "Just another day in Baghdad."

Most Americans have been exposed to the Iraq war only through Pentagon strategy-speak and sound bites on CNN and Fox News. But "Gunner Palace" presents the real war through which soldiers are actually living. Based in the guerrilla war zone of Baghdad's Adhamiya district, the documentary captures the young soldiers' patriotism and dedication. It also reveals their hours of numbing boredom and moments of stark terror, and gives voice to their deep frustration with the slow progress of security and reconstruction, the Iraqis' antipathy toward them, and the lack of support they feel from some Americans back home.

In interviews following screenings of the documentary last month, several Iraq veterans and active-duty soldiers, including some who appear in the film, said "Gunner Palace" offers the first true picture of military service in Iraq. The soldiers spoke in spite of rumors that talking to the press could get them into hot water with their superiors. Apparently some military officials are concerned that "Gunner Palace" is a little too real.

The documentary is all the more remarkable because it's the first feature by independent filmmakers Michael Tucker and his wife, Petra Epperlein. They shot and edited it with basic digital gear and financed it themselves at a modest cost. Tucker grew up in a military family and called Seattle home until he and Epperlein relocated to Berlin in 1995. There the two launched a production company dedicated to reportage on humanitarian issues in countries from Vietnam to Croatia.

Tucker had traveled to Iraq a couple of times in the summer of 2003 and was working on a documentary about an armored-car salesman, which he says had given him access to some "weird places." He also began talking with American soldiers, many of whom expressed frustration that people back home had lost interest in the war after President Bush declared an end to "major combat operations" in May 2003.

That fall he returned to Baghdad, got clearance from the Army, and began documenting the soldiers' experience, including what they jokingly referred to as "minor combat." Tucker won the confidence of the 2/3 Field Artillery and lived and patrolled with them for a total of two months.

"Initially it was the combination of the volatile sector and the unusual backdrop of the palace that drew me in," Tucker said, following a showing of the film in San Francisco. "But it was difficult to film in Iraq; it's one of the harshest-looking places I've ever seen: hot, dusty, smoky, garbage everywhere. It quickly occurred to me that these guys aren't only dealing with the idea of combat. They're surrounded by poverty, oppressive heat, and a culture they don't understand."

Filmed in late 2003 and early 2004, "Gunner Palace" delivers a vivid snapshot of the period after Saddam's Baghdad fell but before the insurgency really began to metastasize. Though even then insurgent attacks and roadside bombs were already taking a toll: Three soldiers from the group were killed in the period between Tucker's two month-long stints of filming. The security patrols through the restive streets of Baghdad, he says, were frightening. "Riding around in a Humvee without any cover around you is a horrible feeling. You're so exposed, and an attack could happen any second. It gave me a huge amount of respect for what those guys do."

Throughout the film, the gunners' candor and willingness to open themselves up to the camera offer a rare look into their daily lives. In one scene, Spc. Devon Dixon talks about the first time he killed a man in combat: "It tore me up pretty bad, but after a while I learned to deal with it, because I look at it as, it's either gonna be him or it's gonna be me. And you know, I'm not doing the wrong thing. I'm just following orders."

"Almost every day here there's an attack and someone gets wounded or someone dies," says Spc. Spencer Batchelder. "You're just afraid that no one's gonna know the struggle you're going through."

In another poignant moment, Pvt. Michael Commisso, 19, speaks of his "absolute pride" in serving in the U.S. military and traveling the world. "There's nothing else like it," he says. But after months of experiencing rising chaos in Baghdad, he adds, "I don't feel like I'm defending my country anymore, and that kind of sucks."

Fear and frustration, though, are accompanied by humanity and generosity. The soldiers help desperate street kids, clown with their Iraqi translators (in one hilarious scene, Sgt. Kendrick Smith teaches a translator named Sam how to "mack" correctly to pick up a woman), and patiently assist the newly formed Iraqi District Advisory Councils in settling disputes. During a visit to an Iraqi orphanage, Lt. Col. Bill Rabena hands one toddler a SpongeBob SquarePants doll, a burst of bright yellow amid the gritty brown palette of the film. "He's very popular back in the United States," Rabena tells the kid.

The film offers a striking postmodern twist in the way the young gunners riff about Vietnam and the war movies they grew up with. In the age of reality TV, they all seem entirely at ease on camera -- freestyle raps and irreverent antics worthy of "Jackass" bubble up regularly. In one scene, Spc. Richmond Shaw raps: "Trials and tribulations daily we do/ And not always life's pains wash away in our pool/ When we take a dip, we try to stick to the script/ But when those guns start blazing and our friends get hit/ That's when our hearts start racing and our stomachs get woozy/ 'Cuz for y'all this is just a show, but we live in this movie."

In post-production, Tucker set one nighttime raid to Wagner's "Ride of the Valkyries," an inescapable reference to the beach-assault scene in "Apocalypse Now." Yet he says the soldiers themselves blared "Valkyries" from their vehicles during psychological operations missions. (Tucker, whose narrative voice-over in the film is sometimes reminiscent of the weighty intonation of Martin Sheen, acknowledges "Apocalypse" as part of his own vernacular.)

The notion of war imitating art comes through in another vivid scene. The day after a successful intelligence raid, the battalion throws a party at the palace, cavorting poolside and grooving to the sounds of Smokey Robinson's "My Girl." The soldiers' sun-soaked bodies and smiling faces echo the drug-hazed bunker scene in "Platoon," where the festivities were set to Robinson's "Tracks of My Tears." The striking distinction, other than the absence of illicit drugs, is that the song is being played live by the First Armored Division Rock Band.

"It was so strange to watch that," says Tucker. "I realized, looking at how young the soldiers are, that these guys learned this stuff -- the aloha shirts and everything else -- from 'Platoon' and 'Full Metal Jacket.'"

"Gunner Palace" is also a measure of how media and technology have changed the picture of war -- even strategically. "There were times when we reviewed footage that Mike took while on patrol with us, to analyze stuff out there for when we would go back to certain places," says Robert Beatty, 33, an active-duty sergeant with the gunners. Beatty spoke by phone from Giessen, Germany, where he's training a new deployment of soldiers for their mission in Iraq.

"Mike was real cool about the whole thing, though I'm not sure he necessarily knew we were doing it or how dangerous a certain mission had been. We would get back and ask, 'Can we see that patrol you just filmed? Hey, could you pause it right there? What's the number on that house?' So we used some of his technology to our advantage. We sometimes did that with reporters, too."

The documentary also looks unflinchingly at the daunting odds against training Iraqis for their own new security force to stabilize and protect the country. "I know for a fact that many of the people we were training were not professionals," Beatty says. "There's a small selection of jobs the Iraqis can get, and this was one of the easier ones. Some of the guys would say that they were just there for the money. You can't blame them for that, because they're just trying to support their families, but by the same token, their patriotism was in question. I felt like a lot of them would do whatever they could for the highest bidder."

None of the soldiers in the film appear to question the rationale for the war or the ongoing mission -- but some wonder whether Americans, both then and now, have really cared to tune in to the long, difficult battle.

"I think a lot of people in America don't have a good sense of what's really going on out there, and a lot of what you see on the news really doesn't describe it too well," says Spc. Stuart Wilf, one of the most animated guys in "Gunner Palace." Wilf, whose tour of duty is over, says that he and his fellow soldiers are proud of their service, including personally helping out a number of Iraqis they came to know. But he also had a lot of mixed feelings when he left Iraq.

"I didn't really see a whole lot of point to the stuff we did," Wilf says. "Most the time we were just trying to get each other out of there. I really didn't want to leave feeling that we didn't accomplish anything, that we did it all for nothing, because people who were close to us died out there. But I watch the news today and it seems like the 'same shit, smaller shovel' going on. I don't really see where it's going to lead."

Several Iraq veterans not affiliated with the film or the soldiers in it, but who attended pre-release screenings last month, praised its authenticity. "It's very clear when you watch this movie that this is soldiers telling their own story and being upfront about how they really feel," says Capt. Ray Kimball, who served as a helicopter pilot during the initial invasion from Kuwait to Baghdad in March 2003, and who is now a member of the nonpartisan veterans advocacy group Operation Truth.

Although the film shows relatively little violence, none of it particularly graphic, Kimball says it is "brutally honest" about how civilians can get caught up in war unfairly and how soldiers cope with the pressure. The latter results in a stream of scatological language, which originally earned the film an R-rating. But the filmmakers appealed the rating on the grounds that teenagers targeted for recruitment by the military shouldn't be kept from seeing a realistic picture of the war for which they're signing up. They won the appeal and the film received a PG-13 just a week before its March 4 release.

"I didn't think 'Fahrenheit 9/11' was particularly accurate because it only showed those guys getting all amped up before they go out on combat missions," says Iraq vet Capt. Bill Taylor. A Black Hawk helicopter pilot who operated around Mosul from November 2003 through 2004, Taylor says he has "a hard time" with people who make snap judgments of soldiers in the middle of combat. "If these guys are going on a combat mission, and listening to Metallica helps get them through it, so be it. It's a mistake to go for the sound bite and show these guys as if they're just a bunch of cold-blooded killers. Everybody has their own way of coping, and I think 'Gunner Palace' does a better job of capturing the whole picture."

"Gunner Palace" opens in U.S. theaters against a backdrop in Iraq very different from when the movie was made. More than a year later, after waves of uprisings, terrorist suicide attacks and a relatively successful national Iraqi election, the insurgency still appears to be going strong. Beatty, who is preparing to be deployed from Germany back to Iraq again soon, takes pride in his job as a professional U.S. soldier -- but he acknowledges the even more dangerous Iraq of today and the psychological pressures he will face when he returns.

"Your mortality is questioned daily," he says. "You find yourself looking at your group of guys and wondering, Who's gonna get it today? In Iraq, you can do everything right and you'll still be dead. This could be your last day. Hell, your last minute."

By Mark Follman

Mark Follman is Salon's deputy news editor. Read his other articles here.

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