As we see it in "Gunner Palace," Iraq is a bad dream from which American soldiers are struggling to awaken. What we witness of the war in this movie confirms all the things we've heard or read about war in general and this war in particular. It's tedious and terrifying; you never know who's a friend or who's an enemy; the streets are full of almost tangible malice; the days are enlivened by black humor and the extraordinary moments of insight that can emerge from young men facing the primordial dilemma of our species: Kill or be killed.
But it's one thing to read or hear those time-honored, even trite descriptions of combat life, and quite another to see it for yourself. For most of us, Michael Tucker and Petra Epperlein's riveting documentary will be as close as we ever get to seeing the Iraq war as it has unfolded for the men and women on the ground. (It's certainly as close as I ever want to get.) For that alone, we should be grateful to these filmmakers. But "Gunner Palace" is more than cinéma vérité on-site with the U.S. Army's 2/3 Field Artillery at the garish, half-demolished former palace of Uday Hussein. It's also a nerve-jangling work of visual poetry and ironic juxtaposition, and a powerful human story of a group of brave young Americans thrust through the looking glass into a confused and confusing new reality.
As Tucker puts it in his narration, the 2/3 seems like "an atlas of the forgotten America." Most of its soldiers come from rural towns or low-end suburbs in all corners of the continent, places you've only heard of if you come from there or drove through once on the way to somewhere else: Fayetteville, N.C.; Argyle, N.Y.; Pine Bluff, Ark.; Hanover, N.H.; Monument, Colo. They're an artillery unit, trained to fight tank battles in a large-scale World War III that (thankfully) never happened. "They live to blow stuff up," Tucker wryly observes. But while posted in Uday's palace, they're basically heavily armed cops, patrolling the menacing streets of Baghdad's Adhamiya district by day and breaking into the houses of suspected insurgents at night (based on intelligence tips, some of them valid and others worthless).
Tucker, who shot the film, spent two periods with the 2/3, first in the fall of 2003, shortly after the end of "major combat" operations, and later in the spring of 2004, just as the Iraqi insurgency was beginning to heat up. It's impossible to convey in words the ominous atmosphere the film builds up over 90 minutes. An empty plastic bag in the median of a main street stops traffic for half an hour -- is it an IED (an improvised explosive device, or homemade bomb)? The crowd of Iraqis milling around an important mosque turns from neutral to hostile for no discernible reason, and the patrolling Humvees back away from a rock-throwing mob. "They don't like Americans too much around here," one soldier says without emotion.
Whatever your views are on the war, your heart will be in your throat over what may happen to these brave young Americans -- and, for that matter, over what they may do to the Iraqis, guilty or innocent, who get in their way. When you see one detainee, blindfolded and huddled in the bed of a pickup, on his way to Abu Ghraib, your heart sinks; to the soldiers in the movie, of course, there's nothing special about that name or that place. What happened to that guy? We never find out, but one of the Iraqi interpreters who helped capture him becomes, by the end of the film, a suspected agent of the insurgency. This is a place where nothing is what it seems and no one can be trusted.
Among other things, Tucker and Epperlein understand that war is a part of pop culture now and, conversely, that pop culture is part of war. There's a certain "Apocalypse Now" quality to these guys, much of it completely self-aware. The life of the 2/3 reverberates with music, and the movie's soundtrack is largely supplied by the unit's impressive crew of freestyle rappers, as well as from the gnarly guitar of Spc. Stuart Wilf, a wisecracking Jimi Hendrix wannabe from a Colorado suburb who seems to become Tucker's particular muse. As one rapper intones to the camera, standing amid the rubble of Uday's palace, "For y'all this is just a show, but we live in this movie." One of the unit's sergeants puts it more soberly, addressing the audience: "You're going to go get your microwave popcorn and maybe talk about what I just said. Then you'll forget all about me."
Once you've adjusted to its murky, claustrophobic atmosphere of boredom mixed with dread, what may be most impressive about "Gunner Palace" is how sophisticated and yet how vulnerable the young men fighting this war turn out to be. (There is only one female soldier in the film.) These are not moronic, sadistic, video-game-obsessed high school dropouts, nor are they hardened killing machines. Most of these guys are sharp-eyed and even cynical in their view of what they're doing in Iraq and what it has to do with life back home. They're proud of their unit, their Army, their family and their country, but most of them also understand that they're pawns in a much bigger game.
Tucker and Epperlein have avoided taking a specific political stance, and "Gunner Palace" is likely to shake you up regardless of where you stand on the Iraq conflict. It might not change anyone's mind; after the screening I attended, supporters and opponents of the war ended up screaming at each other in the theater, livid with rage. But that happened, I think, because the film tries to reach across the unbridgeable chasm of our national discourse and force its viewers to face some painful truths. Actually, it's just one truth, but it's pretty damn painful: The men and women serving in Iraq were sucked out of the lower third of the American economy and sent to fight a thankless war, poorly prepared and ill-equipped. Neither the neocon geniuses who sent them there or the antiwar activists who want to pull them out really know them or care about them.
As an opponent of the Iraq war from the beginning, who believed it was both a strategic mistake and a crime against international law, I went into "Gunner Palace" eager to interpret it as a testament to the pointlessness and futility of the whole enterprise. Others will see it differently; Tucker has said that gung-ho audiences in military-base towns have embraced the film as a testament to the courage of American forces in a distant and difficult theater. Both readings of the film may be true, and others besides. I came away from it humbled -- by the bravery and smarts of these soldiers, by their quintessential American good humor, by their willingness to party in the face of disaster. I still think the war they're fighting is dead wrong, but I also think we owe them a tremendous debt, something more than money or gratitude (although those would be good starts). It's a debt we'll almost certainly never pay.