In May 2003, just after President Bush declared an end to “major
combat” operations, I found myself in Baghdad making a film about
an armored car salesman. In those “early” days of the war,
we felt safe. We were armored and the salesman was armed. During that
time, we encountered American soldiers as we drove through checkpoints
or traded the use of our sat phone for MRE (Meals Ready to Eat). They
were at ease too, joking with kids on the street and eating at local
That calm ended in June with the rise of what the soldiers jokingly
called “minor combat”: random firefights, snipers, roadside
bombs and RPG attacks. By the end of the summer, dozens of Americans
were dead, the UN compound was destroyed, the enemy had yet to be identified,
and the focus of the occupation was shifting from reconstruction to
offensive operations. The war was anything but over—maybe it was
Talking to American soldiers during that summer, many expressed frustration
that folks at home, accustomed to quick televised victories, had simply
lost interest in the war or had changed the channel to the more entertaining
reality of Survivor and American Idol. In an increasingly
polarized America, where the soldiers’ voices were the last to
be heard, we decided to tell their story.
With that, I returned to Baghdad in September 2003 hoping to film an
American unit for as long as they would have me. Upon arrival, I was
tipped-off to the unit that eventually took me in: 2/3 Field Artillery,
aka the “Gunners,” were based in Uday Hussein’s Azimiya
Palace—sitting in the middle of Adhamiya, the most volatile area
in Baghdad. The Palace itself, now referred to as “Gunner Palace,”
was a welcome retreat from the chaos of Baghdad’s streets. It
had a swimming pool. A putting green. It even had a stocked fishing
pond. 2/3’s commander, LTC Bill Rabena, jokingly called it an
“adult paradise.” He lived in the Love Shack—a pumpkin
shaped building where locals say Uday Hussein apparently engaged in
all kinds of debauchery—and he slept in Uday’s circular
bed, something right out of Austin Powers.
In my first week at Gunner Palace, I had to forget everything I thought
I knew about the war. The first night we were mortared (a new experience
for me) while my roommates laughed it off. The second day, I was invited
to attend the memorial service at another unit for a soldier who had
been killed in an RPG attack. By the end of the week, I was out at night
with a squad looking for improvised explosive devices (IEDs) on the
side of the road—I was also smoking about two packs of black market
Marlboros a day.
After a week, what struck me was the normality of it all. In four months,
these soldiers had learned to shrug off the extremes of their reality.
For them, it didn’t matter what day it was, because it was “just
another day in Baghdad”—another mark on the wall. A day
where nothing happened was considered a good day. While America was
polarized on the issue of the war, most of these soldiers saw the war
not in black or white, but in gray. They dealt with it in their individual
The longer I stayed, the more it became their movie—one laced
with cinematic déjà vu. At times, it didn’t feel
like I was shooting a documentary, rather a war movie that we have all
seen a dozen times. For the older officers and NCOs it was M*A*S*H.
They brought aloha shirts for poolside BBQs. For others it was Platoon
and Full Metal Jacket—you could see it in the
way they rode in their HUMVEES. One foot hanging out the door—helicopters
with wheels. For the teenagers, it was Jackass
Goes to War.
As much as they sampled and projected cultural icons into their lives,
through my viewfinder you could see that they were defining their own
experience: a movie different than anything anyone has seen before.
One day, while recording a freestyle rap, a young soldier looked at
the camera, charged his weapon and said, “For y’all this
is just a show, but we live in this movie.”
The reality for these soldiers was stranger than any fiction, and they
knew it. The trouble was, this war—any war—isn’t like
The first month I spent with 2/3, I rolled with them constantly. I
hopped into any vehicle leaving the gate. I was anxious. The camera
was always recording. My biggest fear was to miss something. In many
ways, I went trolling for contact. I assumed that violence defined the
experience and I focused on it. I captured what I thought was
the film and went home.
Three weeks later, the first 2/3 soldier was killed by an IED. A month
later, two more soldiers were killed along with an interpreter. On Christmas
Eve, a senior NCO I had filmed at a party was killed by a massive IED.
Over the next weeks, I spent every morning looking at the casualty lists
online, hoping not to see a name that I knew.
When I returned to the soldiers the second time, I carried with me
a newfound understanding that war is defined by suffering. I spent less
time shooting and more time listening, as the soldiers struggled to
come to terms with their experience and individual truths came out.
I asked soldiers what they thought and their answers were surprisingly
simple. After nearly a year, it wasn’t about Iraq, the Iraqis,
democracy, Donald Rumsfeld or oil. It was about them. Simple. They just
wanted to finish the job they were sent to do so they could go home.