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Independent filmmaker Michael Tucker traveled to Iraq four times in 2003 and 2004 to document American troops on the front lines. For eight weeks, he lived in Uday Hussein's lavish Baghdad palace, side-by-side with 400 U.S. soldiers, capturing the day to day experience of these young men and women—from the dark humor of their freestyle raps to the complex emotions felt after raids and violent attacks. Tucker and co-director Petra Epperlein present a rarely-seen side of the war: the effect it has on the average soldier.
 

 A Different Kind Of War

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 food stalls.

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 just beginning.

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 ways.

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 movies.

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.