Image copyright © by Marcus Trahan

Gunner Palace


Everybody should see this movie.

It is not the story of George W Bush’s war, and doesn’t set out to be. It is the story of one unit, stationed in one of Uday Hussein’s palace/whorehouses, partially bombed out but still looking like Jed Clampett’s idea of a really swanky hotel. Though the setting and the climate and the people couldn’t be more different from Southeast Asia, it was astonishing how much it all reminded me of the Vietnam War. (Okay, not the war itself, I wasn’t there, but films about the war. Apocalypse Now and Full Metal Jacket come immediately to mind.) There is the same disconnect between the surreal and idiotic pronouncements coming over the radio (actually, over the TV and the Internet, in Iraq) as there was in Good Morning Vietnam. It makes you want to grab Don Rumsfeld by the scruff of his neck and jam him down into a poorly-armored humvee beside these boys and let him cruise the mean streets of Baghdad for a few months.

The film captures the life of a combat soldier as I understand it to be. Long periods of boredom, hanging out, showing off, keeping up your nerve. Playing the guitar for the white kids, rapping for the black ones. Then BOOM!

We don’t actually see much of the boom part. The movie was made by just two people, embedded, as they say, and when they were on patrol with the unit they never captured any real combat. Lee mentioned that it seemed sanitized to her, but upon reflection I don’t think so. A fictional war movie would have been full of blood and gore, and the nightly news is filled with the “money shots,” meaning shooting and explosions and the wounded and dead being carried off. We knew this was happening, but it all happened off camera. You can’t be everywhere at once in real life, and in fact most patrols are just like this: uneventful and, except for the discovery of a few RPGs, unproductive. The GIs bust into a house, terrify a few people, say they’re sorry, and move on to act on the next batch of faulty information. And you never know if the next door you bust down is the one with the bomb behind it, or the next garbage pile you drive by is full of explosives.

These guys are artillery, for chrissake! They’re trained to rain shock and awe down on the heads of opposing armies, and here they are patrolling city streets where every robe might conceal an AK-47, every child might have a hand grenade.

It is Vietnam, dammit! When will enough people begin to see that? We see the Iraqi volunteers training, and hear the Americans voicing their opinion of how long these guys will stand and fight … maybe five minutes, on a good day. They look pretty pathetic. (Can you say ARVN?)
I guess wars have always been fought by children, but it’s still shocking to see how young these guys are. They are uniformly proud to be in the Army, their morale seems okay, aside from the built-in cynicism of the combat soldier. But none of them seem to think it was worth it, going over there, and none of them seem to think much good is being done.