The Iraq War as Entertainment


Images of the Iraq war are superabundant, and, in contrast to the CNN videogame simulations of the Gulf War, the style is now raw, on-the-ground, and usually in-your-face. They come not just from CNN, but from an overwhelming array of sources: frontline blogs, digital photos, terrorists' snuff movies, al-Jazeera footage of collateral damage, embedded news reports, short "War Zone" films, a dramatization of the war on cable TV, and a plethora of indy exposé documentaries like Gunner Palace, Uncovered: The Truth About the Iraq War, and Control Room.

The amateur internet and digital footage is usually too repulsive to watch, and even when it's not, a feeling of unseemly access attends it - should we really be watching this? But the slick, produced material on the news, on cable, and in the cinema - where most people still absorb Iraq, despite the new digital frontiers - now aspires to the rawness of the amateur stuff. Different genres of representation are melding together. Revelations and hard-hitting drama are promised, unprecedented access is granted, and a total view seems possible. What we're left with, though, is an increasing A.D.D. about Iraq - an inevitable effect of the glut of representations of the war, all of which claim to bring it all back home like never before. But they pose an ethical dilemma: Is it acceptable to be entertained by an "epic series" like FX's "Over There" while the war is still happening?

Another problem arising from Iraq's relentless mediation - a problem that I'm guilty of enacting right here in this essay - is that talking about media representations of Iraq becomes an easy substitute to talking about what the hell to do about Iraq itself. But one documentary in particular called Occupation: Dreamland, out in September, comes closer than anything else about Iraq to connecting us to the raw experience on the ground - and, hopefully, leading us to a real reckoning. Before we get to that, however, let's trace the winding path that will eventually lead to us to the elusive realness of Iraq.

Why "Over There" stays over there
At the end of episode one of FX's "Over There," a fictionalized drama about American soldiers in Iraq which attracted a handsome 4.1 million viewers and is already available on DVD, a troop carrier reverses gently onto a roadside bomb. We know what's going to happen because we are shown an extreme close-up of the fat tire rolling, with agonizing inevitability, towards a small white flag in the ground. Then, just before the anticipated contact, we get a zoom-out shot that neatly encompasses the whole scene for maximum explosion effect.

Film School 101: If you signal to the viewer that a bomb is about to go off, that's suspense - a classic filmic technique. If a bomb just explodes in your face out of nowhere, that's surprise - that's real, and that's how it happens in Iraq. But we can't begrudge too much that Steven Bochco, producer of the famously gritty "NYPD Blue" and now of "Over There," introduces dramatic effects - it is fiction he's dealing in, after all.

What's annoying, though, is the show's persistent claims of unflinching verisimilitude. Despite the arsenal of raw-and-real special effects employed to try to make events properly harrowing and immediate - an Iraqi's legs taking a couple of final steps independently of the severed, fallen, torso, for example - the show's ultimate special effect is to keep the trauma safely over there, on the other side of the world, and in the periphery of our consciousness. You can do about ten things while watching "Over There" and still maintain the necessary concentration - about the same required for a music video.

"Over There" is so obsessed with realness, yet so impatient with it, that it lapses in to the hyper-real: In the shoot-outs, we get juddery sequences that occasionally have the feeling of being played backwards - maybe to signal the disorientation of the battlefield. Lenses are warped, camera angles jagged and tilted, colors saturated. But the viewer retains her privileged perspective of events, and the stylization is so intense that we are never allowed to forget that we're watching "high" TV.

Plot-wise, the problem is not just that the characters are appalling clichés - the soldier whose father "went out for cigarettes" years ago and never returned, the boozy wife back home, the cruel-to-be-kind sergeant. Even the sensitive attempts at bucking stereotypes by including, for instance, an Arab American soldier, and a vicious female soldier who treads on corpses' hands - all this smacks of a dutiful complexity demanded by focus group consultation. And the requisite fog-of-war ambiguity in battlefield decisions is also approached clumsily, through the insertion of obviously important but evasively small-scale ethical conundrums: a car approaching a checkpoint won't slow down - should you shoot everyone in the car?

But the show is predictably allergic to the larger ethical conundrums of the war. Unlike the real soldiers, these characters never once question, even implicitly, why they're there. The characters and scenarios in "Over There" really have nothing to do with Iraq; you feel like the dramas could be played out in any war -- or, for that matter, in a hospital, police precinct, or law firm -- just as effectively.

The show's theme song, an acoustic ballad written by co-creator Chris Gerolmo, features the lyric: "Ours is not to reason why," as if the Iraq war is beyond human ken, just something that you have to get on with. Bochco has said that, with regard to introducing politics in the show, he's damned if he does and damned if he doesn't. But the show's paranoid neutrality isn't fair and balanced, some admirable feat of TV writing; it's just cowardly avoidance, and a terrible missed opportunity. It would have been perfectly possible to make a drama that was politically alive without being partisan.

Gunner Palace wants its MTV
A politicized documentary - though with an equal emphasis on (hyper)realism - Gunner Palace is on the opposite end of the spectrum from "Over There." It arrived in multiplexes early last year, heralded by a poster of a photoshopped rosey-cheeked (child?) soldier, and tantalized us with the tagline: "Some war stories will never make the nightly news." But you know within a few seconds that it too will fail to really bring Iraq home: filmmaker Michael Tucker mumbles, Martin Sheen-style, something about being stuck in Baghdad for a year and not being able to change the channel. Juxtaposition - of commercialized mass youth culture with war - substitutes for insight in Gunner Palace. It's a dumb politics that stifles narrative. And, worse, the style is deeply patronizing to the soldiers. Nearly every shot shows them goofing around in Uday and Qusay's old playboy mansion, which has been converted into a Spring Break-style frat house. The young men and women frolic in the pool, freestyle to the camera, or grope inarticulately for something profound in response to a rushed, unearned question. Tucker disses MTV in his commentary, yet aspires exactly to its hyper-real slick 'n gritty aesthetic. And this is sold to us as the hardcore, unseen reality of Iraq.

Occupation: Dreamland and real time
Occupation: Dreamland is political too, but not preachy. Angered by the "growing sense of unreality" that both the Bush Administration and the media were "folding into everyday life" before, during, and after the invasion of Iraq, filmmakers Garret Scott and Ian Olds went to Fallujah in the winter of 2003 - before things got really bad - to document events for themselves. They lived at the appropriately-named army base, Dreamland, with a unit of confused but clever, engaged soldiers from the 82nd Airborne division.

The portrayal of the soliders is generous and occasionally gentle, and the rhetorical restraint about to the larger question of the war is staggering, and occasionally even a bit frustrating. The film still stamps its deeply skeptical political message into your head by letting the unfolding events speak for themselves. Olds says: "The soldiers in the film, regardless of whether they're on the left or the right, all recognize their own experience in it. There were so many chances to push things a little further, to make this guy say a bit more," he says. "But we tried to reflect the complexity of a subjective experience, and to put your finger on the scale and overdo it undermines all the work you're doing. Any political relevance it could have would be wiped away."

When an improvised explosive device detonates near the end of Occupation: Dreamland, there's no stylistic or filmic warning. It comes from nowhere. But the entire film has been a slow-burning revelation of the growing frustration in Fallujah that produced that bomb. Two moments are particularly chilling. During one of the many almost farcical stop-and-chats in the city streets, where soldiers have the impossible task of placating citizens' anger at not having electricity or jobs, one man wags his finger and warns, in English: "Be careful of Fallujah." Later, after a house-to-house raid - another of the film's repeated dramas, or anti-dramas - a soldier distrusts an Iraqi who insists he is "not opposed," and says dismissively: "Fuck this guy. Zip him up." A bag is put over his head (in "Over There," detainees are blindfolded), and he's driven away.

Scott and Olds left Fallujah shortly before the contractors were strung up from the bridge, before the insurgency intensified, and before the city was all but destroyed and turned into a veritable concentration camp with compulsory labor, shoot-on-sight curfews, and retinal scans for its registered residents. Scott says he wasn't disappointed, for the film's sake, that he missed the calamity. "Considering what we were interested in, which was a phenomenon, a state of experience, the big combat was not so important," Scott says. "You could go in at any time and a thousand precious, amazing, and terrible things would happen. I feel that the most fascinating things happen in the most mundane ways in day to day life, and it's just a matter of observing them."

We may miss the big action, and the biggest explosions, but Occupation: Dreamland reveals something rare and important: a slice of life that we couldn't see on the nightly news, on FX, or in the slew of in-your-face "revelatory" documentaries -- not because it's too shocking or too political, but because it's too complex and too slow - necessarily so. The film treads the fine line of representing boredom without being boring. Nothing is revealed quickly and simply, and we don't always have the best view of events. Seen from a distance by the camera, a good-willed - and probably bored stiff - soldier on night-watch tries to engage an Iraqi in a friendly cultural exchange, which gradually becomes embarrassingly stultified. In a debriefing, the unit's commander talks himself into a realization: he doesn't know why they are there. Earlier, a group of children wave - menacingly? - at the soldiers and at the camera as their truck drives away.

Most of all though, there is waiting. The footage in Occupation: Dreamland has the same dreamy-real feel as the addictive "Raw Video" that Reuters streamed on its website during the invasion of Iraq: barely edited, long-lasting shots of the desert, personnel carriers rumbling along, soldiers milling about or rounding up detainees - all without commentary, without captions, without logos, ads, explanations, or pre-emptive interpretation. Because nothing is happening specifically for you and your privileged TV-viewing perspective, you really do feel like you're there. Slowness, which no other media or movie has the guts to give us, seems to be the surest path to hard-hitting verisimilitude - and, maybe, to a real reckoning.

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