Special to The Japan Times In the United States, it’s said that the Vietnam War was lost on TV. As the first armed conflict to receive graphic coverage on nightly news shows, the war seemed closer than it was. Consequently, questions surrounding its legitimacy eventually came to the fore and, for many people, were never satisfactorily answered.
The U.S. government learned its lesson. The news media were greatly limited in their coverage of 1991’s Operation Desert Storm, a situation that reporters grumbled about, but went along with anyway. All information was channeled through the military itself, and so Gen. Norman Schwarzkopf became as big a media superstar as journalist Peter Jennings. It was only later that the world realized how many people were killed and how much destruction that brief war produced.
For the 2003 invasion of Iraq, the military offered a compromise: Reporters would be selected, trained and “embedded” in companies of soldiers as they went into combat. The experiment was deemed a success, though some media analysts observed that by spending so much time close to troops, the embedded journalists sympathized not only with their situation, but also with the ostensible cause they were fighting for. The public got teary frontline dispatches from famous folks like Ted Koppel that were more patriotically soul-stirring than anything the military could have hoped for.
But that has changed since the rise of the Iraqi insurgency that has kept the U.S. military dug in. While the embedding system remains, it has become as loose and chaotic as Iraq’s overall security situation. The result has been a flood of Web reporting by independent journalists covering things the major media either miss or neglect; as well as video footage shot by independent filmmakers and even soldiers themselves that is startling in its bluntness. Two video documentaries — “Gunner Palace,” about a group of young soldiers who camped in one of Saddam Hussein’s palaces following the fall of Baghdad, and “Operation: Dreamland,” about the fight for Fallujah — recently opened in the United States.
According to a recent Village Voice article by Ed Halter, these films offer a “street-level snapshot of the beginnings of the American occupation” that are unprecedentedly candid. Because Iraq’s borders remain porous, independents can move into Baghdad relatively easily; and because the military bureaucracy has more important things to do, they rarely monitor embeds. The videos that have emerged have been politically neutral but emotionally charged, which often makes them even more objectionable to the military. By humanizing American soldiers and showing what they are up against in Iraq, these docs can’t help but make people wonder — just as the TV coverage of Vietnam did — what the United States is really doing there.
Perhaps the most ambitious documentary of this ilk is “Off to War,” produced by brothers Craig and Brent Renaud for the Downtown Community Television Center in New York. Funded in major part by NHK and broadcast on the Discovery Times cable channel in the States, it follows the 39th Brigade of the Arkansas National Guard from the time its troops were called up in early 2004 through their training and deployment in Iraq and on to their demobilization and readjustment to civilian life.
“It will be 10 parts altogether,” says Craig Renaud, who was in Japan in February to receive the Tokyo Video Festival’s top award for Part Two of the series. “Three have aired so far. We’ve filmed eight. In October, Discovery Times will launch the entire series all at once.”
What’s unique about “Off to War” isn’t its long-term up-close-and-personal account of the 39th’s deployment, but rather its scope. In addition to being embedded with the Arkansas National Guard in Iraq, the filmmakers cover the soldiers’ families back in the United States simultaneously.
“Brent and I usually do rotations,” Craig explains. “While one of us is in Arkansas, the other is in Iraq. We usually do two months and then change places.” When Craig leaves Japan, he will go to New York and then to Arkansas, and from there take off for Iraq.
This method gives the doc a genuinely cinematic flavor. In one scene, Spc. Matt Hertlein calls home from Taji, Iraq, where the 39th is stationed, and we get to see both ends of the tearful conversation. In another segment, Sgt. Wayne Irelan returns to Arkansas to a hero’s welcome while fellow soldiers back in Iraq reminisce about their time with him. The segment in Arkansas is particularly affecting because Irelan, a Gulf War veteran, re-enlisted in the National Guard specifically to be with his son, Donny.
Donny, however, never made it to Iraq. “They did a psychiatric evaluation and felt that he wasn’t fit for combat,” Craig explains. “But his dad went anyway and on April 24 there was a heavy rocket attack and he was severely injured.” Back in Arkansas, Donny apologizes to his father, whose jaw was almost completely torn off by shrapnel.
The Irelan saga is only one piece of the larger mosaic of the 39th, but it exemplifies another aspect of the documentary that sets it apart. While most of the other Iraq War docs deal with full-time military personnel, “Off to War” is about the National Guard, none of whose members ever expected to see combat. It is a constant source of irony and black humor for the 39th.
“This is the most expensive camping trip America has ever seen,” says one soldier trying to eat his rations out of a packet without letting the sand in. Another one says directly to the camera, presumably to his recruiter back in Arkansas, “What happened to one weekend a month, two weeks a year?”
“It’s the focus of our story,” says Craig. “The National Guard is set up so differently from the active army. If you’re an active army soldier your family has a support network of other army families. Nobody joined the Guard thinking that they would be deployed to Iraq. One of our subjects, Ronald Jackson, is a turkey farmer. He has 64,000 turkeys. His wife is now having to watch that farm by herself. It’s one thing you don’t see on the news. Forty percent of the soldiers in Iraq right now are National Guard, because the regular army is stretched so thin.”
Not surprisingly, frustration is acute, and the Renauds record it unfiltered. “I already hate Baghdad,” says Sgt. Joe Betts as the convoy enters the outskirts of the city for the first time. Much of this frustration is attributable to the system itself. Their equipment, as one officer puts it, is Vietnam-era “bull crap.” The soldiers fix discarded metal plates and even bulletproof vests onto the outsides of their vehicles.
What’s more, the 39th was trained for peace and stability operations, but three days before they entered Iraq, four outside contractors were killed in Fallujah, thus racheting up offensive operations that changed everything. The 39th’s mission became more combat-oriented. It took its first casualties within 18 hours of arriving at Taji.
Renaud says that he and Brent were the first to report the situation regarding the lack of armor, which became a big issue last fall when a soldier directly confronted Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld over the matter. “So you have guys that are extremely patriotic, who want to serve their country,” says Craig, “but find themselves in very difficult situations. ‘I didn’t expect to get sent to Iraq for a year, and now I’m being sent without armor or proper training.’ One of the things you see in the film is how their attitudes change with the circumstances.”
Because of the soldiers’ candor, the Renauds have received flak themselves. “The first three shows had very mixed responses, especially from the military. Half the people saw the big picture and liked the fact that we’re documenting this deployment, especially for historical reasons. They also appreciated the fact that we don’t use narration. We let the soldiers speak for themselves. But then there was another group who didn’t like it because the soldiers were speaking out about lack of armor, or against the National Guard. People wanted to pull our embed status, but in the end the leadership that gave us permission said we’ve kept up our end of the deal in terms of only documenting what the soldiers are going through. It hasn’t been easy, but we’ve been allowed to stay. Somebody asked me before if I was ever asked to turn a camera off. Not once in the whole year have I been not allowed to film something.”
An oft-mentioned aspect of Iraq docs is how natural the soldiers are in front of the cameras. These are young men who know how to act on TV, who have an innate understanding of how the media works. In “Gunner Palace” several soldiers even perform — playing guitar, rapping. In “Off to War,” several members of the 39th make their own humorous video letters with a camcorder, and the Renauds incorporate them into the documentary.
This immediacy is more powerful than the advocacy journalism practiced by documentaries like “Fahrenheit 911” that proliferated prior to last year’s U.S. presidential election. As with the coverage of Vietnam, the American people are compelled to ask if the sacrifice and destruction they witness in these Iraq docs are justified by the explanations offered by their leaders. That, of course, assumes they’ve seen them.
“I think the American public’s very well-informed about this war,” Craig says. “But it’s partly because so many people have family members, either immediate or extended, over there — when you’ve got 40 percent of the troops being National Guard that means a lot of people know at least one soldier in Iraq, and that brings it closer to home.”
That goes for the Renauds, as well. Craig and Brent’s choice of the 39th was not random, since both grew up in Arkansas. Craig was studying anthropology at the University of Oregon when his brother, a graduate student at Columbia in New York, told him of an internship he was doing at DCTV under the tutelage of award-winning documentarian Jon Alpert. Intrigued, Craig went out to visit after graduation and the two have been working with Alpert ever since, as well as with NHK.
“We’ve had a collaboration with NHK Enterprises in New York for some time. They funded other films we did in Afghanistan and Iraq. In the U.S. it’s difficult to get broadcasters on board right away. NHK always helped us get our projects off the ground, and then later U.S. broadcasters become interested.” NHK takes what the Renauds shoot as acquired footage “and edit their own programs from it, adding narration.”
The Renauds still have a lot of work to do, but with the 39th scheduled to rotate out this month, the most dangerous part seems to be behind them. “Safety is always a huge issue,” he admits. “If you’re going to embed yourself with these guys you’re going to be a target, too. I’ve been through ambushes, mortar attacks. I’ve watched people die and attended so many memorial services this past year. The 39th has lost 33 soldiers so far.”
The documentary’s most salient feature, in fact, may be the way it conveys this danger and that indescribable sense of heightened anticipation peculiar to the soldiers’ experience. In a quieter moment, Sgt. Betts, prior to leaving for Iraq, says to the camera, “I don’t think you can ever be ready for this.”