The War Tapes — a GI Documentary

May 19th, 2006 - by admin

Noah Shachtman / – 2006-05-19 23:29:34

G.I. Journos’ Killer War Doc
Noah Shachtman /

A little more than two years ago, filmmaker Deborah Scranton got an offer to embed with the New Hampshire National Guard as they headed to Iraq. She turned it down. Instead, Scranton gave cameras to ten soldiers — and let them shoot the movie.

The result, The War Tapes, premiered this weekend in New York, at the Tribeca Film Festival. It’s not only the best documentary to date about the conflict in Iraq. But it just might change the face of journalism in the process.

Most movies about Iraq, so far, have been pretty thin, with little insight into the guys fighting this war, and minimal combat footage. That’s largely because the filmmakers didn’t have the acess — or the patience — to get to the war’s meatiest material.

Scranton leapfrogged that problem by letting the soldiers become her cameramen. Shooting over a thousand hours, in the field and back at home, they took the time to cpature their unit’s unguarded moments, both literal and metaphorical.

The laugh-out-loud moments come almost as often as the IED attacks: the ode to guarding septic trucks; the Tarantino-esque debate over whether a severed limb “resembles hamburger, ground up but uncooked.. [or] like a raw pot roast”; the scorpion-spider cage match; the verge-of-breakup moments with girlfriends; the young Iraqi, who stepped into an American convoy a moment too soon.

The War Tapes benefits from a strong dose of luck. Scranton could’ve cast a thousand GIs, and not gotten three soldiers as sharp, as articulate, and as funny as Stephen Pink, Zack Bazzi, and Mike Moriarty, the movie’s main characters. And she couldn’t have known how much action these guys would see — Al-Anbar province in 2004 saw some of the most ferocious fighting of the counterinsurgency.

But an even larger helping of editorial prowess makes The War Tapes a success. Condensing a thousand hours into two hours is tough. Condensing into two hours with a narrative and emotional arc this strong is damn-near-impossible.

In recent years, there’s been a ridiculously cantankerous debate over the benefits of professional journalists versus citizen-reporters. The pros are seen as biased and clueless; the amateurs as, well, amateurish, without the seasoned eye to pick the truly telling moments from the torrent of experience.

Take the blogs from frontline troops, for example. The views are a refreshing alternative to what you read in the mainstream press; their anecdotes vital. But getting to that good stuff, sorting out the proverbial wheat from blogosphere chaff, takes forever. Most readers, I’ve found, just give up.

Documentaries like The War Tapes — and Grizzly Man, and, to a lesser extent, Capturing the Friedmans — have found the happy medium between the old- and new-school approaches to news. The citizen-journos collect the facts. The pros craft a story from ’em.

The result may not be what the news-gathers expected — Zack Bazzi was surprised how much of his political views wound up in The War Tapes’ final cut. But, in this case at least, it’s satisfying and truthful and raw. And it’s the kind of journalism we ought to have. With some luck, it may be the kind we get, moving ahead.

Iraqi Police = Shi’ite Militia?
Noah Shachtman /

Defense Tech pal Chris Allbritton has a brutal story out of Iraq, on the “growing evidence” that “massacres… are being tolerated and even abetted by Iraq’s Shi’ite-dominated police forces, overseen by Iraq’s Interior Minister, Bayan Jabr.” This is exactly the kind of thing Stephen Biddle warned us about.

On his watch, sectarian militias have swelled the ranks of the police units and, Sunnis charge, used their positions to carry out revenge killings against Sunnis. While allowing an Iranian-trained militia to take over the ministry, critics say, Jabr has authorized the targeted assassination of Sunni men and stymied investigations into Interior-run death squads…

So black is the reputation of the National Police, that after the Feb. 22 bombing of the Askariya shrine in Samarra, many Sunnis said the perpetrators were Interior Ministry troops who were looking for a pretext to start a civil war. Their fears were further fueled in the bloody two days after the attack, when Iraq became a sectarian slaughterhouse.

Instead of protecting citizens from each other, National Police units stood by as Shi’ite rioters — and rival militiamen from Moqtada al-Sadr’s Mahdi Army — stormed Sunni mosques and swarmed over Sunni neighborhoods, according to numerous reports, including some confirmed by U.S. Gen. George Casey, commander of American forces in Iraq…

[Former National Security Advisor for the Coalition Provisional Authority David] Gompert notes, “I remember saying, ‘If there is going to be a civil war, it’s going to be fought between Sunni insurgents and Shi’ite militias.” And as long as Jabr is running the Interior Ministry and its police forces, there is little doubt which of the two in such a conflict will have the law — and American training — on its side.