Should We Keep the Politics Out? Comments on “Gunner Palace” Screening Last Night


SPC Stuart Wilf is a character that I’m going to have a hard time forgetting. He was one of the soldiers profiled in the documentary, Gunner Palace, soon to be released across the country. He’s from Colorado Springs — and might be President someday.
Wilf was a kid — joined the military out of high school — and is clearly into video games, hard-grinding electric rock, and having fun times. By the end of the film, he is far more sober about everything — and he and his fellow gunners are counting the days to get out of the military and making us much of the hell hole they are in as they can — with their improv rap and the occasional party in Uday Hussein’s former palace.
The New America Foundation and The Washington Note hosted a rather well-attended screening of Gunner Palace last night and invited about 400 wonkish friends and journalists to see it. This was my second time.
The first time through I thought what I was seeing was a collage of day-in-the-life vignettes of young kids with guns who were way over their heads in the complex culture of good and bad Iraq. But this time, I tried to watch the film as if I were a strong proponent of the war.
Michael Tucker, the Director, has an interesting product in this film because I’m convinced that while he is giving his viewers insights into the realities of soldiers who are on the front-line patrolling nasty Baghdad neighborhoods, those who see this film will see their biases reinforced. With my head wired to be a pro-Bush, pro-war American, I saw brave soldiers doing what needed to be done for an idealism worth dying for (and some of them did indeed die).
But as someone opposed to this war from the beginning, I saw a clash of cultures and objectives that was never going to be softened and an enormous chasm between troops who were heavy in armour and guns and the Iraqi population heavy in complexity, religion, and opaque social norms. I felt terrible for some of the Iraqis in this film whose homes were destroyed when the soldiers had to break in — but you could see in their eyes a powerful sense of disdain for the Americans and a confidence that the Iraqis, no matter what their plight, would be there long after the Americans were gone.
There were Iraqis arrested in this film for suspected bomb-making and terror-cell financing and sent off to Abu Ghraib. Michael Tucker documents that no evidence was found in one of these cases — and yet those arrested, including a self-identified Iraqi journalist, were sent off to Saddam Hussein’s former evil prison — one that America made no less evil.
One really sees the insanity and fragility of our presence in Iraq. The soldiers — for whom I have enormous respect — are there on the front line not knowing what their objectives are anymore. My sense is that most of them don’t know why we are there anymore, and according to one soldier who appeared in the film and spoke afterword, 8 out of 10 soldiers who can get out of the service are leaving.
To be fair, we had another recently returned soldier in the audience who was a strong advocate for our presence there and thought that the CA-units (civil authority units) on our side were doing great things for the communities in which they worked but that there was little recognition of this.
After the screening, I asked Michael Tucker, the producer and director of the film and the one who embedded himself in the lives and circumstances of these particular soldiers, about the disconnect he felt between Washington policymakers and pundits and the story he was helping to tell on the film. He reported, as he has elsewhere around the country, that he wanted to “keep the politics out of the film and just show things as they were.”
Seeing things as they were was enough to convince me that success is going to be extremely difficult to achieve there — and after thousands of lives lost and after spending nearly $12,000 per Iraqi on this invasion and occupation — one wonders what success, if achievable, will cost in lives and treasure.
But the two highlights of the evening for me were meeting former Captain Jonathan Powers and former 1st Lietenant Brady van Engelen. Both of these gentlemen were part of the unit that Gunner Palace profiled. Powers appears in the movie — and I think, though am not sure, that Engelen came on later.
Van Engelen replaced Ben Colgan, who was one of the personalities in the documentary later killed by snipers.
Van Engelen happened to be profiled in the Time Magazine Person of the Year issue in December 2003 — and was subsequently shot in the head by snipers and survived. His story is here. He was quiet, with his fiance, and we didn’t talk all that much,. However, I learned enough from him that he felt it was very important for Americans to see the reality of what our troops are living with in Iraq and what sacrifices they are making — as we watch in comfort our favorite weekly sitcoms.
Jonathan Powers was amazing though — and eloquent. While “Wilf” whom I noted above commented that he might just end up as President one day (and he has the charisma to possibly pull off something like that), Powers does have a good sense of politics — and is exactly the opposite of Director Michael Tucker when it comes to the question of politics and war.
Powers wants politics in it — and wants the politicians, the pundits, and the thinkers and journalists to be there on the front line so that the political calculus that created the environment at Gunner Palace gets the feed-back of both the good and the bad of what these military men and women are experiencing.
He made the very good point that on the same day that there was a bombing with dozens killed — that story ended up buried in the paper whereas the front page of USA Today featured how much money Americans were spending dressing up their pets.
Powers was also brazen and said something very important at the end of the evening — just before we broke up the public part of the event and went to a local bar. He seemed angry about the financial scandals regarding the lost $9 billion. He said we shouldn’t be fighting and wasting energy about Social Security reform. We should be dealing with real issues.
The issue he said mattered was that the missing $9 billion wasn’t missing at all. He said that he had had a lot to do with financial management issues and the distribution of money in Baghdad — and CPA and the military knew exactly where that money went and into whose hands. They were shoveling it out to the people American authorities wanted to have it.
I think Captain Powers has some interesting and potentially legally important stories to tell.
I recommend watching the documentary. It’s the most real depiction I’ve yet seen of what this war and occupation really look like.
— Steve Clemons