The New York Times
January 30, 2005
Forget Armor. All You Need Is Love
JAN. 30 is here at last, and the light is at the end of the tunnel, again. By my estimate, Iraq's election day is the fifth time that American troops have been almost on their way home from an about-to-be pacified Iraq. The four other incipient V-I days were the liberation of Baghdad (April 9, 2003), President Bush's declaration that "major combat operations have ended" (May 1, 2003), the arrest of Saddam Hussein (Dec. 14, 2003) and the handover of sovereignty to our puppet of choice, Ayad Allawi (June 28, 2004). And this isn't even counting the two "decisive" battles for our nouveau Tet, Falluja. Iraq is Vietnam on speed - the false endings of that tragic decade re-enacted and compressed in jump cuts, a quagmire retooled for the MTV attention span.
But in at least one way we are not back in Vietnam. Iraq hawks, like Vietnam hawks before them, often take the line that to criticize America's mission in Iraq is to attack the troops. That paradigm just doesn't hold. Americans, including those opposed to the war, love the troops (Lynndie England always excepted). Not even the most unhinged Bush hater is calling our all-volunteer army "baby killers." This time, paradoxically enough, it is often those who claim to love the troops the most - and who have the political power to help alleviate their sacrifice - who turn out to be the troops' false friends.
There was, for instance, according to the Los Angeles Times, "nary a mention" of the Iraq war or "the prices paid by American soldiers and their families" at the lavish Inauguration bash thrown for the grandees of the Christian right by the Rev. Lou Sheldon of the Traditional Values Coalition at Washington's Ritz-Carlton. This crowd cares about the troops much the way the Fifth Avenue swells in the 1936 Hollywood classic "My Man Godfrey" cared about the "forgotten men" of the Depression - as fashion ornaments and rhetorical conveniences. In that screwball comedy, a socialite on a scavenger hunt collects a genuine squatter from the shantytown along the East River. "All you have to do is go to the Waldorf-Ritz Hotel with me," she tells her recruit, "and I'll show you to a few people and then I'll send you right back."
In this same vein, television's ceremonial coverage of the Inauguration, much of which resembled the martial pageantry broadcast by state-owned networks in banana republics, made a dutiful show out of the White House's claim that the four-day bacchanal was a salute to the troops. The only commentator to rudely call attention to the disconnect between that fictional pretense and the reality was Judy Bachrach, a writer for Vanity Fair, who dared say on Fox News that the inaugural's military ball and prayer service would not keep troops "safe and warm" in their "flimsy" Humvees in Iraq. She was promptly given the hook. (The riveting three-minute clip, labeled "Fair and Balanced Inauguration," can be found at ifilm.com, where it has seized the "most popular" slot once owned by Jon Stewart's slapdown of Tucker Carlson.)
Alas, there were no Fox News cameras to capture what may have been the week's most surreal "salute" to the troops, the "Heroes Red, White and Blue Inaugural Ball" attended by Donald Rumsfeld and Paul Wolfowitz. The event's celebrity stars included the Fox correspondent Geraldo Rivera, who had been booted from Iraq at the start of the war for compromising "operational security" by telling his viewers the position of the American troops he loves so much. He joked to the crowd that his deployment as an "overpaid" reporter was tantamount to that of an "underpaid hero" in battle. The attendees from Walter Reed and Bethesda Naval Hospital, some of whose long-term care must be picked up by private foundations because of government stinginess, responded with "deafening silence," reported Roxanne Roberts of The Washington Post. Ms. Roberts understandably left the party after the night's big act: Nile Rodgers and Chic sang the lyrics "Clap your hands, hoo!" and "Dance to the beat" to "a group of soldiers missing hands and legs."
All the TV time eaten up by the Inaugural froufrou - including "the most boring parade in America," as one network news producer covering it described it to me - would have been better spent broadcasting a true tribute to the American troops in Iraq: a new documentary titled "Gunner Palace." This movie, which opens in theaters March 4, is currently on an advance tour through towns near military bases like Colorado Springs, Colo. (Fort Carson), Killeen, Tex. (Fort Hood) and Columbus, Ga. (Fort Benning). Its directors, Michael Tucker and Petra Epperlein, found that American troops in Iraq often see their lives as real-life approximations of "M*A*S*H," "Platoon," "Full Metal Jacket," and, given the many 21st-century teenagers among the troops, " 'Jackass' Goes to War." But their film's tone is original. This sweet yet utterly unsentimental movie synthesizes the contradictions of a war that is at once Vietnam redux and the un-Vietnam.
Watching "Gunner Palace" - the title refers to the 2-3 Field Artillery's headquarters, the gutted former Uday Hussein palace in Baghdad - you realize the American mission is probably doomed even as you admire the men and women who volunteered to execute it. Here, at last, are the promised scenes of our troops pursuing a humanitarian agenda. Delighted kids follow the soldiers like pied pipers; schools re-open; a fledgling local government council receives a genial and unobtrusive helping American hand. In one moving scene, Specialist James Moats tenderly cradles a tiny baby at an Iraqi orphanage while talking about the birth of his own first son back home: "I've seen pictures but I haven't got to hold him yet." He's not complaining, just explaining. He is living in the moment, offering his heart fully to the vulnerable infant in the crook of his arm.
These scenes are set against others in which the troops, many of them from small towns "that read like an atlas of forgotten America," have to make do with substandard support from their own government. "It'll probably slow down the shrapnel so that it stays in your body instead of going straight through," says one soldier as he tries to find humor in the frail scrap metal with which he must armor his vehicle. Eventually many of his peers, however proud to serve, are daunted by what they see around them: the futility of snuffing out a growing insurgency, the fecklessness of the Iraqi troops they earnestly try to train, the impracticality of bestowing democracy on a populace that often regards Americans either indifferently or as occupiers. When "The Ride of the Valkyries" is heard in "Gunner Palace," it does not signal a rip-roaring campaign as it did in "Apocalypse Now" but, fittingly for this war, a perilous but often fruitless door-to-door search for insurgents in an urban neighborhood.
It says much about the distance between the homefront and these troops that the Motion Picture Association of America this month blithely awarded "Gunner Palace" an "R" rating - which means that it cannot be seen without parental supervision by 16-year-old high-school kids soon to be targeted by military recruiters. (The filmmakers are appealing this verdict.) The reason for the "R" is not violence - there is virtually none on screen - but language, since some of the troops chronicle their Iraq experience by transposing it into occasionally scatological hip-hop verse.
The Bush administration's National Endowment for the Arts, eager to demonstrate that it, too, loves the troops, announced with much self-congratulatory fanfare that it will publish its own anthology of returning veterans' writings about their wartime experience ("Operation Homecoming") - by spring 2006. In "Gunner Palace," you can sample this art right now, unexpurgated - if you're over 16. Here's one freestyle lyric from Sgt. Nick Moncrief, a 24-year-old father of two: "I noticed that my face is aging so quickly/ Cuz I've seen more than your average man in his 50's." True, he does go on to use a four-letter word - to accentuate his evocation of metal ripping through skin and bones. The Traditional Values Coalition would no doubt lobby to shut down the endowment were it to disseminate such filth.
Another of the movie's soldiers, Robert Beatty, a 33-year-old Army lifer with three children back home, wonders whether Americans who "don't have any direct family members in the military" regard the war as anything other than "just entertainment" and guesses that they lost interest once "major combat" had given way to the far deadlier minor combat that followed. A Gallup poll last year showed that most Americans might fall into that group, since two-thirds of those surveyed had no relative, friend or co-worker serving in Iraq. Does that vast unconnected majority understand what's going on there? Sergeant Beatty gives his answer in one of the film's most poignant passages: "If you watch this, you're going to go get your popcorn out of the microwave and talk about what I say. You'll forget me by the end. ..."
The words land so hard because we are already forgetting, or at least turning our backs. In Washington the gears are shifting to all Social Security all the time. A fast growing plurality of the country wants troops withdrawn from Iraq, but being so detached from the war they are unlikely to make a stink about it. The civilian leaders who conceived this adventure are clever at maintaining the false illusion that the end is just around the corner anyway.
They do this by moving the goal posts for "mission accomplished" as frequently as they have changed the rationale for us entering this war in the first place. In the walk-up to the Inauguration, even Iraq's Election Day was quietly downsized in importance so a sixth V-I Day further off in the future could be substituted. Dick Cheney told Don Imus on Inauguration morning that "we can bring our boys home" and that "our mission is complete" once the Iraqis "can defend themselves." What that means, and when exactly that might be is, shall we say, unclear. President Bush and Prime Minister Allawi told the press in unison last September that there were "nearly 100,000 fully trained and equipped" Iraqi security forces ready to carry out that self-defense. Condoleezza Rice told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee this month that there are 120,000. Time magazine says this week that the actual figure of fully trained ground soldiers is 14,000, but hey: in patriotism as it's been redefined for this war, loving the troops means never having to say you're sorry - or even having to say the word Iraq in an Inaugural address.