Not surprisingly, Tucker met and befriended U.S. servicemen and women. In September, 2003, Tucker began filming a series of interviews with the Second Battalion, Third Field Operation (aka, the "2/3"). The 2/3 were barracked in what came to be called “Gunner Palace,” a bombed out palace that once belonged to Uday Hussein, one of Saddam Hussein’s sons. For the next two months, Tucker was given full access to the men, and the 2/3’s operations, including day and night patrols in Baghdad and, later, night raids on the houses of suspected insurgents or their collaborators.
Tucker generates sympathy through personal, straight-to-camera interviews, as the servicemen offer personal details, why they joined the U.S. military (economic reasons, patriotism), what they think of their mission in Iraq, their desires for the future (to get home safely), even their impressions of news coverage of the war in the United States (unfavorable). Gunner Palace intersperses the interviews with scenes of the men enjoying Uday’s Olympic-sized swimming pool, putting on makeshift greens, and later, throwing a party for themselves, which the men call Gunnerpalooza. Even as Gunner Palace ostensibly provides a safe, secure zones from the risks of war, the war is always subtext, background noise impacting every action made or word spoken by the men. For example, Tucker films several African-American soldiers spontaneously rapping about the war in Iraq (some of the raps are surprisingly insightful).
Tucker counterbalances the moments of levity with scenes of the men on day or night patrol. In some cases, the men have been tasked with apprehending suspected insurgents at their homes. Sometimes, the raid goes smoothly, without resistance (i.e., “compliant entry” raids). In other cases, the full tactical assault is needed, to bring down heavy metal doors, and, if necessary, to respond with force. Sadly, when the raids require forcible, innocent civilians, older men, women, and small children, are placed at risk. To their credit, not a single shot is fired. Even when they capture a high-level suspect, the 2/3 makes sure to treat him (and his family) with respect. In a poignant scene, a 2/3 raid results in the arrest of a man in his sixties. As the man nervously combs his hair before leaving with them, the men assure the detainee’s wife that he’ll be cared for (he has a heart condition).
After two months, Tucker returned home. There, he receives news of the death of an officer, Lt. Colgan, he had befriended the previous fall (Colgan was killed in an explosion). In a documentary about war, and soldiers in war, the death of one or several soldiers, while inevitable, is nonetheless painful to hear about or watch. Hearing the news, Tucker decides to return to Iraq and Gunner Palace. For anyone who has followed the war in Iraq over the last two years, Tucker’s experiences are, sadly, predictable. By February 2004, the men of the 2/3 are no longer seen as liberators, or even benevolent policemen, patrolling the streets to ensure order. Ethnic and religious strife, Sunnis versus Shiites and Kurds has become the norm. Iraqi resentment at their continued presence has made the men unwelcome, and more importantly, unwanted (some Iraqis, rightly, see the American presence in Iraq as an invitation for the insurgency to continue its attacks). After 75 people on a Shiite pilgrimage are killed by a bomb (presumably planted by Sunni-led insurgents), the men of the 2/3 leave the palace, in order to offer help to the survivors. Instead, they’re pelted with rocks, and eventually return to the palace.
Gunner Palace is not without irony, however. As Tucker interviewed the men of the 2/3, he also captured the men listening to radio programs made by and for the armed forces. The radio programs are periodically interrupted by optimistic statements made by the Secretary of Defense, Donald Rumsfeld. In hindsight, these statements, sadly ring false and self-serving, unrelated to the facts on the ground then or now. Even then, however, the men of the 2/3 seem aware that Rumsfeld’s statements bore little relation their everyday experiences. Almost as a tangent, Tucker captures one of the men joking about the makeshift armor needed to secure his Humvee (two years after the invasion of Iraq, adequate armor, for both men and vehicles, remains a highly contentious issue).
Gunner Palace does have its share of flaws. Some viewers may be disappointed with its rawness of the editing and the unfocused, cinema verité approach. Others might find Michael Tucker’s intermittent, Apocalypse Now-lite voice-over narration heavy-handed (Tucker arguably overreaches by trying for profundity on several occasions and instead offering banalities). On a minor note, Tucker overindulgences the rappers of the 2/3 once or twice. Ultimately, watching Gunner Palace two years after the invasion of Iraq proves to be a difficult experience. The sunny optimism of those first few months have given way to a deep-seated pessimism about the eventual outcome of the war, and about an exit strategy for U.S. troops currently stationed in Iraq. The answer to that question, unfortunately, lies elsewhere.
© Mel Valentin, 6th May, 2005
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