Deciding to see “Gunner Palace,” a documentary about U.S. troops in Iraq, is a little like buying a luscious red apple in wintertime. You bite in with high hopes but immediately experience something pulpy and tasteless.
Antiwar activists will be attracted to this film, which follows an Army field artillery company for two months in late 2003 and early 2004.
The title, “Gunner Palace,” is derived from the fact that the unit is bivouacked in a bomb-wrecked Miami Beach-style palace, owned by Saddam Hussein’s son, Uday, before the U.S. invaded.
Young GIs romping on inner tubes in the huge pool after a day’s combat lends a surreal touch. The filmmakers, Michael Tucker and Petra Epperlein, hung with the troops, going out with them on scary night raids in some of the Baghdad’s most dangerous neighborhoods. They give equal time to the troops’ off-duty diversions, such as when some of the unit’s Black soldiers launch into spontaneous raps about their war experiences.
Unfortunately, the documentarians take no position on Bush’s war, but instead are content to sweep the audience along as the troops conduct their adrenaline-charged night raids. On the few occasions when the GIs are asked about their feelings or beliefs, their naiveté is striking. Most seem surprised that so many Iraqis are hostile to them, apparently still expecting to be received as liberators.
When the soldiers invade Iraqi homes they become angry when their captives don’t understand their orders to “Get down!” Why did no one in charge bother to teach them the Arabic equivalent of this command?
Only once is a soldier asked to describe the emotional impact of killing an Iraqi. He comes close to tears as he describes the moral ambivalence he’s struggled with since killing someone he’s not sure was a combatant. But, at the last moment he catches himself and launches into platitudes. The filmmakers don’t pursue the matter, thus missing an opportunity to explore what will become an important issue for many GIs.
In a few scenes, the filmmakers eavesdrop as the unit’s officers are discussing various military operations. At least two GIs express cynicism about the degree of support most Americans feel for their sacrifices.
An older Black soldier scolded the camera: “After you watch this [film], you’re going to get your microwave popcorn and talk about what I said. You’ll forget me by the end of this. You’ll forget all of us.”
A younger Black GI adds, “For y’all, this is just a show, but we live in this movie!”
I regard their statements as a challenge to our antiwar movement to do a better job of sending our message to our young men and women in Iraq: “We do support you and demand that you be brought home now!”
The author is director of Citizen Soldier, a GI/veterans rights advocacy group and the author of the book, “America’s Military Today: The Challenge of Militarism” (The New Press).