Mar 21, 2005
Gunner Palace, a documentary about the Iraq war, is being screened in a small number of theaters in a few cities. One of the directors of the movie, Michael Tucker, spent two one-month stints in 2003 and 2004 with an artillery unit (gunners) who lived in a mansion in Baghdad used by Saddam Hussein's son Uday – hence the film's title.
Both Tucker and the soldiers shown in the movie make the point that there is a real war going on in Baghdad – contrary to George Bush's May 2003 declaration that "major combat" was over. The palace is under attack on a regular basis, by mortar and by grenades thrown over the wall. We see the soldiers' anxiety when they patrol Baghdad's crowded streets, in constant danger of being attacked. With bitter humor, the GIs recall their fear, and relief, caused by a suspected roadside bomb which turns out to be a bag of garbage. The soldiers, many of whom are still teenagers, try to ease the stress of the war with humor and music.
But the GIs are not the only ones in fear. In compelling scenes, the film shows night raids into homes. We see the soldiers busting doors down and lining up entire families in their pajamas and night gowns. We see a middle-aged woman, kneeling down, trying to plead with the gun-toting soldiers in broken English, saying repeatedly, "Thank you," and "I love America." We see angry, indignant men being handcuffed and led away – to Abu Ghraib, the prison which became infamous for the well-publicized incidents of torture.
The soldiers interviewed in the movie don't try to defend the occupation. (The only one to do so is the Lt. Colonel in charge of the unit.) One young GI says, "I don't feel like I am defending my country any more." Another soldier, assigned to training Iraqi recruits, says: "They are here now because of the money; who knows where they will be after we leave."
Gunner Palace offers a glimpse into one small section of the U.S. military operations in Iraq, for a short period of time. But it does it in a simple, straightforward manner, letting the soldiers speak. The result is a simple, straightforward message, which could be summarized in the words of a 19-year-old soldier quoted at the end of the movie: "We are not making Iraq a better place; we are just trying to stay alive."