One of the most telling moments in The War Tapes wafts in and out of the film in a matter of seconds: it's a soldier on a cell phone, saying, "Daddy's got to go to work. Why? Just because." Because of their scarcity, any images from occupied Iraq are useful to broaden our understanding of the ongoing bloody conflict. Director Deborah Scranton, granted access to the New Hampshire National Guard, enlisted several soldiers to agree to film their one-year tour of duty in Iraq, where the missions are twofold: providing convoy security for KBR/Halliburton trucks, and responding haplessly to the sites of bombings.
As constructed here, The War Tapes focuses on the footage of three civilian soldiers: Sgt. Steve Pink, SPC Mike Moriarty, and Sgt. Zack Bazzi (an earlier, much-longer cut featured five soldiers). Pink is perhaps the most ambivalent, skeptical of the war's purpose, but focused on his role in it. Propelling the film's sharpest verbal shrapnel, Moriarty leans to the right ("Support what it takes to make this thing work, or shut up"), while Lebanese-American Bazzi leans to the left. On the war front, Bazzi is the rare soldier to converse with the locals in Arabic (an ability that's a blessing and a curse); despite his innate cynicism, Bazzi proudly participates in a citizenship ceremony back home.
The men's resulting collage from the front—assembled in part by co-editor/co-producer Steve James (Hoop Dreams)—doles out bite-sized insights. All three soldiers express bloodlust, doubt in their mission, and the psychic strain that will manifest in their uncomfortable third-act homecomings (scored live, in a bustling gymnasium, to "It's a Long, Long Way to Tipperary") and half-swallowed confessions.
Pink's journal excerpts are the most revealing of the soldier's psyche (he constantly reminds himself, "This is happening"), crammed with raw frustrations. Pink also puts the lie to company-line PR about our protection of Iraqi civilians. "Any guy'll tell you," Pink tells the camera, "It's going to be our safety before theirs." Meanwhile, Bazzi laments the total lack of "training about the culture."
In one respect, The War Tapes is notable for demonstrating the familiarity of our latest war: the exploitation of the civilian population, the aggressive cultural misunderstanding, and the damage done to families abroad and at home. The differences here are the style of combat and the increased efficiency of capitalist returns; Burger King and Pizza Hut are on hand, so soldiers can use the drive-throughs.
The footage occasionally stumbles into found symbolism. A scene of a scorpion-spider fight speaks to off-hour boredom (and inevitably conjures a favorite filmmaker metaphor), while the irony of guarding a septic-waste truck isn't lost on its protectors. Watching The War Tapes is a bit like sifting though puzzle pieces and studying the images, but it's possible to make at least some of those pieces fit.