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‘The War Tapes’ is soldier’s-eye view of Iraq

Director guided troops with cameras via e-mail and instant messaging
/ Source: The Associated Press

The Humvee hits an Iraqi woman crossing a busy road at night. The driver pulls over and turret gunner Spc. Mike Moriarty watches helplessly as supply trucks runs over her, spreading her body parts across the road — and we watch with him.

That is the power of “The War Tapes,” a documentary edited from more than 800 hours of film shot by several members of the New Hampshire National Guard in Iraq’s deadly Sunni Triangle.

“Watching 10 transport trucks go over her like a rag doll ... hearing the sound of that Humvee hitting her — I’ll never forget it,” Moriarty said in an interview.

The movie was the brainchild of director Deborah Scranton of Goshen, who got an offer to embed with a Manchester-based company of the 172nd Mountain Infantry Regiment, thanks to a previous documentary she had made about World War II veterans from New Hampshire.

Instead, she persuaded 10 guardsmen in Charlie Company of the 3rd Battalion to take cameras to Iraq and film, while she guided and encouraged them via e-mail and instant messaging. Scranton believes it is the first film directed over the Internet.

Five guardsmen stuck with the project from March 2004 to February 2005, mounting the cameras on their Humvees or interviewing other guardsmen. Several others also contributed footage. Three are featured prominently on camera: Moriarty and Sgts. Zack Bazzi and Stephen Pink. Scranton and her crew also filmed the three and their families during the men’s training, their deployment and for 10 months after their return.

Scranton says she had no political agenda: She simply wanted Americans to see the soldiers’ experiences, whether good, bad, ugly or heroic.

“I believe in the power of empathy,” she said. “So often, people see a soldier and they see an armed cipher.”

Documentary filmmaker Ken Burns, director of “Baseball” and “The Civil War,” gave Scranton the award for best international documentary at the Tribeca Film Festival in New York in May. He calls the movie a “remarkably clear-eyed view of what’s going on there.”

“She’s just dropped us right onto the front lines,” he said. “It’s not overtly political, so it gathers everybody in. It allows you to have thoughts and conversations across what is an ever-increasing political divide in our country.”

Yet the film is not apolitical. The guardsmen express a wide range of views about the war and their chief mission: protecting Army contractor KBR’s supply trucks from attacks and roadside bombs.

Halliburton Co., which owns KBR, and its former chief executive, Vice President Dick Cheney, come in for their share of criticism, as does the media’s portrayal of the war.

The movie also portrays the soldiers’ conflicting reactions and insights.

Moriarty, 36, an aircraft mechanic, supports President Bush and the war, but thinks the military spends too much time trying to be nice. Instead, it should take control of areas plagued by insurgent attacks, even if that means “nuking” the whole country, he says just after being fired upon.

Iraqis “respond to one thing, and that’s ferocity,” he said in an interview last month. Yet he calls the Iraqi woman’s death one of the most traumatic events of his tour.

Bazzi, a Lebanese immigrant who speaks fluent Arabic, said he “loves being a soldier” and had no qualms about following orders, but thinks the war is probably not in the United States’ best interests.

“There’s nothing un-American, unpatriotic or wimpy about being against the war. There’s nothing patriotic about blind conformity,” he said in an interview. “I’ve earned my opinion. I spent a year in a combat zone.”

Now a staff sergeant, he was the only one of the three to re-enlist following the Iraq deployment. Before joining the Guard, he served in the Army, which he sees as an honorable institution that rises above partisan politics.

“The Army is a tool: It can be used for bad wars and good wars. ... You can only hope your leaders send you to the right war, if there is such a thing,” he said.

Bazzi, 27, is finishing a degree in international affairs and psychology at the University of New Hampshire, which he said he could not have done without service-related financial help.

When he’s not in action, Bazzi comes across as a detached, humorous observer of the war’s ironies and incongruities. Pink, on the other hand, appears outraged by injustices large and small and conflicted about the war, the media and his role.

In one scene, he describes his feelings about being sent to guard the bodies of several insurgents killed by members of his unit. He says he’s glad they’re dead and he envies those who killed them. Pink’s video footage was withheld by the company commander, but the movie shows the dead Iraqis in still photos Scranton got from an anonymous guardsman.

Bazzi and Moriarty like the movie, but wish it included more footage of their patrols so civilians would understand the fear and stress soldiers in Iraq face every day — even at their home base, Camp Anaconda, a target of daily mortar attacks.

Moriarty said he was disappointed the movie didn’t include his footage from Veterans Day 2004, after mortars injured three KBR workers behind a mess hall where he had just finished eating. He hopes a television series will pick up where the movie left off.

“There were three guys all blown apart in back,” he said. “That was a powerful message that should have been in the film: Soldiers don’t go on holiday, they don’t get a break. That was our Veterans Day. But that’s what really made our Veterans Day, was saving those three guys.”