Full Battle Rattle (2008) – Movie Review

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Disneyland For War Games

Somewhere in the Mohave Desert, the U.S. military maintains a large rural compound that contains several fake Iraqi towns. It’s here that American soldiers are sent to practice battle tactics and learn to deal with Iraqi people before their deployment to Iraq. The towns look real enough, with accurate street plans and architecture. And, they’re inhabited by a full cast of Arabic-speaking actors playing mayor, rebel, Sunni, Shiite, terrorist, loyalist, wife, mother, teenage boys and girls, grocer and all the other characters who’d live in a real Iraqi town.

The Drama of Occupation

Under the leadership of their commanding officer, the soldiers engage in all sorts of peaceful if uneasy interactions with the townsfolk. They buy goods, give away presents, chat, caution people about what they may and may not do. They search homes, patrol, set up road blocks and perimeters. When battles erupt, some soldiers are wounded, and some locals are killed.

It’s the full battle rattle, for sure.

Perhaps soldiers who’re being sent to Iraq, or anticipate their eventual deployment, see these staged episodes as an essential opportunity. The group we follow seem to take it all quite seriously–except they’re also constantly reminded that it’s not real. The masterminds who’re running the simulation will step in and advise trainees who’ve been ‘wounded’ to just stay down and take a rest–with fake blood dripping from their nostrils. It’s kind of like watching the annual reenactment of the Battle of Gettysburg–only all that blood was spilled in the past, and this blood will run in the future.

There’s no saying how directors Tony Gerber and Jesse Moss managed to get such complete and seemingly uncensored access to the simulation area and to the doings of the soldiers of the 5-82 Battalion, but the film’s verite scenario provides us with amazing insights about the underlying attitudes of both the soldiers and the people who’re playing the locals.

A Revealing Trial Run

Most of the soldiers are shockingly naive. None of them seems quite aware of nor the least bit sensitive to Iraqi culture. The commanding officer, trying to maintain button down discipline, frequently admonishes his juniors when they speak disparagingly about or to the ‘locals.’ But their biased attitudes continue. And, as the filmmakers follow them day in and day out, they show no regard for the ‘fact’ that they’re on foreign soil and no respect for what limitations that might impose on their behavior. Nor do they seem much phased by knowing that this is actually a trial run–a rehearsal–for their anticipated, preordained brutality towards a population that’s made up mostly of peace loving and quite ordinary citizens.

At the same time, it’s revelatory and really disturbing to watch the ‘Iraqis’–some of whom actually hail from other countries, but all of whom speak Arabic and most of whom are really American citizens who’ve been hired to do this Iraqi town simulation job at what one assumes are reasonably good wages–go through the motions of playing stereotypes of themselves, and laugh about it, and willingly submit to the bigotry, cultural insensitivity and pretend physical abuse and brutality of the soldiers. And there’s an internal drama going on, too, because one of the Arabs playing a local is, in real life, facing possible deportation because he doesn’t have a green card!

The whole represented by simulation compound is kind of twisted. And horrifying. And absurd. The situation seems to satirize itself, but its satire is somewhat sickening.

Veritable Verite

Gerber and Moss have done a terrific job of filming and editing. They use neither talking heads nor outsider experts to comment on the simulation. They let the surreal fantasy they’re presenting comment on itself.

Ultimately, the fantasy of the simulation leads obliquely to a rather profound look at American self deception regarding Iraq, Islam, our nation’s role in this troubled world and our use of our resources–including our able bodied young men.

Adding to the surreal spin of the war games and what they reveal about American military strategy and action in the Iraq War, President Bush pops into the simulation compound to rally the troops in training–and refers to the center as “an important theater” in the Iraq War. Let the play acting go on!

Unfortunately, the next theater in the 5-82 Battalion’s tour of duty is Iraq. Full Battle Rattle doesn’t follow them on their deployment, so we don’t get to see what becomes of them when their rehearsal morphs into performance.

Film details

Title: Full Battle Rattle

Directed by: Tony Gerber and Jesse Moss

Parents Guide: Content advisory

Run time: 92 mins

Company: Mile End Films

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