As contradictory progress-reports on the Iraq war bombard Americans 24/7, the grimly fascinating docu “I Am an American Soldier” should be required viewing for all government lawmakers. Remarkably evenhanded pic follows an elite unit of the 101st Airborne Division over 14 months and lets soldiers and choice footage provide truths of their own. It’s a natural for broadcast and, given the current showdown in the Senate, could sustain a limited arthouse run Stateside, like “War Tapes” and “Operation Homecoming.”
Director John Laurence and his team, all veteran war correspondents, were invited by the 187th Infantry Regiment (known as “Rakkasan,” after the Japanese word for paratroopers) to make the film, and were embedded with Charlie Company, a group of 92 men. Pic’s timeframe, from September 2005 to November 2006, covers the final stages of the soldiers’ training at Fort Campbell, Ky., their farewell to loved ones, further “time on trigger” in Kuwait and then assignments in Samarra, Baghdad and Tikrit to complete their one-year combat deployment.
The remarkably strong bond the servicemen feel for their fellow GIs reverberates throughout the film. Also clear is their objectification of the enemy into something less than human.
Pic highlights the soldiers’ physical and psychological preparation, both of which are at odds with the situation they face in Iraq. As one notes, “We’re fighting guerrillas and all our tactics are conventional.”
Lack of Arabic speakers proves problematic in the soldiers’ attempts to interrogate suspects and recognize potentially lethal threats. A platoon medic recounts the story of Charlie Company’s first kill: While at a battle position, he fired on a fast-moving vehicle that ignored “Do Not Enter” signs and failed to heed warning shots, killing three innocent civilians.
Frustration with conditions is a constant, particularly in the bloody chaos of Sadr City. One sergeant voices the questions that many pundits now ask: “Why did we negotiate with Sadr? How did he go from being the No. 1 hit-list guy to having a militia that operates with impunity?”
Basic corruption and tribal ties mar cooperation with Iraqi police and Ministry of Information commanders. U.S. officers comment on Iraqi interrogation methods (“We hear screams at night”) but call it “an Iraqi way of life.”
Tech credits are fine. Soldiers’ observation point in Samarra provides good views of the golden dome of the Al-Askari shrine, one of the holiest places in Shia Islam, which was destroyed by Al Qaeda saboteurs in February 2006. Songs chosen by members of Charlie Company supplement the film’s minimalist original score.
For the record, Brigade Cmdr. Michael Steele, whose bloodthirsty pre-deployment speech is captured here, was reprimanded for his highly aggressive command and reassigned.