Three years into the Revolutionary War, a desperate George Washington hired German soldier Friedrich Wilhelm von Steuben to drill discipline into his ragtag troops. Von Steuben helped win American independence, and for his service, he was granted U.S. citizenship. Ever since, immigrants have enlisted in the military as a path toward legal status, putting their safety on the line for a shot at the American dream.
“I would have given my life for them,” says one vet in Andrew Renzi’s outraged “Ready for War,” a documentary designed to create a stir. The devotion was one-sided. Thanks to a mid-’90s rule change and today’s rising xenophobia, foreign veterans who commit non-violent offenses upon their return to the states are punished three times for the same crime: They’re put in jail, rejected as citizens and deported, often to a county they haven’t seen since they were kids, while being forced to leave their own U.S.-born children behind (not to mention the benefits and medical care they’ve earned).
Take the case of Miguel Perez, one of three subjects Renzi tracks in this personal doc that travels back and forth across the border with ease. After two tours in Afghanistan, Perez, who moved to America when he was 8, returned home with a brain injury. Shortly after, he was arrested for drug possession and locked up for seven years in prison plus several more years by ICE, which is where we meet him via a smuggled-in hidden camera. If deported, he’ll be dumped in Mexico with no family and no money. “It’s like, ‘Thank you for your service — now you need to go,” Perez sighs.
How many other Perezes are there? ICE won’t say, and when the camera pans over a makeshift memorial for all the soldiers who were deported to Mexico and died, there are too many crosses to count. Of the rumored thousands, Renzi focuses on three. Besides Perez, there’s Hector Barajas, a former Air Force soldier who opened a Tijuana shelter for his fellow veterans to keep them from sleeping on the streets or working for the cartels. (Even in lock-up, Perez has gotten word that if deported, he has a job offer he can’t refuse.) Their military expertise and isolation makes them obvious cartel recruits. Not only did the U.S. Department of Defense train them to kill with three bullets instead of a wild spray, as one former boss explains, “They come out all crazy” — that is, with untreated PTSD.
The doc’s most controversial subject is El Vet, a masked veteran who stalks the film with a gun and his own hidden camera, which he uses to record his for-hire assassinations. (El Vet claims he’ll be murdered if he doesn’t comply.) Renzi doesn’t show us the blood; fuzzy images of naked men pleading for their lives are shocking enough. Muffled through his disguise, El Vet talks about how his first government-sanctioned combat kills rewired his brain. As he sees it, whether he’s good or evil doesn’t depend on him as much as his employers. “In the end, you use guns and kill people. It’s the same,” he shrugs.
Toward the end, Renzi asks El Vet if his participation in the doc will be bad publicity that hurts the other deported veterans suing for the right to come home. What hope do they have? he asks. To his knowledge, no one’s won back his old life, as though the government is using them to telegraph the statement that no foreigners need bother apply. Indeed, a recent study showed that in the last two years, enlisted soldiers are less likely to be approved for citizenship than people who never served at all — and accordingly, applications have dropped 79%.
“This should not be a partisan issue,” insists Illinois Sen. Tammy Duckworth, who lost two legs in Iraq. “Ready for War” is prone to repeat its key arguments until absorbed, though it also makes that same point silently in the credits, which show an eclectic list of producers including filmmaker David Ayer (“Training Day,” “Suicide Squad”) and the musicians Drake and Future.
Cinematographer Jeremy Peterman favors big vistas and tight closeups, and shots with a near-religious tone, like men raising their hands toward a rusted border like it’s the wailing wall. Yet, the most powerful images in the film all involve the tireless Barajas, still wearing his perfectly tilted Air Force beret after 14 years in exile. Getting back to his daughter has become his toughest fight. His best weapon is being an ambassador for what men like him can contribute to America — including the way his face lights up when a friend brings him Taco Bell from San Diego. “Mexican pizza!” Barajas grins. He’s absolutely a Yankee at heart.