Movie Review
"This is War"
by Bill Gallagher

“This Is War” is not coming to the big screen any time soon. “This Is War” is not that kind of movie. Yet, “This Is War” must be seen if you’re to have any feel for what it’s like to fight in Iraq.

An Oregon National Guard soldier sounds like a petulant teenager who doesn’t want to get out of bed to go to school. But this isn’t school. This is the last day he’ll be serving in Iraq. We see his boots on the amateur video but we don’t see his face. It’s hidden under the covers. Then we hear him say, “This is the most meaningless day of my life. I can’t fight the feeling any more. I just don’t know what we’re fighting for. They say we’re going home. We’re not ever going home. I hate my life.”

“Yeah, well, I hate your life too, Pete,” says his buddy shooting the video.

One soldier’s angst runs smack dab into another soldier’s attitude. They both laugh.

“This Is War” is the work of members of the 2nd Battalion, 162nd Infantry of the Oregon Army Guard. They shot the footage like that just described and brought it home with them. It wasn’t intended to be seen by anyone other than their friends and family members. But Gary Mortensen and Scott Laney of the Combat History Archive in Hillsboro got hold of some of the material brought back from Iraq by Oregon’s soldiers and wanted more. They ended up looking at some 50 hours of footage shot on the kinds of video cameras you use to shoot your kid’s birthday party. They also use photos taken on cell phones. The effect can be random, but it’s also extremely moving when combined with a sparse narration and interviews with nine Guard members.

The beauty of “This Is War” is that the source material wasn’t shot according to a script that set out to make a point about the war. These men and one woman of Oregon are caught in combat situations that can be routine one minute and terrifying the next. Much of what they do in Iraq is clearing roads and clearing buildings and trying to win the hearts and minds of the Iraqis. But they’re up against an insurgency adept at planting roadside bombs (IEDs), blasting away with rocket-propelled grenades, and firing mortars at American troops.

Guard member Kris Peterson of Hillsboro turns 20 the day after he arrives in Iraq. His insights, his frustration and his humor are those of a soldier without too many illusions. On what he and the other members of the battalion are doing in Iraq: “Mainly you’re there to make sure your buddy on your right and your buddy on your left get home.” On having to let suspected insurgents they’ve questioned go free: “It’s like trout fishing, catch and release.” On Baghdad: “It could have been a really cool city.”

Guard member Sgt. Vinni Jacques of Albany is the kind of soldier you would want next to you in a Humvee. He now devotes his time to helping soldiers returning from Iraq. He wasn’t sure he’d make it back. “I really didn’t think I’d see my little boy again.” He wasn’t prepared for what they got into after training time at Fort Lewis near Tacoma and Fort Hood in Texas. But when he saw burned-out tanks from the first war in Iraq, watched F-16s drop a few bombs, and heard stories of those rocket-propelled grenades penetrating armored vehicles, “all the pieces of the puzzle were starting to come together.”

As for IEDs, he was a fast learner: “When you see someone with a Motorola in their hand standing by a building while you’re driving down a road ... that’s cause to stop.” Then there’s his (I can’t call it anything else but) humanity: “If you can try your best to put on a human face, that you’re not a robot going through there, that’s one of the things I tried to do, and I think it worked as much as it can. We’re not gonna drive through your town at 70 miles an hour and put your kids in danger because that would make me mad. I’d become an insurgent.”

Guard member Luke Wilson of Hermiston lost his left leg when an IED blew up his Humvee, and he spent a year at Walter Reed Medical Center before finally going AWOL. Why? So he could drive 3,000 miles back to Oregon with one good leg and be here when the 162nd got home. He borrowed another soldier’s uniform and made it to the Armory for the homecoming, uncertain how he’d be received. He need not have worried. “I was dog-piled by everyone,” says Wilson. “It was a great feeling. It’s hard to relate to someone who has never experienced it.”

Wilson admits that recuperating at Walter Reed was hell. “I’d take four or five Ambiens every night and drink five to 10 beers to get to sleep, to beat the nightmares.”

Hollywood still hasn’t gotten a handle on Iraq. There’s not been a movie made yet about the war that comes near conveying the emotion and insight of “This Is War.” It shuns the political debate about the war because for soldiers over there fighting, the politics don’t really matter. Still, it’s hard not to get just a little upset with the powers that be when Sgt. Jacques talks about how they had to fortify the Humvees assigned them when they arrived in country. At one point they sort through the detritus of the last war in Iraq, including old land mines, to find enough metal to “armor up” their Humvees on their own. A Guard member says at one point, “They didn’t know what they were getting into.” He’s not talking about members of the 162nd out of Oregon. He’s talking about the politicians and the Pentagon.

Director Gary Mortenson and Producer Scott Laney deserve a ton of credit for recognizing the potential of the video and stills shot by members of the 162nd to tell the story of what it’s like to serve in Iraq. They’ve not overplayed their hand by presenting “This Is War” as anything more than the war stories soldiers tell with pictures. The first words you hear are, “They could have come from anywhere, but they came from Oregon.” And most of them have come back to Oregon, at least those who lived to tell us these stories. The Oregon Guard lost more members in Iraq in a six-month stretch of 2004 than it had lost in any war since World War II. “This Is War” is a fitting tribute to those men. The least we can do is listen to their stories.

Bill Gallagher is the News Director of AM 860 KPAM - the Talk Station, and he writes the monthly movie column for BNW.

BrainstormNW - May 2008

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