I Am an American Soldier: One Year in Iraq with the 101st Airborne

"Very Good"

I Am an American Soldier: One Year in Iraq with the 101st Airborne Review


Most of what one would need to know about how a storied fighting unit like the 187th Regiment of the 101st Airborne Division adapts to urban insurgent warfare is contained in a few telling scenes of the documentary I Am An American Soldier: One Year in Iraq with the 101st Airborne. The soldiers, buzz-cut and highly-motivated, are patrolling in the city of Samarra in 2005 -- the Golden Mosque gleams in the distance, this is not long before it was destroyed and touched off the Sunni-Shia sectarian bloodbath still raging now -- at the ready, constantly training their assault rifles, acting for all intents and purposes as though they are about to go into a major firefight at any moment. There are obvious reasons for this, as they've been taking IED attacks and small arms fire occasionally, but it also points to a fundamental disconnect. Even as the soldiers mouth agreement with the idea of winning hearts and minds, they're also stalking around like hunters on the hunt. And no surprise, it's what they've been trained for. As one soldier puts it, "We're fighting guerrilla warfare, and all our tactics are conventional."

Director John Laurence's documentary (his first, and a pretty sterling achievement) is part of an entire sub-genre of film we're seeing these days where filmmakers spend lengthy periods of time with a single military unit serving in Iraq. It's a genre that speaks not only to the easy portability of modern film equipment, but also to the consistent fascination with such material (was there ever a war as extensively filmed as this one?) but also to the war's extremely durable nature. Who knows? At some point we may be seeing works where the filmmaker spends five years with the same unit ("Well, it's 2011, and we're patrolling what's left of Baghdad, looking for IEDs...").

In any case, Laurence's film is fairly par for the course in structure, beginning in September 2005 back in the States with training and getting ready for a year-long deployment and concluding with a ceremony in a hangar filled with tearful family members and soldiers who never want to see the supposed cradle of civilization again. Unlike a number of Iraq docs, Laurence focuses not on the more obviously conflicted soldiers, the thousands of National Guardsmen who never thought they'd be doing more than paying for college tuition by serving on the weekends, but on a pretty tough knot of professional soldiers. The 187th is the kind of unit where history and esprit des corps is taken not likely at all. Their nickname is the Rakkasans, conferred by the Japanese (it means "parachute") in the aftermath of World War II, and their commander, Col. Steele, is a thick-set bulldog of a guy with a flair for bloody-fanged, effectively Patton-esque oratory. The film has an obvious affection for these hard-bitten but mostly jovial guys who take their jobs so extraordinarily seriously. It's a scrappy and occasionally roughly-hewn piece of work, but extraordinarily vivid and empathetic, especially when following one particularly resilient paratrooper who loses a leg to an IED.

The tightrope act that any Iraq doc filmmaker has to walk, especially the embedded ones like Laurence, is how to bring up any larger questions about the war itself. There's little overt political discussion amongst the soldiers themselves, though their commanders have a chillingly blithe habit of directly connecting Iraq to 9/11, when not making jokes about going into Tehran next. But Laurence acquits himself fairly well here, letting the paratroopers speak their minds at length about a mission that they seem fairly on board with at the start but have started to doubt more and more by the end of their deployment. As one paratrooper says after returning to the States, when asked if he thought it was all worth it, talks grimly about what Marines must have thought about all the thousands who died for a lousy island like Iwo Jima. "It's never worth it."

Reviewed at the 2007 Tribeca Film Festival.



Facts and Figures

Run time: 100 mins

In Theaters: Thursday 26th April 2007

Reviews

Contactmusic.com: 3.5 / 5

IMDB: 8.2 / 10

Cast & Crew

Director: John Laurence

Producer: John Laurence

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