Certain television episodes, as was noted in a New York Times editorial on the show “Six Feet Under,” merit serious attention since they give us a variety of intimate human experience that is immediate and authentic. I would like to make my own recommendation that the same kind of attention be given to the recently opened documentary Occupation: Dreamland, which follows the 82nd Airborne platoon for several weeks beginning in January 2004 while they were stationed in Fallujah and before the Marines were sent in to replace them and to level the city.
Ironically, the main section of the September 24, 2005 Times features a hugely controversial and important article on the first page, documenting the allegations of members of that same 82nd Airborne of regular acts of sadistic torture towards Iraqi prisoners. The film stands in stark contrast to these accusations and has different players in the film as well. It was filmed in a different time period and the difference includes an emphasis on the mundane and the blatantly but often blandly honest and even contradictory passing remarks made by the same soldiers about their stay, about our government and about their ambivalence towards their captives and potential attackers, those two being one and the same.
The footage of Iraqis who state over and again that they hate our occupation, that we Americans have made false promises and made life worse, are somewhat startling only because they come at you “live” and clearly in random and candid encounters with the soldiers. They tell us in so many ways how this war is harming their lives and destroying their economic and political lives — how in other words it is an abysmally damaging failure.
However there are two factors that make the film mandatory for all who are willing to be educated about the American human side, the soldier’s side as opposed to elite officials whose pronouncements often come with pomp and circumstance. We come to know these soldiers through the steadiness of the director’s eye because we see and hear them over and again, in their fears, their confusion, their vanity and their dreams. We see a bunch of confused young men struggling to make sense of their condition and, agree with them or not, through the steadiness of the viewing of them in their own unsteady moods and viewpoints we come to empathize and suspend judgment. This, I think, is always one of the most valuable lessons we can ever learn, to see the human aspects and suspend harsh or superior judgments.
The second urgent and compelling feature that only makes this film more imperative is the focus on the military’s intimidation of so many frightened and lost young men who are not economically or emotionally equipped for the demands of complete adulthood in this country. They are told they will never make it without the Army, that they will end up drugged in some alleyway, and even in the pit of Iraq they are hounded on a weekly basis about how there will be no viable place for them; they are threatened with a disastrous homecoming all the while they are already so vulnerable. This last aspect seems criminal in that if our young people are confused they need counseling and support from their families and communities to allow them a variety of options, and most of all options that fit their very personal nature and yearnings.
I was fortunate to meet the film directors, Ian Olds and Garrett Scott, at the screening and one young man who finally was fulfilling his dream to study design, something he had forfeited earlier because of lack of funds and because a two minute curiosity stop at a recruiting center had turned into a four year contract. He is fortunate — fairly mellow to begin with, he is not bothered by the noise and chaos of a big city. He is one of the lucky ones.
I suggest this film as a way of venturing out of a dreamland that has become a nightmare to our whole world, to Iraq, to America, to our families who live in grief and fear and trauma, and to our young men who deserve choices about their lives.
These soldiers and potential soldiers who feel defeated by future prospects, and bullied by representatives of society who carry authority, are victims of a hidden form of dictatorship because democracy and free choice can exist only when thinking and questioning are allowed. This bullying of our young men seems another costly and abominable form of military abuse. We cannot afford to ignore the victims who follow not only orders but who are driven by specters of fear produced regularly by their countrymen in a form of symbolic but brutal “friendly fire.” While this “friendly fire” exists we have a lonely population at risk — young men and women who are presently being treated as less than human, and who are afforded no reading of rights or access to legal counsel in what is frequently nothing less than an ambush.
Democracy, it would seem, is no easy commodity to translate and export and it is no easy commodity to truly nurture and possess. I would hope that one day our population escapes the exploitation of a seductive nostalgic dream of any kind of simplistic glory. Before we export anything, or offer to share it, perhaps we should attend to our citizens and their needs. This seems a radical idea these days but I am fairly certain that most Americans, on either side of the political combat zone, would care that our soldiers, the ones bearing arms for us, are being left sorely alone.
Carol Smaldino, CSW is a psychotherapist and author. Her website is www.growingreal.com. She is not Dr. Phil.