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Monday, August 3, 2015

Full Battle Rattle (2008)

Produced, directed and photographed by Tony Gerber and Jesse Moss

The images are familiar from a thousand movies and television reports--the sun rises in the desert; the star and crescent on a mosque are backlit by the crimson sky. The town is empty; burned-out cars with Arabic graffiti and a few men in robes are out on the streets. A military convoy makes their way towards the city, kicking up a tail of dust that can be seen for miles. When they get to the town, the stutter of weapons firing and the screams of soldiers, enemy combatants and civilians caught in the middle fill the air. Blood runs in the streets and helicopters take the wounded away. It's chaos and havoc all around, caught by the cameramen who have come along to record the experience for an audience safe at home. The dead and injured lie where they have fallen.

The ice cream truck driving up at the end is a new one on me, though.

What the audience has just seen--without prologue, voiceover, or explanatory captions--is part of a hugely elaborate training exercise in the California desert. The U.S. Army has created a fake town meant to duplicate a small hamlet in Iraq, and was training American troops in a long-term roleplaying game to learn how to interact with the existing civilian power structure in that country with an eye towards reducing American casualties and building a strong, healthy relationship between the post-Saddam Hussein Iraq and their foreign [CIRCLE ONE: invaders / liberators ]. I think this is an incredibly good plan; it's much better to get your soldiers' heads around the differences between the culture they know and the one they're trying to influence when you don't get killed in a firefight--you just have the military-grade laser tag vest beep at you to let you know you need to fall down.

As a post-firefight caption explains, the United States Army built a massive, elaborate training complex in the Mojave desert, far enough away from anyplace else in California that it's just desert out to the horizon (one assumes seeing a Burger King two miles away from "Medina Wasl" (which translates to "Junction City" in American) would spoil the illusion, and rightly so). There are thirteen simulated Iraqi villages in the thousand-square-mile facility. As the last part of their training before being deployed to Iraq, soldiers were sent through a several-week-long immersive session where the consequences of their actions were hopefully taught to them. After all, if you've gone through the fake version of events and seen things go well (or badly), you're likely to remember it when you're in the real deal and something similar occurs. I hope the training was useful--I supported the troops to the extent that I didn't actually want them in Iraq fighting a war of choice against an enemy that did not pose a threat to the United States, and which was a massive distraction from the actual conflict that should have been fought against the Saudi terrorists and their leaders who attacked America on 9/11.

This was a hugely unpopular view in 2003, but just look what happens after 12 years of failure and several trillion dollars getting shoveled into a burning money hole in the desert. Now it's pretty much assumed that the Iraq war was a hugely expensive boondoggle that made the world less safe, set the Middle East on fire for a generation and brought about the existence of ISIS. Some things that were obvious all along are no longer politically incorrect to say (such as "the people planning this war could fuck up a one car funeral, and their ideas should not be put into practice"). And remember, soldiers follow orders. If you're given an order to pull down the moon with a lasso made of dental floss, you'd best give it 110 percent and try it. The fact that the order was given by someone with no grasp on reality whatsoever and that a ten year old child could tell you it wouldn't work? Well, the people giving the orders don't care about anyone else's idea about "possible". They just want something done and their study group says it's possible to get the result they wanted, whether or not that's a task that could ever actually be accomplished.

Full Battle Rattle shows the story of one battalion going through the Medina Wasl training for their pre-deployment exercise. Shots of helicopters flying low over the desert and people (wearing the laser tag vests that were in the prologue, but not all that noticeable in the montage of footage) walk the streets. But the artifice is peeking out from the edges here, as it will in hundreds of different ways over the course of the film--the "stone" wall on one building is plastic molding, and one soldier is busy making sure it's all fit together properly before the war can start.

Lieutenant Colonel Cameron Kramer is the "Chief of Plans and Operations" for the Medina Wasl training session, which means he has the coolest job title in the world--official Dungeonmaster for the U.S. Army. He describes the Medina Wasl setting as "one big reality TV show", possibly under the assumption that anyone watching the movie knows about "Survivor", but drop the names Gary Gygax or Mark Rein*Hagen and you'll get a look like a dog that's just been shown a card trick. The Medina Wasl complex isn't just buildings, streets and goat pens--there are 1,600 actors portraying the various NPCs. They live on-site during the training exercises. Lt. Col. Kramer also lets the audience know that about 250 of those participants are Americans who speak Arabic; among the things the soldiers have to get used to is the constant presence of a language they don't know how to read, speak or understand.

Bassam Kalasho, "Iraqi Role Player #3214", is one of the people followed closely by the filmmakers to give a view of the trainers rather than the trainees. He's middle-aged, stock, a bit of a ham and has been performing in training sessions for years ("I've been the deputy mayor for three years. Don't get me wrong, I love what I'm doing. But after three years I want to be the mayor."). It's something he can do for his country and for the war effort, and it also seems to be a way for him to assuage his homesickness--it'd be horrifically unsafe for him to go back to Iraq (especially if it became known that he was helping train American soldiers for the occupation), but Medina Wasl is the next best thing. Other Iraqi NPCs mention the irony of them wearing traditional clothing rather than Western wear, and report their parents' bemusement that they had to come to America to dress like an "Iraqi".

Each "Iraqi" in Medina Wasl is assigned more than just clothing and language preferences--the simulation engineers take plenty of other variables into account and put together a briefing bulletin for each of the thousand-plus inhabitants of the town. Some of the people living in Medina Wasl are given a back story with relatives who fled the country; others might have a sibling, parent or child killed during the American occupation. Different characters are given Sunni, Shia, Christian or Kurdish background, which will come into play as the stresses of war work out among the various religious and ethnic groups. I'm betting one of the most important lessons from the simulations is that the soldiers not view the Iraqis as a monolithic group, and by doing thousands of hours of behind-the-scenes work the performance and training gains depth and breadth. The soldiers are going to need to know which Iraqis want them there, which are just trying to stay out of danger during the war, and which ones want them to leave. And of those ones that hate the occupiers, some are likely to be all bark and no bite, but some of them could be incredibly dangerous indeed.

The film skips from a person who created the dossiers on each Medina Wasl inhabitant to one of the actors prepping for his role; he's going to be playing an Iraqi police officer, so he's got a legit reason to be armed in the town (almost everyone else living in Medina Wasl wouldn't be able to say the same thing). After a quick scene of the cop reading his briefing packet there's a montage of several other performers going through their own backstories (Bassam, as the deputy mayor, notes that his character speaks fluent English). One rapid-fire sequence has each person reading whether they're Sunni or Shia--I can only imagine some of them are playing against their own actual religious beliefs.
And even in a sequence like this one where the artifice behind the project is most present, there's the performers' humanity and individuality peeking out (like the woman who utterly botches the pronunciation of "tyranny").

Fittingly enough, the filmmakers introduced the people who live in Medina Wasl first, and the soldiers who will be occupying it second. That's likely meant to lead the viewers to sympathize with the "Iraqi" people first because they met them first. That's especially valuable because 99% of the audience or more will naturally want the soldiers to prevail, and for things to go well for them. It's vitally important for the viewer to realize that there's a whole lot of other people who were already in town that are going to be affected by everything the military does. The officers in charge of the battalion get introduced in a group next; they're in a briefing discussing their role and what they're supposed to accomplish with their mission objectives. The filmmakers show their attitudes, warts and all--one man mentions "azza lazza lyka shit" when talking about crowd reactions to the American military presence, but his commanding officer nips that in the bud. Yes, the camera was on everyone and they knew they were being recorded, but I think that both people were sincere in their responses--the one guy who knows nothing about the situation and can't be bothered to learn and the guy overseeing him who wants everything to go well (and who knows that the way his officers treat the civilians is going to have a hell of a lot to do with whether or not Medina Wasl burns itself down in a riot after they take it over).

Forward Operation Base Detroit is the command center for the troops that will be going through the exercise for the next couple of weeks; it looks like it was made of shipping containers, tents, tarps and plywood. I imagine that it isn't that far off of what you'd be living in if you were shipped out to Iraq and not staying behind the walls of the Green Zone. It appears that they won't be billeting any of the troops in town; it's probably a lot safer for everyone to have them off in their own part of the desert.

The battalion commander, Lieutenant Colonel Robert McLaughlin, is a first-timer going through the massive live-action roleplaying training exercise. He's also the guy who told his subordinate to clean up his act verbally, and telling everyone to stay "polite, professional and vigilant" while going through the next two weeks of 24/7 performance and training. He looks more like a really good high school math teacher than a military officer, but part of the film's power is in showing the difference between perception and reality. His hot take on the Medina Wasl situation:  There are criminal gangs running the town; most of the ordinary people there just want to live their lives and go along to get along. Taking care of the underworld element that bosses everyone around would go a long way towards winning the hearts and minds of the "Iraqi" people living there. Lt. Col. Kramer gets a moment to speak here, mentioning that there are different problem sets for each training session, and different plotlines for each of the thirteen towns in the Mojave training center. According to him, some of the storylines are designed to have the town start out as pro-occupation and pro-American, which means the soldiers there are trying to keep from losing popular support rather than taking over and imposing their will on the populace. I imagine that's harder than just pounding a hamlet into rubble with artillery strikes.

Kramer also mentions that it's impossible to script every single word for every single actor; there's going to be plenty of improvisation on the ground and things are just going to happen depending on the choices and actions of the soldiers that are going through the two-week training exercise. We get to see people settling into their roles (the policeman from earlier looking at people gambling at a porch-front casino; a man getting his burnoose tied on correctly; someone writing a letter in Arabic). All those shots are done via low light or possible even available light in Medina Wasl; the six-person team of "Simulation Architects", by contrast, are sitting in a brightly-lit office with white boards on the wall and filing cabinets full of simulation events and plans. They've decided to go with a triggering event--Deputy Mayor Bassam Kalasho has a "son" who is going to be executed by militants. That, of course, is going to have far-reaching consequences for the next two weeks and the ways that the soldiers react to everything that happens as a result of the murder will naturally guide the way the rest of their training goes. The particular event is listed in the files as "Sectarian Violence 1-1C"; there are probably dozens of other events similar to this one that they could lead off with.

Horrifying as that is, the scene of acting advice from one of the soldiers working as simulation staff takes the edge off of it. (ProTip:  You're not allowed to break your fall with your arms when you fall down "dead" from a head shot, and the Army gets kind of whiny when you ask why you can't do that). But the people running the game have the last word, and "if you try any bullshit like that we'll do it like eighteen times" is a remarkably persuasive statement when you want naturalism out of your gunshot victim. The "jihadists" need coaching on how to pronounce "Allah akbar", incidentally. But they want to get it right just as much as anyone else.

I shouldn't be laughing, but the officer who's overseeing the "execution" also has to tell everyone that a single bullet to the head is sufficient to kill someone (especially for the trophy video their characters are making). They don't get to empty the clip of their blank-firing weapons at the poor sucker with his head in a trashbag. It's also probably the only time a jihadist propaganda video crew had to be reminded to turn their cell phones off before they started rolling on their snuff film. The officer is also quite openhanded with his praise after the video goes off without a hitch on the first take (and a couple of women eating frozen yogurt or something offer commentary on the sidelines).

The next morning, Lieutenant Ben Freeman (the guy who gave the English language the precious gift of the term "azza lazza lyka shit") is telling Lt. Col. McLaughlin what the day's events are supposed to be; he does not impress his superior officer all that much, especially when he describes the military presence in the town as "a little fuckin' Hi, how ya doin'?". Everyone--dozens of soldiers--mount up on their vehicles and prepare to roll into town. McLaughlin says that his role as commander is to make it possible for everyone in town to go about their daily lives without chaos or disruption; he's not there to singlehandedly win the war. He just wants to develop a good relationship with the people in Medina Wasl for the benefit of his troops and for everyone in town. And McLaughlin also appears to be quite a good leader; one of his men quotes him directly while in a Humvee driving towards their first scheduled encounter with Medina Wasl. And every time the camera shows the military convoy from a distance it sure looks real to me.

Back in town, there's an acting coach setting up the scene as the jeeps and Humvees approach, though, which is another way that reality is undercut by the artifice. A picture is worth a thousand words, and the crowd of "Iraqis" drinking coffee and ambling off to take their marks after the acting coach is done makes for another triumph of surreality in the film. Bassam gets his own acting coach, because his son's in-game death is what will be triggering the entire two week series of events. He's taking it pretty well, and I'm guessing that because he's been doing these training exercises for three years that the people running the simulations on the ground know him by now and they're giving him plum roles because they can count on him. Though he's still stuck being the deputy mayor. Maybe the guy playing the mayor has three and a half years' seniority.

When Lt. Col. McLaughlin arrives, he meets with the police chief for Medina Wasl and gets a list of grievances--they're pretty simple things so far; there are sewer problems in the city and the war has disrupted schooling. The students could use writing paper. McLaughlin is smart enough to know that the small problems can become big ones if they're not treated properly and from the outset of his mission, he's there to help. He also sees his troops at a fork in the road--if he makes the right choices, they'll understand that the American soldiers can provide security for the town. If things don't work out well, it'll mean that the criminal gangs running things in Medina Wasl will prove that they can break anything that the Americans build.

The first meeting with the Medina Wasl town council could have gone better--the commander of the American troops tries to make a little small talk with the mayor about raising their respective children when Bassam tells him about his son's murder just the day before. McLaughlin is shocked, and says he'll meet privately with the deputy mayor to extend offers of assistance. Another facet of the roleplaying environment gets revealed after the meeting; there's a fake "International News Network" reporter doing a live remote from Medina Wasl. The newscasts produced by I Can't Believe It's Not CNN will be tailored specifically to the simulation as it occurs. One assumes that anything involving death, fire, kidnapping or destruction will get plenty of play over the airwaves.

It's also very humanizing to introduce the INN reporter as he fucks up his report four times in a row. After that it's time for Bassam's son to be buried--men in the town carry a plywood coffin to the plot, and an imam says prayers over the casket. We in the audience get subtitles, but it's a fair bet no more than a handful of the soldiers understand any of what is being said. Lt. Freeman, back at FOB Detroit, talks to the camera and mentioning his sympathies to Bassam's plight (although he also says he's relieved that it was an Iraqi who killed the deputy mayor's son, because it would be "a whole another sack of shit to deal with" if the boy was killed by American forces. Freeman also starts to experience the dawning of empathy for the Iraqis (both fictitious and real, I hope) by saying "people are actually dying here". He's fallen for the illusion a hundred percent--according to the dungeonmaster, it usually takes around three days for people to forget that it's a training exercise.

Lt. Col. McLaughlin, for his part, thinks that by doing the right thing and doing right by the people in Medina Wasl, he and his troops are going to succeed completely.

Unfortunately for McLaughlin and his troops, they have to deal with insurgent forces. And the training sessions aren't just for the soldiers trying to keep order. The jihadists are played by American soldiers as well, on the theory that learning how to construct an ambush from the attacking side will teach soldiers how to defend against them as well. Sergeant Paul Greene is one of the main insurgents; he says he was deployed to Iraq twice already and at one point mentions that when he goes to Medina Wasl to train, it takes him a few days to stop hating all the Iraqis he's working with because it reminds him of  every bad thing that happened while fighting Over There. The insurgent base has its own scheduling whiteboard, incidentally, with "Attack on FOB 04:00" listed in one square. I imagine the real insurgents don't have office supplies like this. The worst part about being an insurgent, according to Greene, is that he has to get up so damned early to do an attack. And according to the officer in charge of that section of the simulation, Greene is going to get killed or captured while attacking; he can't suicide-bomb anything just to get out of the rest of the simulation.

Before the attack, the officer in charge of insurgent simulations does a few things that Al Qaeda probably didn't have to do; everyone has a MILES harness (the officer calls it "big, expensive Army laser tag") and everyone gets a randomly selected card from a deck of 100 possibilities so that when they get "shot" in the field they know what their wound is supposed to be (with a hundred possibilities, I imagine it ranges from "superficial graze" to "head blown apart"). The soldiers don't get to look at the card until they're "hit", so it's a surprise for everyone. The soldiers and civilians get the same type of cards (sooner or later there's going to be a firefight where an innocent person gets hit); not only are the simulations a training exercise for the soldiers and faux insurgents, but medics are expected to diagnose and fake-treat the wounded in the aftermath of each incident.

Right before the insurgent attack, Sgt. Greene apologizes for his inability to draw a decent map and then plans out the ambush ("The objective is to kill as many fuckin' people as possible"). Meanwhile, back at FOB Detroit, some of the men are getting lessons on Iraqi culture--at this particular session, they're learning that exchanging greetings three or four times before getting down to business is a way to show polite interest and familiarity. There's a great unsettling cut from the documentarians showing the cultural lesson to the night-vision view of the insurgents looking at the same thing from the same angle (I assume that the filmmakers got permission to use some of the training footage, and couldn't believe their luck when they saw how closely the shots matched).

The insurgents attack, taking the American forces by surprise; the panic from the responding soldiers sounds pretty unfeigned. The insurgents manage to get away after causing plenty of chaos and damage. The next phase of the training session is in the hospital tent, where the medics (and one chaplain) do their thing while treating some kind of medical-training CPR dummy hooked up to a life monitor and some of the "wounded" American soldiers. There's one officer smearing burn makeup and setting the wounds on the dummies (they have modules at various points on their limbs, torso, abdomen and head that can be removed and swapped out for 3-D plastic molded injuries); one assumes that the medics will be doing triage on the crash test dummies as part of their training as well. The medical instructor turns out to be the one who had the plastic wound pieces made--they're replicas of wounds he took pictures of in Afghanistan and Iraq; they're the best way he can think of to teach medics what they're going to be dealing with. He also mentions that even the plastic effects pieces were known to induce vomiting in soldiers who weren't expecting to see something like that.

Back at the American base, Lieutenant Freeman is lost in thought about the soldiers that are already out of the training exercise; some wounded, others "killed" in action. Nobody expected anything to happen that early in the game, and it winds up concentrating their minds on their mission in response. Even after the attack, Lt. Col. McLaughlin tries to impress on his officers that the insurgents are their enemy; the ordinary people don't want mortar attacks and grenades going off any more than the soldiers do. Which means it's time for an increased presence in town; it turns out frisking an imam doesn't make any friends. An explanation from Lt. Col. Kramer is intercut with scenes of the soldiers on patrol--the situation, at the start of the exercise, is neutral. The actions that the soldiers take can either make things better or make them worse. And it's important to get the various soldiers used to the idea that they should be trying to make friends and move softly rather than land on the town with both feet.

Meanwhile, Sgt. Greene is watching what I assume to be an Iraqi sitcom on a laptop courtesy of two of the actresses. Even insurgents have downtime. One of those roleplayers gives a little interview to the filmmakers about the guilt she feels training the army of occupation that's running her home country. On the other hand, the paychecks that she gets for helping train soldiers go to her parents, who are still living in the genuine Iraq halfway around the world. Another one of the cast members relates the harrowing and complicated journey that took eighteen months and which got him from Iraq to America. He's so understated and matter-of-fact about it, rattling off the names of towns and places that most of the viewers of this movie would never be able to find on a map, and then wrapping it up with "That's about it".

Al-Jazeera has a simulated presence in the town, as it turns out; there isn't just CNN with the serial numbers filed off doing news reports. I'm not sure why Al-Jazeera is referred to by name while the other network is not, and since neither filmmaker appears on camera or does any explanatory voiceovers it's going to remain a mystery. The reporter is doing a story on Iraqis killed at a checkpoint outside Medina Wasl; foreign or not, people mourn their lost. And Lt. Col. McLaughlin does indeed say that his soldiers are responsible for the "deaths" of innocent civilians. As part of a plan to defuse the situation, McLaughlin and his officers are going to meet with the Medina Wasl council and try to come up with a way to keep things peaceful.

Inside the meeting, the Medina Wasl movers and shakers are yelling at McLaughlin while outside his soldiers attract a mob of chanting pissed-off Iraqis. The lieutenant colonel tries to express sympathy to the grieving people, but they aren't buying it (and, naturally, McLaughlin's loyalty is to soldiers first and the people of Medina Wasl second). The talks inside break down when the people outside start pounding on the walls of the shipping container that serves as the council chambers. I don't honestly know whether or not it's horrible diplomacy for the Americans to disburse a blood money payment to the widows of the "slain" Iraqis or if that's actually a good idea, but the dismissiveness from the soldiers is what made things look so bad. The widow, of course, would rather have her husband than a fistful of dinars. At current exchange rates, the 2500-dinar payout would be $2.16; that's horrible.

The officer in charge of the civilian population gives an acting lesson to a white dude pretending to be one of the people in Medina Wasl next, thank goodness. I'm much happier watching the actors' studio than even the simulated grief of the widows and the mock anger of demonstrators outside the council building. His protip for the guy:  The American soldiers will have no idea if he's speaking Arabic or not, but if he says some kind of "falabala halajala" stuff they'll know that they don't understand it. He also gives the guy a crash course in Method acting to summon the right emotional state for his performance.

Lt. Freeman, talking to a reporter for INN (I almost put quotes around "reporter", but I realized that I'd do that for anyone working for CNN as well), expresses a little more empathy for the people who are chanting "GO HOME YANKEE" nearby, saying that he'd take a payout if a Russian invader shot his wife but that he wouldn't be satisfied with it. The reporter asks Freeman to name a country in the Middle East with a functioning democracy, and then tells the soldier that there aren't any. I'm not sure where the military found this dude, but it's interesting that one of the voices of futility comes from the mass media. I'm not sure if "find a soldier and try to bum him out about the mission" is on that guy's goal list or if it's an actual out-of-character conversation caught by the filmmakers.

The soldiers leave, to the cheers and derision of the crowd in Medina Wasl that wanted them to go. And in the Humvee, the soldiers who paid the widow for her husband's death all talk about how much they actually gave out; it turns out that none of them know what their budget was for weregeld payments, what the dollars-to-dinars exchange rate is, or even how much they actually gave to the widows--they eventually figure out that they've just burned through the entire death payment supply for the entire battalion. Guys, you gotta have more of a grip on things than this. I am certain that McLaughlin needs to know about this, but not sure at all that anyone will be telling him. For his part, the commander is fully aware that if they can't figure out how to make things work in the simulation it won't make anyone feel secure in the actual deployment.

Bassam tells a little of his story next, illustrated with shots of him as a younger man (often wearing eye-searing 70s fashions in photos that are thankfully black and white). He was wealthy in Iraq, "had fun all the time", which might mean any number of things, followed the Iraqi Air Force football club and wishes he could return just to see his friends again even for a single day. Another one of the Medina Wasl actors is helping her best friend--also on site--with a citizenship application. One of the simulation performers wants to go home if he can, while another wishes she could stay in the country where she works as a simulated Iraqi. The more you dig into that, the more layers of meaning you could find. It's like a fractal onion.

The actor who's playing the police chief has his own problems to deal with as well--he's facing deportation and has a court date for an appeal hearing coming up in the future. He gets a hall pass out of Medina Wasl in order to consult with a lawyer (and one of the filmmakers tags along to record what's going on in this meeting). Essentially, he gets a single chance to get a judge to agree that he should be allowed to stay in America. If he doesn't convince the system that he should remain in this country he'll be deported back to Iraq. Given that he already fled Iraq and that he's been working to train the occupying forces, his lifespan back in his homeland might be measurable in hours. His lawyer hopes that his work with the Army simulations might be the deciding factor in letting him stay, and I can't imagine a single viewer rooting for him to be sent back "home" to be murdered.

Incidentally, the police chief's absence in the simulation would make it similar to someone getting the flu and missing a gaming session for Dungeons & Dragons; their character just isn't around for a few adventures and shows up again the next time with no explanation.

Bassam's storyline is progressing while real life is working; his character has the name of one of his son's killers, and he wants to work with the American forces to find the guy, find out if he's really had anything to do with the murder, and punish him. But if he doesn't find a way to work with the troops, he's going to do things on his own and take care of business one way or the other (and there's a great moment where it turns out Bassam has done all the reading for his assignment and the officer setting the stage only skimmed it). But when he gets to FOB Detroit (driven by the police chief, returned to the scenario) and says he has information for Lt. Col. McLaughlin, he and the chief put in a meeting request and get ignored for hours. Whoever was supposed to pass word up the chain of command to the man in charge didn't do it, and when McLaughlin finally gets the news, Bassam has left and it's probably too late to talk to him or work with him.

The onscreen title for what happens next is labeled "Civil War", so you can guess how things are going to shake out. There's a moment where the soldier playing the insurgent who shot Bassam's son mentions that they're going to execute him in the street,  but that he gets a new character the following day and returns to the simulation. I guess the soldiers who were "killed" or "wounded" in action might come back as well, but the film never really explains if the insurgents are treated differently by the rules of fake warfare. It would make sense to have an infinite supply of jihadists and a finite one of American troops, if only because there are tens of millions of Iraqis and tens of thousands of occupying soldiers. That's not to say that every Iraqi is a jihadist who wants to drive the Yankees out of their country, but that they have a much larger pool of reserves to draw upon.

Bassam and his guys haul a couple people out of the jihadist headquarters, leaving behind the "dead" body of the man who knew his number was up. Then it's time for the staff of scenarists to add more fuel to the fire; whatever Sierra Victor One One Golf denotes (I'm assuming S.V. stands for Sectarian Violence), it doesn't bode well. A voiceover from the scenario builders says that the violence between Shia and Sunni people in Medina Wasl is scheduled for a full week (out of a two week program!). McLaughlin at least realizes that he has to get involved more, but he tells the council that they have to stop what's going on in the town.

The mayor and his assistants, understandably enough, tell the force commander that the Americans have better equipment and material than anyone in the town and that it'd really be helpful if they pitched in more. McLaughlin's response is to offer material help--a water treatment plant, sewage maintenance work, and a tray of fresh fruit as a literal peace offering (though it could not be less inspiring when he says "Share. Have some fruit." to the men of the town council). Things cool down a little after that, with the town government taking credit for bringing jobs and prosperity to Medina Wasl.

The next event listed onscreen is a Sunni-Shia wedding. With the overt violence blowing over, there's a chance for the different sects to work together. The various actors and actresses get a montage of getting ready for the big day (with the groom mentioning that it'll be his character's second wife; Medina Wasl is supposed to be in Iraq, not America, so that's a thing that can happen there). And more than one of the reenactors points out that they've all gotten to know each other over three years of two-week simulations so it really is somewhat of a family affair, even when nobody's getting married for real.

While the simulation continues, Nagi Moshi, the actor playing the police chief, gets support from somewhat of an unexpected source--one of the genuine soldiers has gotten involved with Moshi's case. He's written a letter to the judge, hoping to influence the final decision and let Moshi stay in the country, specifically referencing the work that Moshi has done with the Medina Wasl simulations and the mortal danger he would face if forcibly repatriated to Iraq. It's only a letter, yes, but it's also potentially a lifeline thrown to a man who would otherwise surely drown.

Lt. Col. McLaughlin, scheduling a groundbreaking ceremony for the sanitation projects, gets some unwelcome news from a subordinate--despite the better relations between the groups in Medina Wasl, the threat of violence is exactly as high as it's ever been. McLaughlin refuses to believe it, and he's the ranking officer, so under the military rules he's right (or at least everyone has to act like he is). The groundbreaking ceremony features secular, religious and military authority figures all digging the first symbolic shovels full of dirt. The media is on hand to record the ceremony for later broadcast and it's afterward, when the sniper starts shooting at everyone, that things start to fall apart.

The sniper attack was meant to draw the enlisted men outside into an open ground where they could be shot at while the authority figures in town (and Lt. Col. McLaughlin) found shelter inside. But that's exactly what the jihadists wanted, because one grenade tossed next to the building has the potention to wipe out the leadership of Medina Wasl (the "grenade" is just an inert prop, since setting off even a little flashbang in that area might actually hurt someone--war is hell, but simulated war requires that you treat the particpants as gently as possible).

All that's left to find out after the simulation is whether or not anyone learned anything from their experiences--I assume there are briefings and classroom sessions that the filmmakers were not allowed to attend, but a glimpse at McLaughlin's performance review notes reveal the number of killed and injured, and also contains the term "negligent discharge". I had to Google it; that's the official military-justice term for firing a weapon at the wrong time and through operator error. I'm assuming some of the casualties in the attack were from friendly fire. After we see McLaughlin reflecting on how badly he handled his command, there's one more element of the simulation that takes place--a faux funeral service for the soldiers killed in action, including a roll call that the missing soldiers can never answer. (And, because the artifice reveals itself here as well, it turns out that the simulated memorial service is also a training exercise for a chaplain, who gets told that he's reading the 23rd Psalm too quickly.)

On the final day of the simulation, the jihadists learn that they're going to be going back to Iraq for a one year long deployment. An order is an order and has to be obeyed, but none of them look particularly thrilled. Multiple soldiers wind up having to tell their wives via cell phone that they're leaving for another continent thanks to the timing of the announcement. There's some unfortunate juxtaposition of the "Iraqi" performers goofing around on their last day; they happen to be in the same courtyard as some of the soldiers who have to contact their loved ones and tell them they won't see them for half a year at best. Obviously, the actors don't know what just happened but that doesn't make the soldiers any happier.

There's a transfer-of-sovereignty ceremony on the final day, where the Iraqi military takes official control of the province where Medina Wasl is located; the cheering crowd and favorable news coverage makes it look like things are likely to work out, but the cut to the planning room for the scenario runners includes phrases about carrying out the assassination on schedule. Bassam winds up being the mayor after all, for the last two hours of the session.

That's just the end of the training exercise, though; life goes on for the soldiers that are going to be sent out to Iraq and for the performers who have day jobs and families that they've been away from for two weeks. And for Nagi Moshi, he finds out what the rest of his life is going to entail--either life in America or a return to a country he risked his life to escape. Let's just say that documentaries don't have to have a Hollywood ending, but this one does.

There's also a brief snippet of a speech from the Decider himself, and I didn't think there could be anything less inspiring than the "have some fruit" from Lt. Col. McLaughlin. However, the President at the time rises to the challenge, giving his announcement that the troops in Iraq will be reinforced with the "surge" of 2007, which at least meant that the war wouldn't be started and lost on his watch. Was it worth the trillions of dollars and hundreds of thousands of lives lost? That's beyond the scope of this documentary, of course, and of this review, but at least when Medina Wasl got burned to the ground they could fix the damaged buildings and turn off the laser tag vests for an instant resurrection. If we're going to go into other places to enforce freedom, let's just try to make sure as many of our troops don't make preventable mistakes in the field so they can come home safely.

I support the troops enough to want them to come home alive, you see, and the easiest way to do that is not starting wars.

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