If you still haven't watched any of the million documentaries about the Iraq War because you're still not quite ready for that kind of subject matter, you might want to check out Full Battle Rattle. It is a documentary, and it is related to the Iraq War, but you may consider it more like a simulation of a documentary about the Iraq War than an actual example. Think of it as like a practice piece until you can handle the real deal.
How is Full Battle Rattle different from the rest, you ask? Well, it's not set in Iraq or even in the Middle East. It takes place in America, in California's Mojave Desert, to be exact. It's there that the U.S. military has built a bunch of fake Iraqi towns, complete with fake Iraqi people, some of whom are played by actual Iraqi immigrants, others of whom are played by soldiers preparing for combat before being deployed overseas.
And then there are the other thousands of soldiers who basically play themselves on the unscripted side of partially scripted training exercises designed to simulate possible scenarios that they'll be faced with once they're shipped out to Iraq. In a way, watching the simulations documented in the film is like watching Civil War reenactments, except that in this case it's more like pre-enactments.
So, for the U.S. Army, the Iraq Simulation (formerly known as the National Training Center at Fort Irwin) is like Iraq War practice, which fits with the fact that, for the audience, Full Battle Rattle is like Iraq War documentary practice. Even for the film's co-directors, Tony Gerber and Jesse Moss, it's like Iraq War documentary practice. Just in case the duo ever decides to make their own Occupation: Dreamland or My Country, My Country, they now have some idea of what it will be like.
The documentary opens on a simulation in progress in the "village" of Medina Wasl, and it looks real enough to fool you into thinking you're seeing the real thing. Then, after a lot of action, casualties are revealed to be dummies, the whole set is revealed to be just that and an ice cream truck rolls up to greet the role-players as they take a break from their work. Suddenly the film hits its first absurd note, of which there follows a great deal more.
Seemingly the strangest idea is that Iraqi Americans would want to be involved, yet by following the lives of some of the players, Gerber and Moss help us to understand their motivation, as well as some players' admitted guilt. In fact, the interviews with and profiles of these men and women, most of who live in nearby San Diego and have other jobs in addition to their performing in training exercises, are what really make Full Battle Rattle worth your time. By the end of the doc, your primary question may be, "do these mock villages and exercises really sufficiently prepare the soldier for combat?" But it's more likely to be, "is the government going to grant citizenship to Nagi Moshi, who acts as Medina Wasl's Deputy Police Chief, considering his patriotic duty to America?"
On one level, Full Battle Rattle is enjoyable for the theatrics. The training village is like one of those living museums that recreate colonial times (which says something prophetic about the real Iraq, no?), or, as one soldier puts it, like a "big expensive laser tag" game, but it seems more complex, like a very serious and well-managed game of Dungeons & Dragons, or perhaps some less-fantastical role-playing game (the only others I know are about vampires and Marvel superheroes). We're taken into the writers' room, where all the Iraqi characters' bios and actions are planned. We learn acting tips from the military personnel in charge -- apparently acting is simply about crying on cue by thinking of the saddest thing and, for the soldiers cast as insurgents, speaking gibberish if they don't know Arabic.
On a second level, of course, the film is appreciable for what it says about the U.S. military's involvement in Iraq. Contrasted with the rigorous psychological military training exposed in The Ground Truth, Patricia Foulkrod's excellent 2006 documentary about Iraq War vets, the exercises shown in Full Battle Rattle appear to be more fair, considerate and beneficial. However, it's easy to pick out problems with the Simulation, like in the way the scenarios seem to be based on stereotypical or generalized situations. Enough that the doc is able to break down the complete training "story" into predictable acts.
First the real soldiers occupy the mock village and make promises regarding development and progress. Then a promise is broken by way of miscommunication between the soldiers and the "Iraqis". The insurgency grows in the town due to increased hatred for the soldiers. Then there's collateral damage. Etc. Sure, it's exactly what you've probably seen happen a number of times on the news and in actual Iraq War documentaries. But that doesn't make it either helpful or constructive. The way Full Battle Rattle shows it, a lot of grunts are "dying" in the Simulation, and it doesn't appear as if there's any lessons learned in the end, though at least, I guess, the soldiers are prepared for what it will be like to lose members of their team.
I don't mean to be critical of the Simulation, of which I can only interpret the pros and cons as I see them in the film -- not that Full Battle Rattle intends to take a side on its functionality or on the war itself. There are sure to be plenty of people who see more of its benefits through watching this documentary. And since the film doesn't follow the soldiers beyond Fort Irwin, there's no way of knowing how well the training works towards the real war. All we can know is that we've witnessed the scrimmage -- and partaken in a little practice session ourselves -- that may either raise our hopes or increase our skepticism regarding how well we already feel the Iraq War is going.