- Full Battle Rattle
Full Battle Rattle opens on a familiar, war detritus-littered desert landscape that soon breaks out into a firefight between soldiers and an unseen enemy. This is a clever bait-and-switch on the part of the filmmakers: before long, all is revealed to be an elaborate military exercise, the carnage of combat having been replicated down to its minute details, including the fake blood and severed limbs. By invoking this recognizable wartime iconography, directors Tony Gerber and Jesse Moss place their film in fascinating relation to scores of fiction and non-fiction films and media reportage concerning this subject matter. In playing so overtly with viewers’ assumptions, the film proclaims a sort of self-consciousness about portraying the Iraq war and the unreality of some of those media constructions. [End Page 118]
Provocative, but in many ways unsatisfying, this documentary takes place largely in the US Army’s National Training Center at Fort Irwin, a 1000 square mile area in California’s Mojave Desert with detailed replicas of entire Iraqi villages built for simulated combat and human relations training for soldiers soon to be deployed to Iraq. The camera follows a single battalion assigned to the ersatz village of Medina Wasl, populated by Iraqi-Americans hired to play villagers, local politicians, even insurgents and criminals, to give the setting an aura of authenticity. Devising the backstories of individual participants with remarkable detail is a team of “Architects” who, in air-conditioned offices, plot out various missions and combat scenarios designed to resemble potential encounters in the real Iraq.
Key to Medina Wasl’s success as an immersive simulation is its “indigenous” population, actors who live in the faux-villages, full-time. Each exercise consists of scripts they must follow that dictate their reactions to the presence of American troops and the amount of actionable “intelligence” they may give out. Sometimes circumstances require their “characters” be killed; the following day, that actor returns as somebody new. The film is quick to establish that the Iraqis themselves are aware of (even amused by) the irony of their circumstances: they have immigrated to America only to find employment as denizens of the very habitus they sought to escape. Some are shown in their spare time studying to earn American citizenship; another, having immigrated illegally, hopes that his service to the US military will qualify him for asylum, since deportation would mean certain death upon his return. This surreal relationship to the process of Americanization is itself worthy of standalone documentary treatment.
It is evident that the Iraqis feel a great sense of pride in what they are doing, and their presence in the film supplies a voice too often missing from American media narratives about the war and the displaced identities it has produced. There is genuine camaraderie among the villagers, some having come from actual experiences of violence. The film’s focus is invariably the soldiers in training (the story concludes, after all, with the completion of their training and their subsequent deployment), but these sections are where Rattle is most poignant, suggesting that this Iraqi involvement is vital to the camp’s sense of community and ensure its successes – just as it can in real-life Iraq. This sense of collaboration emphasized by the filmmakers convinces viewers of the value of this type of theatrical immersion, which appears effective in putting untested soldiers into contact with another cultural reality. (At one point, an officer admonishes a soldier for his derisively referring to “that As-Salamu Alaykum shit,” insisting that cultural sensitivity is equally important as a mission’s tactical aims.) [End Page 119]
In this respect, Rattle hints at the paradoxes that characterize the encampment (and the war itself): soldiers must adopt the role of cultural ambassadors that view the villagers as allies and willing cooperators, whilst being alert to the constant possibility of unexpected attack or betrayal. In his famous treatise On War, Carl von Clausewitz notes that
to estimate exactly the influence of danger upon the principle actors in War...