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PopMatters – Review

May 21, 2010

All Things Sand

By Cynthia Fuchs

“If the Republican Guard, supposedly the elite Iraqi force, chooses to stand and meet us,” submits First Lieutenant Mike Scotti, “It could become a shitty mess. I guess that means I’m gonna need a lot of film. That’s about it.”

Well, maybe not all of it. At the beginning of Severe Clear, Kristian Fraga’s documentary comprised of Scotti’s footage, he appears in a bedroom, packing to deploy to Iraq for the 2003 invasion. He notes early that his self-recording and performance are strategic. He means to write a book, and he’s got footage from his previous tours in Afghanistan. (This, he says, is his fourth camera since becoming a Marine; one was destroyed by desert dust and another when he strapped it to his chest while jumping from a chopper: still, he says, he got the shot.)

With this book, he says, he means to grant an “honest glimpse into what it’s really like out here. If we don’t tell it, who will?” Certainly not the press, who are pictured in the desert gathered under protective tents, waiting for “news” to be told to them. Scotti’s premise is provocative, but not because he has access to a table or irrefutable truth. His story, after all, is his own, framed by his lens and history, his assumptions and disappointments—all limits that are also enlightening as well as compelling. But as Scotti indicates early and often, his story is shaped and reshaped by his interactions with other stories, lived by comrades, produced by media outlets, and promulgated by the fallible military and seemingly always wrong “politicians.” Scotti’s initial, hazy wariness of these last two will inevitably be confirmed by soldiers’ discovery that Saddam had no WMDs.

If Scotti’s route to this apprehension is not surprising, now, it is often fascinating. For one thing, the film is fond of ironic juxtaposition, say, Scotti’s early-on earnest sense of mission (namely, vengeance for the death of a high school classmate on 9/11), next to Colin Powell’s infamously untrue statement to the United Nations (“My colleagues, every statement I make today is backed up by sources, solid sources. These are not assertions. What we’re giving you are facts and conclusions based on solid intelligence”). Or again, the film contrasts Donald Rumsfeld’s attack on “the media” for exaggerating the pandemonium in Baghdad (“I read eight headlines that talked about chaos, violence, unrest, and it just was Henny Penny, “The sky is falling.” I’ve never seen anything like it!”) with Scotti’s own shots of exactly that chaos and violence and unrest.

These contradictions are of a piece with Scotti’s own sense of the war, in that it can’t possibly be what he expects or wants. “Note for book,” he reads from a journal entry: “The initial impact and beauty of the desert has been replaced by an intense hatred for all things sand.” It’s a useful metaphor, as the war’s shifting moral and political grounds become a recurring theme. Under an audio bite from George Bush “(We come to Iraq with respect for its citizens”), a scene shows roadside sheep and herders before cutting to hectic fight footage (careening camera, dust and explosions), with breathless narration (“Oh shit, sad day to be enemy infantry: fuck ‘em”). Repeatedly, Scotti’s camera captures such discrepancies between on-the-ground images and stated objectives. Yes, these incongruities are to be expected in combat, but the film also alludes to their costs, the grinding away of trust between troops and commanders, as well as lost lives.

Severe Clear covers a part of the invasion that should have seemed most reasonable, that is, Scotti’s unit’s journey from Kuwait to Baghdad, some 330 miles of hot road. Here they suffer regular difficulties—boredom, weather, and some engagements with enemy forces—all leading the Americans to believe that the war is in fact a war, legitimate and well planned.

As they prepare to head to Baghdad, the troops are subjected to the sort of circular logic that makes war possible, when a commander asserts that when each uses his weapon, “Your decision will be right, it will be true, because Marines and sailors keep their honor pure.” This exhortation is followed by a series of encounters that belie this faith. During a chapter titled “Combat,” soldiers look out at the results of a recent fight: “There’s a very distinct smell,” one says. “There are dead all over the place: this is fucking war.”

As Scotti observes over the soul-rocking scenes that follow, it becomes increasingly difficult to engage in such rowdy exultation, to reconcile experience with ideals. He and his fellows shoot up a vehicle that is revealed afterwards to be carrying “a father and his baby girl.” Scotti is shaken. “When the frightened man lifted his daughter out of the car,” the lieutenant recalls, “her brain fell out of her broken skull and onto the road. There was nothing anybody could do and the finality of it all was so confusing.” This is also “fucking war,” but not the story warriors like to tell about themselves. “We were here to help these people,” laments Scotti. “Not to destroy them.”

It’s not the first time that troops have had to sort out contradictions, either to live with fog-of-warrish mistakes or to ignore official rationales and invest directly in each other—but it’s the first time for these troops. Just so, Scotti explains: “We don’t have the luxury of choosing our wars and picking which battles we wanna fight… I know it’s hard for some to understand, no matter how much it sucks sometimes, we love what we fucking do.” This split between us and them is necessary, both fictional and real. There has to be reasons for what we do, even and especially if they are ignorant or deceptive, willfully or not.

None of the reasons have to be true or even make sense. And for all the claims of collective revenge and national pride, the costs of war are, in the end, individual—yours. When the sands shift again, when, as Scotti says, you come home and “you’re filled with one overwhelming emotion: anger,” still you have to find an order. You need to find a way to survive. When you’re alone with too much time to remember and reflect, it is still “fucking war.”

Rating: 8 out of 10

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