The sun rises and sets in hues of yellow, red-orange, and blue over an interminably, impossibly flat, sandy landscape. Helicopters fly overhead almost without stop. A haunting call to prayer echoes throughout the area. Buildings rise up from the topographically homogenous earth. Uniformed American soldiers walk around carrying guns. Were you unaware, you may think you’re watching behind-the-scenes footage of a film set in the Middle East. But there is no pretense, no staging behind what you see. Everything is real. It’s not a set in the Mojave Desert, there is no audio track recorded in a studio, and there is no sound stage. The images on screen are all part of Ian Olds and Garrett Scott’s documentary “Occupation: Dreamland,” a seventy-nine minute-long glimpse into the lives of the American soldiers assigned to patrol Falluja, Iraq in the months before Washington ordered its seizure.
Dispersed throughout the documentary are title cards and text that detail the significance of a situation or provide factual information. The film opens with “Al-Falluja, city of Mosques, is a key commercial center on the highway linking Baghdad and the Jordanian border.” Its importance was realized in the fall of 2003 and then “military strategists consider[ed] it the center of Sunni Arab insurgency.” Filmed in January 2004, Olds and Scott’s documentary shadows the US Army’s 82nd Airborne Division and Alpha Company’s 2nd Platoon as they monitor the city for potential insurgent activity. The men live at the Forward Operating Base Volturno, which is coined “Dreamland.” Many soldiers are interviewed and receive screen time, but the filmmakers focus on about a dozen of them. The first words you hear from their mouths either explain why they joined the military or what they feel about the war on terrorism.
Staff Sergeant Chris Corcione, the 1st Squad Leader, used to be a bassist in a death metal band. Sergeant Eric Forbes finished 9th grade and did a few stints in juvenile detention centers. Platoon Leader 1st Lieutenant Matt Bacik went to a private high school and wanted to go to West Point. Private First Class Thomas Turner never imagined he’d be in the army but there he is in Iraq, doing what he has to do and understanding why the locals are upset and afraid of American military presence. Sgt. John Blyler worked at a shoe store located next to a recruiting office. His experiences have been a little different than what he expected but the army was something to do for someone just out of high school. Specialist Patrick Napoli didn’t know what to do with his life and didn’t have enough money to DJ. There are a couple of moments when he confides to the camera that military atmosphere has a tendency to make a person feel useless and inferior, as though nothing you do is good enough. Instead of encouragement, there is only berating.
Sgt. Ryan Mish, 3rd Squad Leader, on the other hand, has a slightly different attitude. He doesn’t mind enemy gunfire because it’s literally exciting and is preferable to walking around not finding anything. From the Alpha Company are Sgt. Luis Pacheco, the medic, and Spc. Joseph Wood. When asked whether or not the end justify the means, Pacheco comments that only people who want to make a career out of being in the military don’t feel used. There’s a moment during basic training when it dawns on you that if there’s going to be war, you’re going to be fighting. Such a realization changes your way of thinking. Wood adds that joining the military means you’ll be f****d from day one; you sacrifice yourself in every way imaginable. He wanted to be an artist but didn’t have the money for college. He was going to just ask questions at a recruiting office and ended up with a four year contract.
As the documentary progresses, incorporating footage of raids and interactions with the Iraqi people, you learn more about the soldiers and any preconceptions you may have about America’s continued involvement in the Middle East will be challenged, not dramatically but enough for you to understand that the men and women protecting our interests aren’t very different from you. They must do what they’re commanded to do but they have doubts about the whole situation too. At one point Lt. Bacik talks about the near futility of the entire operation. Are they really in Falluja for the benefit of the civilians? He doesn’t have the authority or the money to help the people and if he says that the Americans are there to catch the bad guys, he’s likely taking away someone’s brother. He emphasizes, though, that “you can think the war is bullshit but you still have a job to do.”
There’s a striking scene where the locals share their thoughts on Americans. The consensus seems to be that the US has made so many false promises. “We’ll fix your city; pave roads, construct buildings, provide water and electricity, give you freedom” and yet there’s been nothing but guns and the (older) people are sick of it. The contrast between governmental intention and execution, theory and implementation is quite stark. Likewise, soldiers may go there with a particular mindset but their experiences inevitably impact their personal views. For example, Sgt. Blyler went to Falluja wanting to help the people but after seeing certain things, he stopped caring. He comments that some bad guys have been caught but progress is so slow and the locals don’t appear to want help from America. In order to survive physically and mentally in the kinds of environments the soldiers are sent, their own philosophies and psychological identities have to be tailored and trimmed, but it’s clear that they haven’t lost the ability to form their own opinions and question what they’re doing. They don’t necessarily regret, but they just want to feel that everything they’ve sacrificed, everything they’ve done won’t be for nothing.
While the documentary addresses issues such as reasons for enlisting and whether the war is worth fighting, you don’t get the impression that Olds and Scott are trying to sneak sub-textual ideology into your heads. It wouldn’t be surprising if “Occupation: Dreamland” eventually carried stronger anti-war, anti-government sentiments, but the filmmakers do not overtly cross that line. There’s an interesting part where Pfc. Turner badmouths President Bush and Sgt. Corcione tells him not to bash the administration on camera. Understandably, Corcione doesn’t want to be misconstrued but he also knows and believes that he has to protect the integrity of the institution that put him and his squad mates in the cradle of the world. You may have friends or family who are in the Middle East risking their lives against terrorism, but if you don’t, “Occupation: Dreamland” is a reminder that our soldiers are people not unlike yourself. You can think what you want to about the war, but you have to respect that they put their lives on the line.