Soldiers Pay is a documentary that, according to the sleeve notes, was commissioned by a major Hollywood studio, but was deemed too controversial for any broad distribution.
The short doc may have slipped under the consumer radar if not for the involvement of David O. Russell, who wrote and directed the caustic Gulf War drama, Three Kings, in 1999. There's little background on the doc and its filmmakers, although three of the actors that appeared in Russell's feature film - Al No'Mani, and twins Jabir and Ghanem AlGarawi, all living in Los Angeles now - participate as refugees who fled Saddam Hussein's tyranny.
Co-director Tricia Regan (with Jenifer McShane) had made the 1996 doc, Leap of Faith, about a school in Belfast that integrated Catholic and Protestant children; and co-director Juan Carlos Zaldívar had made the autobiographical 90 Miles in 2001, chronicling his flight from Cuba during the 1980 Mariel Boatlift.
Each of the filmmakers brought to the project a pre-existing interest in discussing hard, social issues, and that's where Soldiers Pay succeeds.
Discussions stem from former Iraqi citizens - No'Mani's family, who moved from Detroit to Los Angels; and the AlGarawi twins, who fled through the desert when Hussein regained power, and went after participants in the Gulf War uprising - plus New York Observer Columnist Nicholas Von Hoffman; embedded Los Angels Times reporter David Zucchino; Rachel M. MacNair, Ph.D. (author of Perpetration Induced Traumatic Stress: The Psychological Consequences of Killing); Psychology Professor Dr. David W. Foy, Ph.D.; California Republican Senator David Dreier; and a handful of soldiers: Naval Medic Blaine Willis, Spc. Jamal Mann, Spc. Thomas Borden, Spc. Joseph A. Duran, Supply Sergeant Matt Novak, Mercy Corps Director Michael D. Cooper, Staff Sergeants R. Kevin Rutledge and Anthony G. Brown; and retired Maj. Gen. J. Michael Myatt.
The doc is divided into seven sections, and there's a number of personal anecdotes guaranteed to shock and promote discussion among viewers - which is probably the filmmakers' goal: get people talking, and reassess one's views of both wars, after daily doses of tightly edited network news soundbytes and montages. One of the interviewed soldiers regards the networks' presentation akin to Hollywood 's age-old archetypical treatment of war as straight black and white dramas, with no in-between grey matter.
That giant middle swath is what the doc showcases, and it includes discussions on post-traumatic stress disorder from killing; the stigma and shame returning soldiers face when seeking medical help; the lack of human dignity endemic in war; trauma on the family unit; and the surreal dichotomy in which a U.S. Marine would work alongside a private contractor, performing the same job function, with the latter earning $200,000-300,000, and receive better gear, better arms, and new socks.
The most compelling recollections come from Matt Novak, who first recounts the moment that motivated a career shift from medical work in Germany to becoming a supply sergeant in Iraq; and the peculiar event that led to his discharge from the service: the discovery of $320 million dollars in cash, and the gradual disappearance of some of that money through various hands. (It's an occurrence that's pretty similar to John Ridley's story, which formed the basis of Russell's Three Kings screenplay).
The filmmakers' left-of center position isn't that the war was illegal, wrong, immoral or motivated by arrogance; their point seems to be that mistakes and bad behaviour at various military echelons resulted in a mess that can't be solved in neatly outlined steps within a set time-frame; and that ignoring or suppressing these blunders further polarizes opposing groups, and leaves serving and discharged soldiers in a post-traumatic limbo, while the reconstruction of battered nation remains horribly brittle.
The doc, however, has it's own set of problems: one gets the impression that after all the choice footage was edited into seven fairly tight thematic segments, there wasn't anything left for a conclusion; after a moving statement from retired Maj. Gen. J. Michael Myatt, Soldiers Pay just ends. The filmmakers utilize text captions, quotations, and factual tallies (some held too-briefly onscreen), but not all of the segments feel as natural chapters in a progressing narrative.
The deleted scenes - totaling almost an hour - are an odd mix of scene extensions, plus material dropped from the final doc (including more segments with the aforementioned Staff Sergeants, and Vietnam War vet Curtis Garrett, whose comments further a view of a pre-existing corporate plan to exploit the resources before and no doubt after a major war).
The first bonus section, on Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, appears to be an early edit of the topic, which here incorporates too much material that was later (and more effectively) used in the doc's other segments. As in the finished film, co-director Russell also appears in some of the bonus footage, and there's several bits where the same answers are repeated by the AlGarawi twins. (The film's critics may find these moments proof-positive that answers may have been refined and rehearsed, although Russell's onscreen questions indicate these efforts, rather than alternate takes, were done for clarity and improved sound.)
More interesting among the unused material are comments from Spc. Joseph A. Duran, who criticizes the media for focusing on the negative events during the U.S. military campaign, instead of the good, like setting up schools, and giving out food; ironically, his views were dropped by the filmmakers, because they didn't fit within the hot-topic discussions in the final edit.
In spite of some obvious flaws, Soldiers Pay is well worth tracking down for material that wouldn't be treated in such detail by major networks. Soldiers Pay has no onscreen narration, so the words from the participating and affected men (and their families) dictate the doc's structure, and address some ugly truths.
© 2006 Mark R. Hasan