Good Grief

Washington City Paper | September 18, 2006
The latest Iraq-war documentary, The Ground Truth has several notable weaknesses, not the least of which is that it’s the latest Iraq-war documentary. That limits the audience, as will the fact that director Patricia Foulkrod makes no attempt at the mystical quality known as “balance.” The 72-minute film is based on the testimony of a handful of bitter and shocked Iraq veterans, as well as some family members and a few disinterested observers, with no rebuttal from the U.S. military. Yet everything the vets say rings true, and all but the most jingoistic viewers will be moved. This is an angry movie that entirely warrants its fury.

Like so many American accounts of the Iraq misadventure, The Ground Truth concentrates on the experiences of U.S. soldiers. It doesn’t justify them, however, because the veterans themselves have come to see their assignments as unjustifiable. Detailing the entire Iraq-war arc from fraudulent recruiting practices to dehumanizing training routines to neglect of physically and mentally shattered colleagues, these men and women denounce every aspect of how they were treated—and how they, following orders, treated Iraqis.

Many of the vets’ observations dovetail with those in Winter Soldier, the Vietnam War–era documentary that was revived last year. The GIs of the “greatest generation,” On Killing author David Grossman explains, turned out to be reluctant shooters. That problem has been subsequently fixed with training designed to transform recruits into sociopaths. It works, but it’s lousy preparation for reintegration into civilian life. Iraq vet Jeffrey Lucey, whose family appears in the film, couldn’t shake the sense that he was a “murderer,” so he hanged himself. Nor do the authorities deal well with ex-soldiers who ask for help with such feelings. Buffeted by uncontrollable rages after his Iraq stint, Jimmy Massey turned to a military psychiatrist, only to be told that she didn’t work with “conscientious objectors.” When it’s all over, the brass now classify difficult vets with the “personality disorder” tag, which is supposed to mean that wartime experiences aren’t responsible for their psychological turmoil.

The Ground Truth is visually undistinguished, and its occasional use of hip-hop and folk-rock is superfluous, but those flaws barely detract from the film’s power. Using never-before-seen video from various sources, Foulkrod potently conveys the brutality and randomness of the war. One sequence recounts American injuries—missing hands and limbs, heavy burns, various degrees of blindness and deafness—but the Iraqis have it worse. Says a medic who patched civilian wounds, “You start to feel like you’re a mechanic, fixing the stuff that your friends broke.” American doctors aren’t treating the locals for post-traumatic stress disorder, of course, but then they apparently aren’t handling very many U.S. cases, either. As the film vividly reveals, not all the Iraq war’s wreckage is on the ground—and a lot of it won’t be repaired anytime soon.

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