Charles Petzold

Documentary: “The Ground Truth”

October 15, 2006
New York, NY

It is well known that in the American Civil War, in World War I, and in World War II, many soldiers — perhaps even a majority — would not fire their weapons at other human beings. People, it seems, have an innate resistence to killing others, and this instinct extends even to the battlefield, and even when one's own live is threatened.

By the time of the Vietnam War, this was no longer so. Through a combination of conditioned training, desensitization, simulations, indoctrinated racism, and the fostering of sustained rage, American soldiers had been trained to be killers. That same type of training has continued through the current war in Iraq.

But what happens when soldiers trained in such a way must rejoin society? Such is the implicit question probed by The Ground Truth, a quietly polemical documentary directed by Patricia Foulkrod about veterans of the Iraq War. Deirdre and I caught up with the movie a few weeks ago at the Landmark Sunshine on East Houston Street (which has recently become one of the best theaters in Manhattan for seeing movies not based on comic books) but it's also available on DVD.

The Ground Truth has no narrator and nobody mentions any political figures. The film consists mostly of young veterans of the Iraq War talking about their experiences, interspersed with film and video clips of the war. Many of these veterans have physical and psychological scars, but a resounding theme is the guilt they feel for killing Iraqi civilians.

In particular, two parts of this documentary continue to haunt me. The first concerns a cadence (a marching chant) that the Marines were taught in basic training. This particular cadence is about rounding up Iraqi kids from a school and then mowing them down. I would not have believed such a chant was possible, but two of the veterans independently spoke about it. When we hear shocking reports about violence against Iraqi civilians, it's helpful to remember that this behavior is explicitly taught in basic training.

The other part of the documentary that bothered me greatly was some footage from Iraq where an American tries to get Iraqi prisoners to lie face down on the ground with their heads turned in a particular way, and he becomes increasingly more frustrated because these Iraqis had apparently not bothered to learn English in anticipation of the American invasion and occupation.

It seems to me that when country A is invading country B "for their own good," then it is the responsibility of country A to train their ground soldiers in the language and culture of country B. This type of education seems a lot more sensible and productive than marching around chanting about killing school kids.

Towards the end of the documentary are scenes from what appears to be an emerging veterans' anti-war movement, similar to that during the Vietnam War (and recently chronicled in the documentary Sir! No Sir!). Of course, the existence of this movement has been pretty much suppressed in the American memory in preference to the Rambo "the protesters spit on me" myth.

The Ground Truth is a deeply disturbing view of the effect of the Iraq War on those brave Americans who have volunteered to fight it. Support our troops by seeing this documentary.