Tonight you can watch the mother lode of reality shows. It's called Bad Voodoo's War, and it airs on PBS' Frontline. Bad Voodoo's War is the story of a platoon of 30 soldiers in Iraq armed with both military might and camcorders. Cameras are attached to their Humvees and carried in their hands as they take us on a mind-molesting mine-field of monotony that turns into an eruption of violence and leaves viewers sitting as anxious as nervous fingers on a loaded gun.
Director Deborah Scranton (The War Tapes) uses her brilliant "subject as reporter" theme to tell Bad Voodoo's War. With very few "embeds" (journalists reporting from Iraq), Scranton jars us into the reality of war by forcing us to see through the eyes of the soldiers.
She chose a California based National Guard unit with seasoned soldiers. Almost all of them have seen prior active duty. They are not wide-eyed "want to be" warriors. They know the ropes, and they know a meaningful mission when they see one. Viewers get the impression there are many reasons to doubt this mission is worth the lives of the extraordinary men Scranton's cameras introduce us to.
At 18-years-old, when most of our sons are working to get into someone's pants, Jason Shaw learned how to tie tourniquets around his pant legs to keep himself and his fellow soldiers from "bleeding out" during battle. While fighting for control of the Baghdad airport in 1993, the 18-year-old Shaw was awarded the Military's third highest award for valor, The Silver Star.
He lost six of his best friends during that tour, returned to the states and moved to California to help care for the child of one of those buddies killed in action. Shaw suffered from post traumatic stress syndrome, lost his girlfriend and his religion and insisted on returning to die with his "brothers" if he had to. He did not want them in a fight he might be able to help them win. His fear of them dying on the battlefield without him was stronger than his fear of returning to Iraq. He is now 22-years-old in Bad Voodoo's War. I wonder if he understands the bravest people are always afraid.
By now you know, the group calls itself Bad Voodoo, taking the nickname of their trusted Sergeant First Class Toby Nunn. It shows incredible insight on Nunn's part, the group's father figure. Nunn adopted the name while in the Balkans where Muslims and Christians were arguing over religion and wanted to know his. He said he was "Bad Voodoo." The name stuck. The message clear -- religion is nothing to kill over.
In the PBS Frontline film, to air Tuesday night, Nunn and his platoon's mission on this tour is to "Secure military and non-military elements going into Iraq." The 30-man platoon protects the convoys as they drive from Kuwait into Iraq in an area known as IED (Improvised explosive devices) ally. It is clearly one of the "worst stretches of theater," Nunn explains. Toby Nunn is not one for hyperbole, so when he says the road is dangerous his men believe him, and it did not take long for them to see for themselves.
"The (new) surge," he says, "has brought so many forces and so much equipment." What Sergeant Nunn does not say is his 30 men are road Kamikazes. They keep their eyes peeled day and night for road side bombs, many bombs on IED alley are not on the side of the road at all, but in the middle, and those are often the hardest to see in the dark even with night goggles because the bombs are buried and waiting for a tire to trigger an explosion. Nunn uses his tripod and camera to show shrapnel following an explosion and explains how it flies -- helter skelter, jagged and burning hot -- cutting off legs and body parts and destroying what appear to be very vulnerable military vehicles. If an IED awaits the convoy, Nunn and his men will find it one way or another. Hopefully, they will find it when they are still alive.
When they make it through a particularly stressful 48 hour convoy escort alive, Nunn resembles a doting father, walking past the men's beds making sure they sleep before he considers closing his eyes himself. He wants to hug them for their bravery, but he knows he cannot. He would gladly give his life for them, and after watching the documentary, is it clear they know this. As Sergeant First Class Nunn takes one last look at his men, before trying to sleep himself, he knows tomorrow will only bring another kamikaze trip down the most dangerous road in Iraq. Lying awake alone -- ever vigilant -- he sometimes talks to the camera as it were his closest confidant.
The road "Bad Voodoo" is guarding is the only access road the Bush administration and private companies (supporting and benefiting from the war) have to bring supplies in. This was certainly not the battlefield Nunn and his men were trained to navigate.
It's a strange coincidence that I know Toby Nunn. I met him after his tours in the Balkans, Afghanistan and then his first tour in Iraq. We met through a friend of mine who was on Nunn's striker team during one of Nunn's first Iraqi tours. I was told by my friend that Toby Nunn was the "one of the finest soldiers" he had ever met. My friend is brilliant in his own right, so I agreed to meet Toby Nunn. I am proud to know him. Just as the men he watches over in Bad Voodoo's War.
Toby has a loving wife and a new baby girl, as well as two sons. In Iraq, he now has 30 sons. They listen to his every word. They know he can help save their lives. When Toby got the call to return to Iraq, I remember thinking, "So much is given by so few in this country." They fight, so many of us can pretend there is no war. Many Americans can't wait to get home from work to watch reality shows, but this time Toby's reality is scheduled to air. This is reality that teaches. Thank goodness for director Deborah Scranton.
There are many things disturbing about his film. Why are U.S. soldiers protecting private contractors on "death ally" when the contractors "Bad Voodoo" protects, clearly have the money to hire private security of their own? It's time for Toby Nunn and his men to come home. They have given enough.
Another question that haunts me that Toby Nunn and his men are not allowed to answer in this film is -- what are they risking their lives for? What is in those convoys of trucks and tankers going into and out of Iraq? What they carry in them would give the country great insight into the bush administration's agenda. I hope whatever they are risking their lives to transport is helping to protect America and not lining the pockets of multi-billion-dollar-corporations who care little for anything but profit. Toby Nunn -- and his men should not be sacrificed for money. They are priceless.
In one segment of the film, Nunn tries to communicate to Iraqi police. It is an impossible situation, and clearly Iraqi police have no idea how to lead. At one point, an Iraqi police officer asks, "Who do we complain to when the (Iraqi police) disobey orders?" No infrastructure is in place. How can American soldiers teach Iraqi soldiers who lived under a dictatorship how to lead? They are trained to be followers.
One final note to Toby and his men if I may? Toby is seen talking late at night to the cameras. He wonders if anyone cares they are traveling the highway of death everyday. He wonders how long they can live with the uncertainty and monotony and sleep deprivation and IEDs. He wonders out loud and without judgment if anyone understands what this war has become.
This is for you, "Bad Voodoo." It is a poem I recently put under the pillows of my children when they arrived for our latest family reunion. The poem is written by the poet e.e. cummings.
"...here is the root of the root and the bud of the bud and the sky of the sky of a tree called life; which grows higher than soul can hope or mind can hide -- and this is the wonder keeping the stars apart.
I carry your heart -- I carry it in my heart..."
"Bad Voodoo," take the personal pronouns and turn them into the collective. We carry you in our hearts. Come home safe to us.