Filmed in early 2004, director-editor Ian Olds’ documentary follows a group of soldiers from the Army’s 82nd Airborne Division stationed in al-Falluja, Iraq’s “city of mosques”. Their mission is to maintain the peace and root out insurgents, yet most importantly: to survive their tours of duty and go home.
Many of these young men, a lot of them poor and under-educated, joined the military because they lacked viable career or life alternatives. Once stationed in Iraq, they clearly wonder why they are there (“What exactly are we protecting?” asks one. “I don’t know”). Their daily lives, at least as depicted rather matter-of-factly by Olds, seem to consist of stretches of drudgery punctuated by occasional outbursts of gunfire and dangerous activity, along with meetings in which officers try to persuade them to re-enlist once their contracts expire.
Although there are snipers and bombers around, we don’t witness any casualties (filming was completed before the Marines laid bloody siege to al-Falluja in April of that same year). Instead, it is an uneasy co-existence between locals who don’t want them there (“America can go to the moon and make nuclear rockets,” says one Iraqi, “but it can’t make the people”) and soldiers who are duty-bound to fulfill their missions and understand why they are mistrusted, but have little sympathy for those they are supposed to help (“I hate these people,” mutters one). They may call their base of operations “Dreamland” (it’s actually an abandoned Ba’athist retreat), but for most of these guys, “nightmare” might be more appropriate.