Opinion | Iraq Veterans 20 Years Later: ‘I Don’t Know How to Explain the War to Myself’

Nearly 20 years after their deployment to Iraq, veterans grapple with
their younger selves and try to make sense of the war.

Nearly 20 years after their deployment to Iraq, veterans grapple with their younger selves and try to make sense of the war.


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The documentary filmmakers’ work focuses on armed conflict, human rights and extremism. This Op-Doc revisits the subjects of their 2004 documentary “Gunner Palace.”

Text by Michael Tucker

Months after the United States invaded Iraq in 2003, I began filming the U.S. Army’s 2nd Battalion, 3rd Field Artillery Regiment (known as the Gunners) in Baghdad. The unit was housed in a bombed-out palace on the banks of the Tigris that they named Gunner Palace.

Rather than just making a movie about the men, I suggested that we make a film together — an offer that the soldiers quickly embraced. They told the story of the war as only they could: They played guitar, spat out rhymes and played to the camera. But behind all their bravado and posturing, they were just kids who desperately wanted the world to understand the war through their eyes.

In the last two months of 2003, the Gunners lost three men to I.E.D. attacks. They hastily scrambled to create makeshift armor for their soft-skinned vehicles using scrap metal. When asked by a soldier about the lack of armor in 2004, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld famously said, “You go to war with the army you have, not the army you might want or wish to have at a later time.”

They were the army we had. They fought an enemy they couldn’t always see in a land they didn’t understand for reasons that were never entirely clear. In the midst of the pandemic, I visited the men and spoke with them about how they make sense of their role in a war that has yet to be fully reckoned with. In the short documentary above, the veterans grapple with a past that still reverberates powerfully through their lives.

Petra Epperlein and Michael Tucker are a filmmaking couple currently based in New York and Berlin.

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