Filmmaker Chronicles The Reality Of U.S. Troops In Iraq
ALLISON KEYES, host: I'm Allison Keyes and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Michel Martin is away.
They are perhaps the most difficult war injuries from which to recover: burn wounds. As part of NPR's Impact of War series, we'll hear from someone whose focus for the last 10 years has been to help military personnel recover physically and emotionally from burns.
But, first, we speak with a journalist and filmmaker who spent much of three years in the closest of quarters with Marines in combat. Brian Palmer was embedded with the First Battalion, Second Marine Regiment in Iraq. And he's chronicled the lives and missions of those servicemen in his film "Full Disclosure."
The movie is now screening at film festivals around the country and will air on the Documentary Channel tomorrow. Brian Palmer is also a photographer and fellow at New York University Center on Law and Security. He joins us now from our NPR bureau in New York. Welcome, Brian.
BRIAN PALMER: Hello, Allison.
KEYES: And I have to say, amazing, visceral documentary.
PALMER: Thank you.
KEYES: But I want to start by playing a clip from the main character of your film, Staff Sergeant David Moreno, who was part of the Marine battalion you were embedded with.
(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "FULL DISCLOSURE")
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
DAVID MORENO: When I think of a war, I think of World War II. I think, you know, the Vietnam War, I think of the Korean War. When you got, you know, opposition forces that are in uniforms and you know who you're fighting. When I think of a war nowadays, it's war, but you got to know exactly what you're doing, your rules of engagement. There's people, there's innocent civilians out there. It's just not - hey, I need you to learn how to read and write like World War II, hey, you can read and write? Hey, you're going in infantry, you're joining, sign here.
KEYES: I wonder, Brian, before you got there, did you think of war the same way?
PALMER: I didn't know what I was getting into, Allison, and when I actually arrived in Iraq, that wasn't what I thought war would be. I saw young Marines, 19, 20, 24 going out on the streets on a daily basis trying to find an enemy that they really couldn't identify. And, you know, I thought there would be more kinetic operations as the military refers to them more, you know.
KEYES: What do you mean?
PALMER: Bang, bang sort of stuff. Not that that was what I was looking for. I was looking for what U.S. troops did on the ground, on the street every day. I had no idea it was so much slogging, walking down streets, knocking on doors. Very sort of tedious day to day operations that weren't always entirely intelligence driven, shall we say.
KEYES: What was it like watching men that are 19, 20, 24 have to make these huge decisions that not only affected their lives, but the lives of the civilians around them?
PALMER: It was difficult. I would see these young kids, some of them just with good hearts, good intentions, but with no experience in foreign countries, no Arabic, poor translators and training that's 99 percent tactical. So here they are, they're being pressed into service to be, you know, they're supposed to be negotiators and conflict resolvers and policemen and hydrologists and on and on and on and yet they're trained to kick down doors and to shoot people. And it seemed to be a tragic improvisation every single day where these kids were just trying to do the best that they could. And in the end they really spend most of their time trying to protect themselves and to protect their buddies.
KEYES: It's obvious from watching the film how personal this was to you and it made you, when you narrate the parts of the film, it seems that you questioned your ethical responsibilities as a journalist. Let's take a listen from a clip.
(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "FULL DISCLOSURE")
PALMER: Storming into people's homes with the troops and shoving my camera in their faces felt awful at first. By my second trip to Iraq, I'd gotten used to it. I know I'm crossing ethical lines here I wouldn't and couldn't cross at home. But the rules in Iraq are different. The Marines don't need search warrants or court orders. And as an embed, I'm part of the squad.
KEYES: When you watch this, it seems clear that it's very difficult at minimum to remain objective while living with Marines who are providing your food, providing your safety, you're seeing what they saw. How did you try to walk that line?
PALMER: It was an impossible line to walk. One of the reasons I went to Iraq is because in 2002 I was covering Afghanistan. I was based in Kabul for about a month for CNN. And much of the time, I spent standing in front of a camera and talking into a microphone at Bagram Air Base. A lot of what I was reporting was what people were telling me. So when I decided to go to Iraq as an independent, I knew I had to be out on the street and reporting to the best of my ability.
But, as you said, I was embedded. I was covering the people who protected me, who kept me alive. I thought it was important for the viewer to know that. To know that all embeds, everybody who deploys forward, as in in conflict zones with U.S. troops, has to sign an agreement that says you'll do certain things and you won't do certain things. Some of those certain things you won't do. You won't reveal intelligence information. You won't show the faces of dead Marines.
So these compromises, I thought, viewers needed to know and the personal aspect of it, I thought, well, that's kind of important as well, because I'm a person covering this. I'm someone with unique experiences and that full disclosure of who I was I thought was important for the viewer to understand. So this idea that a journalist can be a fly on the wall, that just doesn't hold true under these circumstances.
KEYES: If you're just joining us, you're listening to TELL ME MORE from NPR News.
We're talking to Brian Palmer about his documentary, "Full Disclosure," and the time he spent embedded with Marines in Iraq. Brian, has it been difficult for you to adjust to being back home? You talk in the film about how you would go to military cemeteries and you'd look on the headstones for the names of people you were with. And you still sound very angry about the way the conflict there is being perceived. What's it like being back here?
PALMER: I didn't feel like I was entitled to feel anger or to feel pain or upset or frustration or anything after coming back after all. Over a period of three years I would go for three weeks, a month, six weeks and I could leave anytime. Marines, soldiers, they can't do that. They're there for seven months, eight months, 14 months. And Iraqis, they're stuck in the combat zone. Their home is a combat zone.
So for me to say, oh my God, this disconnect is driving me nuts felt self-indulgent. So I just held it in - well, for a while, I would, you know, like a lot of journalists I would drink and then let it out. But that didn't do much. And I think that, to be honest, it took a lot of talking, it took a lot of counseling, it took a lot of just living. And I think it was probably around 2008 that I had sort of come back down to Earth a bit and I could talk about this without exploding because it is...
KEYES: Do you - I want to jump in and ask, do you think you have PTSD?
PALMER: I don't know. And, again, it seems...
KEYES: And I should say, post-traumatic stress disorder for our listeners that don't know.
PALMER: I don't know. And I don't even think the label is important. I do not, under any circumstances want to compare myself to people who spent long periods of time in conflict zones, whether it's Iraq or Congo or Afghanistan. I don't want to compare myself to the people who are condemned to live in between warring factions. I can't do that.
I do know that the conflict reached deeply inside of me. The people that I saw hurt, killed, Iraqi and American, I feel like have a tremendous responsibility to them. I can't let that go. What I can try and do is let go some of the rage. But it is there.
KEYES: The last question for you. You yourself describe this documentary as, quote, a cautionary tale about the hidden but very real consequences of war. What do you mean by that, and do you think people here that are not in the military get it?
PALMER: In a word, no. When I started this project as a journalist in 2004, just writing articles and taking pictures I thought I could affect the national debate on Iraq. I don't believe that anymore. What I do believe is that I can reach people on a one-to-one basis. If they'll look at this film and they'll see the individuals behind it, maybe they'll have some understanding of what such occupations are about. Maybe they'll start to think a little bit more critically and perhaps a little bit more empathetically about what's going on in Afghanistan.
You know, troops coming into someone's living room in Helmand province or a firefighter, something like that, we don't know that. I think we need to develop a curiosity, a hunger to learn about these things, because these policies are being made in our name and they will affect us.
KEYES: Brian Palmer is a producer and director of "Full Disclosure," a documentary about his time embedded with the Marines in Iraq. He's also an accomplished journalist, photographer and fellow at New York University Center on Law and Security. "Full Disclosure" is screening at film festivals around the country and will air on the Documentary Channel tomorrow. Brian joined us from our New York bureau. Thank you very much and take care.
PALMER: Thank you, Allison.
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