Full Battle Rattle

Institute History


From Dr. Strangelove to MASH to Three Kings, some of the most successful war films have been the most unconventional. In the tradition of these films, Full Battle Rattle provides a fresh and irreverent look at the soul of the American war machine, a startling reflection of the real Iraq War seen through the prism of a fun-house mirror.

In the Mojave Desert, forty miles from Barstow California, the U.S. Army is fighting a fake war. Here at the National Training Center (NTC) at Fort Irwin, military contractors have fashioned a “virtual Iraq” from boxcars, brick-face and a billion dollars worth of military hardware. It’s an urban warfare training simulation the size of Rhode Island, featuring hundreds of Iraqi-American role-players, U.S. Soldiers playing “insurgents,” war correspondents working for a fake television news network, and, in the center of the action, the 4th Brigade Combat Team from Fort Bliss, Texas, set to deploy to the real Iraq in just 3 months.

Black Hawk helicopters whirl above plywood mosque minarets. Bradley Fighting Vehicles roll down dusty streets. Machine-gun fire crackles from rooftops. Paramilitary death squads. Insurgent kidnappings. Civilian casualties. A guerrilla war in microcosm. Or, as the soldiers of the 4th Brigade call it: Full Battle Rattle.

Blurring the lines of fact and fiction, alternately horrific and hilarious, poetic and satiric, Full Battle Rattle is a feature-length documentary about the U.S. Army’s surreal efforts to stage a theatrical exercise dramatizing its own war effort in Iraq.

In August 2006 and January 2007, the filmmakers were granted unrestricted access to the National Training Center to document life inside “the box,” as the 24/7 wartime simulation is affectionately known. Centered in and around Medina Wasl, an elaborate fake village perched on the brink of civil war, the film tracks an unusual cast of characters on both sides of the conflict, from the moment they receive their “roles” through their simulated “deaths.”

At home in San Diego and Detroit, the Iraqi-American role-players work as liquor store clerks and gas station attendants. In Medina Wasl, they’ve assumed new roles—Sunni cleric, Shia schoolteacher, District engineer—and found the social stature that eludes them in America. On a daily basis, they confront young American soldiers who’ve never met a Muslim or Arab in their lives.

Living next door, cast in the role of the insurgency, are hundreds of US Soldiers. Clad in native Iraqi dress and equipped with detailed “role sheets,” they stage car bombings, mortar attacks, kidnappings and ambushes. These insurgents will do anything to rattle and harass the Army soldiers in training. When not on the job, they’re free to BBQ, play volleyball, and flirt with their Iraqi neighbors.

A few klicks away, at Forward Operating Base Detroit, are the soldiers of the 4th Brigade—the “straight men” in this dramatized war. They play themselves and use their real names. The intricate battle scenarios, simulated gore, and powder-keg local politics are all contrived to test the courage, conviction and discipline of these troops. In a few months they’ll be fighting for their lives in Iraq—and the lessons they learn at NTC are as vital to their survival as their ammunition and armor.

Will the 4th Brigade improve life in Medina Wasl and win the “hearts and minds” of the people, or will their mistakes—inflamed by insurgent attacks and Sunni-Shiite tension—push the town into violent civil war? Does the endgame—the fate of Medina Wasl—reflect the Army’s rose-colored vision of success, or suggest that the Army has lost control of their script? And what happens to the “actors” on this stage after the curtain falls and they resume their “real” lives—here and abroad?

Full Battle Rattle is the story of a real war and a fake town. The battle for Medina Wasl is a potent allegory of our nation’s military missteps and the cultural and religious differences that confound our efforts in Iraq.


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