With violence now receding throughout Iraq a new war documentary that calls attention to emerging alliances and vibrant market centers in a manner that seemed surreal during the apex of the insurgency may in retrospect turn out to be quite prescient.
This hopeful sentiment is strongly shared across the board by filmmakers and soldiers who participated in some of key footage obtained for "Brothers at War" in late 2005 and throughout 2006 when instability and violence eclipsed democratic progress. (http://brothersatwarmovie.com)
In an effort to better understand the experiences of his younger brothers serving in Iraq Jake Rademacher, a professional writer, filmmaker and actor, embedded with U.S. intelligence operatives and combat units operating in sensitive areas prior to when the "troop surge" strategy was implemented.
The end result is a documentary told through the perspective of soldiers who must endure intense fighting in Iraq and long periods of separation from their family members. On his first trip Jake traveled to Mosul, Iraq located in the Ninawa Province near the Syrian border. Here he connected with his brother Isaac Rademacher, a West Point graduate and second in command of an elite Long Range Surveillance Company.
When he returned in 2006 Jake embedded with three different combat units deployed within the Sunni Triangle where he experiences some of the most gripping battle sequences featured in the documentary.
The juxtaposition in the film between military operations in Iraq and domestic settings back home in America made it possible to have parallel storylines that can be widely appreciated by military families, Norman Powell, a Hollywood film producer explained in an interview.
"The honesty of the people who are interviewed is one of the great virtues of this film," Powell said in an interview. "Through a combination of instinct and skill Jake earned their trust and they [the soldiers] felt they didn't need to be overly careful and could just say what was on their mind."
From a historical perspective the documentary helps show how American-Iraq alliances were starting to coalesce even in the pre-surge era, Radamacher explained. The awkward, early moments of the Iraqi army unfold under the charge of Marines such as Staff Sgt. Edward Allier, who were operating at the height of the insurgency, he observed.
Although he was clearly frustrated with the lack of coordination in these early moments, Allier "who is straight out of Hollywood casting," helped open the way to even more effective units now in the field, Radamacher observed.
The progress of the Iraqi army is difficult to overstate said Isaac an army captain who is the older of the two brothers serving. Looking back now on the period immediately following the invasion there was good cause for cynicism. The Iraqi Civilian Defense Corps., for instance, a National Guard type of operation was a source of consternation during his first tour, he explained.
But there is much a different dynamic at work now that is cause for encouragement, Isaac pointed out.
"When I saw Iraqis kicking in doors the way Americans did, I just stood back and said `wow' that's a lot of progress and the Iraqi special operations are just getting crazy good," he said. "But what was most amazing to me was their ability to develop and act on their own intelligence. They have their own infrastructure, without any of our assistance and we are actually plugging in to what they have to find out what the word is on the street. We throw in a little bit of our technology and this gives us a complete picture."
The transition back to family life at home in America also figures prominently in the film. Both younger brothers had difficulty reconnecting with their domestic lives after a long separation.
Isaac, for instance, found that his young daughter did not recognize him at first. He also expressed frustration with Wal-Mart shoppers who were caught up in trivial complaints divorced from hard realities.
The strain on family life is told from the perspective of Sgt. Joseph Rademacher's fiancé, Danielle, who offers up a highly sympathetic portrait. She discusses some of the changes that are evident in Joe's disposition, especially after his first tour.
Joseph, who is the youngest of the three, served in both Afghanistan and Iraq as sniper with the 82nd Airborne. There was an "awkward readjustment" that required time, space and solitude, he acknowledges.
The emotional strain captured on film is also balanced against a few serene moments in front of a lake where Joseph and Danielle enjoy the kind of quiet conversation a lot of military couples can richly appreciate, Jake observed.
"I felt better after seeing the film for the first time," Danielle said. "I could see that it was not all duck and cover and that Joe and other soldiers all have friends, and they are not constantly getting shot at. There were certainly some tough parts in the film but in the end it did a lot of good for all us and I hope it reach other military families."
While serving as a sniper Joseph developed a keen sense for street movements in the various neighborhoods that helped him to distinguish between normal, everyday traffic and unsettling patterns that were indicative of enemy activity. U.S. soldiers would go to great lengths to avoid collateral damage so innocents were not caught in the middle of any engagements.
"When the enemy is preparing an attack you see the civilians disperse and there is quietness that is unusual and we can just tell something is wrong," he said. "We found that Iraqis want peace just like the Americans, they care about their children and they are trying to stand up a government and this is a difficult project. Because we made every effort to avoid collateral damage it was easier for us to neutralize the enemy."
The transformation of the Anbar Province that became evident in 2007 was in many respects the result of the partnership U.S. forces had fostered with local citizens and tribal leaders while the insurgency was still raging in the preceding years, Isaac explained.
"The Iraqis don't blame us for the violence they blame the terrorists and insurgents," he said. "Anbar now belongs to the Iraqis. There has been an awakening and they are standing up for their own country."
Now on his third tour in Iraq has vivid memory of the early, awkward moments that followed out from the overthrow of Saddam Hussein's government.
"A population and a society that was oppressed by a tyrant for generations doesn't just get a taste of freedom and then immediately know how to stand up for itself," Isaac said. "They [the Iraqis] spent a lot of time asking questions after we toppled the regime and when we handed them the country they didn't immediately know what to do with it. Never before have they had a say in government."
Between the gunfire battles and reconnaissance missions that call attention to the horrors of war the film also highlights a hopeful vision of the future in Kirkuk, Kurdistan where local Muslims, Christians and American soldiers intermixed in a peaceful marketplace.
Mahout Muhammad Ali, an interpreter who lost his brother to terrorists, accompanies the American soldiers while they are purchasing furniture, chairs and electronics as part of supply mission. Ali discusses some of own history and his future aspirations for Iraq.
An economically vibrant Iraq, with a growing infrastructure, greater stability and reduced violence is moving closer to reality, Joseph observed.
"I think Iraq has surpassed Afghanistan in terms of its overall organization, military capability and political progress, he said. "There are still a lot of sheep that need protection but I think Iraqis are better equipped to do this now on their own than they were just a short time ago."
"Brothers at War" concludes when Joseph re-enlists in the Army and departs home once again for Iraq. In one of the final scenes he disappears into a row of helmets with his fellow soldiers.
"We felt like there was something missing at the end and this scene we identified, almost by accident really, brought the whole idea of the film home," Jake said. "Here is one guy, my brother, out of many, who has a story to tell that is one out of many in sea of military families."
The film had its debut at the GI Film Festival in Washington D.C. earlier this year where it earned strong praise from military officials and notable Hollywood figures who were in attendance to show their support.
After seeing "Brothers at War" for the first time in his own studio, Gary Sinise, the actor played Lt. Dan Taylor in "Forrest Gump," said he had to "sit and think" for a period of time about the many topics that were raised and how family life relates to military responsibilities.
"This is a documentary that celebrates the courage and integrity of the American soldier, Gary Sinise said. "It is also a film about a man's love and respect for his two brothers and his dedication to telling their story. It is a truly American story."
John Ratzenberger, the actor best known for his role as Clifford Clavin, the mailman on "Cheers," was also in attendance.
"It is important for all Americans, not just military families, to watch this film so they can come to understand what is being done on their behalf on a day to day basis, Ratzenberger said in a brief interview.
Looking back now on the completed project Jake now feels he was able to reconnect with his younger brothers in way that would not have been possible, especially if he did not embed with U.S. combat forces during his second trip to Iraq in 2006.
It was at this point that he was caught in an ambush on the road to Fallujah, where an improvised explosive device (IED) tore into a military vehicle just a few feet from his position. There were just two American advisors serving alongside about 30 Iraqi soldiers when the battle took place. Several Iraqi soldiers were injured, including one who lost part of his jaw.
"I allowed the camera to capture everything." Jake said. "It was tough and it is one of the most graphic parts of the film, but I thought it was important to present the entire experience. The whole point here is to show a close-up personal view of the conflict."
It was only after absorbing a feel for combat that Jake felt like he began to earn kudos from his youngest brother who was less than impressed with the "ratline" adventure featured in the early part of the film.
"I think he had fun using me as the anti-hero," Joseph observed. "But that's okay I'm glad it turned out the way it did. And I hope it helps other soldiers to reconnect with their family members in some way."
"Brothers at War" was screened most recently at the National Guard Association National Convention in Baltimore and at The Ranger Association National Convention in Albany, N.Y.