The following article was written by Mike Scotti for Time U.S. and published on May 25, 2012 The Aftershocks of War
Below are published articles that Mike Scotti has written for CNN.
July 1, 2012 There is no shame in not being Superman
December 26, 2012 Soldiers’ selfless acts should inspire at holidays
March 10, 2010 Back from Iraq war, and alone
On September 11, 2001 when two airliners were flown into the towers of New York’s World Trade Center, the weather over the city was ’severe clear,’ the sky a bright blue and cloudless with seemingly infinite visibility. The repercussions of the events of that day eventually contributed to the invasion of Iraq by U.S. military forces in March 2003. One of the marines involved in that offensive was First Lieutenant Mike Scotti, a member of the 1st Battalion, 4th Marines.
When Scotti set out for the Middle East in 2003, he knew that he would be involved in events that would change the course of history. With the intention of documenting his experiences for a book, he decided to capture as much as he could of the on-the-ground wartime incidents he witnessed with a home digital camera.
Upon his return to the U.S. after his tour of duty, Scotti happened by chance to meet up with documentary filmmaker Kristian Fraga (Anytown, USA) who edited the 60 plus hours of Scotti’s raw footage into Severe Clear, a riveting first-person account of the invasion of Iraq that allows those who have not served in combat to have the kind of visibility of warfare usually only experienced by a foot soldier.
In an exclusive conversation with CinemaSpy, Scotti talks about the catharsis of making the film, the logistical complications of shooting during battle without distracting from his duty as a soldier, and why he believes war films nowadays no longer have the box office power that they had in the wake of World War II and Vietnam.
CinemaSpy: In other documentaries filmed by soldiers cameras were supplied by the filmmakers who had a finished product in mind. But after serving in the first Afghanistan campaign, you set out to document the Iraq War for a book. Not every soldier goes into battle with the intension of making a document of his or experiences. Why did you decide this was important for you to do?
Mike Scotti: I was an avid reader growing up and I had read a lot of personal narrative of people who had fought in World War I and World War II, Korea and Vietnam. So, I just said in the end this is my war and my story and I would like to write something and get it out there. So, I was just kind of naturally inclined to that.
I was using the footage almost as a personal notebook, a video diary. Instead of jotting down notes that were written, I just took a video camera and to be honest I think it was much more effective. I had originally just wanted to link up with somebody at NYU to edit everything down to a manageable length. So if I wanted to show friends and family ‘the cool parts,’ I would be able to do that instead of cycling through 20 different digital videocassettes.
The person that I ended up meeting in the hallway at NYU was someone who happened to be doing freelance work for Sirk Productions, and he said: “There is I think somebody you should meet.” And he called Kristian Fraga from his cellphone right the way. Sirk Productions and Kristian and [producer] Marc Perez were the ones that really made the decision to make this into a film.
CinemaSpy: It’s a big thing to entrust someone with those tapes and your story? The film is Fraga’s sophomore movie after Anytown, USA. Had you seen the film and why were you confident he was the person to do this?
Mike Scotti: It took some time for the level of trust that was needed between he and I. I had seen some of his work but it wasn’t until I was actually at the Trenton Film Festival that I saw Anytown, USA play and he got a standing ovation. I just said: “That is it!” and we had already come pretty far at that point but that just put to bed any doubts that I had, and I think he is just a brilliant director, very artistic and gifted.
CinemaSpy: I loved some of the techniques that he used. He supplements your on-camera comments with voiceover excerpts from your journal but also uses some of the tropes of horror film to add suspense and tension. How involved were you in the editing process and constructing the film’s narrative? There were 60 hours of footage. What was most challenging aspect of reducing that amount of material?
Mike Scotti: In terms of the visual aspects of editing the footage, I had almost no involvement at all. I spent a few weeks locked in a room with people in 2004 just getting everything done on paper, and every time that Kris and I would talk some other story would lead to another story. So I decided: “Look, you need to do a brain dump of everything.” So I sat there with an assistant for weeks, literally. Several hundred pages of a stream of consciousness, watching the videos and looking at the pictures and triggering all of these memories, and at that point there was a large cardboard box filled with stuff, and I just lifted it across the table and began to absorb it. And I had Kris read a couple of books that were pertinent to what it means to be a marine, and things that I thought that he should know. Where we did work together was in the voice-over piece. I did a lot of the writing and that is where we collaborated a lot. But Kristian was the man when it came to the editing.
CinemaSpy: I love the film’s title. How did it materialize and did you toy with others. How do you settle on a name for a film or do the studio heads and marketing folk still have a powerful voice in the matter?
Mike Scotti: The title was a creation of Kristian Fraga. He came across the term while he was researching 9/11. The term is actually a kind of ‘unofficial’ FAA designation. ‘Severe clear’ means there is seemingly infinite visibility. It is as clear as it can possibly get. We have sometimes heard that it can even be almost too clear because of the horizon and where it meets the water. On the morning of September 11th, 2001 — and it is a very rare condition — was severe clear. It allowed the terrorists to line up on the towers. There are many layers to seemingly infinite visibility.
CinemaSpy: This movie was about the invasion more than the occupation, and most of the other war doc films of late have been about the occupation. It is almost 7 years since the US invasion of Iraq. The film took three years of editing. Do you think that you needed several years away from the theater of war to get a perspective on this material?
Mike Scotti: I think so. I have certainly grown older, and I think I have matured and am a lot wiser than I was seven years ago. I am in my early 30s now. I think around 30 or 31 something triggers and you just kind of calm down a little bit. I think for me personally it needed to happen. Kristian works at his own pace, and it was after the second or third year when I realized I just needed to let him work. He is an artist. I was always like, “When is it going to be done? When is it going to be done?”—so at some point you realize he works at his own pace. Good things take time. They could have slapped something together that wouldn’t have been as good as the finished product if they had got there very, very quickly. Mark and Kris made that conscious decision that they were going to take as long as it takes to get it right.
CinemaSpy: I am interested in the image of the marine and how he or she is portrayed on film. I interviewed Francis Ford Coppola last year and in connection with recent movies set in Iraq, he said that maybe people are just confused about more contemporary wars because Americans in their hearts want to be the good guys. He said, and I quote, “We love the GI and the American soldier having compassion but…more and more in the contemporary world we are forced to look at [the fact that] possibly we are the bad guys, or other countries think we are. And I think people are uncomfortable with that.” In your film you do not shy away from showing marines remarking on how cool it feels to kill live targets. There’s no attempt to glamorize fellow soldiers. Did you ever think about censoring yourself or panning away?
Mike Scotti: Yes. It was more because of my allegiance to the core. Even now when I watch it, I go “Oh, boy…” But it is what it is. Think about the colonel’s speech at the beginning of the film. Those marines were just doing their job in that hole. Marines are young and they are trained to do a job, and a lot of times that job calls for the loss of enemy life. And I think a lot of it has to do with their youth. The average age is 19. I was always older. I was a lieutenant and was six or seven years older than the rest of the guys. You look at things in a different perspective. So you have to wonder how much that affects [them] because the guys are younger and they are fighting the war. You wonder how later on in life that will come back to affect them.
CinemaSpy: Marines are often seen as disconnected from the Iraq war, ensconced in their Humvees, rolling through the streets to death metal music and taking out potential threats by getting a visual on them and pressing a button, much like a video game. Do you feel that for some of the war was reduced to a video game, perhaps as a coping mechanism, a means of survival?
Mike Scotti: Think about the unmanned predator drone aircraft. There is a live pilot but you could be in a different part of the world, and for them, yes, it is. But for the marines on the ground, it will never be a video game because you smell the smells and you see the sights and you feel. It is impossible to be disconnected from the war while you are in a boot on the ground in enemy territory, especially because of IEDs and things like that. So even if you are in a Humvee when you get out of your vehicle you are still scared that there is a 2000-pound bomb buried under the road somewhere that has got your name on it.
CinemaSpy: It’s interesting because I asked Kathryn Bigelow the same question and her answer was very similar.
Mike Scotti: I am a huge fan of The Hurt Locker, by the way.
CinemaSpy: I am very interested in the logistics of how you managed to film as much as you did while under fire. Did you ever tape the camera to your helmet or chest?
Mike Scotti: I tried to do that but it would always break the camera. I did that as I was propelling out the helicopter. I even thought about it right before we shipped out, and wished that I had some sort of device that I could attach my helmet to the side of my head with a stable vision mechanism or something. People always ask me that, and it is as simple as I was an observer. If we were taking heavy fire, I wouldn’t shoot back with my rifle. I would have a radio handset clipped to my helmet strap. I key the handset, I give out position and give the position of where I want the artillery to land. So my weapon was the radio and 30 seconds later all hell rains down on the enemy hopefully where I said it was supposed to land.
So if I didn’t have a small consumer video camera strapped round my neck, I would have had a set of binoculars, and I would have been doing the same thing with a set of binoculars. So I couldn’t really do my job just as effectively as I did if I hadn’t had a video camera. You see a couple of parts in the movie where they ask me, for example, “What is that?” and I say “It is a flag flying, sir.” And I’m trying to use the zoom on the camera — which is actually stronger than the zoom on the military binoculars — to see what it is.
It is like that joke when you come with a black eye and you say “Well, you should see the other guy!” It is the same thing. You should see the stuff I didn’t film. And the stuff that I manage to catch is jumping because I would take a shot and think: “Okay, this is crazy I am not videotaping any more.” Because I had two radio headsets, one in each ear; one to talk to the infantry and one to talk to the artillery. It was definitely something in my mind. I never wanted the video to get in the way of doing my job. I just wouldn’t do that. I am a professional.
CinemaSpy: The marines’ experiences are layered with overheard news broadcasts from the BBC and others as well as speeches by George Bush and Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld. How aware were you and your unit of how the war was being reported by the international news media, and in retrospect how accurate was it in relation to what you experienced?
Mike Scotti: I had a small shortwave radio that my parents had given me for Christmas because I was going to get out of the Marine Corps and just to travel around the whole world for a year. We got the BBC on it and in a couple of shots you can see it sitting on the dashboard of the Humvee. That is how we got most of news. Think about the time that it takes to explain to everybody what is going on. And you are not worried about the strategic and operational level of what is going on. You are worried about your tactical zone and what is relevant to staying alive and accomplishing your objective that day or that week. So we had no idea what was going on in the rest of the war, except for what we got from the BBC.
There were debriefings of what was going on but, like I said, after the first couple of days, we just didn’t have time to get constant updates because we were constantly moving…bits here and there I think were brilliantly reported but I think in other places they just didn’t capture what we captured on film. I don’t know if that is because of where [reporters] were replaced in the battlefield or because they were hiding in their are vehicles or whatever. It doesn’t capture what we captured. But even if I took all of my footage and took the cool and interesting parts and put them on DVD for an hour, it still takes somebody like Kristian Fraga, who has this creative gift to make it into something that flows the right way that people are going to watch. That is the X-factor.
CinemaSpy: Another X-factor about this film — and I think it connects with The Hurt Locker — is that the movie has an almost ambivalently apolitical perspective. There is no concerted effort to take a political side. The same could be said of The Hurt Locker. Were you tempted to bring a clearer political ideology to this film at any point in the editing process or did you decide that at the outset?
Mike Scotti: I was adamant. It was one of the stipulations for me in licensing the footage to Sirk [that there must be] zero political bent to this thing in any manner whatsoever. People ask if you’re anti-war or pro-war. But I think that any film that is good and actually portrays combat or war, people will see it as somewhat of an anti-war film because war is so harsh and war is hell. But as far as any left or right wing bent to the whole thing, I was very adamant that that would not be included. That was very clear to Kris very early on and once he and I had an understanding and there was a level of trust built between us then he just basically said: “You needed to just let me go and make the film, edit it together and we will work on the voiceovers together but just let me make the film I want to make. And then we will just take a look at it.” And he made a great film.
CinemaSpy: The Hurt Locker has been described as re-inventing the war movie for the post-Vietnam era but it is also the least viewed film to win Best Picture. The war movie genre has had a tough time being embraced by audiences. But here’s the question: Apocalypse Now came out 4 years after the end of the Vietnam War and had a powerful impact. Do you have any thoughts on why Iraq War films made in its wake have not yet had the commercial impact as Apocalypse Now or The Deer Hunter had?
Mike Scotti: I do. I put a piece up on CNN. I have an op-ed that was out on Wednesday. In that piece I touch on what you are talking about. It is about the sense of disconnect and isolation that a lot of veterans feel when they come home and in that I talk about the fact that there was no draft like there was in World War II or Vietnam. In World War II you could take any city block or any block out of the suburbs somewhere and there would be a number of families who were directly touched by the war, somebody serving or somebody who has been killed. In Vietnam the world was changing and you also had a draft and people who didn’t want to be there that were forced to go. So that touched a lot of people.
With the modern military, is an all-volunteer force and it’s a much smaller subset of the population. Compared to World War II, it is much different and it doesn’t hit the country economically. You don’t have kids collecting tin. You don’t have pennies not made of copper. You don’t have stockings being used to make parachutes. There is no Rosie The Riveter. There is a much smaller subset of the population that is actually intimately touched and their families intimately touched by this war, and so it is just not part of the collective consciousness of the public.
I don’t want to say that people don’t care or that they don’t give a shit above the war because they care about the troops but in the end was kind of in the background of society. The piece I wrote talks about the isolation that guys feel when they come home. I think society is different. If everybody’s father or brother was in the war, war movies would be huge.
CinemaSpy: How has this experience altered you, not only as a soldier but now also as a filmmaker?
Mike Scotti: I think that it was a tremendously cathartic process, and it was really like the best form of therapy that I can possibly think of. To get locked up in a room for three weeks when you first get back, and you just get everything out on paper and then have somebody put it up on the big screen with a world can see it. It is like turning you inside out for the whole world to see, just totally naked. That was just such a cleansing process for me to go through. So personally, I am thankful that I had this opportunity, and I really think that veterans should look to creative outlets to get what is inside their brains down on paper, in a journal, in a painting, in a song, in a movie, whatever it is.
Hundreds and hundreds of comments were written on the CNN piece. I don’t even know how many private messages are on my Facebook from complete strangers, pouring their hearts out, telling me their entire stories. One of them was “I am crying on my laptop as I am writing this to you. My ex-husband was a marine and he almost committed suicide before he got back. He was angry all of the time.” Over and over there is the same type of story. People have this side of them and not just veterans but also the families of the veterans and their wives and mothers and the kids. And they just need a release of all of this angst or whatever feelings they are; they need to get it out there.
I never said I wanted to be a filmmaker. And the opportunity kind of arose and now I see the power of a well-made film and if it is well made how it can resonate with people. There is a basic human need to communicate.
CinemaSpy: Do you have any plans to continue making movies or are you now going to focus on the book?
Mike Scotti: I have actually been approached to potentially do some technical work for the military, and things like that. I would be more in a producer role. But for me that is probably a bit further down the line. I need to focus on making a living. It is kind of interesting some of the things that have popped up because of this. I am kind of at a personal crossroads, and I’m going to see where it takes me.
Filled under Print on 28 May 2010 15:37
For decades filmmakers have tried to capture the essence of war on screen. From All Quiet on the Western Front in 1930 to Platoon and Full Metal Jacket in the 1980s to 2009 Academy Award Best Picture winner, The Hurt Locker. While intense battle scenes try to make the viewer understand what it’s like to be under fire from the enemy, however realistic they may be they are still fiction. No one is really hurt and no one has actually died. The movies just make an impact on your feelings and mind.
Colts Neck native Mike Scotti has a different perspective on film and war. His videos and journals form the basis of Severe Clear, a first-person documentary of life in the Marine Corps and on the front lines of Operation Iraqi Freedom. Mike was among the first American soldiers to fight in Afghanistan in 2001, engaging in firefights with the Taliban. He was later deployed to Iraq in 2003. While there, he commanded a detachment of Forward Observers and fought as a First Lieutenant with Weapons Company, 1st Battalion, Fourth Marine Regiment in numerous battles along Route 7 in Iraq.
In Iraq, he compiled hours and hours of footage of the day-to-day trials and tribulations of being a soldier. The sights and sounds make everyone realize that war is not just battles but also many moments filled with tediousness as well as tension which the average civilian never knows or experiences. The term “severe clear” is used by pilots and refers to a rare combination of visibility conditions which produce unusual clarity. The videos were originally intended to be used to help Mike write a book about his time in Iraq. However, through a little bit of luck and effort, they ended up in the hands of director Kristian Fraga, who over several years was able to create what became Severe Clear. The documentary is being shown in select theaters around the country. (See severeclearthemovie.com for more information).
Mike was honorably discharged from the Marines (and remained a captain in the Marine Corps Reserves until his honorable discharge in 2008) and went on to attend New York University’s Stern School of Business, where he received an MBA with a specialization in finance. After some time in the leveraged finance group at Credit Suisse and 18 months helping turn around a distressed frozen foods distributor, Mike is moving on to a new chapter in his life, which included a six week backpacking trip through Vietnam this past winter. Recently, Mike sat down with Living In Colts Neck to discuss his experiences in helping make the critically acclaimed documentary Severe Clear as well as life in the Marine Corps.
MS: Altogether for the movie we had 60, but that was a compilation of four of us. I had 22 tapes; some were an hour, some were two hours. All total I probably had 20-24 hours.
MS: Once Kristian said he wanted to do a movie of this, I told him there were other guys who had video cameras. His eyes got real big and he said to get a hold of them. So the ones I could get a hold of said, “Absolutely” and sent everything over. They were actually shot on different cameras and look a little bit different. They were in different formats but still digital.
MS: I didn’t need to get permission to shoot the footage because there is no law specifically in the military code of justice that says you can’t do that. Obviously if it was against regulations I wouldn’t have been doing it as an officer in the Marine Corps. People find that hard to believe but we were never really told you couldn’t, as long as it didn’t interfere with doing your job. My job was as a forward observer and I would be using binoculars if I wasn’t using a video camera.
MS: They didn’t care. I was never annoying with it. That’s why there’s not a lot of shots of the camera in guys’ faces; I just wouldn’t do that. The idea was never really to make a film out of the footage. The idea was to use it more as a video diary, almost like notes for a book so that I could actually right a memoir some day. That was the original plan.
MS: When I met Kristian Fraga. He was the one with the vision. My story is no different than others it’s just that I was able to capture it and the opportunity existed to potentially make a great film out of it.
MS: I had originally wanted to get all my footage – all the cool parts – and edit it onto one DVD because I kept having to pull out all these different tapes to show my family and friends. I literally talked my way past the guards at NYU film school because I knew it was a good film school. The idea was I was going to find a student and pay him $200. I was really looking for a flier that asked if you needed any editing done. I found this one guy, Andrew Torkelson, who was a student there and doing freelance editing for Sirk Productions. So Andrew called Kristian, who was looking for his next project, and told him that he was going to want to take a look at this. That was in 2003.
MS: I was stunned. After the third year, I stopped worrying about it. I knew how talented Kristian was and knew that he would finish it when he would finish it.
MS: It was going to be foundation for a book. So if I saw something interesting I would take 20 seconds of video to put myself back there so that would later turn into two pages.
LICN: Was there anything you recorded that you wish there had been more of in the film?
LICN: How involved with the project were you once you turned over the tapes to Kristian?
LICN: What was it like to do those voiceovers and re-read your journals some time after leaving Iraq?
LICN: How long did it take you to do the voiceovers?
LICN: What made doing the voiceovers so difficult?
LICN: What do you hope audiences take away from this movie? What has been the reaction of the people who have seen it?
LICN: What did you learn about yourself by going through the filmmaking process?
LICN: What made you decide to join the Marines?
LICN: You spent time in the reserves during college. Then following your graduation from the University of Miami in 1999, you went straight into officer candidate school. Describe the experience of becoming an officer.
LICN: What was a typical day like in officer candidate school?
LICN: What was the one thing about being a Marine that surprised you?
LICN: Did you think of that when you walked into the dining area?
MS: April 8, 2003. We had just entered Baghdad and it was complete chaos. There were a few thousand of us in a city of millions. There were enemy all over the place. People were shooting at us from all different directions. All of a sudden an artillery barrage hits our troops. I did know it was U.S. artillery because the Iraqi’s wasn’t that good. I knew I had 15 seconds to make a decision on what to do to stop the next barrage from killing Charlie Company 1st Battalion 4th Marines, and they hit one guy with the first barrage. I picked up the radio and called for all the Marine artillery for two minutes to be shut down. That act undoubtedly saved the lives of a ton of Marines to the point where the Charlie Company commander came up to me after the battle and said thank you. I am not really a religious person and I don’t really think about fate and all these things but I firmly believe I was meant to be on that radio looking in that direction in that vehicle that day in Baghdad. It was weird because a lot of people probably would not have made that call.
MS: I knew because it was the way the rounds fell. You had six cannons all shooting at the same time from up to 20 miles away; these big 150 millimeter howitzers which throw up huge shards. Good artillery mass in one area. Iraqi artillery were all over the place. I just knew. I was meant to be there that day. I have never felt that my whole life. When I came back from the war, I kind of drew on that.
LICN: How have your feelings about the war in Iraq changed since you first arrived there to now?
LICN: How did you personally feel once you found out there were no WMDs?
LICN: Do you think it would have been different if you had found out about there being no WMDs while still over there?
LICN: How did your time in the Marines change you as a person?
LICN: Do you view the world differently?
LICN: In the film you mentioned being inspired by a former high school classmate of yours, Beth Quigley. In what way, did she inspire you?
LICN: What is something about being in war that the average person cannot understand?
LICN: Does it make you paranoid?
LICN: Was it hard to adjust to civilian life?
LICN: You are currently involved with a charity called Reserve Aid. What does the program do and whom does it support?
LICN: What’s next for you?
LICN: How did growing up in Colts Neck affect you?
Monte’s Trattoria in New York City
Full Metal Jacket
Third Eye Blind
Driving slowly in the left lane
Three people you’d like to have dinner with:
U.S. Marine General James N. Mattis, Stanley Kubrick, Charles Bukowski
Severe Clear is a movie made by a LT of the Marine Core, showing real footage of the Iraq war in 2003. First Lieutenant Mike Scotti records the trials the members of the 1st. Battalion, 4th Marines and himself go through as they push forward for Baghdad in the beginning of the Iraq war. I was fortunate to hear about this film which was produced by SIRK Production and can now be viewed throughout many venues across the U.S.
I’m 1 hour into the film and it really is what the producers say it is, a film depicting the chaos and emotions of war. It’s a film that isn’t edited to portray a political meaning, nor is it a film to portray just the bad side of war. It’s a film that is as real as it can get for a viewer who has never seen war, a film that hides nothing from the viewer as I see images of death, destruction, happiness, loneliness, fear, and bravery. Chaos can be seen and heard, when filming is done during the night; tracers can be seen and screams can be heard as LT. Scotti and his comrades run face to face with the enemy.
This is a film for those who don’t care to support the Veterans, those who volunteered and those who were drafted to go fight not only for the United States, but for the well being of other citizens of other countries that they owed nothing too. This is a film for the politicians who dare to vote to decrease spending on benefits for these soldiers, this is a film for the protesters who dare to interfere with a soldiers funeral and this is a film for those who aren’t thankful for the freedoms we have, because if it’s not directly affecting them, then why should they care.
As I watch this film, I flashback to that day when 9/11 took place, that day when I was doing my duties as an entry controller at Elmendorf AFB. I remember after working extra hours that morning and returning back to my squadron, my squad and myself were briefed about being prepared to possibly being sent to war. However that day never came for me and in 2003 I separated from the Air Force while the Marines and Army were on stop loss, a word I never heard of until that day.
Till this day I still get the feelings of leaving my friends behind, friends that became family to me who still serve and deploy to the war zone. I sometimes think that I should be there alongside these guys and when the news came that two of our men from my squadron were K.I.A during a deployment in Iraq, that’s when it hit me. I started thinking to myself I had made a mistake by leaving the military during the time of war. Though it was a great feeling to have completed my enlistment with the Air Force and ready to start college, there was nothing tougher then getting on that plane to come back home knowing I was leaving my friends behind who may find themselves in the war zone in the coming months.
When I arrived back home everyone welcomed me with open arms and smiles, even from people who I had never met before. The questions though began immediately, wondering if there was a possibility I could be called back in and what would I do. Well there was no thought to the answer for that question, as I watched the news on the war alongside my father (Vietnam Veteran). I knew if I was called back in to serve and fight, I would be more than ready to be there alongside my friends and the other members of the 3rd Security Forces.
Severe Clear shows its viewers the real images and sounds of war; some good moments as the members of 1st battalion, 4th Marines show their humorous side, to scenes of chaos when confronted by the enemy. The film may not be for everyone and I can understand, though I feel this is the film for all of those looking to see what war is really all about.
Severe Clear hides nothing from it’s viewers. This is real footage of war, which I urge all to view to gain a little more understanding as to why our men and women are returning home from the battle field and being diagnosed with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. Over 400,000 war Veterans suffer from PTSD today and that’s not counting the many more veterans who have yet to come forward to get help.
Article by Truthout.org
Based on the memoir by First Lieutenant Mike Scotti as well as video footage shot by him and other members of 1st Battalion, 4th Marines on the outset of the 2003 invasion of Iraq. Directed by Kristian Fraga (“Anytown, USA”) and featuring a original score by Cliff Martinez (“Traffic”, “Narc”, “Solaris”) the film offers an unflinching look at the uncertainty, disorder and chaos of war from the remarkable perspective of one Marine.
There has always been films made about one war or another and since 9/11 we have seen a number of films based on the Iraq war but none of those will effect you like Severe Clear. What this documentary does that none of the others before it did was that this shows the battlefield from those on the ground, in this case the Marines and First Lieutenant Mike Scotti along with the 1st Battalion. A shocking look at what it is really like in the time of war, forget all the media coverage you seen on television or the speeches from the Politicians that no doubt sugar-coat their reports. This is the real deal about what it is really like and it shows the personal side of war and what it does to the soldiers that are on the ground both mentally and psychically. Lieutenant Mike Scotti does a terrific job showing us the inside of his world, you feel his pain, fear and his anger over the events of 9/11 but you also feel his regret with seeing innocent people being killed in battle but as sad as it might be it is one of the harsh realities of being in a war zone. Severe Clear lets you the audience decide for yourself on what war means and it shows you the frightening reality that comes with it, there is no covering the facts, it exposes the fact that the soldiers have weapons that don’t work right half the time and e get to see the story of the little girl who was killed when her father refused to stop at a check point, those are the times when these soldiers begin to question why they are there but then they remember that tragic day in September which helps them fight another day. I already had respect for all men and women serving in the military but this just increased that 10-fold, these are all brave human beings that put their life on the line every minute of the day in a land where no one can be trusted and everyone seems to be your enemy. Scotti’s footage is in-your-face from showing the scenes of battle to showing the death toll after wards, beware some of the scenes might be tough to watch for those with a weak stomach. When Scotti was sent home he was left with mixed feelings over the war from the lack of WMD to the innocent people that perished in the war, those are feelings that don’t go away over-night and I am not sure how Scotti feels today about it all but I can say he was one of many brave soldiers that laid their lives on the line to keep us safe and for that I thank him. I also want to thank him for opening the eyes of the public on what being a part of the Iraq war was and still is like. I don’t feel right saying Severe Clear is entertaining but I can say it is thought-provoking and emotional on every level possible and a must-see film. At the end of the film I couldn’t help but feel for all the men and women involved in the war and as far as Lieutenant Mike Scotti goes I said an extra prayer for him in hopes he came to terms with it all and is doing well in his life today. I thank him and everyone else involved in making this film and finally giving us all a real look at the horrors of war.
By Mike Scotti, Special to CNN
Editor’s note: Mike Scotti served as a U.S. Marine in Afghanistan in 2001 and Iraq in 2003, and is a founding board member of Reserve Aid, a military-themed, nonprofit charity. He is the founder of the Military Veterans Club at the NYU Stern School of Business and is the subject of the documentary film “Severe Clear,” which opens in New York on Friday.
New York (CNN) — A few days after I had returned from a six-month deployment to Iraq, my second sojourn in the Middle East since 2001, I remember feeling like I was an alien creature from some other planet.
It was 2003, and I was attending a friend’s wedding. As I sat at the table listening to the conversation, I suddenly realized that someone who had never been in combat could never even remotely understand what I had just been through.
I looked around. The chamber music quartet, the beautiful bridesmaids, the steak dinner … none of it was real. My buddies were, at that moment, probably on patrol and quite possibly engaged with the enemy. That was real.
And as for the other guests at the table who were staring at me in my dress blues, we were no longer even the same species.
As the Iraq war winds down and those troops return home, and as other soldiers and Marines cycle in and out of Afghanistan, a new generation of Americans –vets’ family members, friends and co-workers, a population basically untouched, unbothered by the fact of a faraway war — will have to develop a fresh mindfulness of what these hundreds of thousands of men and women have been through and may be struggling with when they return.
There is a new generation of combat veterans and, as I discovered through personal experience, we all must be conscious of what, exactly, this means.
When I returned I became aware that, though I had hoped my days on the battlefield were finally over, I was in for one last fight. There was a new and unexpected foe: the feeling of isolation from the people all around you at home.
Their complaints seem trivial: The plane is delayed 30 minutes. They put onions on your sandwich. You don’t like your job. “You think you got problems, pal?” is the thought that would go through my mind. I would think of the people I knew that were still over there — in convoys hitting IEDs that rip apart armored vehicles and the troops inside them, or on patrol caught in a firefight in some dusty alley somewhere. Or of close friends that I had already lost.
This sense of isolation, if not dealt with, can quickly lead to problems with loved ones, with colleagues or worse; self-destructive behaviors feed upon themselves, pulling the vet down the wrong path. The isolation can also manifest itself in feelings of anger or resentment.
For the first year after I returned from Iraq, the only people to whom I felt really connected were those who had served in combat — in any war — or those who had lost family members on 9/11. In my mind, they were the only ones who “understood.”
For warriors who return and have fulfilled their active- duty obligation, and swing from active military service in a war zone to becoming a civilian in a matter of days, the transformation is particularly traumatic. What’s more, because there is no draft in the United States, there is a far smaller pool of the nation’s population serving in conflicts or with military experience, unlike during World War II or the Vietnam War, making the search for shared understanding and a connection even more challenging.
The Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America brilliantly portrayed this feeling of isolation in a 2008 ad where a soldier returning from the war walks through an empty airport. He continues through downtown Manhattan, which is also completely empty. No cars. No people. It isn’t until a young veteran approaches the soldier with a handshake, a smile and pat on the back saying, “Welcome home, man,” that the street becomes populated.
I was a bit shaken the first time I saw it, as it immediately resonated with me. It hit an exposed nerve, and I knew that those guys at the IAVA “got it.” They knew exactly where we were coming from.
The problem, of course, is that we, as veterans, live the rest of our young lives in the “civilian” world and not on the battlefield. It took me several months to fully comprehend this. After realizing that my sense of isolation was alienating me from those I loved, I made the conscious decision to use my experiences in combat as a source of great strength, versus letting them become a weakness.
I realized that I just needed to “Let it go, man. Just let it go.” Choose the high road. Take the “good” lessons learned from war — the initiative, focus, discipline, attention to detail and strategic planning — and apply them to everyday life. Drop the bad, the resentment, anger and isolation. There is no place for any of them in a happy, healthy or successful person’s mind.
In the years since then, I have embarked on two key missions: to help the families of veterans in need and to tell the world the story of what it is like to serve in combat.
The first mission was to help provide financial support to those who have been adversely affected by being called to active duty. The platform to do so is a nonprofit charity I helped found five years ago called Reserve Aid , which has helped several hundred veteran families cope financially with deployments, including providing short-term relief for many servicemen and women who have been wounded, but who may have delays in getting disability benefits. To date, Reserve Aid’s grants top $3 million, money donated by individuals, through corporate matching programs and direct corporate giving.
The second mission was to tell the world what it is like to be in combat, and to hopefully create a “shared experience” to help bridge the “isolation gap” — to educate the people who have not served about what it is like for those who did. The film “Severe Clear” is a cinematic representation of my experiences in the war, using footage shot by me and other Marines, and it does just that. Set as a first-person narrative, it offers an unflinching, uncensored look at what it is like to fight a war.
I believe it captures the chaos and complexity of it all, and intimately reveals the human elements of combat. And I think it is unique because it is a story told by someone who is actively engaged in fighting the war, and it bares all: the good, the bad, and everything else in between — the parts of war that the rest of the nation should understand.
THE COMPLEX AND CLARITY OR SEVERE CLEAR
One could, I suppose, be forgiven for expecting that a documentary on the Iraq war composed entirely of video footage shot by soldiers directly involved in the long, slow roll toward Baghdad would more often than not resemble the unholy mess of the war itself, given that a change in administration and an ostensible shift in public opinion regarding its necessity have resulted in few real signs of light to signal the end of a long, dark tunnel. The highest-profile film to really approach taking a look at what being at war in Iraq is like for the soldiers was Gunner Palace (2004). Ed Gonzalez, writing in Slant magazine, praised the film for showing “the horror of people gripped by fear of American troops charging into their houses” balanced by views of “(American) soldiers playing with young children and helping an orphan boy who is hooked on sniffing glue,” in essence “showing us both the heroes and the schmucks.” But the documentary was also heavily criticized in some quarters for directing its anger at the Bush administration’s deceptive tactics in justifying the war at the ones most powerless to do anything about it—the soldiers on the front lines. Ken Tucker, writing in New York magazine, went so far as to wonder if the filmmakers, Michael Tucker and Petra Epperlein, “were like the people who used to spit on Vietnam veterans when they returned home.” He decried Gunner Palace as “a portrait of self-pitying rowdies” lacking the context and distance “that might make the soldiers’ behavior seem like what it is: the natural reaction of kids who happen to have guns, blowing off steam,” concluding that “the movie is a narrative mess… (and) too often makes the grunts look like mean slackers—precisely the opposite, one presumes, of what was intended.”
And certainly Brian De Palma’s Redacted (2007), a fictionalized story of the rape of a 15-year-old Iraqi girl by American troops told through “found” footage and blog entries, was even more controversial, too didactic and unfocused for some, whereas others praised it for its anger and immediacy. Through its faux-documentary anti-style it purposefully capsulized the divergent and contradictory attitudes toward American fighting men that Gunner Palace seemed to leave open to personal interpretation, but it was by no means intended to present an objective, unvarnished look at what life is like for U.S. troops under fire.
Nor, truly, could Severe Clear (2009), a new documentary written, directed and edited by Kristian Fraga for Sirk Productions (a company presumably named for a director who couldn’t have less in common with this film’s raw aesthetic). First-person objectivity, however fragile a concept, is the film’s seductive hook, and it is the narrative construct around which Fraga assembled the multiple hours of chaotic footage given to him by Marine First Lieutenant Mike Scotti, who documented his each of his company’s steps, from the 40-day ride to the Persian Gulf on the USS Boxer, all the way up through Nasiriyah and Al Kut toward “the crown jewel” of Baghdad. It is immediately clear that first-person will be the movie’s perspective—Scotti introduces the film in his room and sets up the basics of his initial voyage with equal parts anticipation and trepidation, but it’s all framed with optimism and enthusiasm. (Scotti ends the opening segment with a Darth Vader imitation hissed from underneath a gas mask.) However, it’s Scotti’s voice on the soundtrack just before this piece that more accurately frames the more subjective journey both he and the viewer will go on toward a greater understanding— which includes the fathoming of unexpected moral conundrums—about both the nature of the men who willingly put themselves in harm’s way and of war itself. For Scotti, a truism of Marine life is the value of friction, “the force that makes the easy difficult and the difficult impossible,” a force which also dictates that war must inevitably gravitate toward chaos, uncertainty and disorder. It is with certain gravity and a distinct narrative power that Fraga has constructed Scotti’s footage into a great document of war which embraces those moral conundrums as signposts toward the deepening of understanding. There is a welcome complexity to Fraga’s filmmaking (and to Scotti’s sketches of Marine life) in which clarity of purpose is born out of confusion, in which the questions raised from the Marine’s experience rise above the initial anxious excitement and eventual stench and exhaustion to paint a meaningful portrait of combat reality. Severe Clear traces the landscape where verisimilitude and factual allegiance explode into the uncharted territory exploring the tension within men’s souls.
Certainly, as you would expect of a movie composed of soldiers documenting themselves (the mini-DV camera operated by Scotti is occasionally handed over to one of his buddies), the off-the-cuff references to past war films is inevitable. One soldier comments on how the helicopters flying around remind him of Apocalypse Now. The footage itself, particularly during the march toward Baghdad, in moments of forward movement and an agonizing period when the military planners call a pause in the action, most often recalls Full Metal Jacket, but never so explicitly as during a montage of exercises staged on the aircraft carrier taking the men toward their dusty destination when Scotti defines what it is to be a Marine (“All the clichés are true”) and confirms that the Marine’s closest relationship is with his weapon. (Fraga even scores the sequence with Beethoven to cement the Kubrickian allusion.) And though the soldiers themselves may not have been aware of it, Fraga certainly seems to have recognized a link between the documentary footage and another potent fictional meditation on violence—at one point during a lull in the fighting a group of soldiers sit watching and laughing as a swarm of ants attacks a lone scorpion, a real-life image here reflecting the metaphorical one preserved by Lucien Ballard and Sam Peckinpah in The Wild Bunch.
There is also an abstractly horrifying sequence early on, when the bombs and rockets have begun flying in earnest, in which the Marines observe far-off explosions with the kind of juvenile enthusiasm that accompany a particularly juicy video game, a fact that Scotti, and presumably his buddies, are all too aware. As the rockets light up the darkness of a desert night, the soundtrack is filled with cheers—“What’s really cool is that… that’s really war,” one Marine is heard to say, “People are fucking dying for real! That’s fucking awesome, the coolest thing ever!” But Scotti and Fraga don’t leave the comment just lying there to be caressed and amplified by our easily accessed sense of superiority. Scotti himself jumps in on the narration, both to sympathize and to contextualize: “For me this was payback, revenge for 9/11, but it feels like videogame death from a distance.” And later he illuminates on that distancing—it isn’t born of ignorance so much as a strategy for survival: “Out here these dead people are just numbers on a grid, and that’s the way I want it to be. Maybe someday I’ll see something different. But not today. All I see is a job well done… That’s just the way it is.” With the addition of these voiceover observations, which are made most valuable by Scotti’s refusal to deny to himself even the most ugly of personal emotions, Fraga transcends the voiceover’s typical function of filling in or underlining the obvious and gives us glimpses into the heart of a solider whose understanding of why he’s where he is seems to mutate by the hour.
But for all of its documentary immediacy, the movie Severe Clear most superficially resembles (and certainly speeds past in its intimacy and depth of consideration of the soldier’s interior world) is the recent Academy Award-winner The Hurt Locker. Several sequences (including one in which two barely visible, dark figures on the roof of a building are identified as possible snipers) seem to directly connect to Kathryn Bigelow’s and Mark Boal’s dusty, hard-boiled narrative. Both movies share the soldiers disdain for the arid landscape– Scotti complains early on that “The initial impact and beauty (of the desert) has been replaced by a intense hatred of all this sand”—and a palpable sense of fear and futility of fighting, especially in an urban setting, an enemy who is often indistinguishable from the citizenry that surround him. The fatal shot could come from anyone, anywhere, anytime. However, Fraga’s film does Bigelow’s several degrees better in the way that Scotti’s presence, in the footage and as our guide along the ever-shifting moral pathway the movie navigates, fleshes out what we’re seeing. Bigelow’s film was expertly crafted, even if her shaky-cam approach paradoxically seemed to take weight away from the film as a whole– a certain degree of aesthetic distance– a cooler camera, perhaps– might have been beneficial in this instance in drawing the audience further in. (I experienced the cinematography in The Hurt Locker, ironically, as an insistent reminder that it was just a really well-made movie.)
Fraga, on the other hand (and it must have been a Herculean task), finds his way into this footage through Scotti’s patient voice, but also by understanding that a coherent portrait of battle is impossible—it is the glimpses of sensation, of horror, of fatigue, of determination, of rowdy behavior—that tell the true story. Seeing battle up this close, watching men struggle with cheap, badly constructed equipment, or against a blinding sandstorm that that confounds effective battle planning and makes even the simple act of trudging t the outhouse a laborious, multi-soldier affair, it is impossible to gain an understanding of how even and efficiently operated force could carry own complex military strategy successfully under such conditions. It’s as if Fraga, in compiling the clashing, unstable video images from Scotti’s camera, were showing us a pointillist painting of war, only from the position of standing three inches away from the canvas—a clear understanding is impossible (which is reflective of the position of the soldiers amidst the combat zone), while the sensation of chaos, of uncertainty, of inevitable friction remains. In this way, Fraga creates an aesthetic justification for the use of this kind of footage, expertly paced and edited as it is, in a way quite unlike any other film has up to now. Yet there is always Scotti’s voice to give us that probing, pained look inside, the important interior perspective on the global picture.
Severe Clear shows you things you never wanted to see. At one point, in the aftermath of an awful incident in which an innocent man and his daughter are gunned down by American soldiers who have mistaken them for enemies hiding IEDs (improvised explosive devices), one voice—it might be Scotti’s– can be heard to exclaim, “God, I can’t wait to get the fuck out of this place.” We don’t see the incident itself, just the evidence, which is too horrifying by itself, but again, Scotti’s voice is there to focus our minds not just on the ghastly images captured by his camera, but on how this latest incident in an ever-increasing catalog of nightmares, is scrambling his initial motivation to fight and reinforcing the everyday aspect of the horrors of war: “When the frightened man lifted his daughter out of the car, her brain fell out of her broken skull onto the road. The finality of it all was so confusing. Not sure why, but I buried the girls’ pink sandals near her body. Just seemed like the right thing to do.” In this unflinching sequence, and in its portrait of American soldiers as rowdy, profane members of a fraternity of fighting men whose swagger and self-assurance is hollowed out of them with every mile they creep toward Baghdad, Severe Clear earns the badge of honor bestowed by its rather oblique title, a military reference used to describe a sky that is so bright, so blue, so cloudless, that functioning without sunglasses is not an option, and even then it may no be possible. The sky is so clear that you cannot see. Severe Clear honors its subject—the men who find themselves on the sandy battlefields of Iraq—by daring to suggest that clarity in understanding can only be achieved by allowing the expression of questions that such a terrible purpose inevitably raises. The clear blue skies above the Iraqi desert are too bright. Fraga and Scotti introduce the opacity necessary for those of us stateside to begin to engage with what the experience truly means to those who lived it. As Scotti says after he returns home, “Once you’ve experienced it, war defines who you are. I’m a Marine, and right now that all I can trust.” It could be that Severe Clear is yet the most valuable artistic document to arise through the dark clouds wafting over the history of this second Iraqi war.
“Armed with a Camcorder, a Marine penetrates the fog of war.”
On the morning of Sept. 11, 2001, visibility in the skies over New York City was unlimited — what some pilots call “severe clear.” It’s why the images of that day are so sharp.
Filmmaker Kristian Fraga took this historical footnote and turned it into the title of his new grunt’s-eye view of war as seen through the camcorder of Marine 1st Lt. Mike Scotti.
“Severe Clear” is a fitting title, Scotti says.
“It’s why the terrorists were able to line up on the towers from so far away,” says Scotti, who lost a high school friend that day.
Scotti went to war with a similar kind of stark clarity. A forward observer with 1st Battalion, 4th Marines, he was set on vengeance.
He had a box full of blank videotapes to capture it all in living color.
Scotti returned from war with hours of vivid video, but his certainty was replaced with a fog of confusion. After seeing so much, he felt unseen by the civilian world around him and unsure of the war itself.
“I went there with such clarity and came home in a dust storm,” he says. Turns out, on severe clear days, the horizon can melt away — the sky and ocean blurring together, leaving pilots unsure if they’re going up or down.
“Yeah, I was mad,” he says. No weapons of mass destruction. No link to 9/11. And good Marines were dying. “I was mad for about a year, and then I just got over it.”
The movie captures Scotti’s journey in jerky, gritty, yet often all-too-clear detail. Fraga’s editing weaves the Marine’s raw footage and plain-spoken narration into a 93-minute immersion into war that has already garnered acclaim at film festivals, even as it opened in limited release around the country.
It’s a cliche to call documentaries “unflinching,” but Scotti’s story will make many squirm. In war, sometimes you see too much, and Scotti wants the viewer to see too much, as well.
“This isn’t ‘The Blair Witch Project’ — this is real,” he says. “If we didn’t include the harsh stuff, it wouldn’t have been real.”
More than that, though, he hopes civilians come away from “Severe Clear” understanding the reality of war and warriors, as opposed to the P.R.-like public portrayals so common today.
“If we’re going to be sent to the other side of the world to kill or be killed, people should get a chance to see us for who we really are.”
And what they really see when they’re getting shot at. And what it looks like when people die. When the brain of a little girl falls out of her skull. Or a man bleeds to death. Or when the simple act of stepping onto an airplane can become the most surreal of moments.
The purpose is not to shock, but to bring understanding.
“Everything in war is simple, but the simplest thing is difficult,” wrote fabled military strategist Carl von Clausewitz. “The difficulties accumulate and end by producing a kind of friction that is inconceivable unless one has experienced war.”
That’s a quote familiar to every Marine, but Scotti says he hopes the unremitting clarity of a movie that pulls no punches might make the inconceivable just a bit more comprehendible.
“I wanted to create a shared experience,” he says. “I didn’t want to do this for people who have served in war. We already know what it’s like. I did this for those who haven’t been to war. I wanted to be able to show my parents, my brothers, my girlfriend and say look, this is what we went through.”
It was the idea of shared experience that helped Scotti find his way through the fog that came after war.
“It helped me bridge the isolation gap,” he says. He hopes it can do the same for other veterans who may struggle with finding the words for their own experiences.
“You’ve got to fight through that fog,” he says. “I encourage everyone to find a creative outlet, whether it’s writing, painting, poems, photography or whatever. You have to find ways to get that stuff out and tell your story.”
Real clarity has come in reaching out to other vets. Although he got a high-paying job on Wall Street after leaving the Corps in 2007, last year Scotti helped launch Reserve Aid, a nonprofit organization that so far has raised more than $3 million for reservists struggling to pay bills.
“I want to spend some time fighting for the right thing,” he says. “I’ve seen the power in helping out other people in need. Now, I’m trying to use my energy for good.”