A Marine Searches for Meaning in the Sands and ‘Steel Rain’ of Iraq

By Stephen Holden

“Here is the truth about being a Marine that you won’t find on the local news. We’re loud. We drink too much, fight too much and swear too much. Truth be told, our rifles are the only things we think about more than sex.”

Those are the words of First Lt. Mike Scotti, whose footage shot on his Mini-DV in the triumphal early days of the operation in Iraq forms the spine of Kristian Fraga’s documentary “Severe Clear.” That footage, some of it shot in the thick of combat, puts you in the boots of a Marine fighting in Iraq in 2003.

More than the battle scenes filmed with a jiggling, hand-held camera, the profane, hyper-macho banter and roughhousing among the men in Lieutenant Scotti’s unit are what make you feel part of the experience. So do his complaints: about the awful food, lack of adequate body armor, and the endless sand. At least at the start, the troops share a righteously gung-ho fighting spirit.

“This is the coolest thing ever,” one Marine enthuses during a firefight. “It’s raining bombs. Steel rain, baby, steel rain!” There are eerie scenes in pitch blackness where the only lights are red streaks of rockets in the night sky.

Lieutenant Scotti, who was honorably discharged from the corps in 2007 (by then he had been made captain), remains mostly off camera. His home movies, and an intermittent voice-over narration gleaned from a journal he kept and letters he wrote, are woven together with British television news clips, commentary and excerpts from speeches by George W. Bush, Dick Cheney and Donald H. Rumsfeld into a 2003 time capsule. Compared with Lieutenant Scotti’s raw footage, almost everything he didn’t film himself has the feel of dull but necessary narrative filler.

At its most provocative, “Severe Clear” pungently evokes a heroic Marine Corps mystique. During a quasi-holy ritual, he and his fellow Marines are anointed with oil and told they are about to perform “deeds that will echo throughout eternity.” And for at the least the first half of the film Lieutenant Scotti spouts the official military line about saving the world from Saddam Hussein’s supposed weapons of mass destruction and exacting revenge for 9/11.

But as the Marines’ initially warm reception after finally arriving in Baghdad goes sour, and the city becomes, in his words, “the Wild, Wild West,” doubts set in. “Do they want democracy? Does it matter?” he wonders out loud while touring the site of ancient Babylon. As the city becomes more chaotic and hellish, fear and loathing take over. He is haunted by the image of a man in Baghdad who made a slashing motion across his throat as Lieutenant Scotti passed by.

Finally he is home, safe and sound but beset with anger and frustration, now that he knows there were no weapons of mass destruction.

“But if they called me, I’d go back,” he says. “Not for the president or the country, but for the corps, because the fact is, once you’ve experienced it, war defines who you are. And right now that’s all I can trust.”

Link to The New York Times