There are two moments in ``The Ground Truth" when the film's unforgiving spotlight suddenly shines out at the audience sitting in the dark. One is when former US Army specialist Robert Acosta, maimed in the leg and minus a hand, tells of conversations with civilians since his return to the States.
``How'd you lose your hand?" someone will ask. ``The war." ``What war?" ``Iraq." Pause. ``That still going on?"
The other sound bite is less damning, more of a personal challenge, and it comes when ex- US Army Reserve specialist Aidan Delgado simply says, ``Americans want to honor vets with yellow stickers rather than listening to them."
``The Ground Truth" listens. Directed by Patricia Foulkrod but really written by the men and women whose tours of duty it describes, this short, sharp documentary is not about George Bush or left/right politics or 9/11. It's not even really about the war in Iraq. It's about the US soldiers who are fighting that war: why they went, what they saw, how they feel when they come back.
Of all the recent films on the subject -- and they have been many and worthy -- this may be the most necessary to audiences at home. ``The Ground Truth" is the documentary any American with an opinion on our involvement in Iraq owes it to his or her conscience to see.
Foulkrod interviews more than a dozen veterans and structures the film chronologically. We hear why they enlisted -- Kelly Dougherty wanted help paying for school, Acosta wanted a future, Rob Sarra saw ``Top Gun" in eighth grade and fell in love with the military. The hypocrisies of the recruiting machinery are explored, as are the calculated humiliations of basic training; there's nothing particularly new here, although your heart may sink when someone recalls a march cadence about ``killing babies."
The purpose is to build ``a sustained desire to kill," in the words of one of the soldiers, and ``The Ground Truth" does offer the insight that video simulations have greatly increased training efficiency in the years since W orld W ar II and Vietnam. ``The software has changed dramatically," says one expert, which to one of the vets translates as ``You've seen the movie: You pull the trigger, the man drops."
Then they're shipped to Iraq, where the relevant contrasting quote would be one vet's muttered ``When you have to put a bullet in a woman and the woman's pregnant, it messes with you." This section is the core of ``The Ground Truth," and it is scalding. The video footage Foulkrod has gathered from in-country grips you from the start, and the violence is pitiless toward aggressors and victims on both sides. We watch an aerial heat-vision shot of a street crowd of Iraqis bombed into jelly, while an off-camera soldier says in shock and awe, ``Oh, dude."
``The Ground Truth" depicts a chaotic, undersupported American presence while giving the lie to assertions that Iraqi civilian deaths are minimal. ``You don't go to war in a country and not go to war with its people," says former US Marine Charles Anderson. Others talk of being shot at by unseen gunmen and taking out every local in sight in response. ``It works; it's efficient," says ex-Marine corporal Sean Huze. In the most harrowing anecdote, Sarra describes shooting an approaching woman and only afterward finding the white flag in her hand. No one wins: The woman loses her life, Sarra loses his soul.
In the film's final third, Foulkrod brings her warriors, mangled in mind and body, home to a country that doesn't want to know. The ex-soldiers speak eloquently of their battles with inner demons while wives, girlfriends, and family members talk of being on the outside of people they once knew intimately. The parents of Marine Reservist Jeffrey Lucey describe the changes in their son, who returned from Iraq in late 2003 and hung himself six months later. On his bed he left the dog tags of two unarmed Iraqi soldiers he said he had shot.
``As Vietnam was Agent Orange, this war will be psychological injury," says one voice here, and the fractures of post-traumatic stress disorder are everywhere in evidence -- except to the Department of Defense, which labels it a ``personality disorder" or a symptom of bipolarity. The film's indignation only rises as the men and women describe the Veteran Administration's bureaucratic stonewalling and denial. When Jimmy Massey, a 12-year Marine Corps veteran, expressed regret for killing people in Iraq, he was labeled a conscientious objector by a VA psychiatrist.
``The Ground Truth" is straightforward filmmaking, and it has no interest in art. Foulkrod gussies up her format with a few montages set to tunes by the Roots and Mos Def, but they're not needed. At a mere 74 minutes, the film is epic in scope and in dismay. The implicit challenge, of course, is to its audience: How do you feel about this? What, if anything, are you going to do about it? Hug a veteran? Buy another ribbon magnet for the minivan? Something more?
You could pretend that what ``The Ground Truth" shows and tells doesn't exist, but the film makes it extremely difficult. ``There is nothing honorable about what we did," says a returned National Guardsman. The issue isn't that some veterans feel that way. The issue is that even one does.
Ty Burr can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.