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Captain, US Army,
Captain Mugavero will join us to offer his unique insight into the simulation operation in the Mojave Desert.
He was assigned as an Assistant Operations Officer for five years with the Iraq Simulation program at the National Training Center at Ft. Irwin, California. A participant in FULL BATTLE RATTLE, Chris was the Officer in Charge for the village of Medina Wasl, responsible for villager and insurgent activities.
With 17 years in the Army Capt. Mugavero served a one year tour in Iraq as an MTT Team Leader in Baghdad and currently is an instructor at the Manuever Captain's Career Course in Fort Knox, KY, where he is a member of the 16th Cavalry Regiment.
On the personal side, Chris originally hails from New York, is a Liberal Arts graduate of Western Louisianna State University, and is married with three children ages 4, 8 and 12.
FULL BATTLE RATTLE
About the Film
THERE'S A BREAK IN THE ACTION ...
Off-camera we hear, "Now you wounded guys, leave your bandages on!" 'Dead' soldiers and 'dead' insurgents get up off the ground, an Iraqi woman in villager costume asks in clear English, "Are we done?" and the bizarre assembly heads toward the tinkling sound of Scott Joplin's "The Entertainer" -- coming from a yellow ice cream truck in the middle of the desert.
Is this a Hollywood movie set? Not exactly. But as makeup artists apply stage blood to the 'wounded' and acting coaches teach troops how to fall when they are shot, there is a definite air of "lights, camera, action!" as videographers set up for the next round of action.
WELCOME TO FULL BATTLE RATTLE, a unique documentary film about an unusual subject: "virtual Iraq" - the billion dollar urban warfare simulation at the National Training Center in the Mojave Desert, halfway between Los Angeles and Las Vegas. The film's title refers to military slang describing full battle dress - 50 pounds of gear including Kevlar vest, weapon and ammo - "full battle rattle."
HIGH-TECH, HIGH-PRESSURE and at times satirically high-camp, this is an environment that few civilians ever see or even know about. Humorous incongruities aside, what happens here is serious business.
MADE WITH THE PERMISSION OF THE US ARMY, without censorship or pre-conditions, the directors could have used this film as a platform for political opinion. To their credit and the credibility of the film, they elected not to editorialize one way or another, allowing the story to speak for itself and allowing audiences to form their own opinions without polemic influence.
INDEED, THIS FILM IGNORES the hashed and rehashed politics and civilian decisions that put us on the ground in Iraq. Instead, FBR looks at how we are preparing our troops to deal with the realities of engagement as they evolve. Severe casualties are a huge problem - how do we prepare our units and med teams in the field to mitigate the damage to our troops?
IN THE RUN-UP TO WAR, our leaders never thought that our troops would be handling multiple factions, civil war and insurgent attacks on a town-by-town basis, year-after-year. How do we prepare combat units to make diplomatic and political solutions, build alliances, provide aid, keep the peace and confront insurgents? With FULL BATTLE RATTLE, directors Tony Gerber and Jesse Moss have crafted a fast-paced, well-made and highly informative film -- definitely worth watching, for a number of reasons:
<1> THE STORY & THE SETTING. The premise for the film's creation is the unique environment and at times surreal circumstances under which the action takes place. Before deploying to the battlefield, Army units spend two weeks immersed in the Iraq simulation at Fort Irwin, California, to prepare for and enhance their chances of survival and success when they face the real thing. 300 Iraqi nationals play villagers; 1300 soldiers in the Army's Opposing Force garrison are cast as insurgents and run the control center and logistics operation.
<2> THE PEOPLE. We get to know Lt. Col. Robert McLaughlin, commander of the 4th Brigade, 1st Cavalry, based at Ft. Bliss, with deep concern for his mission, his troops and the Iraqi people. Plus others like Col. Kramer, Capt. Mugavero, Lt. Freeman and non-coms Sgt. Ramsey and Sgt. Greene. We meet Iraqi nationals Bassam Kalsho who works in a San Diego liquor store when not serving as Deputy Mayor of the Medina Wasl village for the Army, Azhar Cholagh who sends her Army pay home to her parents in Baghdad; asylum applicant Nagi Moshi who plays the Deputy Police Chief of Medina Wasl, and another Iraqi woman who spends her off-time studying for American citizenship. These are real people and FULL BATTLE RATTLE offers revealing portraits that transcend the training exercise.
<3> CINEMATIC CONSTRUCTION. The only filmmakers ever allowed to document an entire simulation operation, Gerber and Moss worked independently, with Gerber embedded in BlueFor, capturing the action in Col. McLaughlin's brigade and at the control center; and Moss embedded with OpFor (Opposing Force), capturing the action from the village of Medina Wasl and the insurgents. The pacing is rapid and the scenes shift from live action - political and armed engagement - to candid interviews during the various teams' down time. Plus, there is ample footage of Col. Kramer explaining how the simulation works and the rules of engagement.
<4> INSIGHT. FULL BATTLE RATTLE offers many important insights - the differences between Iraqi and American cultures and how the simulation training attempts to address them; the complexities of modern warfare and of maintaining an occupation presence in a foreign culture, the use of technology and simulation in preparation; and the improvement of in-the-field medical care based on exposure to realistic conditions in the simulation.
Another insight concerns the evolution in overall mission focus evidenced by conversion of the NTC simulation operation to urban warfare use in 2005. This element is particularly salient, as considerable focus is now on non-kinetic operations, which is military speak for being a politician, diplomat, aid worker and policeman - all those things our military wished to avoid in the 1990s and thus did not train for.
While combat readiness remains a must, based on the lessons learned to date in Iraq the inclusion of non-kinetic elements receives equal emphasis in the preparation of our troops. Although the outcome of this focus was not publicly apparent when FULL BATTLE RATTLE was filmed in 2006, its pre- and post-surge success has now been documented.
WORTH READING: These points and more are amplified in the "Directors' Statement" and the "NTC Simulation Info" in the sections below.
Tony Gerber & Jesse Moss
Deciding to Make the Film
In May 2006, we asked the Army for permission to film inside their Iraq Simulation in California's Mojave Desert. Formally known as the National Training Center at Fort Irwin, the simulation had been the subject of several news reports. These reports piqued our curiosity. We learned that the Army had - in order to adapt to the changing nature of the war in Iraq -constructed a number of mock villages in Mojave Desert and populated them with Iraqi American role players. Combat Brigades deploying to Iraq were sent through the simulation for two weeks and subjected to an immersive training exercise designed to prepare them for the military, cultural, political and humanitarian challenges awaiting them in the real war zone.
On one hand, this effort struck us as a perfectly sensible. On the other hand, there was something disturbingly odd about the exercise. Could war really be simulated? Who were these Iraqi American role players who lived for weeks inside the simulation? Aspects of the simulation seemed utterly fake. Yet the stakes were very real. Soldiers and civilians were dying in Iraq. Could this training save lives? This tension -between the fake and the real - is what drew us to the story as documentary filmmakers. It was our hope that by living inside the simulation we might answer these questions and gain valuable insight into the war itself.
Emboldened by the belief that the best films about war are often the least conventional (Altman's Mash, Kubrick's Dr. Strangelove, David O. Russell's Three Kings, Peter Davis's Heart and Minds), we approached the Army about access.
The Army resisted our initial efforts to film inside the simulation. As independent documentary filmmakers, we were not affiliated with any broadcast network or news agency. After persisting for several months and demonstrating our professional qualifications, we were invited to visit the simulation for two days.
On this initial trip we visited Medina Wasl, one of several Iraqi villages in the simulation, and observed an Army Combat Brigade involved in a role-playing exercise. This was fascinating and utterly surreal. It looked like Iraq (desert). It felt like Iraq (120 degrees). The townsfolk were all Arabic speaking Iraqis. Yet the village looked like a B movie set. Odder still were the American soldiers cast as insurgents lounging around town in dishdashah - a form of traditional Iraqi dress -BBQing hamburgers as if they were relaxing on the front porch of a fraternity house.
It was like walking into the middle of the world's largest, most expensive, most complex stage play. And it was immediately apparent to us that the play itself - as enacted by soldiers and role players -could serve the film in two ways: as both the dramatic framework of our story; and as a distorted mirror reflecting -in strange but revealing ways -the many challenges facing America in Iraq.
After returning to New York and reviewing our footage, we immediately approached the Army and requested permission to live inside the simulation for the duration of an entire training rotation -three weeks. This was something no journalist, filmmaker or news organization had ever done before. We proposed that Tony Gerber (Director/Producer) would live with the Army Brigade in training, and that Jesse Moss (Director/Producer) would live in the village of Medina Wasl, a scenario that would allow us to document both sides of this "fake" war.
Much to our surprise, the Army agreed to our request. We asked to join the 4-1 Cav (the 4th Brigade of the 1st Cavalry, from Fort Bliss, Texas), during their training rotation in August 2006. On August 7, we moved into the simulation.
A written agreement with the Army ensured that we would have complete editorial freedom. Our movements were never monitored, our questions were never screened, and we were able to move freely within the simulated battle-space.
Working in the Field
The major initial challenge was not the working conditions, which, although brutal, were not we reminded ourselves -nearly as dangerous as those faced by journalists in the real Iraq. (Soldiers and insurgents in the simulation play a sophisticated form of laser-tag. Although soldiers have died in the simulation, casualties are rare.)
Rather, the initial challenge to us, as documentary filmmakers, was finding characters to follow through the simulation. We hit the ground running. And within a few days identified the soldiers and Iraqi role players who would both play key roles in the "drama" and had compelling personal stories.
What made our challenge difficult was not only the number of characters we were actively following, and the improvised nature of the simulation, but the limited production resources available to us. Both of us worked alone in the field, shooting and recording sound. The work was exhausting and overwhelming but exhilarating. During the production we shot 350 hours of footage using the Panasonic DVX100a camera, shooting 24P anamorphic (16:9).
Full Battle Rattle is the story of a village, Medina Wasl, perched on the brink of civil war. The outcome of this story -the fate of Medina Wasl -was not scripted. Lt. Col. McLaughlin and his soldiers could achieve victory and win the "hearts and minds" of the people, or they could lose, and send the town spiraling downward. It became apparent to us, as we edited the film, that the story of Medina Wasl was a striking allegory of the real Iraq War, mirroring nearly every phase of the conflict, from occupation, through the rise of the insurgency, collateral damage, reconstruction and civil war.
In August 2006, the war was going badly, but some, including President Bush and his war cabinet, remained optimistic. Would the fate of Medina Wasl foretell the future? Or, more modestly, yield curious insight into the military missteps and the cultural and religious differences that confound America's efforts in Iraq. We choose to let the viewer decide whether the outcome of the simulation (withdrawal) is an accurate indicator of the future.
Full Battle Rattle is also the story of a group of people brought together in an unusual moment in time, in an unusual place. The film, we hope, provides a snapshot of their lives as they undergo profound transformation. For the soldiers of the 5-82 Battalion, war and Iraq (and possibly death) loom on the horizon. For the Iraqi role players, Iraq, their native homeland, recedes into the past (and is destroyed), even as it materializes, in simulated form, in front of them. They are all on the journey to become Americans. Unexpectedly, for Sgt. Paul Greene, who plays an insurgent in Medina Wasl, Iraq is both past, present and future, as he rudely discovers when, near the end of the film, he is deployed a third time.
Finally, Full Battle Rattle offers a glimpse inside the soul of the American war machine, presented in all its surreal, shocking power. There are 13 villages in the simulation, and new ones on the horizon. The Army employs 300 Iraqi American role players to populate these villages. Army Brigades (approximately 3000 soldiers) travel through the simulation nearly every month. And a military city of 15,000 - Fort Irwin - exists to support the operation of the simulation. What was once a cold war training facility, in which tanks battled each other in a simulated Eastern Front, has evolved into a web of villages in which an entire nation has been simulated, with rival tribes, an army of its own, two news networks, a civilian leadership, a court system, an insurgency, a radical Shiite militia, live goats, amputees, and robotic mannequins. The irony was not lost on us that while Iraq disintegrates, a new, ersatz Iraq rises in the desert, 40 miles from Barstow, California.
Point of View
While we both have strong and similar feelings about the war, we neither set out to make a "pro war" nor an "anti war" film. Nor did we set out to discover facts that would conform to a set of rigid political beliefs. Rather, our intention was to examine this world from the inside, and allow viewers to decide for themselves. We believe this is one of the great strengths of the film.
It took approximately 14 months, and the work of 3 extremely talented editors, to edit Full Battle Rattle. We first assembled a rough outline of the key moment in the drama - what we referred to in the edit room as "on stage" events. These were the scripted scenarios -known as injects -devised by military and civilian planners (The Lizard Team) that follow a loose storyline and are designed to test the Brigade. In addition, these events included the Brigade's un-scripted responses, and attacks initiated by insurgents. Our effort was to show the clear choices confronting Lt. Col McLaughlin, and document how the decisions he and his soldiers made would shape the final outcome of their mission.
Secondly, we focused on events "off-stage" - moments when our key subjects were out of character, and, in a sense, playing themselves. These included interviews, and cinema verite moments.
Lastly, we focused on the material that the audience would need to understand the rules of the simulation - the "rules of the game." This information was largely provided -through interviews -with Col. Cameron Kramer, Chief of Plans and Operations, at the National Training Center, and Capt. Chris Mugavero, the Officer in Charge of Medina Wasl.
Finding the right balance between these three main elements required a long process of experimentation and calibration. The decision to leave the simulation in the final act of the film and return to Fort Bliss (with Lt. Col. McLauglin and his soldiers) and San Diego (with our Iraqi role players) was not easy. Yet ultimately we felt it was important, even necessary, to see our subjects in the "real" world, to understand everything that was at stake for them, and bring their stories, in the film, to closure.
The look and feel of the film was important to us. We come from a strong cinema verite tradition, but are comfortable and have worked successfully in narrative fiction and more conventional (interview-based) forms of documentary storytelling. The appeal of this film, in this place, was the opportunity to draw these styles together and create something new and different: to shoot breathless, surprising, and occasionally rough cinema verite; to cover the "on stage" moments in the simulation as, appropriately, a form of fiction; and sit down with our subjects for candid, intense interviews.
We came from different backgrounds as filmmakers but in Full Battle Rattle found the ultimate subject in which we could walk a line between the real and the imagined -a subject in which the distinction between the two is beside the point.
NTC Info & Links,
Simulation & Immersion
(from the filmmakers)
FULL BATTLE RATTLE is the story of a real war and a fake town. In California's Mojave Desert, the US Army has built a "virtual Iraq" -a billion dollar urban warfare simulation -and populated it with hundreds of Iraqi role-players. Army units spend three weeks inside the simulation before deploying to Iraq.
FULL BATTLE RATTLE follows an Army Battalion through the simulation, as they attempt to quell an insurgency and prevent the mock village of Medina Wasl from slipping into civil war.
The story is told from both sides of the conflict, and filtered through a compelling cast of characters, including the Army Colonel who commands the Battalion, the Iraqi exiles who play civilians on the battlefield, and the American soldiers cast as "insurgents." We follow our subjects from the moment they receive their role assignments through their simulated "deaths." Despite the movie-set contrivances, the stakes and the emotions are very real. As reality and fantasy overlap, the film moves from comic to surreal to poignant.
Will the Army improve life in Medina Wasl and win the "hearts and minds" of the people, or will their mistakes propel the town into violent civil war? Does 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?
Through these intimate stories of Iraqi exiles fleeing the war (and now "playing" it) and US Soldiers heading into it, FULL BATTLE RATTLE provides a revelatory look at the soul of the American war machine, and, in the battle for Medina Wasl, finds a potent allegory of the Iraq War and the cultural and religious differences that confound America's efforts.
About the National Training Center
Out in the mesquite and yucca scrub of the High Mojave Desert region of California, you'll find Ft. Irwin. A US Army installation roughly the size of Rhode Island, it sits about half-way between Los Angeles and Las Vegas, surrounded by the China Lake Naval Weapons Center, Edwards Air Force Base and the Twenty-Nine Palms USMC Base on the West and South; and Death Valley National Park and the Mojave National Preserve on the North and East. (Map.)
Ft. Irwin is home to the 1,000 square mile National Training Center, containing the desert/urban warfare simulation of Iraq. Initially employed in the 1980s primarily for large-scale tank battle training, in 2005, two years into the current Iraq war, the NTC shifted scenarios to urban operations representative of the Middle East. When FULL BATTLE RATTLE was filmed, there were 13 Iraqi villages in the desert area; now there are 19 and some have been/are being converted to Afghan scenarios.
Army's adaption to counterinsurgency gives hope for work that remains. Army Times
Commentary: National Training Center provides taste of 'real' combat. Colorado Springs Business Journal
Special report on NTC Iraq simulation, IEDs, etc., with photos and videos. USA Today
Illinois soldier serves in specialized service in the Army. Military Medical News
NBC News report from the NTC at Ft. Irwin. Article and Video
Air Force, Army improve joint training. US Joint Forces Command
Simulation and Technology:
Various descriptions of USC-ICT projects with the NTC, immersion, AI, virtual humans, games and simulation USC Institute for Creative Technologies
Strategic Plan, May 2007 Army Research, Development and Engineering Command
RDE elements, including Simulation and Training Army Research, Development and Engineering Command
Use of AI, gaming and simulation in military training methodology. Stanford University