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“Off To War: From Rural Arkansas to Baghdad”: Filmmakers on the Lives of Arkansan Soldiers in Iraq

StoryOctober 27, 2005
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We air excerpts of the film and speak with filmmakers Craig Renaud and Brent Renaud about the series that follows members of the Arkansas National Guard as they deploy to Iraq. “Off to War” was one of the first films to deal with the ongoing problem of U.S. troops having inadequate equipment and unarmored vehicles in Iraq. [includes rush transcript]

This week, two major news stories dominating the headlines have converged–the CIA leak case in Washington and the grim milestone of 2,000 US soldiers killed in Iraq–and they’re linked. The CIA leak case is about smearing a whistleblower who challenged the Bush administration’s pretext for the Iraq invasion–weapons of mass destruction. It turns out there were no WMDs, but there is a war. And as protests, vigils and rallies are held around the country to mark the 2,000th American soldier killed, 159,000 troops are still deployed in Iraq–matching the largest American force ever in the country.

We go to the voices of members of the Arkansas National Guard. They are the subject of a multi-part documentary series airing on Discovery Times, called “Off to War: From Rural Arkansas to Baghdad.” This series was one of the first to deal with the ongoing problem of US troops having inadequate equipment and unarmored vehicles in Iraq.

  • Craig Renaud and Brent Renaud, the filmmakers and producers of the documentary series “Off to War: From Rural Arkansas to Baghdad,” which follows members of the Arkansas National Guard as they deploy to Iraq. On Saturday, the sixth installment of the series will air on Discovery Times.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

JUAN GONZALEZ: Today, we go “off to war.”

ARKANSAS NATIONAL GUARDSMEN: War! Good God, y’all! What is it good for? Absolutely nothing!

AMY GOODMAN: Yes, that wasn’t an acapella group, it was the voices of members of the Arkansas National Guard. They’re the subject of a multi-part documentary series airing on Discovery Times called Off to War: From Rural Arkansas to Baghdad. The series was one of the first to deal with the ongoing problem of U.S. troops having inadequate equipment and unarmored vehicles in Iraq. This is an excerpt of Off to War.

NATIONAL GUARDSMAN 1: The convoy, we’re getting ready to take to Camp Taji, north of Baghdad. It’s pretty serious. Some of the equipment is old, so we’re trying to make sure it doesn’t break down.

NATIONAL GUARDSMAN 2: I can’t — I have no idea why, you know, the United States Army would make us deploy with this old crap. And I think they’re going to quickly understand that when half of it breaks down on the way to Taji, and it will, that it’s not a good idea to deploy a National Guard unit with old Vietnam-era equipment.

NATIONAL GUARDSMAN 3: This is what an armored vehicle should look like. The vehicle is totally armored, completely all the way around, even in the front windshield. This is the modern vehicles that the regular army has right now.

NATIONAL GUARDSMAN 4: We were promised up armor kits. We didn’t get them. So we’re going to go ahead and try to fabricate something.

NATIONAL GUARDSMAN 4: Sir, do you think we could use some of this stuff?

NATIONAL GUARDSMAN 5: We’re trying to use as much of the metal as we can, but we only have a limited supply of it so, you know, we have to resort to these old bullet-proof vests and, honestly, I don’t feel too comfortable with doing that, but we gotta use what we can.

NATIONAL GUARDSMAN 1: The sandbags will act to deflect the blast from a roadside bomb or deflect bullets if we’re shot at.

AMY GOODMAN: An excerpt of the third installment of the Off to War series. We brought you that clip more than a year ago. Now, there have been more than seven episodes produced. Episode six will be airing on Saturday on Discovery Times. When we come back from break, we’ll be joined by the brother filmmakers, Brent and Craig Renaud. Like the Arkansas National Guardsmen who’ve headed off to war, they, too, are from Arkansas; in fact, went to high school with some of Guardsmen who are in Iraq.


AMY GOODMAN: We’re joined by the Renaud brothers. That’s Craig and Brent Renaud, producers of the documentary series, Off to War: From Rural Arkansas to Baghdad, which is following members of the Arkansas National Guard as they deploy to Iraq. On Saturday, the sixth installment of the series will air on Discovery Times. It is an absolutely riveting remarkable series. The clips we have just played before the break, we played before. You were really the first to play nationally this part of the story of the National Guard going to war with these Vietnam era gear, where they weren’t protected. You went to school with some of the guys in the Guard, Craig?

CRAIG RENAUD: That’s correct. We — Brent and I both grew up in Little Rock, and when we found out about the deployment, it was actually through a best friend of mine. His father is a retired colonel from the National Guard. And that’s actually how we got access to begin with. But not only through him, but we also had a lot of friends from grade school and even high school that were going to be soldiers in this deployment.

BRENT RENAUD: Yeah, this was a huge deal in Arkansas. It was the largest call-up since the Korean War. 3,000 people from a small, rural state. So it was a really big deal. It was on all the local news every single night. Everybody was covering it. So we thought it was something important that we needed to be a part of.

AMY GOODMAN: How long have you been doing it?

BRENT RENAUD: It’s been two years now. They were activated in October 2003, and they arrived in Baghdad in April 2004, right when Fallujah really kicked off, right when the four contractors were hung from the bridge there. They were going in for a peace and stability mission, and it changed really fast. And it was clear that they were going in for a combat mission, actually.

JUAN GONZALEZ: Now, we have been hearing a lot about soldiers who had second and even third tours in Iraq. Are any of this Guard unit now — it’s been there obviously more than a year now; are you finding now some of the reservists who are doing second and third tours, as well?

CRAIG RENAUD: Well, in terms of the guys that we’re following, they’re back now. They just got back in April of 2005, so they have been home for a few months. A lot of the guys that we’re following are getting out of the National Guard now. The ones who still have three to four years left on their contracts are waiting to see if they will be deployed again. There’s a two-year limit in terms of their deployability for National Guard, and they have — this deployment, they used up 18 months of that two years that they’re eligible to be deployed, so they have to be back stateside, for a certain period of time before they’re deployable again. So it doesn’t look like anytime soon they’ll be redeployed, but, you know, a number of them still have years left on their contract.

BRENT RENAUD: It was one of the reasons we really wanted to do this film, because we thought it was an historic moment, in terms of part-time soldiers, National Guardsmen and reservists. This was really the last time that if you were in there, you don’t expect or think you’re going somewhere to fight. Pretty much if you join now you know you are going somewhere, whether it’s Afghanistan, whether it’s Iraq or whether it’s going to be somewhere else. But this was a moment in time where the families weren’t necessarily ready for it, and the soldiers didn’t know what they were getting into.

AMY GOODMAN: You know, it’s really interesting you raise that, Brent, because with the hurricane, Katrina, you have the head of the National Guard saying this is the best reason to sign up, because you’re going to help your fellow countrymen and women in a time of, you know, disaster, and I think that’s very compelling for a lot of people. A lot of people want to help. But, in fact, that may well not be where they end up.

BRENT RENAUD: Yeah. Absolutely. When they got back, some of the guys were actually called down to help at Katrina, and they got back, and they actually were quite pleased about this. They were saying, “This is what I signed up for. This is really what I wanted to do.” We have a lot of tornadoes in Arkansas, a lot of floods. And this is what they were used to doing before, and all of that has changed now.

JUAN GONZALEZ: What’s been the reaction in Arkansas to the series? Have you gotten much feedback from the families and neighbors and people in your community?

CRAIG RENAUD: Yeah, all of the soldiers and their families have seen all the episodes that have aired so far, and we have had extremely positive feedback from them. One thing that was really important for us with making this film is that we didn’t have any narration, no music in the film, and it was really important for us to present this from the perspective of the soldiers. And that’s something that we did throughout, and I think the families have really appreciated that, because they have said unanimously, you know, you told it the way that it happened, you told it through our voice, and I think that’s really helped them appreciate the film.

AMY GOODMAN: Set up this next clip for us. This is what is going to air Saturday night, Discovery Times, 10:00 Eastern Standard Time. You guys — well, the unit was ambushed.

CRAIG RENAUD: Yeah. We were on a nighttime patrol. It was last July. It was pretty soon after the handover of power. And the Arkansas National Guard had started working with the Iraqi police on all of their missions. And, you know, from the very beginning, there was a large lack of trust, in terms of the Iraqi police force because a lot of the guys just felt, you know, they weren’t sure in terms of who they could trust with the guys they were working with. And we came under attack. The vehicles that we were riding in came under attack. It was a full scale ambush. And after the ambush, it became pretty evident that they were set up by the Iraqi police. And so, in the episode six, you will see the ambush, and then after that you see a very lengthy investigation into the Iraqi police.

AMY GOODMAN: Let’s go to that clip.

ARKANSAS NATIONAL GUARDSMAN: [under attack] God damn! Get down! [unintelligible] RPGs!

ARKANSAS NATIONAL GUARDSMAN: Keep going! Keep going! Reload!

AMY GOODMAN: The Arkansas National Guard ambushed in Iraq. Our guests in the studio are the brother producers who filmed this, Craig and Brent Renaud. producers of the documentary series, Off to War. Which one of you were there?

CRAIG RENAUD: I was there that night.

AMY GOODMAN: What were your feelings?

CRAIG RENAUD: Well, I mean, actually, I wasn’t very surprised. I mean, we had been going out on the patrols two weeks before that at night, and each night it seemed the activity kept increasing. The night before this, we had a rocket shot over our head, and the soldiers were chasing down, you know, trying to figure out who had shot that rocket. So, for those two weeks right after the handover, there was really a lead-up to this. I wasn’t that surprised. Once it happened, of course, once it did happen, you know, you’re very scared for your life, but you’re also focusing on making sure that you capture all of this as it’s happening.

AMY GOODMAN: The next clip ties in to this, about the U.S. troops confronting Iraqi troops, police.

CRAIG RENAUD: That’s correct. What had happened during the ambush is right before the soldiers were attacked an Iraqi police vehicle passed the front of the convoy, flipped on its lights, and there was another one behind the convoy that flipped on its lights, and they peeled off, and the ambush began. And so, with all the guys they felt, you know, it was evident that there was some involvement with the Iraqi police, so, after this, a large investigation.

AMY GOODMAN: Let’s go to that clip.

NATIONAL GUARDSMAN 1: Lieutenant Ahmed, what have you found out so far? Any idea who is doing it, yet?


NATIONAL GUARDSMAN 1: Wow, been investigating for three days and don’t no anything? He sucks.

LT. AHMED: [subtitled] I need more time. It’s a very large area.

NATIONAL GUARDSMAN 1: [bleep], man! How much time you need? I think their first priority ought to be how to investigate. They don’t go ask people questions. This is the third time since we have been here this has happened.

NATIONAL GUARDSMAN 2: You don’t want to know what I think.

NATIONAL GUARDSMAN 3: In the room right now are the Iraqi police from Al-Rashadiya. They’re the ones who are actually handling the investigation. I mean, they have done basically nothing, haven’t gone out and talked to anybody, haven’t done anything, so that’s what he’s talking to them about right now.

NATIONAL GUARDSMAN 1: He’s saying that one of you guys were under attack, that they were at the end of the road, stopped. This guy says they were driving around up and down on the highway.

NATIONAL GUARDSMAN 4: Basically, he claims not to know anything. These guys know who did it. If they want to act like they don’t know, well, that’s fine. I’m not going to trust any of them. Not any of them.

NATIONAL GUARDSMAN 5: I don’t believe them. I think they’re involved. The only way we’ll get to the bottom is if when they ambush us again, we kill them, and we can take their dead stinking carcasses up there and say, 'Here you go. You said it wasn't your guys, and here it is.’ That’s it. You know, I mean, they have tried killing me, you know, my guys, my friends. You know, we have all been affected by these knuckleheads, and I’m sick of them. You know, the only way they’re going to stop is to kill them. And all I need to do is just give me half an opportunity, and I will do it.

AMY GOODMAN: Excerpt of the installment, Off to War, that will air on Saturday night, Discovery Times. The Renaud brothers, Craig and Brent Renaud, are Arkansas filmmakers who have been embedded with the Arkansas National Guard through their entire tour in Iraq.

JUAN GONZALEZ: It’s an amazing clip, something that most Americans here are not getting a sense of, the enormous tension and animosity that’s existing between U.S. troops and the Iraqis that they’re supposedly training to take over.

AMY GOODMAN: Right, these aren’t the so-called insurgents.

JUAN GONZALEZ: How widespread did you find that to be?

BRENT RENAUD: Well, it’s unclear how widespread it is, because it’s actually they have trouble identifying who the enemy is at all. To them, everyone looks the same, they sound the same. No one is wearing a uniform. You know, it is really a guerrilla insurgency, and a lot of the insurgency is within the Iraqi National Guard and within the Iraqi police service. It’s not clear how many, but certainly in this case, there was some involvement.

JUAN GONZALEZ: You also followed the soldiers when they returned, and we’re going to take a look at a clip of some of the soldiers going back to a high school, talking to their neighbors and students about the war itself. What was the experiences that you noted in terms of their reintegrating back into American society after their experience in Iraq?

BRENT RENAUD: Yeah. These guys — this is a very patriotic town. These guys are heroes in their community. And when they came back, they were asked to speak at the schools. They were asked to come out at events. There were parades for them. They were really embraced when they came back home. I think in the clip that we’re going to see, some of the young guys go back to the high school where they just graduated one year prior to this, right before they went to Iraq. They graduated from this high school. So they go back to speak, and I think it’s their civics class.

AMY GOODMAN: Let’s go to the clip.

CIVICS TEACHER: We’re fortunate today to have Matt Hertlein and Tommy Erp. Most of you probably already know these fellows. And most of us know where they have been for the last few months. If you have any questions you’d like to ask them, they would be glad to answer them.

MATT HERTLEIN: As long as you don’t ask about political stuff, you know, let’s try to keep away from that topic, whether or not we agree with being there. Have any of you thought about joining the military?

STUDENT 1: I wanted to be a Navy.

MATT HERTLEIN: Just let them know what you want to do. Or don’t let them just say, 'Okay, you're going to be an infantryman, and you leave tomorrow to go to basic training.’ Don’t let them do that, because they will try to do it.

STUDENT 2: What exactly is a mortar?

MATT HERTLEIN: The methods that they use to fight the Americans is very guerrilla-like. You know, they’ll be three or four miles away, and they’ll shoot mortars at us or rockets. If one of their rockets blows up one of our guys, they have done their job.

STUDENT 3: Do people over there like treat you all like you’re their friends or whatever, or are they mean to you?

MATT HERTLEIN: I think their whole goal in life is just to kill as many Americans as they can, you know. We know a lot of kids that are about you guys’s age, and all they want to do is like go outside and play soccer, but they’re afraid to, because a rocket might hit them. You know what I mean? Could you imagine living like that? And people make houses out of the garbage. You guys got it awesome, great. And that’s one of the first things I said whenever we got there. I do not ever want to hear an American complain about the conditions of living, ever. Because it makes me sick. Just the ability to walk into Wal-Mart. Man, I tell you what, yesterday afternoon, I went to Wal-Mart. You just want to lay down and roll around on the floor. It’s good stuff.

MEGAN HERTLEIN: Seeing him smile again, it’s like seeing the whole world bright up. It’s amazing.

MATT HERTLEIN: You’re crying again, see?

TOMMY ERP: This is my little brother, Adam.

ADAM ERP: Tell them about his little accident.

MATT HERTLEIN: I don’t know if any of you guys know this or not, but Mr. Erp here has actually, in fact, been wounded in Iraq.

TOMMY ERP: This one’s still got metal in it, and the one in the armpit we pulled the metal out. That really hurt worse than when it went in.

MATT HERTLEIN: Our medic had blood from his — right here all the way — he was just covered in blood. I have known several people that were wounded, and then I have known three or four people that were actually killed. And I don’t know. It’s just — it’s war. And that’s something I hope you guys never see. I really do.

AMY GOODMAN: The Arkansas National Guardsmen wouldn’t talk about politics with the students in the high school, but they did talk about it with each other.

MATT HERTLEIN: Just from like a boots-on-the-ground point of view, I think we should kill all of them we can.

FRIEND 1: You’re crazy.


FRIEND 2: I don’t think we should be over there to begin with. It’s George’s daddy’s war.

FRIEND 3: Do you think the whole reason they went into war is worth it?

MATT HERTLEIN: I don’t — man, I think the reason that they went over there in the first place is because George Bush had himself and his administration convinced that there’s all of these [ bleep ] weapons of mass destruction over there. We have been over there two years, man, and we haven’t turned up [ bleep ]. Nothing.

FRIEND 4: You know, if they can find Saddam in a rat hole, why can’t they find a scud missile?


FRIEND 4: Why?

MATT HERTLEIN: Because there’s not any.

FRIEND 4: Right.

MATT HERTLEIN: And right now, man, the people that are over there that are dying — I mean, sure, I’m not — you know, they’re patriots and they’re dying for their country and everything, but I think they’re dying for the wrong cause.

FRIEND 4: I’m not over there, and, no, I’m not going to be over there.

MATT HERTLEIN: I don’t like the reason that we’re over there. But I think as long as we’re there, we should just kill as many of those [bleep] terrorists as we get a chance to kill.

FRIEND 4: But, honestly, who’s a terrorist, and who’s a civilian? You can’t tell me.


FRIEND 4: You can stand a terrorist and a civilian side by side and tell the difference.

MATT HERTLEIN: To me, every civilian in Iraq is a terrorist potentially.

FRIEND 4: Right, potentially, but in that respect, in that respect, you have to go over to Iran and you have to go over to Jerusalem and everywhere. In that, it is the same scenario.

MATT HERTLEIN: Every civilian in the Middle East is potentially a terrorist.

FRIEND 4: I’m saying it’s not necessarily just the Middle East. It could be a little bit of everywhere.


AMY GOODMAN: Arkansas National Guardsmen in the sixth chapter of Off to War, which is airing this weekend on Discovery Times. Off to War: From Rural Arkansas to Baghdad. I want to thank you both for being with us and for doing this absolutely remarkable series, Craig and Brent Renaud of DCTV, Downtown Community Television, our colleagues here at the firehouse in New York.

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