Image courtesy: Pfc. David Hauk, U.S. Army. Kandahar, Afghanistan, November 12, 2009

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Brotherly love, personified

Jake Rademacher grew up with five brothers in Decatur, Illinois, thinking he would one day be a soldier. Had life worked out the way he planned, he would have almost certainly deployed to Iraq as a young man.

God's plan was different. Jake's poor eyesight kept him outside the military ranks; a disappointment he struggled to overcome. But after the tragic death of one brother and the departure of two more to Iraq, he eventually wound up in the same war-torn country his initial path was taking him.

In "Brothers At War," the critically-acclaimed documentary now available on DVD that's executive produced by Gary Sinise, Jake sets out to learn more about why two brothers choose to spend months at a time away from his family in foreign lands. While embedding with their units and filming his experiences at home and abroad, he accomplishes his mission, while also producing a valuable historical document of U.S. soldiers completing theirs. But in two separate trips to Iraq, Jake also learns being related by blood does not solely define the brotherly bond.

In the film, we see Maj. Isaac Rademacher and Sgt. Joe Rademacher deploy to Iraq. We are given a difficult glimpse into the pain of a wife, girlfriend, mother, father, and a beautiful little girl who may never know her father. While Jake's embedded footage in the war zone is important, the scenes shot on the homefront are a revelation. At one point, Isaac, who his younger sister lovingly lauds as "Superman," actually reveals he is fighting a "two front war" in Iraq and North Carolina, where he is shown with his family between deployments. Adjusting to life back home after a year in Iraq is taking its toll, just like it is on Joe. Going to Wal-Mart and hearing people complain about phone bills and other trivial problems is actually more difficult for the Long Range Surveillance Company commander than kicking the door in of an insurgent hideout. As he puts it, "nobody understands."

The film's unglamorous realism leads to its greatest achievements. Instead of seeing soldiers triumph daily in Iraq, we see them digging makeshift toilet holes in the desert. We see them playing video games, and in a hysterical segment, gathering around to watch "The O.C." on a rare night off in Iraq, after reluctantly admitting to each other that they all love the show. We see the brutal sandstorms, treacherous heat, and painful boredom of a five-day desert mission that produces almost no tangible results. "We're not here to blow things up," Sgt. Ben Fischer explains, offering the filmmaker what seems to be a semi-apology for the lack of action to record on the mission.

What the young filmmaker does best, though, is finally bring the military's almost mythical camaraderie to the big screen. This is what makes "Brothers At War" reality TV that's actually worth watching. We don't just hear troops talking about putting buddies ahead of their own welfare: we see it. In one of the movie's most powerful scenes, American and Iraqi soldiers put their lives on the line for each other in a way we never thought possible when 1990's America was captivated by smart-bomb footage during the first Gulf War. The film does not endorse the 2003 invasion of Iraq, since the troops fighting the war did not make the decision to invade. What it does endorse is hope. If American and Iraqi forces can become brothers in arms, can't we all learn from their example?

While he never says it, Jake's visits to Iraq help him realize that Joe, Isaac, Claus, and the late Thad are not his only brothers. He speaks to U.S. troops who were putting their lives on the line for him before they ever met.

"If you have kids, if anybody else has kids, we're out there for them," Spc. Christopher Mackey says.

Jake then poignantly asks: "Is it worth it if it costs you your life?"

"Yeah, it'd be worth it," Mackey answers after a brief pause. "That's why I'm here; I'd give my life for America any day. Wouldn't think twice."

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