Iraq War Veterans 20 Years Later

By: Petra Epperlein and Michael Tucker, for the New York Times.

Months after the United States invaded Iraq in 2003, I began filming the U.S. Army’s 2nd Battalion, 3rd Field Artillery Regiment in Baghdad. The unit was housed in a bombed-out palace on the banks of the Tigris that they named Gunner Palace.

Rather than just making a movie about the men, I suggested that we make a film together — an offer that the soldiers quickly embraced. They told the story of the war as only they could: They played guitar, spat out rhymes and played to the camera. But behind all their bravado and posturing, they were just kids who desperately wanted the world to understand the war through their eyes. In the last two months of 2003, the Gunners lost three men to I.E.D. attacks.

They scrambled to create makeshift armor for their soft-skinned vehicles using scrap metal. When asked by a soldier about the lack of armor in 2004, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld famously said, “You go to war with the army you have, not the army you might want or wish to have at a later time.”

They were the army we had. They fought an enemy they couldn’t always see in a land they didn’t understand for reasons that were never entirely clear. In the midst of the pandemic, I visited the men and spoke with them about how they make sense of their role in a war that has yet to be fully reckoned with. In “The Army We Had,” the veterans grapple with a past that still reverberates powerfully through their lives.