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The reality of being 'Over There'

TV producer Steven Bochco's new Iraq war drama, "Over There," follows the fictional exploits of an Army combat squad. Times staffers who have covered the U.S. military in Iraq watched and commented.

July 31, 2005

Tony Perry

Staff writer Tony Perry spent 10 months with 1st Marine Division combat units.

Do the characters seem real?

Yes

Do you discern political bias?

No

Would you embed with this squad?

No, they are too undisciplined.

Is it too entertaining?

No. "Over There" nailed it: orange sandstorms, fear of roadside bombers, anguish about families left behind, need for quick action in confused situations, daily examples of bravery and leadership. The drama and the dread of serving in Iraq is all there.

The show understands that the burden of sacrifice rests predominantly on the American working class and that, in American society, the battlefield is the only truly integrated workplace.

The mix of races, ethnicities and backgrounds may look like a war-movie cliche, but it's true to life.

If "Over There" falls short, it is in the desire to be nonpolitical. Marines believe deeply in the U.S. mission and are convinced that they are protecting their country.

To overlook that is to deny a fact that sustains the Marines in the face of hardship.

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Rick Loomis

Photographer Rick Loomis spent seven months with the Army's 3rd Infantry Division and Marine combat units.

Do the characters seem real?

Yes

Do you discern political bias?

Yes

Would you embed with this squad?

Yes

Is it too entertaining?

Yes. It worries me a little bit that the war we're fighting can't be interesting enough as it happens, that it is being turned into for-profit entertainment.

They certainly did their homework -- some of the situations are pretty real.

But the first two episodes throw out every hot-button issue: You've got alcoholism, you've got infidelity, you've got race.

All of those things can become part of the situation, but it's not every day that all that stuff is going on.

And it's anti-media and anti-Arab within the first five minutes, which I find offensive.

They're saying the media shouldn't be there telling the story, but we're going to entertain you with it.

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Luis Sinco

Photographer Luis Sinco spent five months with Marine combat units.

Do the characters seem real?

Yes

Do you discern political bias?

Yes

Would you embed with this squad?

Yes

Is it too entertaining?

Yes. A lot of the guys I met aren't as brooding as the guys on TV. Soldiers aren't thinking about geopolitical consequences. Everybody knows why they're there.

What I think this show gets across well are soldiers' universal complaints: It's hot, the food stinks. But does it tell you anything deeper about Iraq than that? What is the Muslims' beef? There's a scene in which an Arab American soldier recognizes two jihadis by their clothing and compares them to American teens in 1969 going to Woodstock. I don't think it's all about bored, rich Syrian kids and their chinos.

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Doug Smith

Staff writer Doug Smith spent a week with Army and National Guard units.

Do the characters seem real?

Yes

Do you discern political bias?

No

Would you embed with this squad?

Yes

Is it too entertaining?

Yes. As an unrepentant fan of "Cop Rock," Bochco's police musical series of a few years back, I am open to the portrayal of violent realism through the lens of Hollywood theatricality.

But the war in Iraq is too loaded with geopolitical uncertainties to be treated as pure entertainment.

The first two episodes develop characters whose motives are entirely inward. They go through a series of staged encounters with an enemy who pops up like figures in a computer game.

The difficulty of distinguishing insurgents from ordinary Iraqis is implied but not seen because there are no ordinary Iraqis in any of the scenes. That the setting looks nothing like Iraq is not so troubling as the absence of any donkey carts, poorly shod boys begging for candy, women in abayas or tribal men in dishdashas.

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Charles Duhigg

Staff writer Charles Duhigg spent a month with the Army's 1st Armored Division.

Do the characters seem real?

No

Do you discern political bias?

No

Would you embed with this squad?

Not on your life

Is it too entertaining?

Yes. Real combat has no obvious narrative: A few pops will signal an enemy is firing, then the air fills with the roar of hundreds of American guns, then there is quiet. If an enemy is holding a gun, and an American soldier can see them, they have seconds at most to live.

As for the soldiers themselves, walk into any public high school cafeteria and choose, at random, a collection of directionless non-honors students. Make them more polite, more disciplined, more frightened and less cocksure: The result is American combat troops.

After battle, they do not give each other tough nicknames, nor do they have philosophical conversations about how war degrades men. They are losing their innocence with every day, but they are less self-aware of it and less celebratory than Bochco's cast.

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David Zucchino

Staff writer David Zucchino spent nearly six months with Army combat units.

Do the characters seem real?

Yes

Do you discern political bias?

No

Would you embed with this squad?

Yes, if the sergeant were on leave

Is it too entertaining?

No, despite limitations on realistic depictions imposed by the need for fast-paced drama and character conflict.

I noticed careful attention to detail: the 3ID patches, the weaponry and especially the snatch of dialogue that explained why two female soldiers were accompanying the squad (women are not permitted in combat units).

The combat scenes were mostly true-to-life, particularly the way they depicted the haphazard and unpredictable nature of the conflict in Iraq.

Though one battle scene that depicted insurgents attacking head-on rang false; insurgents rarely attack directly.

Soldiers spend most of their time waiting around for something to happen. And when it does, as the show indicates, they usually wish it hadn't.

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