WATCHING THE powerful new film Buffalo Soldiers reminded me of the time I worked at the Passport Office in London in the mid-1980s. Once or twice a month I had the job of opening up the Ministry of Defence internal mailbag. Inside were a number of passports that had to be deleted. They were the passports of dead British soldiers. A large number contained letters from army friends or commanding officers explaining their fate. Many were killed in the most horrific ways during military exercises. Others were a result of mundane accidents on military bases. I was always sad cutting off the corners of these passports and stamping them 'Cancelled'. The needless death of young soldiers is one of the central subjects covered by Buffalo Soldiers.
The film is set on a US army base in West Germany just before the Berlin Wall comes crashing down. It takes a massive swipe at the top brass and exposes the massive levels of drug taking, murder and corruption inside the US army. It is a combination of Mash, Kelly's Heroes and Catch-22 but with a much darker edge.
Buffalo Soldiers was originally premiered at the Toronto Film Festival on 9 September 2001. Two days later the Twin Towers came crashing down. While films which glorified US military power - Black Hawk Down and We Were Soldiers - were rushed out, Buffalo Soldiers was put on ice. Only now, with the Afghan and Iraq war (supposedly) behind them, is the film getting a limited release in Britain and Germany.
Some film critics have accused this movie of being far-fetched in its portrayal of murder and drug taking. But an official US government report admits that there were between 25 and 30 murders a year on these US bases at the time - and between two and three accidental deaths a day! All in all there were on average 1,600 deaths a year.
The film's director, Gregor Jordon, told Time Out magazine, 'I read in one article about how 19 people had been killed in war games, including nine German civilians. This stuff just never got reported.' There is a scene in the film where a lost US tank crushes a VW Beetle. This was based on a real-life incident. But in the real world the people didn't get out of the car alive.
Even the drug taking is based on reality. The Washington Post newspaper interviewed one camp commandant in 1987. He claimed that a staggering one in four troops in his base were unfit for military service because of drug use.
Both US and UK troops have been the perpetrators of terrible acts of violence against the people they have invaded. But they are also victims of a class-ridden and violent system. About 80 percent of US soldiers who saw combat in Vietnam came from blue-collar families. Today the class composition has barely changed except to add that 38 percent of US troops based in Iraq come from an ethnic minority background.
Today, it's still poor black, Latino and white soldiers who do the fighting and dying. In Germany, Buffalo Soldiers is titled 'Army Go Home'. If it ever gets released in Iraq, I wonder what the film's title will be?