FALLUJAH, Iraq – Placing his portable DVD player on an empty ammunition can, Marine Lance Cpl. Matthew Smith, 20, of Powder Springs, Ga., is set to watch his favorite movie: “A Few Good Men.” He likes the way Tom Cruise, playing the brash Navy lawyer, stands up to the Marine brass who are willing to let two enlisted Marines go to prison rather than tell the truth about the death of another Marine in a barracks hazing.
Then again, he likes Jack Nicholson’s stiff-necked colonel and can recite long passages of the colonel’s bombastic dialogue, including the famous “You can’t handle the truth!” Like many of his comrades in uniform, Smith is a movie buff (“I’m a big Ben Stiller fan,” he says). And now there’s no reason he has to abandon his passion for cinema just because he’s in a war zone.
In Afghanistan after Sept. 11, the most common piece of off-hours gear seemed to be the portable CD player with headphones. During the assault on Baghdad in 2003 and then again last spring during the first assault on Fallujah, digital cameras and laptop computers were the rage.
Now, hands down, it’s the DVD player, sometimes with its own tiny screen, sometimes hooked to an available television. A variety of brands are for sale in the larger U.S. bases here.
Hollywood has come to the front line, in real time, in living color.
“You can’t just work, work, work and stay on edge,” said Lance Cpl. Don Choi, 19, of Garden Grove, Calif., who put his machine gun down beside Smith’s DVD player. “A movie helps you relax and feel safer.”
Every tent or living space in a bombed-out building being occupied by Marines seems to have at least one DVD player and an informal library. Would it be surprising to learn that young Marines prefer action movies? They do.
“It makes me not think about what’s going on for a while,” said Sgt. Lawrence O’Connor, 25, of Indianapolis, as he watched his favorite, “Conan the Barbarian.” Sgt. Jose Nazario, 25, of Brooklyn, N.Y., said he had been able to stay more current in his movie watching than pals back home.
“I call home and say, ‘Have you seen that movie yet?’ ” he said. “I tell ‘em, ‘I’ve seen it all the way out here.’ “
Swapping movies is a popular activity. On patrol, a Marine in one Humvee inquires of a Marine in another Humvee: “Hey, when are you going to loan me ‘Team America’?” It is not unusual to hear quick and to-the-point critiques, such as this conversation between Marines standing in line for gas-mask inspection:
“What was the name of that movie we watched last night?”
” ‘Lost in Translation.’ “
“Was that like a chick flick or something?”
“Then why didn’t Bill Murray bag that chick at the end?”
“Because he’s a decent dude, that’s why.”
There are, of course, risks to being a cinephile in a combat zone. Ask Cpl. Ronnie Hunter, 28, of Olympia. He says movies are a morale booster and a happy alternative to the usual way of spending off-duty hours. “You get tired of just playing spades or just sitting around,” he said.
But during a mortar attack, a piece of shrapnel blew a hole in his copy of “EuroTrip.” Hunter says that as bad as losing a DVD was, it could have been worse.
“I much rather that shrapnel hit the DVD than my head,” he said.