View Full Version : Iraq Veterans Question 'Over There'

08-24-05, 08:48 AM
August 24, 2005
Iraq Veterans Question 'Over There'

Soldiers will often say that survival depends on the ability to make quick judgments about countless small things.

Was that a cat or a sniper I saw in the window? Is that car speeding up because its occupants are being pursued or because they want to kill me? And that bump in the roadside, is it a divot from the last convoy or a trace of an improvised explosive device?

Little wonder then that "Over There," the first television dramatic series about a war in progress, is coming under fire, from people who served in Iraq, for getting the small things wrong. Television requires drama. Soldiers prefer precision. So when a group of grunts is shown clumped together on a berm making themselves a rich target or an improvised explosive device has a little flag on it, they tend to question the series as a whole.

Through the Web and various veterans groups, The New York Times contacted more than a dozen soldiers, all of whom had been on active duty in Iraq and have since returned. They had a variety of opinions on the war they served in, but were almost universally negative about the show that attempts to depict it. (A spokeswoman for the United States Army declined to comment on the series.)

When Steven Bochco's "Over There" began last month, many military blogs immediately began pumping round after round of ack-ack into it, suggesting that it is both opportunistic and clueless. (The FX series will broadcast the fifth of its 13 episodes tonight.)

"There are a few bad war movies and TV shows, but this one takes the cake," said a recent post to Boots on the Ground, a blog written by an Army soldier currently serving in Iraq (bootsonground.blogspot.com). "If the inaccuracies they made in this new show was to keep the real enemy from watching and knowing our real tactics, then they did a SUPERB job."

Mr. Bochco, who was lauded for the authenticity of his cop shows - "Hill Street Blues" and "NYPD Blue" - is a bit mystified by the response. "Anecdotally, we have been getting a good response from soldiers, but some of them tend to get hung up on the specifics of what you are doing, whether that piece of equipment or that particular weapon is wrong," Mr. Bochco said in a telephone interview two weeks ago. "But by and large, I think they are impressed with the show's reality, our attempt to convey the truthfulness of the experience and portray their emotional lives as well."

You could understand why Mr. Bochco feels a bit fragged. He set out to render visible a war, one that has produced thousands of dead and wounded, that goes conveniently unnoticed by most Americans. He has never been to Iraq, but hired several consultants who had served, in order to get an authentic look and feel for his series.

To the civilian eye, his portrait of men and women fighting for their lives and their country, usually in that order, is a reminder that the rhetoric of politicians exacts a savage consequence from those who must live the reality of warfare. And that the series is appearing while the conflict is still under way reflects the immediacy of this war, which can be seen in almost real time, while etching its remoteness to most people here.

"This is a war that does not immediately affect most of the country," said Robert Timmons, who lives on Staten Island and served in the Army infantry in Iraq in 2003. "People here see yellow ribbons on cars, but they see very little of the reality of the war other than short stories on CNN when American soldiers die. This series is over the top, but anything that brings attention to a war that is not getting much coverage is helpful."

But soldiers who fought in Iraq, many of whom brought high expectations to the series, said that the devil is in the details.

"We see sand, we see guns and we see people in helmets," said Benjamin Flanders, who served as a military police sergeant in 2004 and 2005 as a member of the New Hampshire National Guard in and around Baghdad. "But I don't think that it addresses the real issues of being a soldier or what is going on in Iraq."

Rowe Stayton, a former lawyer who volunteered for duty in the Army National Guard at age 50, said that the series had affected him even though, as a fire team leader in 2004, the war he experienced was a close-in, urban affair, not a battle fought out in vast expanses of the desert.

"There are parts of it that still bring to mind thoughts and memories of things that I have not been thinking about for months and years," he said. An episode about events going awry at a checkpoint was particularly vivid. "Innocent civilians did get shot. It is in the nature of the war, but we used a tremendous restraint."

Much of what Mr. Bochco is taking hits over has to do with the generic requirements of television. To create storylines, he uses characters who scan to some people as clichés - the gung-ho all-American white kid who is maimed, the bitter dope-smoking black guy. And necessarily, action must be compressed, which does not reflect the grinding reality of real-time soldiering, a mix of weeks of boredom interrupted by occasional moments of terror. In blogs and interviews, soldiers suggested that the Army unit Mr. Bochco depicts saw more action in the first few episodes than they did in their entire tours.

"Vets are concerned with getting it right," said Paul Rieckoff, a former Army platoon leader and the executive director of Operation Truth, a veterans' advocacy group. "And I think it is sad that no percentage of the proceeds go to any veterans or family charities. Some of the money that is being made should go to the people who have died."

"Over There" has received its share of favorable reviews. But after a brisk start - the series garnered 4.1 million viewers for its first show, making it the most watched cable program on the night it ran - it then lost almost half its audience in the second week, dropping to 2.6 million viewers. In the third week, it managed to find a plateau, and then last week, "Over There" had just a 2 share, suggesting that there is not much momentum building over all. So far, the show has had a 2.4 rating average, which is far from a hit, but it bettered the average performance of the critically acclaimed "Rescue Me" in the same time slot last year.

If the show is going to find the kind of attention that will sustain it, the audience will probably be among civilians. "The reviews from G.I.'s I've seen are 100 percent negative; there is no array," said John Harriman, a Vietnam veteran and author who created the Mudville Gazette, an online community of soldiers who support the war and those fighting it (www.mudvillegazette.com). Mr. Harriman said that soldiers were amazed to see anachronistic Vietnam-era helicopters, and pointed out that the squad depicted seems to be just getting to know one another, which does not comport with how units are deployed.

Mr. Bochco said that within the limits of television and his budget, he is proud of what he and his team have accomplished. "Let me put it this way," he said. "If I had even a small amount of the money that the country is spending to fight this war, every detail would be there and it would look amazing." Mr. Bochco, who created a jittery visual lexicon with "NYPD Blue," has again innovated in "Over There," adopting a fuzzy, satellite-phone look, while using the short-form jargon of "Sopranos"-cum-soldiers to emphasize the high-intensity experience.

Some soldiers, however grudgingly, will admit that he got a few things right. A shot of a soldier on a computer sending a video message to his wife that is panned away from to show her in bed with another man rings true, as does the theme of boots on the ground paralyzed by politics from above. The fact that a convoy that ends badly was out on a beer run sounded familiar to some, as well.

Sean Huze, an actor who volunteered for the Marines after the Sept. 11 attacks and who served in Iraq in 2003, is dealing with some similar issues in the current run of "The Sand Storm," a play about his experiences in the war that is being performed through Sept. 25 at the MetroStage in Alexandria, Va.

"I think it was certainly a noble effort that Mr. Bochco made," Mr. Huze said. "It's funny, I have spoken to people who weren't 'over there,' and they had an overwhelmingly positive reaction to the show. Having experienced the war as an infantry soldier in the Marines, it's hard not to pick it apart. But if it sparks a conversation, it can probably do a lot more good than the talking heads who are always going on about this war."



08-24-05, 11:09 AM
This show sucks. I saw this one where they go on a beer run ... Whiskey Tango Foxtrot Over !!!!! Ive had numemrous friends ask me if thats what its like over ther....ummm no. I dont know how the army does it , but thats for damn sure , not how the Marines do it "over there" . Not trying to knock the army cuz im sure they also dont do it like that.
but if youre going to have a show thats based on the real thing make sure you actually talk to some people who were ''over there " before you start making **** up .