American soldiers heading off to Middle East war zones may be a diverse range of youth from around the country, but one thing in common most seem to share is tattoos. With a reported ninety-five percent of soldiers opting for the body art whether returning from or heading off to battle, the documentary Tattooed Under Fire likewise burrows into the often heartbreaking, beyond skin deep political and personal notions of a soldier’s body as the ultimate creative and emotional expression of war and its consequences.
Directed by Nancy Schiesari (History Man: A Portrait Of Martin Scorsese, and cinematographer for How The West Was Spun and Alice Walker’s Warrior Marks) with a virtual all-woman crew, Tattooed Under Fire sets up shop literally, at the River City Tattoo Parlor in Killeen, Texas.
Home to Fort Hood, the largest military base in the country, Killeen is a city whose economy has become inextricably tied to the soldiers who perpetually pass through there, and the parlor is no exception. And it is in that setting, where the tattoo artists seem to serve also as shrinks, priest and parents to these anxious and often profoundly troubled youth, where there may be more to discover about the horrors of war than in the heat of battle.
Alternately mirthful, melancholy and macabre, the documentary reveals remarkably intimate, unselfconscious scenes of the young grunts discussing with the artists the most optimum areas of the body to place tattoos for them to remain intact, should body parts be blown off. These include personal versions of dog tags known as ‘meat tags,’ that comprise the name, birth date and serial number strategically inked into armpits for purposes of identification, after possible death in a war zone.
And as soldiers shed a whole lot more than their clothes during the tattooing process, they recall out loud recurring post-traumatic stress nightmares; scraping what’s left of their comrades from the inside of their humvees blown up by roadside bombs; or running over barefoot children begging for water and food with their vehicles, under military orders to never stop for civilians.
While others rattle off lists of reasons for joining up in the first place, from an illegal who is promised citizenship in return, to an alternative to starving or just having a place to live. Even as a more cynically inclined soldier concludes, ‘We’re such hypocrites, we give people weapons of mass destruction, then fight them to take it back.’
In perhaps the most disturbing procedure, a stressed out soldier sits for a custom tattoo carved into his flesh that he names ‘Fetus In A Blender,’ explaining that ‘it could happen to me, turned into mush.’ This, while the tattoo artists themselves reflect on the enormous popularity of getting inked at Fort Hood as war paint to intimidate the enemy, or simply these traumatized youth ‘starved for just another human to touch them.’
As Tattooed Under Fire gets past the skin of these soldiers and into their heads, and their raw and psychologically wounded inner recesses, the film concludes by drifting out along the roads of the city.
Where more soldiers die in drunk driving crashes than in war zones, and wreaths where these lives ended stateside line the highways. And as one emotionally damaged survivor bitterly remarks of the vehicular fatalities, ‘Just because you didn’t shoot yourself or jump off a bridge, doesn’t mean it wasn’t suicide.’
Tattooed Under Fire is airing on PBS stations around the country, and is a must-see. Showtimes and more soldier stories are online at: Tattooedunderfire.com.
An ITVS Production