I looked him dead in the eye and I said, “Don’t screw around, man. What happened?” And he told me, “Jerabek died.”
Ryan Jerabek of Green Bay, Wisconsin, was a gung-ho 18-year-old Marine when he was killed in Iraq in April 2004, and just like the other more than 3,350 American soliders who have died in this almost invisible war — the latest meltdown of Britney Spears is bigger news than anything happening in Baghdad — his death has gone unheralded and ignored. Until now. Documentarian Civia Tamarkin, a former CNN producer, introduces us to Jerabek’s family — his proud but anguished mother; his father, a former Marine himself and a Vietnam vet; his brothers, one of whom is contemplating going Marine as well — and shows us with sensitive subtlety how Ryan’s loss has impacted them. This is a personal film, a family album of grief, and it’s made all the more powerfully, ironically, because of Ryan’s ordinariness: we haven’t lost a cure for cancer or a great symphony with his death — he was a regular guy who liked to play video games; he was just, you know, a good guy. And that’s devastating: Ryan and his family are a few of the many good, regular people whose patriotism and sense of honor and duty are being abused by this war. That’s one of the angry political undercurrents Tamarkin does not shy from: She interviews Jerabek’s platoon mates, who talk of being unprepared for the job they were supposed to be doing, of feeling “like sitting ducks,” of military incompetence and poor planning causing the attack in which Jerabek was killed. She gives us imagery of Ryan’s funeral, imagery we never see on our TVs, the one thing the Bush administration does not want us to see: Marines as pallbearers carrying a flag-draped coffin. And she gives us what might be the defining image of the callousness of our leaders to the suffering they have wrought with their war. Though President Bush did not attend Jerabek’s funeral, he did visit the Marine’s parents during a campaign stop, and there’s the photographic evidence: Bush with his arms thrown around the shoulders of Mr. and Mrs. Jerabek like he’s at a party, grinning like a maniac, while the brokenhearted parents stare mournfully at the camera.