Zach Iscol joined the Marines and shipped out to Iraq. He fought in the battle of Fallujah and became a decorated infantry officer. He saw firsthand the horrors of war, wrestling with ethics and morals. When he came back home he decided he wanted to share his story. So he began work on a documentary film called The Western Front, which took him back to Iraq to tell the story of the war as it was still raging. The film, the first about this war made by someone who served in it, has screened around the country including at the 2010 Tribeca Film Festival. Zach, now 32, was producer, writer, and director of the film, his first time taking on any of these roles on a film. He spoke with us about his experiences in war and filmmaking.
What's your big idea?
I made a documentary film about my experiences as a Marine officer in Iraq. I fought in Fallujah in 2004 during some of the toughest fighting of the Iraq war and I want to document my experiences so that others can learn from them. My hope is that if others learn from my mistakes, they will not be repeated.
What was the inspiration to create The Western Front?
Late one night a truck heading from Fallujah to Baghdad ran our checkpoint. I gave the order to my platoon to shoot and we ended up killing an innocent man with faulty brakes and poor eyesight. I've struggled with that decision for some time. Tactically, did I make the right choice? Did our proclivity to use force really make us safer? Or were we just creating more enemies? Strategically, I began to wonder if we should even have been there in the first place. Initially, I believed very strongly in our mission in Iraq, I'd even volunteered for my second deployment, but I soon began to question whether I'd made the right decision.
War demands the best and worst of man. Fallujah was a very tough fight and I saw and participated in some pretty awful stuff. But at the time, I had a tremendous sense of purpose and it was easy to justify my experiences and actions. Iraq had its first democratic elections two days after I returned home from that deployment and violence was at an all time low in and around Fallujah. For a few months, it felt like we had accomplished something, but as Iraq fell into a state of civil war, I began to question my initial sense of purpose. I struggled to justify all I'd seen and done.
What problem did you first try to answer?
At first, I was very interested in the transformation occurring within the U.S. Army and Marine Corps. There was a growing acceptance within the ranks that force and violence could be incredibly counterproductive in a counterinsurgency campaign. I was very interested in helping spread that message. However, it soon became pretty clear to me that most soldiers and Marines already got it. It doesn't take a lot of experience waging a counterinsurgency campaign to understand a principal paradox of today's wars is that the use of force and violence can be incredibly counterproductive. Killing often increases the number of people you have to fight.
How did you know it was working?
Last spring, my film screened at the Tribeca Film Festival. It was an incredibly exciting experience to see the film on the big screen and to watch an audience's reactions from the back of the theater.
However, before Tribeca, I'd shown the film to fellow Marines and their families. I received incredibly positive reviews and support despite the controversial and difficult subject matter. Knowing that I had their support was an incredibly important first milestone. I knew I was on the right track and dealing with issues that were far from unique for any veteran.
What was your initial goal?
Initially, I wanted the film to be used to educate and help prepare troops headed overseas. I wanted others to learn from my mistakes and experiences so that they wouldn't be repeated. If I accomplished that then I could say some good had come out of the things I had seen and done.
And now ...
As I became more aware of how different the military today thinks about violence and the use of force than during my service only a few years ago, I realized that there was a much more important message that needed to get communicated to the American people. Today, there is no draft, we haven't been asked to pay higher taxes to pay for the wars in Iraq or Afghanistan, and few know someone serving overseas. Most Americans don't have any skin in the game. I realized the reason the military has adapted is because they had to, it was their lives on the line. If they didn't learn to temper the use of force, they would continue to fuel the insurgencies in Iraq and Afghanistan by creating more enemies and they would pay for that with their blood. Our military had chips on the table so, they adapted because they had.
I began to wonder if we as a country needed to rethink our reliance on the use of force to keep us safe and why we, as a nation, had not evolved. Today, my goal is to challenge the way most Americans think about our country's reliance on force to keep us safe. We are fighting two wars that didn't even register as election year issues. Having our troops engaged in combat over there might make us feel safer back home, but are we as a nation simply repeating the same mistakes we made at that checkpoint?
Where did you grow up?
I grew up in Pound Ridge, New York.
What occupation did your parents have?
My dad is a mostly retired entrepreneur and business owner. My mom is an educator and does a lot of work in the non-profit sector.
What college did you go to? What was your major?
I went to Cornell University and majored in Government.
What's your favorite specific class or teacher? What was memorable about them?
The most important teacher I've had was my first platoon sergeant, Nick Fox. As a young and inexperienced platoon commander, I depended on him for everything I didn't know, which was a lot. It was apparent in everything he did how much he loved the young Marines in our platoon and how much pride he took in educating and mentoring all of them, including me. He led by example and with energy and enthusiasm in everything he did. And Nick never wasted time, he was always planning and implementing new ideas and programs to train the platoon and get them ready for combat. After our first deployment, we volunteered for a second tour in Iraq together. He was wounded twice on that deployment and is now currently serving as a Rifle Company First Sergeant in Afghanistan. What is most memorable to me about Nick is that without any hesitation he knows what his mission is in life—taking care of his young Marines. That, and his family, but for him he has a singular focus that is inspiring.
How is your life different now than it was before you started this project?
Coming home from war is not easy, especially to a country that hardly acknowledges that we are even at war. The film has helped me channel some of that anger and confusion into something positive. It has been incredibly cathartic. I am also much more confident in my abilities as a filmmaker. When I first started, I had no idea what I was doing, but you learn as you go.
What excites you or concerns you about your generation?
From our national debt, health care system, economy, and schools to global issues, the number of major pressing issues at home and abroad facing my generation concerns me, however, I know so many young people who are taking on these challenges as opportunities to make a difference
If you had 60 seconds with President Obama what would you tell him or ask him?
I'd ask him to ask the American people to start making sacrifices and to rethink the meaning of national security. As a country, we need to start making tough choices about what is most important to us as a nation and for future generations. Our economic health and education system are vastly more important to our national security than our military, the wars overseas, and Department of Defense. And in today's America, trillion dollar wars, trillion dollar health care, trillion dollar bailouts, and trillion dollar tax cuts are not sustainable. We have to make some tough choices.
How has technology and social media affected your work?
Advancements in film production and post-production equipment and costs has narrowed the gap between amateur and professional filmmaking. I can fit all of my professional quality video, sound, and lighting equipment in three small backpacks. If I'm traveling with my producing partner, we don't even have to check bags and our set-up time for an interview is less than an hour.
In terms of social media, there are a number of blogs, online communities, and social networks committed to veterans, counterinsurgency, and national security that have been incredibly informative and helpful in testing and challenging different ideas and concepts. We've also used them to find key leaders and thinkers to interview for the film and in the future, we will tap into these networks to publicize and distribute the film.
What is your biggest challenge?
The biggest challenge in finishing the film is that the war in Iraq is not over yet. I still have a lot of conflicting beliefs and thoughts about my service and experiences. Not knowing how this will all end certainly doesn't make it any easier.
How would the world be different in 10 years if you had your way?
American would lead by living the best of our values. We would invest our time and energy in future generations instead of hamstringing them with debt.
Follow Zach and on twitter @zachiscol.
David D. Burstein is a young entrepreneur himself, having completed his first documentary 18 in '08 for which he was awarded a $10,000 grant from Nancy Lublin's DoSomething.org. He is the Founder & Executive director of the youth voter engagement not for profit, Generation18. His book about the millennial generation will be published by Beacon Press in fall 2011.
David and Fast Company are producing Change Generation, a new series profiling a young generation of change-seekers. We'll be covering everything from educational activists to champions of political reform, creative entrepreneurs, and outright thrill seekers. We'll be hosting Q&As as well as video profiles with production partner shatterbox.