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This Is War – Mike Scotti interview

Mike Scotti in This Is War

Interview by Rob Carnevale

FORMER First Lieutenant Mike Scotti, of the US Marine Corps, talks about his decision to make the hard-hitting documentary This Is War, which recalls his experiences during the invasion of Iraq, as recorded on his mini DV-camera.

He also talks about his experiences since coming back to the US, coping with civilian life and his hopes for the movie, which are being realised. This Is War is released on DVD on Monday, October 4, 2010.

Q. What made you first decide that you wanted to become a soldier? Was it always in your blood?
Mike Scotti: Yeah, ever since I was a little kid… there’s a picture that didn’t make it into the film and it’s me at, I think, three or four-years-old and I have face paint on and a plastic M16 rifle and a plastic helmet. My dad was a doctor and my mum was a nurse, so it wasn’t put on me. It was just always something I was attracted to and wanted to go fight and be a soldier… be a Marine.

Q. And in turn, why did you decide to film your experiences?
Mike Scotti: So, I’m a storyteller kind of by nature and in August of 2001 we deployed on a routine deployment. The Marines are kind of the ready reserve force of the country, so if we have to go and kick somebody’s ass on short notice, the Marines are the ones who go in. So, you have these deployments that head out of each coast every six months.

They fill up a bunch of Navy ships with helicopters and Marines and artillery and then you can go and fight a battalion size battle for 30 days without any other support. These ships go one out of San Diego and one out of Virginia and they kind of divide in half through Israel. So, anything east of Israel belongs to the guys that come out of the West Coast, and anything west of Israel belongs to the guys that come out of the East coast of the US. Six months along, on that routine deployment, we were supposed to hit Hawaii, Australia, Singapore, Thailand, Kenya… I thought I was definitely bringing my video camera. This was my last big deployment before I got out of the Marine Corps.

So, that was in August, September was 9/11, and I end up on a helicopter going into Afghanistan and I’m like: “F**k it, why wouldn’t I videotape this?” I actually talked to the JAG, the legal officer, on board and he looked up whether I was allowed, and it basically said: “Personal photographic devices are allowed…” So, you could take cameras. It didn’t say you couldn’t take video cameras, and nobody ever told me “no”. I mean, there’s footage of the colonel and my battalion commander and company commander. They were like: “Hey, can I get a copy of that footage?”

So, it was really an accident. I took the video camera because I was going on this journey that ended up being September 11. When I watched the video, it brought me back. When I showed the video to my family, I saw it in their eyes, and said: “OK, that brings it back.” But I wasn’t a filmmaker, so I still didn’t think about making a film. But I always wanted to be a writer and I’d read a tonne of military memoirs and stuff growing up. So, when Iraq was boiling, I kind of said: “If we g, there’s enough for a book… Afghanistan, Iraq, September 11… the whole thing.”

So, I really used the video camera in Iraq as a tool to capture what happened so that I could go back and write about it later. So, I didn’t try… I wasn’t like: “Oh, that’s interesting, I’ll shoot 25 seconds of it, or whatever…” A lot of the stuff was unusable because I didn’t hold the camera on stuff long enough. It was kind of shit like that. The editor was ready to murder me afterwards. Ironically, now I am going to write that book but it’s no longer the one that I would have written in 2003 when I first got back. A lot of that stuff is in the voice-over. The book now is about coming home from the war.

Q. Was and is that a battle in itself?
Mike Scotti: A huge battle… because at this point your thoughts are your own enemy. And you never thought that was going to happen. But you’re fighting that battle alone and many times.

Q. Do you think there’s enough support for veterans?
Mike Scotti: I don’t know, there’s more now than there was when I first got back – definitely… definitely! But it’s hard. I mean, you can’t expect a 25-year-old kind to be self-aware enough… if he’s out there he’s been taught that weakness and vulnerability are the same thing, and on the battlefield they are the same thing. But if you get back on your own and you’re on Civvy Street – as I think you guys call it – you have to let yourself be vulnerable and say: “You know what? Maybe I am f**ked up from the war! Maybe I need to go and talk to somebody…” That could be a colleague, or someone else who has fought in another campaign, or my other buddies. Or maybe I should write about it or paint a picture, or whatever… not get drunk and beat my wife or kill myself, or just go f**king crazy or whatever.

So, that’s the reality of the situation. So, what I’m trying to do now with the film s create that shared experience in people who have served and their loved ones. And I have gotten a huge response from mothers and wives, and children and Marines themselves saying that the film did just that. That makes me feel good about the work that we put into it because I feel like it’s hitting its mark. The book is going to be even more direct on that subject, as well as being a lot different.

This Is War

Q. It strikes me as being a brave move for you to have made, given the way the media can represent soldiers from this conflict. Did you feel like you were sticking your head above the firing line and have you had responses to it that you’ve not expected?
Mike Scotti: I was scared shitless. I was terrified that I would be bashed for trying to sensationalise things, or profit off this or that. I was really the most terrified that the Marines would turn their back on me… and by the Marines I don’t mean the Corps, but my best friends. I was literally shitting in my pants about that. But they didn’t. When my inner group of friends saw it, they all loved it. And then other Marines I don’t know have loved it. There were one or two guys that have popped up, people I didn’t know, who said: “F**k this shit!” I was fully expecting there to many, many, many of those. But tens of thousands of people have now seen the movie and hundreds and hundreds of people have contacted me and said they loved it. There were one or two who think it’s bullshit. But it’s been an interesting experience.

But saying that there were a couple of guys who could have just gutted me if they hadn’t liked it, and also the Quigley family… Beth Quigley, my friend from September 11. On September 11 this year, for example, we just did a huge fundraising – $47,000 for ReserveAid – at a screening that her older sister, the one I wrote the letter to, put together. Can you imagine if Mrs Quigley, after seeing the final product, had said: “How dare you?” I would have jumped off a bridge! So, it’s been interesting. But it’s like with anything, you take the risk and get the reward and that’s this film and the fact it’s helping people.

Q. As well as yourself?
Mike Scotti: Yeah, and that’s something that I had to be wary of while putting together a proposal for the book. Not everybody has a film to make that they can just pool all their energy into and say: “Here’s what happened to me!” And so, if I hadn’t made this film… it was really the 2004 dark times. It was that time when Kristian [Fraga, the director] kind of locked me in an office with an assistant for three weeks and told me to f**kin’ write down everything that happened, because I’d be getting wasted and be in black-out drunk mode and leaving messages on his answer phone and telling stories about shit that wasn’t in the video or whatever. He realised he was just seeing the tip of the iceberg. So, he slowed everything down and that was like a giant f**king lobotomy… a giant therapy session.

To start with, I would be drinking a 12-pack of beer and the session would end when I was unconscious on the editing table. So, I’d have to come back the next day and do it all over again. But after a week and a half of that, I didn’t need the booze to get to that point anymore because I trusted his PA and I trusted Kristian and we were having this shared experience. It was really weird. But I was able to go back to that place and let it all out… every f**king story, everything… Even during the editing of the film, the guy’s who died that are in the footage… it went from being very sad to realising that, hey, these guys are going to be memorialised forever in this film.

So, really Kristian has seen me from 2003 until now, and he’s seen the arc of this guy who was just f**ked up from the war, and pissed off, bitter, and isolated and angry because I was carrying the coffins of my friends, to kind of breaking through that and being able to live with myself.

Q. So, how did you overcome the anger, in particular… especially once you’d found out that there were no WMDs and that you’re reason for being there perhaps wasn’t so valid?
Mike Scotti: For me, it was a revelation… a kind of epiphany one morning. And this is the crux of the book… the fulcrum of the book, which rests on the shift from darkness into light. I woke up one morning in my apartment in the village in Manhattan hungover as f**k with a pounding f**king headache… knuckles f**king swollen, teeth marks embedded in my knuckles. I’d gotten into a fight… a cab driver had hit me with his cab and he was of Middle Eastern descent. It was actually the night we signed the contract to make the film. We’d been working for a while, so were out celebrating.

So, there were too many of us and he wouldn’t take us, so he tried to speed away and hit me and the executive producer and knocked us down. He broke my TAG watch that my mum had given me on graduation, so I was laying on the ground, wasted, and saw red. I went into combat mode and chased him down the street. He thought he was going to get away but got caught at a light right there and I opened the door, grabbed him by his lapel and bashed his f**king face in. It was ugly. They pulled me off him and got me out of there very quickly, and we went on drinking.

This Is War

But I kind of woke up the next morning… I was 27 or 28 at the time and I’d just applied to Harvard Business School, and NYU Stern and Columbia to get an NBA and I’m like: “Here I am waking up on the floor of my apartment with a blinding hangover, I beat the shit out of somebody last night, and I was staring down the barrel.” That means my career in finance, which I wanted t do at the time and ended up doing and then leaving, was over. So, I realised… I was like: “Man, you’ve got to get a f**king hold of this thing!” This is going to destroy you, this rage.

So, I really made a decision to either just f**king kill myself, or stop this behaviour and dig myself out of this emotional and mental and spiritual hole that I was in. Literally, I thought of killing myself. But it’s one of those things… you realise that if I did that I was going to wreck my mum’s life and my dad’s life and the lives of the people who loved me. So, that was the focal point. That was when I realised that, ‘no man, you’re a Marine’. And I don’t mean a tough guy Marine. I used to be a corporal, and then I became a captain, worked my way up through the ranks, got decorated for valour in combat, I’d done all that shit, saved lives in the war… I shut down a friendly fire mission that was going to wipe out half of Charlie company. I knew it was friendly fire… they got one of them but I shut it down. So, I was thinking about all that shit and decided that I wasn’t going to let this thing beat me. So, I didn’t. I beat it.

Q. Well done… How important was it for you not to make the film political, bearing in mind the depth of those emotions?
Mike Scotti: That was the first thing… the first trust building thing with Kristian, the director. He’s like a liberal and I’m not even… I’m like middle of the road and ‘whatever man’!

Q. Well, how can you be political after something like that?
Mike Scotti: Exactly! Exactly! So, that was our first understanding that Kristian and I had to have… that there be zero f**king politics in this film… zero. There was no anti-war bullshit, there was no pro-war bullshit, it was just the facts, because that’s what will stand the test of time and that’s how I felt. So, that was cool of him to be able to do that.

Q. What do you think now of the Bush administration when you look back on it? And the way in which it coloured people’s views of America as a nation at the time?
Mike Scotti: What really pissed me off the most was that cavalier attitude. I actually liked Bush from a personal point of view. He seemed like a good dude… like a regular guy you might want to go and take a beer with. He didn’t seem like a doosh really. But some of those comments like: “Bring it on!” That’s the one that really sticks with me. I had just buried my friend at that point and I was like: “No, don’t f**king bring it on…” He’d never served in combat… A guy like Colin Powell, who was in the military, was more like: “Let’s wait a second and think about this whole thing…”

That was the kind of temperament that was needed, especially the whole religious thing. I mean, I’m not really religious and that didn’t have a whole lot to do with it… I mean ‘doing God’s work’ and all that shit, I was like: “Man, this is f**king war dude, you can’t bring that stuff in… it’s not The Crusades.” These were 18 and 19-year-old kids. So, the whole Bush administration thing, I did think about that a lot – you know, who knew what, who misled who, and I’ve thought about it so much in 2003 and 2004 that I almost drove myself crazy. So, I’m 34 now and I realise that all that shit’s f**king irrelevant. I did my job, my Marines did their job, we did a good job and I’m proud of what we did.

So, I just stopped worrying about it and you get on with living the rest of your life as a civilian, in civilian life. What happened in the war happened in the war. I was very adamant to teach my guys to always err on the side of caution: moral caution, all types of caution. I’ve read too much about war to know that the demons that are going to be crawling up our legs for the rest of our lives are already going to be there anyway because of the shit we’re going to see. So, don’t let the shit we’re going to do add to that. So, don’t f**king kill civilians, don’t be stupid, no matter how tired you are do not f**k around – triple check numbers if you’re calling in grid numbers, so that you don’t kill Marines. I mean, shit still happened left and right… I saw it.

But I came back with a clear, clean conscience. If anything, I’m one up on the universe for the friendly fire mission that I shut down and saved a lot of lives. That was my defining moment… I drew on that a lot to take risks and be decisive and take the initiative and check everything they were telling me.

Q. You say as your last line in the film that if they asked you to go back, you would. Has that attitude changed now that you know what you know about yourself since then?
Mike Scotti: Certain people would have to ask me. If Lt Col Jo Russo called me on the phone and said: “Scotti, there’s a mission, and I need you…” I’d go in a heartbeat. If I got some letter, I mean I’d go. But they can’t do that anymore because I’m a civilian now. Would I want to go? F**k no. But as you get older and older, there’s certain ageing. My knees can no longer handle the weight of a pack… and it would be like: “These people are f**king shooting at us! We could get hurt!” When you’re 25, you’re like… there’s that testosterone driving you. But that level starts to drop when you get older and you mellow the f**k out. Life becomes more precious.

Read our review of This Is War