A soldier's tale

Aged 17, Elliot Ruiz became the youngest US marine serving in Iraq. Now he has channelled his experi

The strongest scene in Nick Broomfield's latest film, Battle for Haditha, shows a US marine breaking down as the nightmares of Iraq crowd in on him. Corporal Ramirez has just led Kilo Company on a rampage through the Iraqi town, seeking to avenge the death of a comrade. In the process, 24 innocent people have been slaughtered and he is consumed with guilt. He destroys the barracks shower room in a rage, screaming that he hates his commanding officers and begging for oblivion to clear his mind.

It is an extremely powerful depiction of the personal effects of war. But it is not, strictly speaking, a great piece of acting. Elliot Ruiz, who plays Ramirez, was genuinely sent to Iraq aged 17, the youngest marine to be deployed. The lines in the shower scene were his. Every emotion you see is real. "Nick gave me the oppor tunity to release the situations in my head and it wasn't like acting - it was really like letting it out," Ruiz says in a soft, polite voice. "If the other guy in that scene, Eric [Mehalacopoulos], had been an actor and hadn't been in the marines himself there's no way I could have done it. We both knew what it was like: the dreams, the sleep problems. We both knew what I was talking about."

For Haditha - like his previous drama Ghosts, which told the story of Chinese cockle-pickers who died at Morecambe Bay in 2004 - Broomfield combines a scripted narrative with improvised scenes, this time devised by a cast of Iraqi refu gees, insurgents and former marines. The results are mesmerising, and highly disturbing. According to the director, Ruiz was left distraught by memories that the process revived, and couldn't work for two days after filming his own breakdown. "Ruiz was talking about his bad dreams," he says. "Working on the film had caused him to think of them again. He started sobbing and he couldn't stop. It was extraordinary. It makes you realise how vulnerable they are. He was just 17, a kid, to have seen what he had seen."

Reliving such traumas in front of the camera may have been difficult, but Ruiz sees the experience as positive. "A lot of us marines don't talk about what we've been through," he explains. "That's why it was good to work on the film, and good to be in the Middle East with my co-stars, all these guys who had been through the war, and just be able to open up. It was a good feeling; you don't get to do that every day."

Broomfield calls his approach a "middle way" between drama and documentary, and says it allows him to harness the depth and spontaneity of documentaries, but with a clearer structure. "The thing that drew me to documentaries was the excitement of learning from people about their lives and experiences," he says.

"It's a two-way relationship. With Elliot and many of the Iraqis [in the film], they are telling you their experience or informing you. It's a similar process, in a way."

The attack that the Ramirez character makes on the officer class clearly comes from the heart. Ruiz himself was seriously injured following what he says was a "wrong order" given by one of his superiors. "In 2003, we were sent to rescue seven soldiers taken prisoner by the Iraqis," he says, choosing his words slowly and carefully. "My legs got tangled up in barbed wire as a car drove past. It yanked my leg and dragged me down the street. I was awarded the Purple Heart for that, and I was invalided out of the Corps.

"It was because of an officer who didn't want to listen to more experienced men in the lower ranks, who had his own ideas, and they were wrong ideas. It's because of him that I was injured. It's because of him I'm still having operations. I still hate that guy. I don't hate every officer. I had a CO who I admired and respected, but my injuries, they were because an officer gave the wrong order and didn't listen to his men."

Ruiz had already been sent home injured by the time of the Haditha massacre in 2005. Born and raised in Philadelphia, he joined up to avoid a life of crime and guns. "Philadelphia is a dead end," he explains. "There were no opportunities at all for a kid my age to do anything. I didn't exactly always want to be a marine, but I thought becoming one was a quick way to get out.

"I didn't feel particularly strongly about the Iraq War before I went - I was just going because they said we had to. I didn't even know where it was on the map. If anyone was talking about Iraq when I joined the marines I didn't know about it, because I didn't pay attention to the news."

Working with Iraqis during the filming (which took place in Jordan) has clearly been a transformative experience for Ruiz. "When I first went to Iraq, it was like being thrown into a strange country; I didn't know anything about the people or the language," he says. "With the film, I finally got to go and meet Iraqis, Jordanians and Egyptians, and to experience their culture and their food. I count it as my first time in an Arab country. In Iraq, I just went in and didn't talk to anyone; but when we filmed, I was really living with them. After serving in Iraq I would never have thought I'd be able to do that with an Arab person."

During the shoot, Ruiz lived with a young Iraqi who had worked as an interpreter for the US marines. "The Iraqis had bombed the building that the marines were in and it collapsed on him and burned 70 per cent of his body. He was the sweetest kid you could ever meet. Nothing bothered him; he was never angry. It just made me think to myself: 'Man, I don't understand how I can complain about anything I've been through when this kid has been through ten times more.'"

Broomfield is careful not to reduce the story of Haditha to a simplistic tale of good guys and bad guys. "I think there is real regret on both sides among the individuals on the front line," he says. "We met with three marines who were in Haditha on that day. All had joined aged 17. They were uneducated, and had never been out of the US before. All are now traumatised, on tranquillisers, with terrible dreams, incapable of relating to their families, unable to sit still while talking. It was impossible not to see them as victims as well. I think they know they have done things that are unforgivable."

The real distinction, he argues, is between those who risk their lives on the front line and those who make the decisions back home. "I think you end up looking for people like Bush and Blair who were the architects of the situation and have to take the ultimate responsibility."

The detailed emotional understanding the non-professional actors bring to their roles helps to tell that story. Ruiz knows only too well what led his character to order the attack on the town. "Ramirez was having nightmares about the things he'd seen. He'd never been in combat before; he'd never had that stress. You take that stress very personally. He loses a kid he's looking after and promised he'd get safely home . . . he sees that kid blown in half with his intestines hanging out and he loses it.

"Was he right? No. He was wrong. He allowed his emotions to drive his training. If we all allowed our emotions to drive our training there would be massacres in Iraq every day. I almost lost my life. I've seen my friends die. So I do understand the emotions he felt. But he was wrong."

Asked for his views on the conflict today, Ruiz is very clear: "I don't think we should be in Iraq. I say support the troops but to hell with the war. A lot of people get that mixed up. They're against the war and so they're also against the troops, but they don't understand that we don't choose to go out there - it's a job. I know the film probably won't convince the US government to pull troops out of Iraq, but it would be great if it went some way towards that."

"Battle for Haditha" (15) is released on 1 February. The film will be shown on Channel 4 on 17 March

From war zone to big screen

Battle for Haditha draws on the experiences of its cast of Iraqis and former marines

Yasmine Hanani (Hiba, above). Hanani was born and raised in the United States after her family left Baghdad in the late 1970s. A childhood actress, she went on to work at an investment bank on Wall Street, returning to the industry in 2004 with the documentary Voices of Iraq. In 2006, she became the first Iraqi woman ever to participate in the Miss Asia USA beauty pageant, and last year she starred in Peter Berg's thriller The Kingdom.

Andrew McLaren (Captain Sampson, left). The former US marine served in Iraq and Liberia and was awarded the Global War on Terrorism Expeditionary Medal and the Humanitarian Service Medal for his services. Back in the United States in 2005, he married and relocated to California to pursue an acting career. McLaren is due to join the New York City Police Department in the coming months.

Falah al-Flayeh (Ahmad, below). Al-Flayeh was born in Baghdad and began his acting career at the National Theatre of Iraq. He is well known in Iraq for his work in television drama and sitcoms, and he appeared in an Anglo-Arabic production of Igor Stravinsky's The Soldier's Tale at the Old Vic in 2006. "I agreed to be in this film because it represents Iraqi reality," he says.

Ben du Preez

This article first appeared in the 04 February 2008 issue of the New Statesman, God