When soldiers of the 2nd Armored Cavalry Regiment set up a movie theater at their makeshift camp, there was little debate about which movies to show. With few exceptions, they have been westerns or war films.
After all, this is the same cavalry regiment that rode to the aid of settlers out West to fight Sioux warriors in the 1850s. And it is the same unit that spearheaded the devastating assault by VII Corps in the Gulf War in 1991.
Would anyone really expect battle-hardened Army scouts to line up for "Terms of Endearment" or "Driving Miss Daisy"? Instead, on one recent night, the soldiers turned out in large numbers for "Black Hawk Down."
The film recounts the true story of a relatively simple mission gone terribly wrong. An attempt to snatch and question suspected associates of a Somali warlord becomes an all-out urban war after two Black Hawk helicopters are shot down.
The motion picture has special relevance for US forces here in Iraq, say some soldiers, because parts of Baghdad resemble the hardscrabble Somali neighborhood where the helicopters crashed in 1993. In addition, the film includes a harrowing scene in which a group of US soldiers and their prisoners attempts to ride through the streets of Mogadishu while rebel fighters pour gunfire and rocket-propelled grenades from surrounding rooftops into their fiberglass-sided Humvees.
Even for someone who has never spent much time in a Humvee, the scene is enough to provoke white-knuckle suspense as well as groans when soldiers are shot. But why would Army scouts who live 24 hours a day, seven days a week in and around Humvees want to spend precious spare time watching a Humvee become Swiss cheese?
"This movie is not just made up. This is something that really happened," says Spc. Lyndell Ivory of Silverton, Texas.
Indeed, soldiers say the film, far from being a pure diversion, has helped them prepare mentally for combat - and has furnished valuable insights on how to do their jobs effectively.
Specialist Ivory says that not long after coming to Baghdad, he was near a school when someone started shooting. "I was in the Humvee and heard shots, and I began thinking about that scene [in 'Black Hawk Down' involving the Humvee]," he says.
Rather than making him fearful of potential ambushes, Specialist Ivory says the film had a positive impact. "It was helpful because it made me stop and think about what are you going to do if this happens," he says.
Sgt. Gary Frisbee of Chattanooga, Tenn., says he was on a night patrol during the movie's screening and is sorry he missed it. "Even though I've seen it over 20 times, I would see it again," he says.
"The lesson from looking at the movie is seeing how to fight a battle that is 360 degrees around rather than just a battle in front of you," Sergeant Frisbee says.
"Even rolling in Iraqi cities you think about the movie," he says. "Everyone thought, 'Whoa, this is just like Somalia.' "
"The people here aren't as threatening," he says. "But they do gather in crowds."
Pvt. 2nd Class Matt Medlock of Hayward, Calif., says the lesson from the film is clear: "Don't underestimate your enemy."
In one scene, soldiers are shown preparing for their mission. Because it is expected to take less than an hour, soldiers take a few shortcuts. One fails to fill his canteen. Another takes the bulletproof plate out of the back of his flak vest. Another leaves his night-vision goggles back at the base.
"Hopefully, [the film] reemphasizes to the soldier the importance of precombat checks every time they roll out the door," says Capt. Chris Danbeck of Potomac, Md.
Not everyone in the regiment agrees about the value of watching war films in a war zone. "The whole purpose of watching a movie is to unwind and get a little R&R," says Spc. Jeremiah Richards of Grand Rapids, Mich.
Tonight, he gets his wish. The feature presentation: "The Mothman Prophecies."