Film Review: The Short Life of José Antonio Gutiérrez

The Short Life of José Antonio Gutiérrez, directed by German filmmaker Heidi Specogna, is an understated but ultimately powerful documentary about the first U.S. soldier to die in the current Iraq war. The film begins with members of Veterans for Peace placing crosses on a beach in Southern California, each marker holding a names of a U.S. soldier killed in Iraq.

Then the scene shifts to Guatemala, where the director of an orphanage talks about the days when Gutiérrez lived there off and on before leaving to seek a better life in the U.S. Young “Tonio” was a street kid who grew up with no parents in the midst of one of Ronald Reagan’s bloodiest counterinsurgency wars.

The portrait of Gutiérrez that emerges is also shaped by testimony from his sister, from whom he was separated for years, a Marine buddy who was with him during his last moments of life, and a social worker who helped him get into a foster home and school when he finally arrived in L.A. The sequences that follow Guatemalans as they make the daunting trek north to the U.S., paralleling the trip Gutiérrez made as a teenager, do not quite fit in with the more traditional documentary work of the rest of the film, but Specogna deserves credit for giving audiences a view of this tough reality, and for attempting something that goes outside traditional documentary norms.

The presence in George W. Bush’s inner circle of many of the war-hungry rightist ideologues behind the U.S.-funded 1980s war on leftists, indigenous peoples, and anyone in the wrong place at the wrong time in Guatemala (which killed an estimated 200,000 people Guatemalans and wiped 440 villages off the map) is a bitterly ironic subtext of this film. As historian Greg Grandin explains in thorough detail in his book Empire’s Workshop, many of the Reaganites who perfected brutal techniques of imperial repression, including the widespread use of death squads, in Central America in the 1980s went on to oversee those same practices for George W. Bush in Iraq.

A foster brother of Gutiérrez’s makes clear that the film’s central character never had a desire to the join the military. He wanted to be an architect, but to achieve that goal required more schooling, and like so many others before and after him, Gutiérrez decided the military was his path to education. According to the film, there are approximately 32,000 non-U.S. citizens now in the military, who, like Gutiérrez, are called “green-card soldiers,” and promised the elusive badge of citizenship after their tour of duty.

Meanwhile, raids on “illegal” immigrants continue to target some of the poorest people in the U.S., who have left their homelands because of economic turmoil wreaked by Washington-backed trade agreements and proxy wars like the thirty-four year conflict in Guatemala. One of the new divisions of the INS created by the 2002 Homeland Security Act, ICE (The Office of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement) has carried out raids in which children of immigrants picked up are left stranded. Since January 2007, some 3,000 workers have been arrested in these raids. The new agency announces on its website, “ICE does not differentiate between criminals and terrorists. Any criminal act – whether driven by profit or ideology – is a potential threat to the security of the United States.”

As The Short Life of José Antonio Gutiérrez ends, we again see Veterans for Peace members placing crosses on the California beach. At the time of filming, the body count of U.S. soldiers in Iraq was just over one thousand. Now it is more than 3,400.

But U.S. soldiers have cut short many more lives in Iraq. A study published in the British medical journal The Lancet in October 2006 (carried out by epidemiologists at Johns Hopkins University’s Bloomberg School of Public Health and Iraqi physicians organized through Mustansiriya University in Baghdad) estimated 655,000 “excess Iraqi deaths as a consequence of the war.”

Ben Terrall is a freelance writer whose work has appeared in the San Francisco Chronicle, In These Times, Counterpunch, Lip Magazine, and other publications. He can be reached at: Read other articles by Ben, or visit Ben's website.