‘Once Upon a Time in Iraq’ — White Man’s Burden meets Apocalypse Now
BBC2’s much heralded five-part documentary series on the war in Iraq and its aftermath — Once Upon a Time in Iraq — is both compelling and disappointing in equal part. Directed by James Bluemel and narrated by Andy Serkis (of Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit fame), though its intentions may have been noble, and though much of it is sufficiently gripping, by the end the series leaves you cold in its reduction of the war and its horrors to something approximating to an individual trial of endurance and overcoming on the part of its participants, turning the series into an unfortunate and unsatisfactory cocktail of expiation and entertainment.
This is most powerfully expressed in the sections and interviews covering the experiences of the war’s western participants — specifically a former Marine, a US Army Lieutenant Colonel, a New York Times journalist and an Australian freelance photographer. They look back on what they did and witnessed with the studied cigarette-smoking and tequila-swigging gravitas of men stamped not so much with the horrors of war but with its Hollywood-crafted simulacrum.
Lieutenant Colonel Nate Sassaman, who commanded an army battalion of 1000 men between 2003 and 2004, comes over as a cross between GI Joe and Kurtz from Coppola’s Apocalypse Now. His descent into madness from naive and idealistic young product of West Point who actually believes that he’s on a mission of mercy and liberation in Iraq, to stone cold killer for whom the only good Iraqi is a dead or humiliated one, is the story of every imperialist and colonial war ever waged. My Lai and Fallujah, Fallujah and My Lai, the only difference is one of geography.
The most striking aspect of Sassaman’s story is the level of indoctrination required to buy into the perverse ‘destroy the village in order to save it’ diseased ideology common to the atrocities committed in Vietnam by his predecessors and those committed in Iraq by him and his comrades. Yet we, the audience, are supposed to empathise with his torment as he sits there explicating on the challenges of ‘the mission’. Watching footage of him meeting with various groups of local notables during the occupation — glad handing with the natives, as it were — the stench of Kipling is overpowering.
There are, yes, moments of regret and contrition, but more for the men Sassaman lost than the Iraqis he killed and lives he destroyed, it appears. This said, when he opines that “We created the conditions for ISIS”, you couldn’t help but be impressed not only with his honesty, but with his willingness to articulate that honesty, difficult as it no doubt is a man like him to admit that the ‘mission’ he’d once so fully believed only succeeded in pushing Iraq and its people into an abyss of unending sectarian carnage and strife.
Former Marine Recon Sergeant Rudy Reyes instantly strikes you as a rampant narcissist, all biceps and warped masculinity as he boasts of the killing machine he and his buddies were back in the day. In describing his experience of combat in Iraq as ‘godlike’, he reveals the murderous soul of a war whose historical parallel was Caesar’s decimation of Gaul. With orgasmic awe emanating from every pore, Reyes counts how he and his fellow elite Marines killed and destroyed anything and everything in their path as the spearhead of the 2003 invasion.
With his contrived swig from a bottle of tequila at the start of the interview, just to emphasise his post-combat wild man status (think Coming Home meets The Deer Hunter), Reyes is less poster boy for the meritorious brother-in-arms verities of war than he is for the yeehaw! cultural values of a country that was originally founded by psychopathic racist killers and has been sustained by their like ever since.
The Iraqi participants are the saving grace of the series. Their humanity and intelligence, of a kind common to those who’ve walked through hell and survived to tell anyone willing listen that it’s hotter than you could imagine, succeeds in compounding your anger at the fact that neither Tony Blair, George W Bush, Donald Rumsfeld or Alastair Campbell et al. have faced as much as one second of justice for their respective roles in the commissioning of this crime, the consequences of which the people of Iraq and the wider region will doubtless still be dealing with for many years to come, and likely never will.
The series would perhaps have benefitted from Sassaman and Reyes meeting some of the Iraqi participants to hear their stories and perhaps, though only perhaps, coming away from the experience with rather more empathy and regret for what they had taken part in — the suffering and pain they caused — than they expressed. But alas the series takes the easy way out and places Iraqis such as Waseed Nesyif, a young man at the time of the war who found lucrative work as a translator for American journalists, on the same moral plane as those who helped to destroy the country he grew up in and which as a result of the war and occupation was forced to leave.
The stand out interviewee in the documentary is Alaa Adel, a child during the war who lost an eye in an insurgent attack on a US Army Humvee in Baghdad. We see her as a child in the aftermath of the attack engaging with Nesyif at her home, and she appears in the documentary as an adult looking back. On both occasions you cannot help be struck by her dignity and lack of bitterness.
“A racist society cannot help but fight a racist war,” James Baldwin once powerfully intoned against the War in Vietnam. If Once Upon a Time in Iraq succeeds in anything it’s in reminding us that Baldwin’s words also apply to Iraq.
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