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Friday, May 12, 2006

Baghdad ER 

UPDATE: Even though HBO already screened this film at the Pentagon, military types seem to be wary (unsurprising). See here (via Steve G.)

We're at a point in this war where we don't seem to be getting much news about the day-to-day situation on the ground, other than there seems to be some nebulous understanding that things are bad and getting worse. Rasmussen, for example, has a recent poll stating that 51% of Americans think that, in the long run, the U.S. mission in Iraq will be a failure, while only 34% think it will be a success. My personal belief is that these negative feelings are the result of a combination of (1) the drip-drip-drip quality of bad news out of Iraq itself (as in, each day it seems another bomb goes off killing dozens of civilians) and (2) the general feeling that, politically, the Bush administration, which hung its hat on Iraq, is a failure. A new poll has Bush at only 29% approval.

It is with this backdrop, and with my own feelings that this war has been a disaster on every level from the get-go, that I went to an advanced screening of Baghdad ER, the new HBO documentary I mentioned last week. Now, full disclosure, my girlfriend is one of the directors long-time close friends, and I am also friends with him. Nevertheless, I can say that in no way colors my opinion that this is an incredible, heartbreaking and horrific film. Matt O'Neill and Jon Alpert, the directors, were given seemingly full access to the Army's medical corps in Baghdad, including the medevac teams that go out in the field to bring the wounded soldiers and marines to the hospital in the Green Zone. The film, to say the least, is graphic in what it shows us. But, what is going on in Iraq is graphic and horrible, and to show it as otherwise would be little more than a lie.

Before I talk about the film specifically, I want to point out that, while I know the filmmakers will argue vociferously that this film is not a political film, I disagree. While the film is no way polemical, it is indeed political. We see soldiers and marines maimed, disfigured, traumatized and killed. We see this right before our eyes. The film goes out of its way not to comment or editorialize on any of this. However, in every scene, in every shot, there is a question that hangs in the air, a question that can't help but hang in the air. Of course, that question is simply "Why?" At brief instances, we hear doctors and other soldiers briefly mention "the mission", but in general that question is not addressed directly. However, we do see the chaplain, in many heartbreaking moments trying to deal with the pain and death around him, call the war and the violence "senseless." We see other doctors and soldiers lament their having to deal, day in and day out, with some of the most horrific situations one can imagine. But, in its essence, the film just shows what our men and women in the armed forces are doing to try to save the wounded. It shows heroism and bravery without comment, but again, the morality (or lack thereof) and the politics of the entire war hangs like a fog over the entire film.

In many ways, Baghdad ER is two films: One film about the soldiers and marines who are wounded or killed in action; another film about the medics and doctors and nurses who are trying to save the wounded. Both films are of equal import and equal emotional impact. The soldiers and marines, dealing with their own wounds, the wounds and deaths of their comrades, are fully humanized in the film; each individual deals with the trauma differently, and each individual commands our respect. The medical teams are incredibly professional, working under the most stressful of conditions, doing everything possible to help both U.S. servicemen and women and Iraqi civilians. The doctors and nurses and chaplains are also surprisingly engaging individuals who really act as the films narrators, as there is no voiceover (a wonderful act of restraint by the filmmakers).

One last point I want to make is about the command structure of our military. Sy Hersh has reported ad nauseum over the last few years how the prisoner mistreatment at torture that has occurred in places like Abu Ghraib has followed directly from the top--Sec. of Defense Rumsfeld to Gen. Geoffrey Miller to the soldiers on the ground. This is what happened, and indeed, the only way these abuses abuses can happen (well, lack of discipline from the chain-of-command can do it, too). But, you can see the soldiers and marines in this film and wonder how the same organization can produce the brave, professional, heroic men and women seen in this film and also the sadistic and criminal guards who committed the atrocities at Abu Ghraib. In any event, it was just something I noticed, because everyone in the film is what we want and expect every serviceman woman to be.

Well, I'm not a film critic, and a film like this doesn't necessarily lend itself to descriptions on paper (or screen). It is a visceral, difficult experience, and I highly encourage all Americans to watch it when it premiers on May 21 at 8pm EDT.
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