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2 September 2020

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TV: Once Upon a Time in Iraq

A military patrol in Mosul, Iraq, photo Mstyslav Chernov/CC

A military patrol in Mosul, Iraq, photo Mstyslav Chernov/CC   (Click to enlarge)

Dave Murray, Essex Socialist Party

No one could watch this five-part documentary series about the Iraq war and come away with the feeling that the war was anything but a catastrophe for the people of Iraq, the Middle East and humanity as a whole.

The film is composed of a series of direct-to-camera interviews with Iraqi civilians, US soldiers and members of the western press corps - interwoven with footage of the incidents that are documented and clips of news coverage from the belligerents' news outlets.

Towards the end of episode five you will hear Tony Blair pontificating that "removing Saddam will be a blessing to the Iraqi people". Everything you will have seen and heard up to that point will have confirmed that this is a wicked deception.

The most affecting, and valuable, part of the programmes are the interviews and footage in which Iraqis are given the chance to recount their experience of their country's descent through the circles of hell. We meet people like chain-smoking, wise-cracking Walid, Metallica fan and heavy metal singer turned translator, who eventually fled to Canada, having become a target thanks to his work with western journalists.

We meet Alaa, who took a piece of shrapnel in the face aged 12, on her way home from an exam. She lost an eye. Her closest friends lost their lives in the same attack. It is hard to watch the footage of the immediate aftermath showing the horror, grief and rage of the families of the casualties. "I hope what happened to us happens to America," says Alaa, with the benefit of 15 years hindsight, expressing herself flatly, without emotion.

The series is trailed on PBS America as: "The story of the Iraq war from the civilians who lived it". This is not quite true. We also hear from Colonel Nate Sassaman of the US army, who now earns a crust lecturing on 'leadership' to wannabe managers, but who unleashed a reign of terror on Iraqi villagers when the first man under his command was killed.

We see his troops torture and humiliate civilian Iraqis. "It was a dehumanisation deal..." he says, as his eyes flick around the studio. His methods were taken up by his superiors for use against Iraqis who "openly defied American authority". An Iraqi elder who saw the reign of terror first hand says "Sassaman lost his mind".

This is part of the problem with the programmes. There is more than a hint of the narrative which emerged after the Vietnam war - which centres on the damage done to the 'grunts' who were tasked with laying waste to an entire nation. Rudy Reyes, US Marines reconnaissance soldier, claims that he killed many people at a checkpoint his unit set up because the illiterate Iraqis couldn't read the warning signs to stop. This is highly questionable since illiteracy was virtually unknown in Iraq before the war. When asked if it was all worth it he says, somewhat unconvincingly: "Yes. What's the alternative?" He's looking for work as an actor now.

One of the most telling sections of the series deals with the New York Times men on the spot, Dexter Filkins and Ashley Gilbertson - "Dex" and "Ash" to the soldiers they were embedded with during the 2004 assault on the city of Falluja in which 600 civilians were killed. Ash identifies so strongly with the mission that he decides he needs to get a picture of a dead insurgent sniper in a mosque. He tells us that he wanted to get evidence that would justify the US targeting of mosques (he doesn't say so but also schools and hospitals) on the grounds that Isis fighters were using them as military positions.

During the course of the attempt to photograph a dead fighter a US soldier is killed. We learn this soldier's name, and meet his buddies in the unit and his parents and sister back home. We see childhood home movies. None of the 600 civilian dead is named. 75 US troops died in the assault, out of an attack force of 8,000.

The series is undoubtedly worth watching - but with enormous caveats. It seems strange that a BBC documentary makes almost no reference to the British role in instigating and prosecuting the war, let alone war crimes committed by British troops. The Kurdish population of Iraq are mentioned once, despite their enormous significance to the politics of Iraq since the independence of the country.

You get a somewhat simplified, overarching narrative of Iraq's experience of war and the dismantling of the public infrastructure of schools hospitals and utilities, the rise of the Iraqi insurgency and Isis/Daesh, the degeneration of civil society into generalised sectarian conflict, and the capturing of the state by epically corrupt sectarian politicians.

It's not that the programme makers absolve the western leaders of responsibility. The Bushes, Clinton, Blair, Obama and Trump are all implicated - quite correctly - but the narrative strongly suggests that, despite the obvious humanity of the Iraqis we meet, the nation is a pressure cooker of irrational sectarian hatred.

John Nixon, CIA intelligence analyst and Saddam expert, opines that "Saddam had his hand on the lid". Dexter Filkins, who confesses that he is "finished" with Iraq, makes a similar point when he says, of the hearts and minds efforts of Colonel Nate Sassaman: "For a long time I thought it could work," but, he says with a shrug, "it's the Middle East."

The series ends as mass protests against Iranian influence, corruption and sectarianism erupt across Iraq. In the narrative presented by the programme makers, I think this is supposed to show that the cycle of upheaval and violence will never end.

For us socialist internationalists, who can never duck out of our duty of solidarity to the victims of our ruling class, it is a sign that the struggle for democratic rights, national liberation and decent lives for all will always find a way to assert itself.

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