BRASSED OFF WHY THE PENTAGON HAS TURNED ON THE MAKERS OF 'BAGHDAD ER' ; When Emmy-Winning Filmmakers Approached the US High Command to Make a Documentary about a War Zone Emergency Room, the Generals Applauded. Now They Fear It Will Undermine Public Support for the War. the War in Iraq
Cornwell, Rupert, The Independent (London, England)
This Sunday, subscribers to the American cable channel Home Box Office will be treated to a film about the Iraq war unlike any other. Almost at the start, you see a medical orderly carrying a human arm, amputated above the elbow, which he puts into a red plastic bag.
Welcome to Baghdad ER, the unvarnished, unexpurgated truth of what war is really like.
This has been quite a month for films and pictures about 9/11 and the war in Iraq that sprung from it. On Tuesday, the Pentagon finally released video images from a closed circuit camera of American Airlines Flight 77 as it smashed into the Pentagon. The pictures rekindled memories of that terrible September Day, but they were oddly unmoving- largely because the aircraft was barely distinguishable, just a greyish-white blur in one frame, followed by a flash and an orange fireball in the next.
Far more upsetting was United 93, about the United Airlines jet which crashed into a Pennsylvania field after passengers rose up against the hijackers. The critically acclaimed film was numbing in its account of banal everyday life transformed into a nightmare, whose horrific ending everybody knew in advance. Even so, it was only a film - a faithful but ultimately fictional re-creation of events, not the event itself. But Baghdad ER is for real' for some maybe too real.
That perhaps was why Donald Rumsfeld, and Gordon England, the Deputy Defence Secretary, as well as Lieutenant-General Kevin Kiley, the army's surgeon general, and General Pete Schoomaker, the army chief of staff, weren't there at the preview on Monday, at the auditorium of the National Museum of Natural History in Washington.
BaghdadER (the ER stands for emergency room) is the work of the Emmy-winning filmmakers Jon Alpert and Matthew O'Neill, who spent two months in mid-2005 at the 86th Combat Support Hospital in Baghdad's Green Zone, the main front line medical facility for the US army in Iraq. This is where wounded soldiers are first taken when their vehicle has been blown up by an IED, an Improvised Explosive Device also known as a roadside bomb, or when a suicide bomber has done his worst. It shows the daily lives of the doctors, chaplains nurses and orderlies who work in this place of suffering.
Barring the odd technically blurred face of an appallingly injured soldier it flinches from nothing, be it pools of blood and guts on the floor, shattered limbs, and men in the last instants of the life. It is unsettling enough to go to the Walter Reed Army Hospital - as I did with my wife to visit a cousin of hers who lost both legs in July 2004 when his Humvee was hit by a 155mm mortar round at Samarra in the Sunni Triangle. But Walter Reed is 5,000 miles from the war's front line, where wounded soldiers go to recover, and learn to re-use their mutilated bodies.
In Baghdad ER you are spared nothing. In one harrowing scene a chaplain comforts a dying marine. "We don't want you to go, We want you to fight," he says. "But if you can't, it's OK to go. It's OK to go. But we'll be right with you. If you get better, or if you go." For the doctors, coping with the conveyor belt of dreadful wounds is a separate ordeal. Major Merritt Pember, one of the surgeons shown in the film, spoke of his emotions to the magazine US News and World Report.
Was there a worst day, he was asked. The days "all kind of blended together" he replied. "I was there six months, and it never once rained. You see the same injuries come in the door every day. One day, I did four or five amputations' that was the worst. You know that you have to do the amputation because you can't repair it, but it's not feel-good surgery. It gets old." Another doctor, asked what he wanted for the Fourth of July, answers simply "not to have another dead soldier". Each evening Major Pember and his colleagues tried to find some kind of relaxation from the exhausting, endlessly depressing work by going up on to the roof of the hospital to smoke a cigar. …