A trauma that never ends

Adam LeBor commends the BBC’s latest documentary on the Iraq war

On Television

This article was taken from the September issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering three issue for just £5.

When Mustafa Abed had a fever his mother Nidhal agonised over how to help him. It was November 2003 and the Americans were massing for an attack on their home town of Fallujah in Iraq. They warned of the coming onslaught by loudspeaker, dropped leaflets telling people to leave. Much of the population did but the Abeds were too poor to flee. Mustafa was almost two and he needed medical attention, but it was Ramadan and his father Ahmed was at the mosque. What if the Americans attacked while she and Mustafa were outside? Nidhal decided to take the risk.

Nowadays the BBC is itself under sustained fire from its critics. But when the Beeb gets it right, it is unbeatable

The bomb exploded while Nidhal was carrying her son. It blew off his left leg and a testicle. Shrapnel slashed open Nidhal’s arm, stripped the flesh from her hip. Mustafa lay on the ground nearby calling for his mother, his stomach sliced open, his innards sliding out into the dirt. They were taken to hospital. There the doctors advised Nidhal to say her goodbyes. The Americans arrived soon after, taking away much of the male medical staff.

The Abeds’ story is told in episode three of Once Upon A Time in Iraq, the BBC’s series on our destruction of that country. Nowadays the BBC is itself under sustained fire from its critics. But when the Beeb gets it right, it is unbeatable. Once Upon A Time in Iraq is documentary television of the highest order: gripping, harrowing, sometimes macabrely funny and utterly absorbing. Each of the five episodes is an emotional rollercoaster. There should however have been six, with one recounting the story of the Kurds and their quite successful quasi-state.

Directed by James Bluemel, who made the Bafta-winning Exodus about Syrian refugees, this is history told as it should be: from the bottom up. George W. Bush, Tony Blair and Paul Bremer, the governor of post-Saddam Iraq, all feature but they are bit players. Their lies and obfuscations are a droning backdrop to the raw, bloody truths of those whose stories are told here: mothers, sons, soldiers, civilians, refugees and the journalists who witnessed and recorded the carnage and destruction.

Seventeen years on, it’s clear that many of the Americans who served in the military have been profoundly shaped by their time in Iraq. Their trauma seems not to have faded. Instead it lurks, dormant, until the calm questioning begins.

Bluemel deftly mixes contemporary footage of the war with stark interviews against a black backdrop. The interviews are clearly harrowing for many of the former soldiers. They look down, away from the camera, take deep breaths, even swig from a bottle of tequila.

Dexter Filkins, one of the finest war reporters of modern times, provides insightful commentary and analysis. Together with photographer Ashley Gilbertson, he was embedded with the US Marines, advancing step by step as they fought their way through the town.

After Fallujah fell, Gilbertson wanted a photograph of a sniper assumed to have been killed in the minaret of a mosque. The Marines’ commander insisted that a group of soldiers accompany Gilbertson. But the sniper was still alive. Gilbertson knows that he will carry his burden of guilt for the rest of his life.

I confess that back then I supported the Iraq war. Shaped by my time reporting the war in Bosnia, I believed in intervention. The siege of Sarajevo, the ethnic cleansing of Bosnians and Kosovars, all these had been stopped by Nato bombing.

Iraq, like Bosnia, was a post-colonial construct, carved out of the remnants of the Ottoman empire. Saddam Hussein had committed genocide against the Kurds, slaughtered tens of thousands in 1991, had weapons of mass destruction. He should be deposed. Surely what worked in Bosnia would also work in Baghdad.

Had the Americans devoted as much planning and resources to rebuilding Iraq as they did to bringing down Saddam, a new democratic state might have arisen. We will never know.

Instead, Paul Bremer disbanded the army and the Baath Party, the two institutions that had held the country together. Iraq quickly split down ethnic and religious lines. Unlike many Bosnians, Iraqis did not want to be occupied. Civil war and insurgency erupted. Isis moved in, with a new, religious reign of terror, until they too were pushed out. Iraq remains deeply unstable, profoundly corrupt.

Eventually it emerged that there were no weapons of mass destruction. Perhaps half a million people died for a lie. For the war’s architects, all that is ancient history. They have moved on.

After he retired, Bush took up painting and released a volume of portraits of veterans. Bremer became a ski instructor in Vermont and briefly, an internet meme. Tony Blair, Bush’s key ally in building the “coalition”, reinvented himself as a lavishly-paid consultant to assorted autocrats.

As for Nidhal and Mustafa, incredibly, they survived. The Abeds were taken to the United States for medical treatment where Mustafa learned to walk with an artificial leg. Do watch this superb series. The Abeds, and their quiet dignity, will stay with you. So will your anger and incredulity.

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