There is a moment in episode one of Once Upon a Time in Iraq that epitomises how spectacularly botched the 2003 invasion was. A Ramboesque marine, Sergeant Rudy Reyes, takes a great swig of whisky and describes gunning down a car that drove through a roadblock he and his comrades had established. Turns out it was a family of civilians, and they couldn’t read the sign in Arabic telling them to stop. “Grandpa, mommy and the kids,” all dead, he says in his American drawl. So it goes.
Rudy’s machismo can’t hide the pain that comes with the territory of killing anonymous grandpas and mommies. He too is a victim of the whole sorry affair in Iraq — he just doesn’t know it yet.
It is one of many striking scenes in James Bluemel’s outstanding five-part documentary. Narrated by Andy Serkis, Once Upon a Time tells the story of the Iraq War and its messy aftermath up to the present day via archive footage and interviews with so-called “ordinary people”. The contributors aren’t politicians thank goodness, but rather civilians, journalists and soldiers on both sides of the conflict, who saw it unfold firsthand.
The interviews bring colour to a series that could have been overwhelmingly bleak
Each of these voices, diverse as they are, has their own remarkable story to tell, yet they all point to one conspicuous truth: in 17 years, there has been no “happily ever after” moment for Iraq and its people. Bush Jr.’s ill-executed invasion invited chaos, which invited sectarian violence, the rise of Al-Qaeda, ISIS, and an untold, unrecorded number of deaths. Whatever the merits of deposing Saddam Hussein may have been, it is difficult to conclude that the intervention was, in the round, anything other than a failure.
Certainly, there is no lost love for George W on the part of Waleed Nesyif, the series’ standout participant. Nesyif was an 18-year-old heavy metal rocker in Baghdad at the start of the invasion (yes, really). Infatuated with all things Western, from McDonald’s to Metallica, the then-teenager welcomed the arrival of Allied troops in April of 2003. That excitement punctured six weeks later when the US president declared the end of military combat operations in front of a banner stating ‘Mission Accomplished.’
“‘Mission Accomplished?’” chuckles Nesyif, as Bush receives rapturous applause on-screen. “Yeah? Seriously?” From the lawless streets of Baghdad, the myopic nature of the ‘mission’ was self-evident. The conflict was only getting started. “We were all hopeful at the beginning, but then soon after, […] the myth that we were sold unravelled itself into this nightmare we all knew now we’re stuck in.”
Bluemel guides us through the war’s chronology apace. Episode three largely focuses on journalist Dexter Filkins and photographer Ashley Gilbertson, both of the New York Times, who were embedded with US marines amid the Second Battle of Fallujah at the end of 2004. They are larger-than-life characters (Gilbertson, for instance, is a frizzy-haired swashbuckler who somehow ended up in Iraq via New York via Australia). They literally dodge bullets to file their copy.
Gilbertson’s interview provides the series’s most poignant moment. The photographer had wanted to shoot inside a minaret that insurgents were suspected to have used as a staging ground and, reluctantly, a couple of marines accompanied him. They had assumed the insurgents inside were dead by that point. They assumed wrong. Lance Corporal Billy Miller’s ascent up the tower would be his last on Earth.
The viewer watches Gilbertson’s mind travel back to that minaret as the camera lingers on his face, his silence piercing. He has mulled over the what-ifs ever since, and will long continue to do so. It is a deeply affecting beat, beautifully captured.
Unsurprisingly, neither Filkins nor Gilbertson feel optimistic about the future. “There is no solution,” Filkins says towards the end. “It’s the Middle East. But it will engage us forever.” Will it engage Filkins forever, Bluemel asks? “No. Enough for me,” he responds, with the finality of a man who knows his luck.
There are a number of other well-chosen interviewees, including a handlebar-moustached adviser to Saddam Hussein who venerates the former president as a “martyr”, and a Sunni widow who saved hundreds of Shiite soldiers from the clutches of IS. They bring colour to a series that could have been overwhelmingly bleak, and represent the worst and best of those involved on the ground.
The brilliance of the documentary is twofold. First, it brings Iraq back into the public’s consciousness in a forceful way. We have been wilfully ignorant for years, I’m afraid. Brexit may have been an important issue for Britain, but the unravelling catastrophe in Iraq has dropped off the news cycle too easily in recent years. Second, it humanises the people of Iraq by giving them the space to represent themselves directly. Turns out they like the Backstreet Boys as well, and just want their share of peace. Their insight has been sorely absent in Western discourse.
I grew up with the Iraq conflict on TV — I’ve never known of the place as anything other than a warzone. I am sure I am not alone in feeling desensitised to the violence that became a daily fixture of rolling news coverage and, in later years, forgetting about it altogether. In truth, we are yet to reconcile ourselves with the real, human cost of the Iraq War. Once Upon a Time in Iraq goes a significant way to addressing that.
The final episode of Once Upon a Time in Iraq airs on BBC 2 at 9pm on August 10. All episodes are available on BBC iPlayer.
Finley Harnett has been working on Critic production; he’s off to work for an MP next
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