Baghdad ER... where the truth hurts

By Rupert Cornwell

This week, subscribers to the US channel Home Box Office will be treated to a film about the Iraq war unlike any other.

Near the beginning, 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 about September 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 were oddly unmoving - largely because the aircraft was barely distinguishable, just a greyish-white blur in one frame, followed by a flash and a fireball in the next.

Far more upsetting was United 93, about the United Airlines jet which crashed in Pennsylvania after passengers fought the hijackers. The film was numbing in its account of banal everyday life transformed into a nightmare. The ending you knew in advance.

Even so, it was only a film - a dramatic re-creation of events, not the event itself. Baghdad ER is for real; for some maybe too real.

That perhaps was why Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and his deputy Gordon England, as well as Army Surgeon General Kevin Kiley and Chief of Staff, General Pete Schoomaker, weren't there at the preview this week in Washington.

Baghdad ER is the work of the Emmy-winning film-makers 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 frontline US Army medical facility.

This is where wounded soldiers are first taken when their vehicle has been blown up by 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, shattered limbs, and men in the last instants of life.

It is unsettling to go to the Walter Reed Army Hospital in America, where wounded veterans of the war learn to reuse their mutilated bodies. But Walter Reed is 8000km from the front lines of Iraq.

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 okay to go. It's okay 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 July 4, 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, depressing work by going up on to the roof of the hospital to smoke a cigar.

Above all, Baghdad ER breaks a taboo. Insofar as possible, the Bush Administration has kept this war as quiet and as sanitised as possible. The victims that have been shown have mostly been Iraqis, not Americans.

Occasionally that has not been possible - such as when the corpses of the four security company workers were dragged from their blazing car and strung up from a bridge in Fallujah in 2004. But the military transport aircraft are not shown on television as they return with their cargo of coffins to Dover Air Force Base in Delaware.

Nor are the dead soldiers' funerals - none of which Bush has attended.

Sometimes the President has talked of "sacrifice". But for ordinary Americans who do not have friends or family who have done a tour in Iraq, this has been a war virtually without sacrifice, barring the rise in petrol prices attributed to the conflict.

Bush stresses constantly that America is at war, maybe for decades to come. But for all the car stickers proclaiming "Support Our Troops", this has been a war unlike any other.

Wars usually demand belt tightening, tax increases or some other form of deprivation, however modest, for the citizenry. In the "war on terror", like other wars, military spending has soared. But the last few years have been a festival of tax cuts - at least for the better off - despite record deficits. "Spend, spend, spend," might have been the official advice on how the home front should conduct itself in this proclaimed time of tests.

Baghdad ER dispenses with the illusion of normality.

An HBO executive said a retired general who saw an early screening told him that the film "captured the soul of the US Army". That soul may be more brittle than it first seemed.

If the military is now distancing itself from a venture it once embraced, one reason is concern for the impact it might have on soldiers who served in Iraq, and on the families whose loved-ones are still there, or about to go.

This week, Baghdad ER will be shown separately at 22 military bases. In a memo a few days ago to Army medical staff, Kiley warned that it showed "the ravages and anguish of war". Those who saw it "may experience many emotions ... if they have been in Iraq, they may experience symptoms of post-traumatic stress, such as flashbacks."

B UT some suspect another motive: a fear by the Pentagon that the film will undermine public support for the war. If so, its civilian bosses truly are as out of touch with reality as their critics say.

A poll yesterday in the Washington Post showed that only 40 per cent of Americans now believe that going to war was right; 59 per cent reckon the invasion was a mistake.

Asked to explain the other day, Karl Rove, feted strategist for the President in happier times, acknowledged "Iraq looms over everything".

Compared with the war in Vietnam, US losses in Iraq have been comparatively light - as of yesterday 2444 confirmed dead in slightly more than three years, compared with 58,000 during the eight years of Vietnam. In part this is a triumph of the battlefield medicine on display in Baghdad ER.

An unprecedented near-90 per cent of wounded soldiers survive. But these now number 18,000, and many of them would have died in wars past.

Unless one of the names belongs to your family or to a family you know, the carnage slips by almost unnoticed - a bleak daily procession of statistics reflecting a distant reality about which you prefer not to dwell.

Only the bloodiest incidents now make the front pages or the network news. Thus Baghdad ER will deliver an almighty jolt to those who see it, either this week or when repeated on Memorial Day, when the US remembers those who fought in all its wars.

The film is not pro-American or anti-American, least of all an act of leftwing sedition. It is anti-war only in the sense that any depiction of the ghastliness of combat is anti-war.

Alpert himself calls it "a very patriotic film" that showed the true consequences of war which ordinary Americans had before had little opportunity to see. "It shows heroism, and you can't understand the heroism of the doctors and soldiers unless you see the horror they face every day."

And for one mother at least, it brought closure. Paula Zwillinger's 21-year-old son Robert Mininger was the Marine who died in the film.

"To actually be at my son's bedside with him when he came in through his injuries, during his final moments, that truly is a gift that not every parent gets," she said.

The film, she acknowledged in a CNN interview, was very graphic. "But this is the truth. This is what our children are facing every, every day. It's very important for the public to really know what we're doing over there," no matter what their view about the war.

- INDEPENDENT

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