Monday 31 March 2008

A cycle of agent-less violence

Battle for Haditha (2007), directed by Nick Bloomfield

From the very beginning, the Iraq War has involved enormous evasion of responsibility. All but the most ideologically blinkered now freely admit the invasion was a ‘war of choice’, cooked up in Washington for reasons that remain mysterious, aided and abetted by a few equally committed or purely opportunist foreign allies. The claim that Saddam Hussein possessed WMD, a crucial justification for war, was swiftly falsified, but the politicians who plotted the invasion were nonetheless able to evade their responsibilities by blaming faulty intelligence.

Among the resulting day-to-day grind of an imperial war with 3,000 casualties a month are scattered numerous atrocities whose names ring with the same infamy as those committed a generation ago in the Vietnam War, including Iraq’s My Lai – the Haditha massacre. Few soldiers have been brought to account for these crimes. Worse is our shared, cynical understanding that none of the warmongers will ever be held to account for theirs. But the trap The Battle for Haditha falls into is to imply that this means a sort of ethical equivalence descends on the violence in Iraq.

The facts of the massacre are now well understood. On 19 November 2005, a roadside bomb exploded at Haditha, killing one marine and injuring two others. In retaliation, their surviving comrades killed 24 unarmed Iraqi civilians in cold blood. Washington paid the families blood money of $2,500 apiece. No one has been charged with the murders, and the military has systematically watered-down the charges being faced by the soldiers to ‘involuntary manslaughter’ and ‘negligent homicide’.

Nick Broomfield, a documentary-maker by trade, aims to recreate these events using an odd mélange of techniques. He combines the gritty realism of a fly-on-the-wall documentary – blurred, quick zooms and candid shots – with occasionally beautiful, artistically-shot footage that is initially disorienting and strangely jarring at times. The same is true of Broomfield’s cast, which is fronted by a small number of ex-marines. On the one hand, this lends a strong sense of authenticity to some scenes, particularly those where the men are shooting their way into civilian homes – direction being no substitute for their boot camp training. On the other, these men are not trained actors, and their performances wear rather thin at times. Overall the technique must be regarded as a failure. It is neither one thing, nor the other – not real and candid enough to be a fly-on-the-wall, not slick enough to be a poignant, professional film.


Partly, though, this reflects a script that at times is decidedly poor, causing even the cast’s professionals to perform turgidly. Battle for Haditha tries to do too much, presenting the massacre as the Iraq War in microcosm, and from every possible angle. More seriously, it strips everyone of any real agency: the plight of the marines, cast into a war they scarcely understand and do not respect, is considered alongside that of Iraq civilians and insurgents, who are simply swept along as unhappy victims. Broomfield clunkingly assigns recognisable motives to everyone and yet implies blamelessness by implying they really have no choice in the matter. This results in some truly awful dialogue where individuals (I hesitate to call them characters, since their two-dimensional nature and complete abrogation of agency renders them merely symbolic) are mechanically made to recite the socio-political forces which place them in the scenario at Haditha. Consider this, from one of the insurgents who plants the roadside bomb:

I never wanted this. I was in the army for 20 years, not for Saddam, but helping my country. The Americans made the insurgency when they got rid of the army. We got $50 compensation. It was an insult. We then joined the insurgency to fight for our country.

Unarguable, but hardly what one insurgent would say to another – and sadly typical of the screenplay’s overall quality.

The problem with this is that if no one has any agency, then no one has any responsibility. Ramirez, the marine corporal who leads the massacre just hours after unsuccessfully requesting to speak to a psychiatrist about his bad dreams, later laments:

I feel like a lot of those fucking people I killed fucking personally, you know what I mean? I gotta live with this guilt for the rest of my life, man. Nobody fucking understands it either, man. I feel like I’m personally responsible for all those motherfuckers who died underneath me.

Of course, he is personally responsible for the massacre, but the clear implication is the exact opposite. A mocked-up news report flashes to George Bush, writhing under questioning about the incident, as if to show us the real villain. The same goes for the civilians – who see the bomb being planted but say nothing, helplessly caught between the insurgents and the Americans – and the insurgents themselves, who feel racked with guilt when they see their countrymen being killed as a result of their actions. Likewise, the fact that Ramirez vomits after the massacre and feels remorse is meant to exonerate him from any blame. All the characters seem like mere pawns swept along a gigantic, tragic chessboard by forces beyond their control. The film ends with the enraged menfolk of Haditha vengefully joining the insurgency, a new cycle of agent-less violence sweeping forwards.

The deployment of military forces to Iraq was indeed a profound betrayal of those men and women by their political masters, and, in turn, a deep failure of Western democracy. But that does not exonerate them from taking responsibility for their day-to-day actions. Even if blowing up occupying soldiers is wrong (and that is far from obvious), the massacre of innocent civilians is hardly comparable. To imply anything else is morally vacuous. The film lurches way beyond any legitimate attempt to avoid a simple morality tale by putting the killings into a comprehensible context, instead ending up positing a moral equivalence between those involved: insurgents and soldiers alike were forced into this scenario by circumstance, not choice, and, as fundamentally decent people, they all suffer.

Only ‘Al Qaeda’ – who, in a bit part, are made to supply the explosives – are depicted as blatantly wicked and ‘crazy’, which almost seems to imply that a handful of Islamic extremists are capable of sweeping millions of people into a maelstrom beyond their control. This does no justice to the real nature of the conflict in Iraq. It is more of a reflection, on the fifth anniversary of the invasion, of the West’s continuing confusion about the reason this disastrous war was launched in the first place.


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