The Bush administration has censored photographs of the wounded, body bags, and flag-draped coffins. Imagine its fears over large numbers of Americans viewing Jon Alpert and Matthew O’Neill’s new documentary, Baghdad ER.
Premiering Sunday on HBO, with an encore scheduled for Memorial Day, Baghdad ER examines the 86th Combat Support Hospital which the filmmakers chronicled for two months. One nurse, Specialist Saidet Lanier, describes life at the field hospital this way: “This is hard-core, raw, uncut trauma. Day after day, every day.”
Initially, military officials were enthusiastic about the heroic portrayal of this medical staff which has – along with other trauma teams – somehow managed the highest survival rate for wounded soldiers during any war at a stunning 90 percent.
But the Pentagon’s enthusiasm has soured. Many suspect it is for the simple reason that the truth will further erode the already radically diminished support for this war. Because despite the fact that Baghdad ER is widely hailed as a non-partisan tribute to both soldiers and medical personnel, as HBO president Sheila Evans told the New York Times, “Anything showing the grim realities of war is, in a sense, antiwar.”
The Pentagon hasn’t questioned the accuracy or authenticity of the film. Pentagon spokesman Paul Boyce told the Washington Post, “We believe [it] is a very thorough representation of the professionalism of the military medical community, and reflects the ethos of our soldiers.” And yet, after initially saying 300 military officials would attend the premier in Washington, DC, only about 40 showed up and none were high-raking officers.
One mother of a soldier whose death is captured on film said of this project, “I am positive about this film. It needs to be shown. I want the world to know this is a reality. War is graphic, war is raw, war hurts.”
And that is exactly the problem the current administration has with it. And too much of the media has been too compliant night after night. Where are the raw and real images of the wounded, the maimed, the dead that would appear on our TV screens if we were receiving the real news about the war?
Stephen Colbert recently got at the the truth about what our government really wants us to know: “Knowledge about the current war is bad for you. Watch all the World War II docs you want, but knowing the human toll of the Iraq War causes stress….Protect your health: only watch things that make you feel good about America.”
There was a time when people turned to the classic TV show M*A*S*H* to–as John Leonard writes in his New York magazine review of the documentary–“go behind the rhetorical curtain.” Baghdad ER takes a step towards accomplishing that for this generation. After all, as Leonard notes, “The more we see what war really looks like–the terror in the eyes that contradicts the bravado in the chatter–the harder the questions we ask about it.”
And indeed it is hard and deeply disturbing to see the amputated and discarded limbs, the blood and body parts, the soldiers dying. But it should be. Because the reality is this: over 17,000 American soldiers wounded and over 2,300 killed. Over 400 amputees. And some estimate over 100,000 Iraqi civilian deaths.
In 2004, Nation Institute fellow Chris Hedges wrote for the New York Review of Books of the “empty jingoism of those who use the abstract words of glory, honor and patriotism to mask the cries of the wounded, the senseless killing, war profiteering, and chest-pounding grief….The truth about war comes out, but usually too late.”
It’s already too late – but the sooner the truth comes out the better.
It’s time to face the horrors of war. If we are to evolve to a point where war is truly a last resort, then this is the kind of work that will help us get there. Watch Baghdad ER.