So many festering wounds

Published by The i paper (17th August, 2020)

Waleed Neysif was 18 years old when American forces began bombing Baghdad. He spoke perfect English, played in a heavy metal band and liked eating at a fake McDonalds. He backed the 2003 war, believing it would lead to the freedoms and democracy promised by some Western leaders. After the invasion, he worked as a translator for journalists, getting paid more in a single day than his father earned in six months. Then one day he went to the wrecked home of a Bedouin family, wiped out in a helicopter strike, and was left wondering if people could really be so evil.

This is a compelling moment in Once Upon a Time in Iraq, a stunning five-part documentary on the BBC. We see his shock in contemporary footage as he runs his hand through his hair and is shown bloodied blankets by the distraught father, then cut to this sardonic character’s reflections on his sudden loss of innocence. “People can’t be that bad,” he remembers thinking. But as this sombre programme shows, human beings do terrible things in war as they seek to destroy other people and end up all too often destroying themselves.

The charismatic Waleed, now living in Canada, is one of the stars of this series with his witty comments and self-deprecating asides. Like others, his recollections of the invasion and subsequent tidal wave of violence feel like intruding on therapy as he tells a personal story of traumatic times against a stark backdrop. These are ordinary people caught up in extraordinary events as comparative stability slid into bloody chaos, hope descended into despair. It is gripping and disturbing to view.

Waleed’s sense of doom intensified when he met Alaa Adel, a 12-year-old girl hit by shrapnel on her way home from school as the insurgency started to take off against invading forces who only protected the oil ministry. We see her at the time, the family being interviewed by reporters, telling her mother not to fret with one eye blinded and a hideous hole in her cheek. Then we see her today, thick black hair draped over the scar as she weeps. “I hope what happened to Iraq happens to America,” she says. “I’ve never wished harm on anyone, but I wish it on them.”

This is chilling stuff, documentary making that bears comparison with Ken Burns and Lynn Novick’s epic Vietnam series by telling a familiar story through the insights of well-picked participants. We knew about the arrogance of George Bush, the complicity of Tony Blair, the stupidity of presidential envoy Paul Bremer in fostering discontent by driving vast numbers of civil servants and well-armed soldiers out of jobs. Here are the witnesses to their atrocities detailing how their lives and society were shredded.

There is also the symbolic tragedy of Nate Sassaman, a fast-rising US army officer leading an 800-strong battalion in the Sunni triangle. The son of a Methodist preacher and star quarterback at West Point, he seems a good guy at the start as he meets local leaders and tries to hold elections. Then one of his men gets killed. He reacts by locking down a village behind barbed wire, his desire for retribution and brutality intensifying as the insurgency grows worse.

This haunted ex-colonel, who admits to still feeling trapped in Iraq, shows how all that naive talk of imposing democracy turned into dehumanising brutality. It is sickening to see the savagery of scared young Americans as they kick down doors, drag handcuffed men on the ground and rampage through houses terrorising families – then the inevitable reaction as violence and sectarianism explodes.

Maybe it is too neat in its narrative as it moves speedily from children handing flowers to foreign troops through the crushing of Fallujah to the rise of Islamic State. Britain’s role in these dark deeds also seems strangely muted – although no-one can be left in slightest doubt that Blair should be hanging his head in permanent shame rather than hypocritically lecturing the world on good governance. But the documentary drives home profound lessons beyond simply exposing the indelible stains left on reprehensible Western politicians.

The most obvious, as Sassaman says, is that war is “pure evil” and every effort must be made to avoid unleashing its hideous and uncontrollable force. Yet amid trauma, there are still flickers of hope – such as the family too poor to flee Fallujah, filled with hate after their infant son is ripped apart, then finding that not every American is cruel after the boy is flown by a charity to hospital for surgery and rehabilitation. Every person, every country, is a fusion of light and shade.

Once Upon A Time In Iraq underlines the complexities of all societies, with tangled politics even under a dictator, and the absurdity of attempting to stereotype nations. I would wager that wisecracking Waleed is far removed from most Westerners’ perception of an Iraqi. And this matters as asylum again becomes a hot issue and selfish politicians stoke up fear of foreigners. We must cling on to compassion and empathy, especially as economic skies darken amid the pandemic, and remember our shared humanity.This documentary’s strength lies in showing faces from a war that left so many festering wounds.

By all means blame Bush and Blair, but it is simplistic to think we can then move on swiftly. Having sent our soldiers into Iraq with such devastating consequences for the region, and with military ties to conflicts from Afghanistan to Yemen, we should show far more sympathy and support to those of their citizens seeking to rebuild shattered lives. At the very least, I wish politicians would have the decency to desist from terming the arrival of a few desperate people on our shores an invasion after our nation’s involvement in the most debilitating foreign incursion for decades. Watch this series and weep again at the shamelessness of our leaders.

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