Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

April 15, 2008

Battle for Haditha

Filed under: Film,Iraq — louisproyect @ 4:37 pm

Since so much water has passed under the bridge, I asked for a review copy of Nick Broomfield’s “The Battle for Haditha” (scheduled to open at the Film Forum in N.Y. on May 7; it can be downloaded from BitTorrent as well apparently) without realizing that the title was ironic. I entirely forgot that there was no “battle” there, as there had been in neighboring Fallujah, but only a massacre of civilians that was called Iraq’s My Lai.

On the morning of November 19, 2005, an IED attack on a Marine convoy in Haditha left 2 soldiers wounded and a third sliced in half. Immediately afterwards, the marines stopped a taxi cab in the vicinity and shot the driver and 4 young unarmed passengers to death. One of the marines urinated on the head of one of his victims. Soon afterwards, the marines, who had been joined by reinforcements, went into three neighboring houses and shot another 19 civilians to death. A long article in the 2006 issue of Vanity Fair by William Langewiesche, which seems to have had a strong influence on Broomfield’s film, states:

Many had been sleeping, and were woken by the land-mine blast. Some were shot down in their pajamas. The oldest man was 76. He was blind and decrepit, and sat in a wheelchair. His elderly wife was killed, too. The dead children ranged in age from 15 to 3.

At the time the massacre was just one more in a series of outrages that helped to consolidate opposition to the war. Representative John Murtha, a Marine veteran himself, gave a news conference in which he said, “Our troops overreacted because of the pressure on them and they killed innocent civilians in cold blood.” Frank D. Wuterich, the Marine staff sergeant in charge of the killings, sued Murtha for defamation.

Wuterich and four other marines were charged with murder after a report in Time Magazine put enough heat on the military to force it to take action. Even the top killer at the White House was forced to say: ”I am troubled by the initial news stories. I am mindful that there is a thorough investigation going on. If, in fact, the laws were broken, there will be punishment.”

Broomfield is not the first director to make a docudrama based on the Haditha massacre. Last year, Brian De Palma’s “Redacted” generated a lot of controversy through its all-out assault on the Marines, who are depicted as total sociopaths. I confess to having been able to sit through only 15 minutes of the movie since it was so amateurish and stupid. Not surprisingly, De Palma was lionized at Cannes, where his “political statement” captured the feelings of many film industry celebrities.

Broomfield’s “Battle for Haditha” takes an entirely different tack on the events. Unlike De Palma, the movie-according to the press notes-makes the case that “The Marines too are victims, attacked, wounded, and forced to respond in the way they have been trained. But when events occur at great speed and under extreme stress, can Marines in the line of fire be accused of murder.”

In order to humanize the American soldiers, Broomfield takes several liberties in his fictional recreation of the events that are not borne out by the facts. To begin with, he introduces a couple of characters responsible for the placement of the bomb who are the mirror images of the Marines. If they hadn’t placed the bomb in the road nearby the houses where the innocent victims lived, none of the killings would have taken place.

The motif of innocent civilians being caught between the pincers of an occupying army and a bloodthirsty insurgency is very old. During the Vietnam War, liberal journalists and politicians always saw the peasant as a victim of two armed forces while only wanting to live in peace. Graham Greene encapsulated this way of thinking when he had the jaded British journalist hero of “The Quiet American” say: “In five hundred years there may be no New York or London, but they’ll be growing paddy in these fields, they’ll be carrying their produce to the market on the long poles of wearing their pointed hats. The small boys will be sitting on their buffaloes.”

An even more egregious error is Broomfield’s decision to have one of the marines leading a young girl, a sole survivor, out of the charnel house by her hand, an utterly bogus “redemptive” note that smacks of the kind of Hollywood liberalism that made Paul Haggis’s “Crash” so insufferable.

If I had the time and the money, I’d try to write a documentary on Iraq–one that is so desperately needed. Nearly every movie that has come out, either fictional or documentary, has been thin on historical context. Basically, there is no equivalent to Peter Davis’s masterpiece on the Vietnam War, the 1974 “Hearts and Minds” documentary that can now be seen on Youtube.

I would start with the country’s origins, which involved the heavy hand of British colonialism. What an amazing rogue’s gallery, from the well-known buccaneer T.E. Lawrence to the much less well-known Gertrude Bell who drew the map from the Ottoman carcass that would include modern-day Iraq. Bell was an “Orientalist” who spoke Arabic and was trained as an archaeologist at Oxford. You can read her journals (and letters) at Newcastle University, including this excerpt from 9/29/1919. You will note that British imperialism had a handle on “divide and conquer” that has been handed down to their American successors. My guess is that the Americans will eventually be forced to leave just as they were-and the sooner the better.

Egypt should be an object lesson to us of how not to do things. I said I thought India was a still more striking one (e.g. Mr Sifton’s remark that the real difficulty under the new scheme will be how to deal with a British officer who rightly comes up against a native minister; if he is to be broken, as would seem inevitable, he should at least be allowed to retire on his full pension – this is a fine example of the extreme difficulty of relinquishing hold once we have taken hold too tight.) Gen. Clayton agreed but said that the fact that Egypt is all of one piece increases the formidableness of the problem. If India were not so much divided, Hindus against Islam, native princes against Nationalists, it would be a much graver matter, indeed if India had the homogeneous population of Egypt, we could not hold on at all.

Youtube trailer for movie

6 Comments »

  1. The motif of innocent civilians being caught between the pincers of an occupying army and a bloodthirsty insurgency is very old. During the Vietnam War, liberal journalists and politicians always saw the peasant as a victim of two armed forces while only wanting to live in peace. Graham Greene encapsulated this way of thinking when he had the jaded British journalist hero of “The Quiet American” say: “In five hundred years there may be no New York or London, but they’ll be growing paddy in these fields, they’ll be carrying their produce to the market on the long poles of wearing their pointed hats. The small boys will be sitting on their buffaloes.”
    It’s funny cause this motif is exactly how i feel. So what’s the reality then ?

    Comment by littlehorn — April 15, 2008 @ 10:32 pm

  2. I’m against all foreign occupation by principle *

    Comment by littlehorn — April 15, 2008 @ 10:34 pm

  3. Good story – too bad you don’t have a clue what you are talking about.

    Comment by Nat Helms — April 16, 2008 @ 11:49 am

  4. Interesting docudrama, sadly as you pointed Louis, Nick Broomfield fails to address several fundamental questions: why british and american forces are in Iraq, can there be a “just” invasion and occupation, what is a “correct” war behaviour? In portraying Iraqi people as victims stuck between a rock and a hard place he completely (intentionally?) fails to understand and represent the fact that Iraqi resistance is resistance of the Iraqi people against an imperialist colonizing force. But then this is common malady all good old liberals suffer from and this quite revealing is symptomatic of their ideological position. Sadly america is rife with these types.

    Comment by Avent — April 16, 2008 @ 1:15 pm

  5. Thanks for this review Louis. We had a showing at my University in London of this film a month ago which was very well attended and was the first time I had seen the film. I found it very moving and powerful, but also astonishingly enlightened for what is, in Britain at least, a mainstream movie.

    I did think the characters were rather more complex than you make out as opposed to a simple good v evil divide, we are shown the story of two Iraqi men who find themselves caught up in events and are just as confused in some regards as the soldiers. There is clearly no love loss between the main Iraqi character and the Islamists as he fears being shot for drinking too much. He ends up questioning planting the bomb as much as the soldiers end up questioning their actions. I enjoyed the portrayal of the complexities of the relationships within the Iraqi resistance and thought that the human aspect was very well done.

    Perhaps the scene where the soldier is leading the surviving girl out of the house is meant to depict actual events but I rather took as something which could be interpreted as the soldier himself recalling what he would have liked to have done – which is be the “good guy” – or something which if it did occur was dramatized in his mind as he listened to the court martial.

    Comment by twp77 — April 17, 2008 @ 9:00 am

  6. Interesting analysis, though I’d disagree with the line that Broomfield is trying to say that the Iraqi civilians are caught between two reactionary blocks, the resistance and the occupiers.

    I don’t think Broomfield says this at all, firstly the two people who plant the bomb, are made out to look like civilians themselves, (and in a poke at Islamophobia, not particularly Islamic, as one of the protagonists drinks alcohol), they are also made out to be victims of the occupation themselves who are drawn towards violence, because of the violence of the oppressor. They feel doubt after their bomb causes the soldiers to go on a rampage.

    It’s interesting that Broomfield decides to change ‘reality’ (what really happened) to suit what he is trying to say about the relationship between the violence of the oppressed and the violence of the oppressor, I don’t think by any means, then, he portrays the ‘insurgents’ as mirror images of the soldiers.

    It’s worth saying, you might not know this, that Broomfield changed ‘reality’ in Ghosts for his portrayal of Chinese cockle pickers on Morecambe Beach. While filming, the crew and the actors were subject of a racist attack by real English cockle pickers, who misinterpreted the film crew as being Chinese cockle pickers there to compete on ‘their’ territory. The crew filmed the attack and it became part of the film, and reason why the cockle pickers went further out to pick cockles, when in reality, there was no such racist attack.

    So Broomfield twisted reality in order to suit the argument that the deaths of the cockle pickers was related to the wider reality of racism in uk society and it’s realtionship to working as an illegal immigrant, just like he changes ‘reality’ in Battle of Haditha to suit what he is trying to argue, he shouldn’t be criticised for this.

    Comment by johnnyrook — April 21, 2008 @ 3:53 pm


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