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The War We Don’t Want to See

Generation Kill

a miniseries written and produced by David Simon and Ed Burns, based on the book by Evan Wright
HBO, DVD, $59.99

Baghdad ER

a film directed by Jon Alpert and Matthew O’Neill
HBO, DVD, $19.98

Section 60: Arlington National Cemetery

a film directed by Jon Alpert and Matthew O’Neill
HBO, DVD, $24.98

In late October, about a week before the presidential election, a young man named Kris Goldsmith, who had served two tours of duty in Iraq, was forced to leave a street fair in Bellmore, Long Island, where he was distributing literature from the group Iraq Veterans Against the War. In a “To Whom It May Concern” letter written after the event and circulated on the Internet, Goldsmith noted:

I was displaying the pictures [from The Military Times] of all the service members killed in Iraq and Afghanistan over the last few weeks. To my knowledge, The Military Times is the only publication that prints pictures of those fallen warriors, and my purpose was to help the people of Bellmore put a face on the numbers.

According to Goldsmith, he was threatened with bodily harm by street fair staff if he didn’t remove the photographs and leave.

One wonders what the citizens who hounded Kris Goldsmith, or the officials who have refused to let photographers record the parade of flag-draped coffins coming off the planes at Dover Air Force Base, or anyone who believes that acknowledging the human cost of war is subversive, would make of a textbook published this summer by the Office of the Surgeon General. War Surgery in Afghanistan and Iraq is a collection of case studies of actual trauma experienced by actual people, soldiers and civilians, some of them children. Its purpose, according to the editors, “is to provide precise supplemental material for military surgeons deploying or preparing to deploy to a combat theater.” It documents, in the uninflected language of medicine, their horrific injuries—“facial lacerations,” “penetrating rectal injury,” “gunshot wound with loss of the elbow,” “80% body burn,” and “umbrella effect of a landmine blast” among them.

This 28-year-old male sustained an injury to his right leg from a high-energy blast,” begins the chapter on below-the-knee amputation. “His clothing was saturated with blood. Removal of his combat boots revealed a significant, grossly contaminated, soft-tissue injury and a poorly perfused foot.” On subsequent pages, interspersed with teaching points, clinical implications, and suggested reading, are full-color photos of legs that have been pulverized and feet that have been pulped, of flesh that no longer resembles flesh, of bone that hangs off the trunk like snapped branches.

These pictures, which were taken by doctors in the field with personal digital cameras, were not intended for publication. Though in most instances they are gruesome, they are not prurient. Nor are they editorial. Unfiltered, they are instructive, not only to those who may someday find themselves working in a MASH unit, but also to those of us who, like it or not, send them there to do that work. The photos show wounds—“Figure 4. Fragment of human rib removed from right scrotum”; “Figure 1. Wound showing evisceration of the small intestine”—that have never been seen in this way before.

This, in part, is a consequence of the proliferation of cameras, computers, and easy uploads, which have brought the Iraq and Afghanistan conflicts into our homes directly, without the intercession of the commercial media. It is also the result of advances in battlefield medicine, which can deliver care more quickly and with more sophistication than ever before, and in body armor (when it is supplied), which has never been more effective. American soldiers wounded in Iraq and Afghanistan have a better chance of surviving than did their counterparts in Vietnam, the authors point out, and they have a better chance of surviving with more profound injuries.

Flipping through the coffee-table-size pages and reading the accounts of how a twenty-two-year-old soldier sitting in a Humvee had a hole drilled through his forehead by IED shrapnel, or “a 23-year-old male suffered severe burns during munitions disposal activities [and was] found on fire after extricating himself from his burning vehicle,” what you get is the war without the war story. Freed from those conventions—from the demands of plot, from the typically false dichotomy between good guys and bad guys, and unburdened of ambiguity, of bravado, of cant, there is only one thing in sight, and that is consequence. Here is what we’re really talking about when we talk about RPGs and AK-47s and TBIs and the rest of the alphabet soup tepidly served up in the press. Here is “collateral damage.” The brutal honesty of these cases demands a brutally honest response. It is no wonder that the military censors tried hard to keep this book from commercial release.

Sunt lacrimae rerum et mentem mortalia tangunt,” reads the epitaph from Virgil that the authors, all army medical officers, have placed above a photograph of a weeping soldier covering his eyes with his fingers. “These are the tears of things and our mortality cuts to the heart,” Aeneas says while looking at a depiction of the Trojan War, which shows the deaths of his comrades. For our current wars, the ones in Iraq and Afghanistan, it has been a question whether mortality cuts to the heart. When, last March, the death toll of American soldiers in Iraq surpassed four thousand, a milestone whose significance Vice President Cheney coldly dismissed by pointing out that each of them had volunteered for service, he might have been speaking for the majority of Americans. While polls have consistently shown that about two thirds of the country does not support the war in Iraq, this sentiment never coalesced into an active opposition.

This is a conflict that, to be sure, the government has tried to keep us from seeing. But truth be told, most of us are just as happy not to look. As James Rocchi asked the readers of the Huffington Post this spring, in an article entitled “Losing the Battle for Box Office,” “If you haven’t been asked to pay for a war with money or blood, why would you pay at the box office for the simulation of it?” It’s almost the right question—in fact we’re spending upward of $341 million a day to “prosecute” the war. And as War Surgery suggests, these are only the current costs.

Generation Kill, the seven-part HBO miniseries about the invasion of Iraq in 2003, which came out around the same time that War Surgery was offered for sale to the nonmedical public, was supposed to be different. For one thing, it was on cable television so the price of admission had been paid in advance. For another, it was adapted by David Simon and Ed Burns, who wrote and produced The Wire, from the best- selling book of the same name by the journalist Evan Wright. Like that series, this one was meant to be edgy and unflinching and hip. It would cut through the fog of war for us.

During the invasion, when Wright was sending to Rolling Stone the dispatches that became the book that became the Generation Kill miniseries, he was embedded with the Marines’ First Reconnaissance Battalion, more usually called First Recon. Recon Marines are a special operations unit, the Marine counterpart to the better-known Army Rangers and Navy SEALs. Recon Marines, the toughest of the tough, go through extensive preparation—sniper school and scuba school and jumping school and psychological resistance school, among others, in addition to extreme physical training. When they are deployed, it is typically as scouts, operating behind enemy lines, working as the advance team for a larger force. Their motto is “swift, silent, deadly.”

In March 2003, moving behind enemy lines was precisely not the job with which First Recon was “tasked.” Instead, they were “the tip of the spear,” leading the American assault in open, unarmored vehicles, often in the light of day, from Kuwait into southern Iraq, through Nasiriyah to al-Kut, and then north to Baqubah and down into Baghdad, some of the most dangerous territory in the country. As Wright explains it, First Recon was used as the US military’s “shock troops” in Iraq, pushing ahead of other Marines and the slow-moving Army, throwing the Iraqis off-guard, racing up to Baghdad to “mission accomplished.”

In so doing, they were—unbeknownst to them—also being deployed to demonstrate the effectiveness of “maneuver warfare,” Donald Rumsfeld’s own kind of swift, silent, and deadly fighting force, so stripped down in numbers and equipment as be to be nearly naked. As Lt. Nathaniel Fick, a platoon leader in First Recon’s Bravo Company, tells Wright, in the Marines “it’s mission accomplishment first, troop welfare second.” What he and his men suspect, and what became clearer in the months and years afterward, is that pushing through at breakneck speed without establishing security behind them was precisely how a “successful” invasion led to a bloody war.

This is not a subtle point, but it’s a crucial one for understanding, some $600 billion later, one of the ways the military strategists got it wrong. Wright points this out in the book Generation Kill, but it’s missing in the movie since First Recon is never told what they’re doing or why, and their ignorance is our ignorance. The Marines get in their rattletrap Humvees and, for the better part of forty days, drive. But for the terrain, the crummy electronics, the guns, and the occasional need to use them, First Recon could be freshmen on a spring-break road trip. Evan Wright, so articulate in the book, sits mutely in the back seat, wearing a look of bemused confusion.

They drive along, mile after mile, shouting out insults to men in “man pajamas” and eating junk food and singing off-key, and it gets so tedious for the viewer as well as for the Marines that one begins to appreciate the whiny desire of the youngest of them, nineteen-year-old James Trombley, to “get some.” His first “kill” comes during a skirmish, and he’s as happy as a boy who has bagged his first deer. Then the rules of engagement change, and the higher-ups declare that all Iraqis are to be considered hostile, meaning that everyone is fair game, no matter if they’re firing a gun or not, no matter if they’re carrying a weapon or not, no matter if they’re men or women or children or dogs. It’s under these rules that Trombley pulls the trigger on two camel-herders walking in the distance, potential bad guys who turn out, in fact, to be unarmed boys. Later, this will earn him the nickname “Whopper,” because Whoppers are sold at Burger King and the initials for Burger King, B.K., are the same as those for “baby killer.” It’s a term of endearment.

In War Surgery in Afghanistan and Iraq, the authors address the challenge of treating civilians, particularly those suffering from pediatric injuries, and go so far as to present three cases of youngsters who have been shot or wounded by exploding ordnance, some American, some not. “Battlefield casualties immediately include noncombatant civilians, including women and children,” they write,

along with host national allies and enemy combatants. All of these individuals are entitled to medical and surgical care. Although all combat casualties are initially resuscitated and stabilized in the immediately available deployed medical facilities, if further definitive care is necessary, US military casualties are evacuated out of theater and rapidly moved along a chain of ever-escalating levels of medical capability…. [The] shortcomings of deployed military medical facilities were especially poignant for pediatric casualties. Both experience and equipment were wanting in the care of these injured children.

This becomes clear after Trombley shoots the boys. One is still alive but gravely injured, delivered to the Marines by his hysterical mother, who begs them to do something. The unit medic does what he can, which is not very much. He asks for the boy to be evacuated to an actual field hospital, the only place where he’ll have a fighting chance. The commanding officer, the one who changed the rules of engagement in the first place, turns him down—not enough time, he says; remember, they’re in a hurry—and not enough resources. He relents eventually, but it takes a near mutiny. It’s clear that in the future, civilian injuries will have no claim on his mission.

One of the more humanizing ironies of American policy, as that medic and his commanding officer knew, is that when “bad guys” are brought to American battlefield hospitals they are not turned away; the person who launched the rocket-propelled grenade can be in the bed next to the person he blew up, getting the same level of care. That was not the most shocking thing about Jon Alpert and Matt O’Neill’s 2006 HBO documentary Baghdad ER, or the most moving, but it served to highlight the conflicting missions embedded in the overarching goal of regime change, which are also on display in Generation Kill.

The Alpert and O’Neill film, which followed events at the 86th Combat Support Hospital in Iraq for two months in 2005, is a useful companion to War Surgery in Afghanistan and Iraq. Mindful of just how much horror an uninitiated viewer could absorb, Alpert and O’Neill left plenty on the cutting-room floor. Even so, mangled arms and legs are sawed like logs and dropped in the trash, an eyeball is picked clean of debris and stitched like a baseball, skin is burned, literally, to a crisp. You get a sense of the conditions in which the doctors who assembled War Surgery in Afghanistan and Iraq and the ones who will find the book most useful work, and why a field guide to what they might encounter there will be invaluable.

By releasing the book to the public at large, though, it becomes something else, too, an addition to the documentary bookshelf. While the book is in no way artful, it trades on the documentary paradox: to have a point of view, have no point of view. As the filmmakers pointed out when Baghdad ER was released, “you’ll never find anyone who hates war more than a war surgeon.” Though this turns out to be a surprisingly apolitical sentiment, the military censors knew early on, and the filmmakers did too, that reality trumps ideology in affecting how people think.

Death, the real enemy to the medical personnel at the Baghdad ER, gets very little airtime in Alpert and O’Neill’s film, with one exception. A young Marine is brought to the hospital after an IED has gone off next to his vehicle. He is unconscious, with shrapnel throughout his body. It is the day after his twenty-first birthday, and he has a lot of fight in him, but not, finally, enough to overcome his injuries. He dies on camera.

Five months later, the filmmakers located the Marine’s mother, Paula Zwillinger, and invited her to look at all the footage they had shot of her son Bobby’s last hours. It turned out to be a fortuitous meeting, not only for Zwillinger, who said that seeing her son alive again, and knowing how he died, gave her a sense of closure, but for Alpert and O’Neill. It was she who led them to their next film, which has just been released, about what has been called “the saddest acre in America.”

Section 60 in Arlington National Cemetery is where about 10 percent of the casualties from the Iraq and Afghanistan wars are buried. It seems a fitting place for Alpert and O’Neill, who might be the most unobtrusive filmmakers working today, to end up, too. They spent months in the cemetery—we see the seasons change—observing the comings and goings of family and friends who have a profound appreciation of the consequences of war and, as Paula Zwillinger says, little else “to hold on to but a headstone.”

And they do hold on, and caress the names on those headstones with their fingers as if they were animate, and bring lawn chairs and blankets and camp out for the day to be near their loved ones, and tell stories, and cry and leave offerings and come to terms. As with their earlier films, Alpert and O’Neill do not insert themselves but act, rather, as a conduit, letting us in on a world that is both of our making and typically out of sight. They ask little of the audience—only to look—and when that seems hard, it reinforces the challenges faced by the people who do not have the option of turning off the TV or covering their eyes or fast-forwarding through the tough parts.

It’s safe to say that Dexter Filkins, who has been reporting on the war on terror since before it had a name—before, even, the events of September 11, 2001—first for the Los Angeles Times and now for The New York Times, could not, and would not, close his eyes either. Filkins, an insanely intrepid reporter and adrenaline junky, which is to say a quintessential war correspondent, is more committed to getting the story than to his own safety or comfort. (Contrast his constant forays outside the Green Zone to meet Iraqis in their homes and insurgents in their hidey-holes to the reporters for the BBC, who at one point handed out a couple of video cameras to Iraqi citizens so that they did not have to venture outside their guarded compound.)

Filkins was in Afghanistan during the rise of the Taliban—indeed his new book, The Forever War, opens, after a prologue, with what has become the iconic image of Taliban ruthlessness, a public dismembering of a man in the big Kabul soccer stadium as Filkins watched from the bleachers:

The green hoods appeared busy, and one of them stood up. He held the man’s severed right hand in the air, displaying it for the crowd. He was holding it up by its middle finger, moving in a semicircle so everyone could see…. He tossed the hand into the grass and gave a little shrug.

I couldn’t tell if the pickpocket had been given any sort of anesthesia. He wasn’t screaming. His eyes were open very wide, and as the men with the hoods lifted him back into the bed of the Hi-Lux, he stared at the stump of his hand. I took notes the whole time.

He took notes. In fact, in six years of reporting, Filkins filled more than five hundred notebooks with scenes like this, and when it came time to make them into a book, they didn’t come together in a single, chronologically driven or argument-driven narrative. The Forever War is a book of moments, some of them lasting days, like the battle of Fallujah, some them fleeting—a piece of intestine floating in a puddle near the World Trade Center on September 11—all of them closely observed. Filkins practices a kind of literary pointillism, and when the dots are connected what you get is context, the very thing that has been missing from most of the other first-person accounts of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, even the very good ones like Wright’s.

In The Forever War you see how the two wars are connected by the jihadists on the ground. You understand that the apparent return to normalcy after the surge and the Sunni Awakening is not an anomaly, how the legacy of the first Gulf war plays out in the second, and how a twisted despot such as Saddam Hussein rules the soul of a nation and of individuals even after he has been killed. Filkins is a chronicler, not an analyst, but by virtue of where he’s been and what he’s seen and to whom he’s talked, he has written what amounts to a picaresque history of the war on terror. This is the book that tells what it’s like to be there on the ground, not only for the young American soldiers but for the Iraqis, Sunni and Shite, for doctors, teachers, looters, torturers, and tortured—every demographic, really—and in Afghanistan for the Northern Alliance and the Taliban and their prisoners alike, every one of them shown in three dimensions. Heroism, bravery, folly, alienation, hopefulness, cruelty, despair—not one group has a monopoly on any of these. This is not moral relativism, it’s human nature. Filkins has an unsettling ability to humanize war.

When The Forever War came out, comparisons to Michael Herr’s Vietnam tour de force, Dispatches, were immediate. Both are about unpopular wars run by unpopular presidents. Both are episodic, ironic, and stylish, though Filkins’s writing is cooler and less trippy. He also has a longer memory than Herr. What almost no one pointed out, though, is that Filkins took his title from Joe Haldeman’s 1974 sci-fi classic. In that Forever War there are no Taliban, no insurgents, no Marines in night-vision gear breaking down doors, but there is an enduring armed conflict with an alien culture that has a strange and disturbing consequence for its veterans: when they return home from war, it’s not to their own era, but to one far in the future.

Haldeman served in Vietnam. For veterans of that war, who returned to a contemptuous public, the metaphor of displacement and estrangement is obvious and apt. For veterans of the terror wars, who—despite the best efforts of Dexter Filkins, Jon Alpert and Matt O’Neill, and the doctor-authors of War Surgery in Afghanistan and Iraq—have come home to a public for whom having a volunteer military means not only the choice not to serve but the choice not to pay attention to those who do, it is, sadly, too.

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