The lies of Hiroshima live on, props in the war crimes of the 20th century
The 1945 attack was murder on an epic scale. In its victims’ names, we must not allow a nuclear repeat in the Middle East
By John Pilger
When I first went to Hiroshima in 1967, the shadow on the steps was still there. It was an almost perfect impression of a human being at ease: legs splayed, back bent, one hand by her side as she sat waiting for a bank to open. At a quarter past eight on the morning of August 6, 1945, she and her silhouette were burned into the granite. I stared at the shadow for an hour or more, then walked down to the river and met a man called Yukio, whose chest was still etched with the pattern of the shirt he was wearing when the atomic bomb was dropped.
He and his family still lived in a shack thrown up in the dust of an atomic desert. He described a huge flash over the city, “a bluish light, something like an electrical short”, after which wind blew like a tornado and black rain fell. “I was thrown on the ground and noticed only the stalks of my flowers were left. Everything was still and quiet, and when I got up, there were people naked, not saying anything. Some of them had no skin or hair. I was certain I was dead.” Nine years later, when I returned to look for him, he was dead from leukaemia.
In the immediate aftermath of the bomb, the allied occupation authorities banned all mention of radiation poisoning and insisted that people had been killed or injured only by the bomb’s blast. It was the first big lie. “No radioactivity in Hiroshima ruin” said the front page of the New York Times, a classic of disinformation and journalistic abdication, which the Australian reporter Wilfred Burchett put right with his scoop of the century. “I write this as a warning to the world,” reported Burchett in the Daily Express, having reached Hiroshima after a perilous journey, the first correspondent to dare. He described hospital wards filled with people with no visible injuries but who were dying from what he called “an atomic plague”. For telling this truth, his press accreditation was withdrawn, he was pilloried and smeared – and vindicated.
The atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki was a criminal act on an epic scale. It was premeditated mass murder that unleashed a weapon of intrinsic criminality. For this reason its apologists have sought refuge in the mythology of the ultimate “good war”, whose “ethical bath”, as Richard Drayton called it, has allowed the west not only to expiate its bloody imperial past but to promote 60 years of rapacious war, always beneath the shadow of The Bomb.
The most enduring lie is that the atomic bomb was dropped to end the war in the Pacific and save lives. “Even without the atomic bombing attacks,” concluded the United States Strategic Bombing Survey of 1946, “air supremacy over Japan could have exerted sufficient pressure to bring about unconditional surrender and obviate the need for invasion. Based on a detailed investigation of all the facts, and supported by the testimony of the surviving Japanese leaders involved, it is the Survey’s opinion that … Japan would have surrendered even if the atomic bombs had not been dropped, even if Russia had not entered the war and even if no invasion had been planned or contemplated.”
The National Archives in Washington contain US government documents that chart Japanese peace overtures as early as 1943. None was pursued. A cable sent on May 5, 1945 by the German ambassador in Tokyo and intercepted by the US dispels any doubt that the Japanese were desperate to sue for peace, including “capitulation even if the terms were hard”. Instead, the US secretary of war, Henry Stimson, told President Truman he was “fearful” that the US air force would have Japan so “bombed out” that the new weapon would not be able “to show its strength”.
He later admitted that “no effort was made, and none was seriously considered, to achieve surrender merely in order not to have to use the bomb”. His foreign policy colleagues were eager “to browbeat the Russians with the bomb held rather ostentatiously on our hip”. General Leslie Groves, director of the Manhattan Project that made the bomb, testified: “There was never any illusion on my part that Russia was our enemy, and that the project was conducted on that basis.” The day after Hiroshima was obliterated, President Truman voiced his satisfaction with the “overwhelming success” of “the experiment”.
Since 1945, the United States is believed to have been on the brink of using nuclear weapons at least three times. In waging their bogus “war on terror”, the present governments in Washington and London have declared they are prepared to make “pre-emptive” nuclear strikes against non-nuclear states. With each stroke toward the midnight of a nuclear Armageddon, the lies of justification grow more outrageous. Iran is the current “threat”. But Iran has no nuclear weapons and the disinformation that it is planning a nuclear arsenal comes largely from a discredited CIA-sponsored Iranian opposition group, the MEK – just as the lies about Saddam Hussein’s weapons of mass destruction originated with the Iraqi National Congress, set up by Washington.
The role of western journalism in erecting this straw man is critical. That America’s Defence Intelligence Estimate says “with high confidence” that Iran gave up its nuclear weapons programme in 2003 has been consigned to the memory hole. That Iran’s president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad never threatened to “wipe Israel off the map” is of no interest. But such has been the mantra of this media “fact” that in his recent, obsequious performance before the Israeli parliament, Gordon Brown alluded to it as he threatened Iran, yet again.
This progression of lies has brought us to one of the most dangerous nuclear crises since 1945, because the real threat remains almost unmentionable in western establishment circles and therefore in the media. There is only one rampant nuclear power in the Middle East and that is Israel. The heroic Mordechai Vanunu tried to warn the world in 1986 when he smuggled out evidence that Israel was building as many as 200 nuclear warheads. In defiance of UN resolutions, Israel is today clearly itching to attack Iran, fearful that a new American administration might, just might, conduct genuine negotiations with a nation the west has defiled since Britain and America overthrew Iranian democracy in 1953.
In the New York Times on July 18, the Israeli historian Benny Morris, once considered a liberal and now a consultant to his country’s political and military establishment, threatened “an Iran turned into a nuclear wasteland”. This would be mass murder. For a Jew, the irony cries out.
The question begs: are the rest of us to be mere bystanders, claiming, as good Germans did, that “we did not know”? Do we hide ever more behind what Richard Falk has called “a self-righteous, one-way, legal/moral screen [with] positive images of western values and innocence portrayed as threatened, validating a campaign of unrestricted violence”? Catching war criminals is fashionable again. Radovan Karadzic stands in the dock, but Sharon and Olmert, Bush and Blair do not. Why not? The memory of Hiroshima requires an answer.
This speech was given by Author and Historian William Blum during the “Building A New World” conference at Radford University, Virginia, May 23, 2008.
I like to ask the question: What does US foreign policy have in common with Mae West, the Hollywood sexpot of the 1940s? The story is told of a visitor to her mansion, who looked around and said: “My goodness, what a beautiful home you have.” And Mae West replied: “Goodness has nothing to do with it.”
My assignment here today, as I understand it, is to enlighten you all on how to quickly end the war in Iraq. And how to prevent the United States from attacking Iran. Or Venezuela, Cuba, Ecuador and Bolivia. In short, how to put an end to the American empire.
Also, how to impeach Bush and Cheney.
And, while I’m at it, maybe, how to end poverty once and for all, how to save the environment, and how to legalize marijuana.
Well, good luck to us all.
Actually, as fanciful as all that sounds, I think that if the radical left had abundant access to the mass media, for a year or so, we could do it. It wouldn’t even have to be sole access, just as much time on radio and TV networks as the conservatives and NPR-type centrists and liberals have.
As some of you may recall, two years ago Osama bin Laden, in one of his audio messages, recommended that Americans should read my book Rogue State. Within hours I was swamped by the media and soon appeared on many of the leading TV news shows, dozens of radio programs, and a long profile in the Washington Post. In the previous 10 years I had sent in dozens of letters to the Post mainly commenting on their less-than-ideal coverage of US foreign policy. Not one was printed. Now my photo was on page one.
A few people who called into the TV and radio programs I was on attacked me as if I and bin Laden were friends and I had asked him for the endorsement. I had to point out that he and I were not really friends; in fact, I hadn’t spoken to him in months.
Some of the media hosts wanted me to say that I was repulsed by bin Laden’s “endorsement” . But I did not say I was repulsed, because I wasn’t. What I said was: “There are two elements, involved here: On the one hand, I totally despise any kind of religious fundamentalism and the societies spawned by such, like the Taliban in Afghanistan. On the other hand, I’m a member of a movement which has the very ambitious goal of slowing down, if not stopping, the American Empire, to keep it from continuing to go round the world doing things like bombings, invasions, overthrowing governments, and torture.
To have any success, we need to reach the American people with our message. And to reach the American people we need to have access to the mass media. What has just happened has given me the opportunity to reach millions of people I would otherwise never reach. Why should I not be glad about that? How could I let such an opportunity go to waste?”
But many, perhaps most, of those who called in were not hostile. During a 45-minute interview on C-Span and on some radio programs, several people called in to say how delighted they were to hear views expressed that they had never heard before on that station, or had never heard anywhere. I received more than 1000 emails from people I had never been in contact with before, most of which were supportive. I estimate that I sold about 20,000 copies of my book because of my increased exposure.
In summary, I think that there’s a very large audience of Americans out there just waiting for us to reach them. Many of them very much suspect that there are things seriously wrong with what the media, the White House, and the Pentagon tell them, but they don’t know enough to really be sure or to try to influence others. And they’re weighed down by the myths, the myths surrounding US foreign policy. I’ve gotten quite a few emails from people who tell me about friends and family who simply refuse to be swayed by the facts in my books or other sources. No matter how much these people are shown that what they believe is fallacious, they still refuse to reconsider their views. They say that the author must be quoting out of context or they simply don’t care what the argument is.
Now why is that? Are these people just stupid? I think a better answer is that they have certain preconceptions; consciously or unconsciously, they have certain basic beliefs about US foreign policy, and if you don’t deal with those basic beliefs you’ll be talking to a stone wall. Here are what I think are eight of those basic beliefs, or they can as well be called “myths”:
(1) US foreign policy “means well”. American leaders may make mistakes, they may blunder, they may lie, they may even on the odd occasion cause more harm than good, but they do mean well. Their intentions are honorable, if not divinely inspired. Of that most Americans are certain. They genuinely wonder why the rest of the world can’t see how benevolent and self-sacrificing America has been.
The idea that the United States is seeking to dominate the world, and exploit it economically, and is prepared to use any means necessary, is not something that’s easy for most Americans to swallow. They see our leaders on TV and their photos in the press, they see them smiling or laughing, telling jokes; see them with their families, hear them speak of God and love, of peace and law, of democracy and freedom, of human rights and justice and even baseball … How can such people be called immoral or war criminals?
They have names like George and Dick and Donald, not a single Mohammed or Abdullah in the bunch. And they speak English. Well, George almost does. People named Mohammed or Abdullah cut off an arm or a leg as punishment for theft. We know that that’s horrible. We’re too civilized for that. But we don’t consider that people named George and Dick and Donald drop millions of cluster bombs on cities and villages, and the many unexploded ones become land mines, and before very long a child picks one up or steps on one of them and loses an arm or leg, sometimes worse.
I like to ask the question: What does US foreign policy have in common with Mae West, the Hollywood sexpot of the 1940s? The story is told of a visitor to her mansion, who looked around and said: “My goodness, what a beautiful home you have.” And Mae West replied: “Goodness has nothing to do with it.”
That’s one of the important points you have to make about US foreign policy — goodness has nothing to do with it.
If I were to write a book called The American Empire for Dummies, page one would say: Don’t ever look for the moral factor. US foreign policy has no moral factor built into its DNA. Clear your mind of that baggage which only gets in the way of seeing beyond the clichés and the platitudes they feed us all.
So when American officials state or imply benevolent motivations behind their foreign policy, we should not let them get away with claiming such intentions. Supporters of US policies have that rationale profoundly embedded in their thinking, and I find it very useful in discussions with such people to raise moral questions about the government’s motivations. These people are not used to hearing such an argument. The media almost never mentions it. It’s almost disorienting for Americans. Or I sometimes ask them what the United States would have to do abroad to lose their support? What for them would be too much? Try that.
(2) The United States is really concerned with this thing called “democracy”. Even though in the past 60 years, the US has attempted to overthrow literally dozens of democratically- elected governments, sometimes successfully, sometimes not, and grossly interfered in as many democratic elections in every corner of the world. Moreover, it would be difficult to name a brutal dictatorship of the second half of the 20th century that was not supported by the United States. Not just supported, but put into power, and kept in power, against the wishes of the population.
The question is: What do the Busheviks mean by “democracy”?
Well, the first thing they have in mind is making sure the country in question is hospitable to corporate globalization and American military bases; and if this means forcing a regime change, so be it. The last thing they have in mind is any kind of economic democracy, the closing of the gap between the desperate poor and those for whom too much is not enough.
(3) Anti-American sentiment in the Middle East comes from hatred of our alleged freedom and democracy, or our wealth, or our secular government, or our culture. George W. has declared this many times. But polls taken in many Middle East countries in recent years, by respected international polling organizations, show again and again that the great majority of those people really admire American society.
There’s no clash of civilizations. It’s much simpler. What bothers them about the United States are the decades of appalling things done to their homelands by US foreign policy. That’s what motivates anti-American terrorists. It’s not the sex in American films and TV; it’s the American bombs dropping on their homes and schools. It’s not the alcohol and the miniskirts. It’s the American invasions and occupations; American torture; support of Middle East dictators; unmitigated support of Israel.
It works the same all over the world. In the period of the 1950s to the 1980s in Latin America, in response to a long succession of Washington’s awful policies, there were countless acts of terrorism against US diplomatic and military targets as well as the offices of US corporations. No one likes being invaded or bombed or tortured or having their government overthrown by a foreign power. Why should there be any doubt about this? But Americans have to be reminded of it.
I don’t think, by the way, that poverty plays much of a role in creating terrorists. The 9-11 hijackers, or alleged hijackers, were not a bunch of poor peasants; they were largely middle and upper class, and educated. Bin Laden himself is, or was, a millionaire. So we shouldn’t confuse terrorism with revolution.
(4) The United States has been pursuing a War on Terror. But the fact is the US is not actually against terrorism per se, they’re against only those terrorists who are not allies of the American empire. For example, there is a lengthy and infamous history of Washington’s support for numerous anti-Castro terrorists, even when their terrorist acts were committed in the United States.
At this moment, Luis Posada Carriles remains protected by the US government in Florida, though he masterminded the blowing up of a Cuban airplane that killed 73 people. Venezuela, a key location in this murder plot, has asked Washington to return Posada to Caracas. But the US has refused. He’s but one of hundreds of anti-Castro terrorists who’ve been given haven in the United States over the years along with many other terrorists from Chile, Guatemala, El Salvador, and other countries.
The United States has also provided support of terrorists in Kosovo, Bosnia, Iran, Iraq, Chechnya, Afghanistan, Pakistan, and elsewhere, including those with known connections to al Qaeda. All to further foreign policy goals more important than fighting terrorism. What’s happened is that the War on Terror has served as a cover for the expansion of the empire.
Supporters of the War on Terror tell us that it’s been a success because there hasn’t been a terrorist attack in the US in the six -plus years since 9-11. Well, there wasn’t a terrorist attack in the US in the six-plus years before 9-11 either. So what does that prove? More importantly, since the first American bombs fell on Afghanistan in October 2001 there have been scores of terrorist attacks against American institutions in the Middle East, South Asia and the Pacific — military, civilian, Christian, and other targets associated with the United States, including two very major attacks in Indonesia with large loss of life.
But the worst failure of the War on Terror is that American actions in Iraq and Afghanistan, including all the torture, have probably created thousands of new anti-American terrorists. We’ll be hearing from them for a terribly long time.
(5) If Saddam Hussein had in fact possessed all the terrible weapons the US claimed he had, the invasion and occupation of Iraq would then have been justified. Of the numerous lies we’ve been told about the war in Iraq, this is the biggest one, this is the most insidious, the necessary foundation for all the other lies. Think about it — What possible reason could Saddam Hussein have had for attacking the United States or Israel other than an irresistible desire for mass national suicide? Because that’s what would have followed an Iraqi attack on the US or Israel — if not a nuclear devastation of Iraq, then a non-nuclear devastation of Iraq.
But if in fact Iraq was not a threat to attack the US or Israel, then all we’ve been told about the war, before it began, and afterwards, is totally meaningless; all the accusations and discussions about whether the intelligence was right or wrong about this or that, or whether the Democrats also believed the lies, all meaningless.
And keep in mind, the same question applies to Iran: What possible reason could Iran have for attacking the United States or Israel other than an irresistible desire for mass national suicide? Of course, what worries Tel Aviv and Washington is not so much the danger of such an attack, but the fact that some day Israel might not be the only nuclear power in the Middle East, a serious loss of their ability to dominate.
Sometimes, when I have a discussion with a person who supports the war in Iraq, and the person has no other argument left to defend US policy there he may say something like: “Well, just tell me one thing, are you glad that Saddam Hussein was overthrown?”
And I say “No”.
And he says “No?”
And I say: Tell me, if you went into surgery to correct a knee problem and the surgeon mistakenly amputated your entire leg, what would you think if someone asked you afterward: Well, aren’t you glad that you no longer have a knee problem? It’s the same with the Iraqi people. They no longer have a Saddam Hussein problem. In general, the great majority of Iraqis had a much better life under Saddam Hussein than they’ve had under US occupation. That’s been confirmed again and again.
(6) There are many who believe that invading and occupying Iraq has been a horrible mistake, but that doing the same in Afghanistan has been justified. Afghanistan has become “the good war”. It was to revenge the deaths of September 11, 2001, was it not? Of course — in a rational world — revenge should be taken against those responsible for what happened on that infamous date. But of the tens of thousands of people killed by the US and its allies in Afghanistan the past six-plus years, how many, can it be said, had anything to do with the events of September 11? My rough estimate is … none. So what kind of revenge is that?
Yes, Osama bin Laden had been living in Afghanistan and that’s where the attack had been partially planned. But consider … If Timothy McVeigh, who carried out the terrible bombing of the federal building in Oklahoma City in 1995, had not been quickly caught, would the government have bombed the state of Michigan or any of the other places McVeigh had called home and where he had planned his attack?
Whatever one thinks of the appalling society the Taliban created, they had not really been associated with terrorist acts, and the masses of Taliban supporters shouldn’t have been held responsible if their leader, Mohammed Omar, one person, allowed foreign terrorists into the country, any more than I would want to be held responsible for all the Cuban terrorists in Miami. And most of the foreigners had probably come to Afghanistan in the 1990s to help the Taliban in their civil war — a religious mission for them — nothing the US government should have been concerned about. And remember, Mohammed Omar offered to turn bin Laden over to the United States if Washington presented proof of bin Laden’s involvement in 9-11. The United States did not accept the offer.
(7) In the Cold War, the United States defeated what was known as the International Communist Conspiracy. The legacy of the Cold War is still with us; it keeps coming up, often used by conservatives in one way or another as an argument in support of the War on Terror.
Let me take you back a bit now. If you think what you have now is government lying and deceit, let me tell you that in my day, during the cold war, the big lie, the big huge lie they pounded into our heads from childhood on was that there was something out there called The International Communist Conspiracy, headquarters in Moscow, and active in every country of the world, looking to subvert everything that was decent and holy, looking to enslave us all. That’s what they taught us, in our schools, our churches, on radio, TV, newspapers, in our comic books — The Communist Menace, the red menace, more dangerous than al Qaeda is presented to us today.
The Communist Menace was international, you couldn’t escape it. And almost every American believed this message unquestioningly. I was a good, loyal anti-communist until I was past the age of 30. In fact, in the 1960s I was working at the State Department planning on becoming a foreign service officer so I could join the battle against communism, until a thing called Vietnam came along and changed my mind, and my life.
It was all a con game. There was never any such animal as The International Communist Conspiracy. What there was, was people all over the Third World fighting for economic and political changes which didn’t coincide with the needs of the American power elite, and so the US moved to crush those governments and those movements, even though the Soviet Union was playing hardly any role at all in those scenarios.
Washington officials of course couldn’t say that they were intervening somewhere to block social change, so they called it fighting communism, fighting a communist conspiracy, and of course fighting for freedom and democracy. Just like now the White House can’t say that it invaded Iraq to expand the empire, or for the oil, or for the corporations, or for Israel, so it says it’s fighting terrorism.
Remember: The cold war ended in 1991 … the International Communist Conspiracy was no more … no more red threat … and nothing changed in American foreign policy. Since that time the US has been intervening, bombing, and overthrowing governments just as often as during the cold war. What does that tell you? It tells me that the so-called “communist threat” was just a ploy, an excuse for American imperialism.
Keep this in mind:
Following its bombing of Iraq in 1991 — after the cold war was ended — the United States wound up with military bases in Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Bahrain, Qatar, Oman and the United Arab Emirates.
Following its bombing of Yugoslavia in 1999, the United States wound up with military bases in Kosovo, Albania, Bulgaria, Macedonia, Hungary, Bosnia and Croatia.
Following its bombing of Afghanistan in 2001-2, the United States wound up with military bases in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan, Georgia, Yemen and Djibouti.
Following its bombing and invasion of Iraq in 2003, the United States wound up with Iraq.
This is not very subtle foreign policy. It’s certainly not covert. The men who run the American Empire are not easily embarrassed.
And that’s the way the empire grows — a base in every region, ready to be mobilized to put down any threat to imperial rule, real or imagined. 63 years after World War II ended, the United States still has major bases in Germany and Japan; 55 years after the end of the Korean War, tens of thousands of American armed forces continue to be stationed in South Korea.
The last myth I’d like to mention has to do with the media, and it affects the political views of Americans as much as any of the previously mentioned myths. It’s the idea that conservatives and liberals are ideological polar opposites. In actuality, conservatives, especially of the neo- kind, are far to the right on the political spectrum, while liberals are ever so slightly to the left of center. Yet, we are led to believe that a radio or TV talk show on foreign policy with a conservative and a liberal is offering a “balanced” point of view.
But a more appropriate balance to a neo-conservative would be a left-wing radical or progressive. American liberals are typically closer to conservatives on foreign policy than they are to these groups on the left, and the educational value of such supposedly balanced media can be more harmful than beneficial as far as seeing through the empire’s actions and motives. The listener thinks he’s getting more or less a full range of opinion on the topic and doesn’t realize that there’s a whole world outside the narrow box he’s being placed in.
The fundamental political difference between liberalism and Marxism is that liberalism sees a problem — such as America’s role as the world’s bully — simply as bad policy, while the Marxist sees it as something that flows out logically from US economic and military interests.
When a liberal sees a beggar, he says the system isn’t working. When a Marxist sees a beggar, he says the system is working.
Ideology is a very important concept and I think that most people are rather confused by it, which is due in no small measure to the fact that the media are confused by it, or they at least pretend to be confused. The official ideology of the American media is that they don’t have any ideology.
So all this I hope is ammunition you can use in trying to win over new recruits for the cause. And don’t be shy about raising such points even when “preaching to the choir” or “preaching to the converted”. That’s what speakers and writers are often scoffed at for doing — saying the same old thing to the same old people, just spinning their wheels. That’s what some would say I’m doing at this very moment. You are part of the choir, are you not?
But long experience as speaker, writer and activist in the area of foreign policy tells me it just ain’t so. From the questions and comments I often get from my audiences, in person and via email, and from other people’s audiences as well, I can plainly see that there are numerous significant information gaps and misconceptions in the choir’s thinking, often leaving them unable to see through the newest government lie or propaganda scheme. They’re unknowing or forgetful of what happened in the past that illuminates the present. Or they may know the facts but are unable to apply them at the appropriate moment. Or they’re vulnerable to being confused by the next person who comes along with a specious argument that opposes what they currently believe, or think they believe. In short, the choir needs to be frequently reminded and enlightened.
So that’s your assignment. Go out there and educate, and agitate, and subvert. There’s no magical tactic, only persistence. As the Quakers are fond of saying: If not now, when? If not here, where? If not you, who?
I thank you very much.
FAIR Action Alert
Winter Soldier Blackout
Media still freezing out anti-war veterans
In March, dozens of veterans of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars gathered in Maryland to offer their firsthand accounts of what they had seen-and in some cases done-in both war zones. The dramatic Winter Soldier hearings were well-covered in the alternative and independent media. But the corporate media mostly took a pass (FAIR Action Alert, 3/19/08)–a trend that continued when
Winter Soldier came to Capitol Hill.
The group that organized the first event, Iraq Veterans Against the War, was invited to Capitol Hill on May 15 to appear before the Congressional Progressive Caucus in an informal hearing. As before, the assembled veterans offered remarkable accounts of their war experiences. Given the proximity to the Beltway media elite and the fact that Congress was debating another round of funding for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, one might have thought it would be hard for the corporate media to ignore Winter Soldier a second time.
But ignore it they did, offering even less coverage of these hearings than of the March events. One notable exception was the PBS NewsHour, which aired a report on May 21 about Winter Soldier. But they were a lonely exception to the media rule, which seems to be that there is now a little space to talk about certain veterans’ issues-like post-traumatic stress and suicide rates-so long as you don’t hear from the vets themselves, or at least this particular group of outspoken anti-war veterans.
ACTION: Ask the network newscasts why they decided, once again, to ignore the Winter Soldier hearings.
ABC World News
Or use this link:
CBS Evening News
NBC Nightly News
Battle for Haditha: A remarkable film about the Iraq war
By David Walsh
9 May 2008
Battle for Haditha is a genuine achievement. Nick Broomfield’s film is an effort to reconstruct the events and circumstances leading up to the massacre of 24 men, women and children by US marines in the Iraqi city of Haditha in November 2005.
The film, a dramatization of the episode, first follows the various participants—marines, Iraqi civilians, insurgents—as they go about their daily routines the day before the killings.
Local women with their children buy chickens for a party. A youngish Iraqi couple is focused on. The American marines patrol the city, expecting an attack from any quarter. They carry out raids, knocking down doors, terrifying and outraging the inhabitants. Their banter among themselves is coarse and super-aggressive. Two insurgents, one of them a former member of the Iraqi army, obtain an IED (improvised explosive device) and receive instructions on triggering it, by means of a cell-phone.
A good deal of the film, including perhaps its most memorable portions, is devoted to the processes which make the marines capable of carrying out their murderous assault. Battle for Haditha begins with one marine musing out loud, “I don’t why I’m here,” and expressions of alienation and demoralization continue throughout. “The marine corps don’t care, the country doesn’t care,” we hear. The individual marine has to learn to “act like a machine.” The Iraqis are “ragheads.” The marines chant, “Train, train, train, to kill, kill, kill.” They are indoctrinated to suspect and fear everyone: “This is a hostile environment.” Women and children, they’re told, are capable of carrying bombs.
We see an Iraqi man carrying a shovel over his shoulder. Someone claims he could be on his way to planting an IED; permission is granted, the man is blown to bits.
Meanwhile, Corporal Ramirez (Elliot Ruiz) is having nightmares and can’t sleep. He asks to see someone, a doctor. He’s told: not until your tour of duty is over. He explains he’s having bad dreams about the things he’s seen. Again: no doctor till your tour of duty’s finished.
It’s Ramirez who will lead the enraged attack on defenseless men, women and children when one of his favorites in the unit is blown up in a Humvee. The scenes of the massacre are chillingly and convincingly done; Broomfield bases them on eyewitness accounts from both Americans and Iraqis. After the IED goes off under the convoy, killing the one marine, a higher-up is consulted. His comment—“Take whatever action is necessary. I don’t want any more marines killed”—unleashes the atrocity.
Ramirez and his marines have already pulled a group of Iraqi men from a taxi stopped nearby and executed them. The families the film has been following have the misfortune to live in the houses near the IED attack. While the insurgents who planted the bomb are able to get away from their rooftop position, the marines burst into homes and kill the civilians, including small children, in cold blood.
After the initial killings, in one of the most horrifying sequences, marine snipers laugh and joke as they pick off a man running through a field. He’s the husband of the young Iraqi couple we’ve met before. His wife kneels over his body, hysterical. Ramirez offers her his hand, she spits at him. He goes and vomits. Later, in front of the other marines, though, he pretends to be fine. An officer leads prayers.
The next day, in his quarters, Ramirez suffers a kind of breakdown. The nightmares have continued. He keeps seeing bodies, women with kids. I have “to live with this guilt for the rest of my life … I hate the officers who sent us in … They don’t give a f—- about us,” he shouts.
The leader of the insurgents is pleased. “The Americans lost the battle … Everyone is with us and we control the city.”
In a prologue, Ramirez is under arrest, charged with murder. The officer whose orders triggered the massacre presides over his fate. In a dreamlike sequence, Ramirez takes the hand of a small girl who survived the attack—two victims of the imperialist occupation of Iraq.
The film contains a number of remarkable and powerful scenes. It is not artistically perfect. Perhaps understandably, the writing of the Iraqi sections is somewhat weaker, a bit more schematic. Although Battle for Haditha was made with Iraqi actors (some of them professional stage actors) in Jordan, the filmmakers no doubt had a greater challenge in putting themselves in the shoes of ordinary Iraqis, much less fighters against the American occupation. The sinister figure of the ‘sheikh,’ the local leader of the insurgents, seems especially speculative.
All things considered, however, Broomfield and his collaborators have done an astonishing job. Best known for offbeat documentaries in which his own personality occasionally seemed to take center stage (Heidi Fleiss: Hollywood Madam, Kurt and Courtney, Aileen: Life and Death of a Serial Killer), Broomfield has apparently opened a new chapter in his career.
The Guardian’s Paul Hoggart in a piece entitled “Mr. Wry gets serious,” cites the comments of Peter Dale of Britain’s Channel 4, which funded Battle for Haditha and Broomfield’s previous work, Ghosts, about the deaths of 23 Chinese immigrants in Morecambe Bay in 2004: “I think it’s part of a transition in Nick’s work from a slightly wry, off beat approach to a much more passionate and serious and political approach to his subject. In his more frivolous documentaries the joke had been wearing a little thin. Ghosts was a welcome return to form.”
Broomfield took great pains to represent the Haditha events accurately. Twelve of the performers playing US marines in his film are ex-marines. He also managed to speak to some of the marines involved in the Haditha incident. He told the Guardian reporter, “We spent five days in a motel in San Diego interviewing them for probably 10 hours a day, just to get a sense of their lives and who they really were. They were very wary to begin with, but once people start talking, they really talk. The main marine character we focus on was this guy called Ramirez. The night he got back from Iraq he broke into a truck and basically had post-traumatic stress and ended up driving into a house. He was best friends with the guy who was killed by the bomb, and then had the job of writing numbers on the dead people’s heads and photographing them. They were extremely tough and had seen a lot of action. They talked about chasing each other around with people’s legs and kicking people’s brains around.”
The filmmaker also stated that his team met with Iraqi insurgents who claimed to have been active in Haditha.
Broomfield ended up making the film for Channel 4 because he found no financing in the US. The Los Angeles Times noted in May 2007 that “Every Hollywood door he knocked at, he was told it was too soon for such a movie. ‘Everyone’s so worried,’ said Broomfield … ‘They all wondered, “Does the American public have an appetite for this?””
The group of Haditha marines, in their conversations with Broomfield, explained the “standard operating procedure rules,” in the director’s words, under which they were operating. He told Time Out magazine, in an interview also published last May, “If, for example, a house is described as ‘hostile,’ then you just kill everyone in the house. It doesn’t matter if it contains two-year-olds or the elderly, which is what they did in Fallujah—where these guys had come from. …
“I realised that these soldiers were very, very poor kids, who had all left school unbelievably early. It was the first time they had all been out of the United States. They didn’t speak a word of Iraqi. They had no idea what they were doing in Iraq, and they felt let down by the marine corps. It was hard to condemn them out of hand as cold-blooded killers. …
“I think there have been lots of Hadithas, and there are lots of Hadithas every year…. The difference with this event is that the aftermath just happened to be filmed and now there’s an inquiry. It’s much more convenient for the US government and the marine corps to make scapegoats of these guys than actually deal with its policy and rules of engagement in Iraq. I’m sure it happens on a lesser scale every single day.’”
A conversation with two Iraq war veterans
I spoke to two of the former marines in Broomfield’s film in Toronto. Elliot Ruiz, born in Philadelphia, plays Corporal Ramirez and Eric Mehalacopoulos, born in Montreal, Quebec, plays Sergeant Ross. I asked Ruiz about his experiences in Iraq.
He explained, “I was 17 when I was sent to Iraq, during the initial invasion. We pushed all the way up to Tikrit and I ended up being wounded, I almost lost my life. It’s crazy, people don’t know the type of things that we go through. That’s what I like about the film, it shows that.”
I noted that film showed how the marines were whipped up into a frenzy and brutalized. I asked the pair if they had helped write or prepare any of the script.
Ruiz said, “No, but a lot of it was improvisation. Nick [Broomfield] just told us, ‘This is what’s happening in this scene, this is what I need,’ and mostly everything was improvised.” Mehalacopoulos added, “We used our experiences as the basis of it.” I commented, “So what we see is accurate?” Ruiz replied, “Yes.
I asked them both what they would like audiences to draw from the film.
“Like I said earlier,” Ruiz observed, “I just want the audience to take a look and see what we go through on a day-to-day basis. You might lose a friend, but you have to keep moving. It’s your job. A lot of people don’t understand that. I also hope that they see what the Iraqis go through on a day-to-day basis, you know.”
Mehalacopoulos continued, “As we speak, this is going on. The film only shows a little bit, there’s so much more to tell. I think it’s a movie that’s going to make people think, and that’s what important.”
I pointed out to Ruiz that the spectator finds himself horrified by the crimes Corporal Ramirez commits, but at the end he manages to be a sympathetic character. “The American soldiers themselves are victims,” I said.
Mehalacopoulos: “We were put there. We chose to enlist, and therefore we’re going to do our job and carry on the mission, and all that’s fine. But you ask 90 percent of the guys, they’d rather not be there.”
I suggested that no marine or soldier guilty of crimes should be absolved. “Those who are responsible for crimes are responsible for crimes, but the ultimate responsibility is above.” Mehalacopoulos agreed.
I asked them what they thought the war was about. Mehalacopoulos ventured, “It’s tricky, because there’s so much stuff that’s hidden from us, I think. A lot of people say oil. Who knows? It wasn’t what people were told, that wasn’t the real reason. There was a lot of lying, and that’s what’s not fair. All those families that lost their sons, brothers, husbands, whatever. It’s not fair. To die for a rich man’s, a powerful man’s cause. That’s throughout history. Big business …”
Ruiz went on, “If people saw this, it would change the way a lot of people think. That’s what I like about this film, it doesn’t hold anything back. It shows what happens on a day-to-day basis out there.”
Both former marines praised Broomfield. Ruiz said, “Working with him was wonderful. He stepped back and just let us be us. And that’s what brought the authenticity to the film.”
I asked Ruiz about the scene of Ramirez’s breakdown, where the character curses the officers who have obliged him to commit actions he will feel guilty about for the rest of his life—had this scene been based on his own experiences and feelings?
“I mean, I was 17, I almost lost my life out there. Who wouldn’t be angry toward that? Working on this film, and being able to go back to Jordan … People don’t understand, we were dropped in a combat zone in an Arab country. The things that happened to us, of course we felt a certain way toward the Arab people, or the Iraqi people.
“Going back to Jordan and being able to meet these people, see these people, live with these people on a day-to-day basis, totally changed my opinion and the way I thought about them. It was a wonderful experience. I never thought I’d be able to live with an Iraqi. I lived with an Iraqi. We shared the same bathroom. We joked around, he ended up being one of the nicest people I’ve ever met in my life, man. He was happy about everything. He didn’t care, it could be the worst day in the world, and he was happy.”
Mehalacopoulos continued, “It’s a people that’s been through a lot. And a lot more than anyone in the US probably. And they have so much pride because there’s so much culture and history, you know, the cradle of civilization, right?”
I noted there had been a propaganda war to paint all Arabs as terrorists. Ruiz nodded. “It took me going back to Jordan, another Arab country, to realize that. It’s a shame it took that, but that’s the reality. Thank god I went back to Jordan and got to spend time with the people and the culture.”
I noted that the Iraqis had every right to resist a foreign army of occupation. Mehalacopoulos said, “And they’re not going to stop fighting. I knew this from the beginning, because we got to a hospital in Baghdad. A doctor, a well-educated man told me, he predicted what was going to happen. He was totally right, and this was in the first few days of the war. You know what I’m saying? They know their people better than we do.”
By focusing the ambiguity of the conflict, Nick Broomfield reveals, at last, the true emotional impact of the Iraq War
By Armond White
Nick Broomfield isn’t a media star or critics’ favorite like Michael Moore, Ken Burns or Errol Morris, but he’s made some of the best recent documentaries in decades. In Driving Me Crazy, Biggie and Tupac and other films, Broomfield departed from the doc-star pack with their easy repetition of mainstream opinion and status-quo points-of-view. (I’d call him independent if that term hadn’t been corrupted already.)
Broomfield’s newest film, Battle for Haditha, is a fictional drama recounting the 2005 incident where American troops killed 24 Iraqi civilians in retaliation for an attack on a Marine convoy. But Battle for Haditha also has the virtues of an excellent documentary: Through close observation of the Marines, a pair of insurgent bomb-planters and an Iraqi family, Broomfield credibly shows how this tragedy could occur. He presents a range of the Iraq War experience that has never been effectively shown before.
Being a good doc maker (one who controversially placed himself onscreen yet avoided the dishonest “showmanship” and bias that have overtaken the form) gives Broomfield a rare ability to balance perspectives. He crosscuts from an American soldier’s experience to show an insurgent’s motives, then to a civilian family’s pathetic neutrality. Battle for Haditha refutes the idea that there is only one way to look at the Iraq War. Most remarkably, Broomfield understands the proper use of both “realistic” and “dramatic” modes.
Battle for Haditha doesn’t confuse tenses like Michael Winterbottom’s egregious In This World, Road to Guantanamo and A Mighty Heart. One close-up image of Cpl. Ramirez (Elliot Ruiz) shows a young face both blood-spattered and acne-scarred; it shows Broomfield’s superb instinct for defining a personality without resorting to a slanted presentation of events. With cinematographer Mark Wolf, he knows when to keep wide-shot distance or close-quarters intimacy. He can juxtapose the insurgents cold-bloodedly planting an IED (Improvised Explosive Device) with a U.S. commander deploying a satellite sniper.
Although Battle for Haditha is certainly a plotted and arranged fiction, it is skillful and informative without corrupting our perspective via the techno-faddishness that undoes current filmmakers whether high or low, De Palma or Winterbottom. Through Broomfield’s technique, the actors’ improvisatory skills supply a deft sense of the war’s emotional reality. Fittingly, this is the best-looking Middle East movie since David O. Russell’s Three Kings.
The widescreen imagery is witty, it frames action in ways that attract deeper investment; we aren’t bullied into accepting “truth.” Broomfield asks that we recognize basic humanity: of scared young soldiers who must train, rouse and embolden each other; of disenfranchised Iraqi men who impetuously become rebels (“The Americans made the insurgency when they got rid of the army”); and of circumscribed civilians (“If we tell Americans, the terrorists will kill us. If we don’t, the Americans will think we’re insurgents. I would leave but travel is dangerous—we’re trapped.”)
Broomfield’s expositional dialogue is redeemed by the performers’ individual persuasiveness. Ex-marines Elliot Ruiz, Andrew McLaren and Eric Mehalacopoulos credibly inhabit the military moments, just as actors Yasmine Hanani and Duraid A. Ghaieb convincingly portray the married couple Hiba and Rashied. These characterizations—from angry G.I.s, to frightened children, to sexy conjugal intimacy—are as enthralling as any in the most revered Italian neorealist movies.
All this makes Battle for Haditha the film of the week. Its greatest breakthrough comes from Broomfield unabashedly portraying al- Qaeda characters while the rest of Hollywood fears facing this reality—as if following the Muslim prohibition against portraying Mohammad. (Bush bashers might take exception to Iraqi characters referring to insurgents as “terrorists”; but remember that Broomfield comes from the BBC tradition, which always portrays global politics differently than the U.S. media.)
This taboo-busting is an act of humane imagination; that’s what’s missing from one-way Iraq War films that condescend or propagandize. From Ramirez’ ribald war metaphor (“The body is Planet Earth, Iraq is a cornhole, the dingleberries are insurgents, the military is the turd going through”) to his tearful resignation (“After a while you become hardened, you become like them”), Broomfield offers the gift of ambiguity, yet he makes it clear that ambiguity is an effective point of fiction, not documentary.
While De Palma’s Redacted, Errol Morris’ Standard Operating Procedure and Kimberly Peirce’s Stop-Loss went disastrously wrong, Broomfield’s sophisticated balance of fact and fiction in Battle for Haditha illustrates exactly how the Iraq War will enter popular memory—as legend.