Baghdad ER

by David Swerdlick


Original air date: 21 May 2006
Director: Jon Alpert, Matt O’Neill
by David Swerdlick

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(21 May 2006)

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Blood Sacrifice

It just kills me, ‘cause these kids are, you know—I’m old enough to be their mom and, just to see them hurt, it’s very difficult.—I’m old enough to be their mom and, just to see them hurt, it’s very difficult.
—Capt. Glenna Greene, operating room nurse, 86th C.S.H.

Don’t you know how much this place stinks? Don’t you know what it’s like to stand day after day in blood, the blood of children?
—Capt. Hawkeye Pierce (Alan Alda), surgeon, 4077th M.A.S.H.

This might be your father’s war, but it certainly isn’t your grandfather’s. For one thing, this time there is precious little agreement on what the conflict is really about and what exactly the U.S. is trying to accomplish in it. For another, a much greater percentage of those who take fire in the form of bullets or bombs can expect to live. Thanks to advances in battlefield medicine and the efforts of military medical personnel, many soldiers and Marines survive devastating injuries.

Billed as “neither pro-war, nor anti-war,” Baghdad ER is a one-hour documentary account of the day-to-day routine of the U.S. Army 86th Combat Support Hospital. The “CaSH” is the first stop on the road to rehabilitation for critically wounded U.S. troops that starts with medics in the field, leads to Landstuhl Regional Medical Center in Germany and ultimately to Walter Reed Hospital in Washington, D.C. The film shows up-close images of doctors amputating a partially severed leg with an electric knife. In one scene, a soldier grimaces in pain as a nurse cuts his wedding ring off to prepare him for treatment. Several shots in the ER show the floor covered in blood. You are left with a sick feeling, less because of the graphic images than because you realize that some of these troops, the ones who leave Iraq with only a couple of fingers missing or with slivers of metal in their scalp can call themselves lucky.

Such irony is underlined when a Colonel enters the pre-op ward and places a medal on Specialist Donald Spurlock’s bare chest, reciting, “On behalf of the President and a grateful nation, I present you this Purple Heart,” even as Spurlock lies on a gurney, having just lost a buddy in a roadside attack. The “What the fuck?” expression on this soldier’s face is worth a thousand words, contrasting the dubiousness of his situation against the patriotically correct rhetoric that frames it.

According to producer Joseph Feury, “What we felt was that it couldn’t be a political picture.” This seems a smart position to take in circumstances where many viewers are ambivalent about the meaning and outcome of the war, and for the most part it is a fairly balanced documentary. But rather than being apolitical or neutral, the film includes multiple points of view. Private Chester Keenum, who displays a “Live Infantry, Die Infantry” tattoo, is undaunted after having been blinded in one eye by a metal fragment. Informed that he’s being rotated out of Iraq for surgery, he says, “Who gives a fuck? We’re just hurt. We’ll be back.” It reflects an almost admirably gung-ho optimism, a throwback to a time when more Americans trusted their government to do the right thing. It might also be a 10-word summary of current U.S. foreign policy. Scenes like this skew more “pro-troops” than “pro-war.” But there are enough similar bits in the film that, as Daily Kos notes, it’s possible that those who support the war “will have their respective take on the war reinforced.”

But Baghdad ER is also critical of the war as it examines its human costs. Watching even this 60 minutes’ worth of the daily trauma and physical damage suffered by the troops, it’s hard not to question both stated and unstated reasons for the continued fighting. The film’s imagery is much more vivid than that usually offered by mainstream news reports. As co-producer Lee Grant comments, “I think most people, including us, have a movie image of war… And what John and Matt have done is to break through that to say, ‘This is what it really is. How do you feel about it?’”

Despite the unprecedented coverage of the war on cable news and the internet, most people in the U.S. remain detached and ambivalent about its many casualties, military and civilian. The tendency of major news outlets to report the number of soldiers killed without the numbers of wounded falsely characterizes the war’s “progress.” By focusing on the wounded, Baghdad ER poses a question: if reports included numbers of wounded as well as killed, would they engender broader public outrage or at least intensify the cost/benefit analysis of continuing to prosecute the Iraq campaign?

HBO has consistently tracked the evolution of U.S. collective consciousness with regard to the war. Live from Baghdad (2002) dramatized the run-up to the 1991 Gulf War, and in 2004, the documentary Last Letters Home followed families of U.S. troops killed in Iraq. Baghdad ER broadens the story to the more than 18,000 men and women wounded in the current war and the people who take care of them. It focuses public attention, in real time, on the limitations of even the finest doctors in the face of horrific carnage.

At the end of the documentary, Major Kelly Blair, a vascular surgeon, tries to save the life of a soldier wounded by an I.E.D. Realizing that nothing further can be done, he calls the time of death. His medical team files out of the room as the camera briefly lingers on an empty gurney with a crisp American flag hanging above it. The image reminds us of the blood sacrifice of U.S. soldiers and simultaneously calls into question the validity of their having been asked to make that sacrifice in the first place.

While crystal clear about their mission to save lives, the Army medical personnel in Baghdad ER are more circumspect about the conflict. Major Martin Harnish, another surgeon, wearily says, “I have to think that the people in this country are going to be in a better place for it. I have to believe that, because otherwise this is just sheer madness.”

The film’s perspective can’t, and shouldn’t, be boiled down to “pro-war” or “anti-war.” Such reduction would be as ridiculous as the right-wing mantra that support for the war equals support for the troops, and vice versa. The doctors, nurses, helicopter pilots, and technicians find themselves in a complicated, sometimes contradictory position. The film places viewers in a similarly difficult place: how do we feel about what we see?

No one in Baghdad ER is more reflective about what he witnesses than the Army Chaplain whose dismayed face is ever present in the ER. Although a soldier and a firsthand participant, he, like us, neither fights nor mends the wounded. He advises, consoles, and can only ponder what the war has wrought, and his customary prayer over the dead includes this valediction: “Lord, we pray that his life, and even his death, might be used to hasten peace and end this terrible war.” Amen.


//Mixed media