Murder Capital of the World
I couldn’t see their faces very well—only their guns sticking into the doorway. I watched them shoot my grandfather, first in the chest and then in the head. Then they killed my granny.
—Eman Waleed, 19 March 2006
Abu Graib. Guantanamo. Haditha. And most probably many others which now will come to light. We are witnessing the beginning of the end of the Iraq war.
—Richard Gwyn, 2 June 2006
A military judge dismissed charges Tuesday against a Marine officer accused of failing to investigate the killings of 24 Iraqis.
—AP, 17 June 2008
On 19 November 2005, an IED exploded on a side road in Haditha, killing Lance Cpl. Miguel Terrazas and wounding two other marines. Their fellow members of Kilo Company responded, going house to house in search of perpetrators; when they were done, at least 24 Iraqis were dead, including children. Exactly how the killings occurred remains unclear, mostly because the military’s official story changed over time.
On 7 May 2008, Nick Broomfield’s Battle for Haditha opened in U.S. theaters, even as trials were ongoing. (As of today, six defendants have had their cases dropped and one has been acquitted; only one more marine, Staff Sergeant Frank Wuterich, awaits a trial date.) Given the blurred lines between truth and fiction that have structured that changing story of Haditha, it seems appropriate that the film makes use of documentary stylings, nonprofessional actors (U.S. marines and Iraqi civilians), and political pronouncements. As the film opens, marines are patrolling streets, their gear familiar, their weapons visible. During a TV report on a recent bombing, George Bush speechifies, off-screen: “Democracy will succeed,” he says, “because every month, more and more Iraqis are fighting for their own country. The people we have liberated will not surrender their freedom. Democracy will succeed because the United States of America will not be intimidated by a bunch of thugs.”
The sound is familiar and disheartening, ominous and ironic. It also sets up the film’s version the massacre, the confusion, anger, and fear that gave way to unthinkable brutality. Much like Broomfield’s documentaries (including Biggie & Tupac, Aileen: Life and Death of a Serial Killer, and Aileen Wuornos: The Selling of a Serial Killer), the feature film ponders multiple perspectives and seeks out multiple truths. While the documentaries may take up underdog causes (say, Voletta Wallace or Wuornos), they are just as likely to track down culprits (Courtney Love, Suge Knight, Heidi Fleiss). In these instances, following a search structure, the films close with interviews that reveal more and less than you’d anticipate in a more regular movie. Presenting himself as an outsider to the U.S. cultural landscape he traverses with boom mic in hand, Broomfield has been a consistently incisive political and social critic.
Similarly sharp, Battle for Haditha, “based on true events,” follows two sets of characters—the marines and the bombers—on their collision courses. Alternately meditative and sentimental, frequently riveting, the film suggests reasons for the multifaceted insurgency—one bomber, Ahmad (Falah Abraheem Flayeh), was a member of the disbanded Iraqi Army; another, Jafar (Oliver Bytrus) works in an electronics shop, where he’s friendly with marine customers—and also displays the marines’ lack of training, their naïveté, frustration, and bewilderment when faced with a community that is also stuck between too many rocks and hard places. Trying to parse impossible choices, the locals are stymied. Hiba (Yasmine Hanani) spots the bomb being set from her window, then grows panicky as she imagines the many possible effects; her fiancé Walied (Fuad Ismail) lays out the dilemma: “If we tell the Americans, the terrorists will kill us, if we keep quiet, the Americans will say we’re cooperating with the insurgents. What should we do?”
At the same time, the film underscores the marines’ youth, beginning with its focus on Cpl. Ramirez (Elliott Ruiz), who reveals that during his first deployment, when he was just 17, “I almost lost my fucking leg.” (Asked why he signed up, he says, “To get out of Philly, man… Murder capital of the world.”) The film crosscuts between Iraqi civilians preparing for a celebratory circumcision ceremony and the marines knocking around in the barracks, their rowdy crudeness set alongside the locals’ efforts to maintain traditions and a sense of normalcy in the midst of daily chaos. “This is a hostile environment,” the troops learn. “Everyone in there—men, women, and children—they all go…. They will strap a bomb to a baby to them, they’re going to heaven if they kill us… Don’t think twice: it’s gonna get someone killed.”
Just so, when they’re attacked in Haditha, the troops respond as instructed. That they realize too late their own violence is overwhelming is tragic, but they are not without responsibility. As the bombers scamper away, the marines stop a car full of students they assume to be enemies and then head into houses they believe to be havens for bad guys. The image is hectic for every experience, as no one has a clear view or context: careening from frightened face to graphic wounding to red-stained wall, the camera’s perspective is dreadful. A local citizen’s tape of the aftermath, bodies and blood, incites U.S. media attention, and in turn, follow-up investigation by the military, though initial reports suggest the marines are blameless, merely responding as they should to a desperate situation.
Though Ramirez suffers nightmares (“Last night, man, I kept hearing these cries and shit, kept seeing these bodies, these fucking women, man, laid out with their kids. I see pictures of my mother laid out with them too. I just wish I could a change a lot of shit, man”), he’s instructed, indirectly, to keep quiet and do his job. He can’t. But even as his trauma seems morally sound, even makes him sympathetic, the film shows the other result, the rage in Haditha and beyond, the perception that the Americans remain unaccountable and monstrous. While the film makes clear that this single “incident” would never have been exposed without the video footage, it also suggests that it is not an isolated incident, that “taking sides” remains a messy business, and that those in command remain free of accusation or blame. Unable or unwilling to acknowledge or comprehend this trauma, the U.S. command structure is indicted no matter what it says.