Occupation

“What you need to know is the Sunnis and Shiias, they hate each other. But they hate you more.” Yunis (Lewis Alsamari), an Iraqi translator and fixer, is waiting in a car with his current assignment, a British mercenary named Lee (Warren Brown). Both men are young, ambitious, and frustrated. Lee, wearing a keffiyeh so he might pass unnoticed as he and Yunis keep watch on a meeting from their car, wonders how his new associate feels, whether he hates him as well. Yunis pulls out snapshots of his family: “That’s my religion,” he says. “I don’t believe in anything else.”

For Lee, this seems a revelation, that one Iraqi could perceive the world differently from others. He’s come back to Basra following a tour in the army, as a lance corporal. Since his regular military stint was done, the only way he can get on with what he calls his “things to finish,” is to join up with a company cofounded by a buddy from the 2003 invasion, Danny (Stephen Graham). Danny and his new partner, an American named Erik (Nonzo Anozie), have a cynical view of their business, finding ways to be paid by the British and Iraqi governments, no matter whether the jobs they contract are legitimate or not. Lee remains mostly (willfully) ignorant of Danny and Erik’s wheelings and dealings through their odiously named company, Pacific Solutions, continuing to believe in the mission as it’s been told to him.

Tensions between beliefs — business and family, religion and nation — provide a thematic focus for Occupation, a four-hour miniseries premiering on BBC America 18 October. Lee and Danny’s efforts to sort through their confusions, both in country and back home, never quite end. Seeking reasons and principles, they find mostly rationalizations and excuses. “It’s just the way the world works,” Lee recites during one assignment. That is, cheating and profiting, no matter the costs.

Both boys have troubles at home. Danny’s mother doesn’t recognize him when he visits her in a nursing home, turning instead to her nurse, a black man she misidentifies as her son and source of pride, because he’s serving in the army. Lee’s parents are thrilled when he comes home, but his dad worries he hasn’t learned a trade (“I did,” says Lee, “I’m a machine gunner”). Other uncertainties emerge when Lee argues with his sister Katy (Laura Donnelly). Hearing that he’s joining up with a crew of private contractors, she snickers, “Not to be confused with mercenaries.” No, he argues, he’s not doing it for money: “It’s what I want to do.” Katy rolls her eyes as she comes back, “Oh, that makes it all right then!”

Neither young man has quite the range of experience or the reputation as their fellow soldier and neighbor, Sergeant Mike Swift (James Nesbitt). When he appears at film’s start, Mike’s doing his best to keep a volatile situation under control: while searching an apartment building in Basra for snipers, he and his men are caught off guard, as is the little girl who lives across the hallway from the shooters. When Mike recklessly runs her down the street to a hospital, he’s photographed by journalists, then named a hero back home. All the hubbub makes him uncomfortable, though his very good deed of bringing the girl to England for treatment allows him to spend extra time with an Iraqi doctor, Aliya (Lubna Azabal).

This relationship looks at first to be a little too like the one between Robin Williams’ oh-so-glib Adrian Cronauer and the schoolgirl Trinh (Chintara Sukapatana) in Good Morning, Vietnam. That is, the beautiful girl comes to represent all that’s admirable and worth preserving in the nation invaded and occupied by Westerners, and the white man comes to appreciate the grace and tradition of the local culture and regret the thoughtless aggression of his own. Predictably, Aliya is called on to instruct Mike, specifically and unsubtly, by introducing him to the wisdom of Gilgamesh (“What you seek you will never find…”) and also to suffer altruistically (shades of Ingrid Bergman in Casablanca). But she does make clear to Mike that he will never quite understand Iraq (much less his or the West’s investment in it). On hearing a male Iraqi doctor scold Aliya, his first reaction is to protect her, to be noble and worthy like the “True Brit” he seemed to be on that newspaper’s front page. Aliya, embodiment of wisdom and insight, puts her face in her hands and sighs: “You can’t help, Mike. Even if you knew what he’s saying, you couldn’t help. You don’t know what I’ve seen, you don’t know what I’ve been through. You don’t know.”

Nuanced understanding also eludes Occupation, for the most part. The series stays focused on the troops’ experiences — pained and complex and horrific as they may be — with Iraqis serving mostly as educational devices for the occupiers. It’s not that the contractors don’t grasp their part in the mess around them, but they do tend to think they can either help or judge. “There’s no right in this country,” Danny tells Lee following a particular fiasco. “There’s just wrong and wronger.” Focused on the immediate mess in the streets, the exploitation and violence of the contractors, the rage and carelessness of the militias, and the multiple oppressions on all sides, Occupation does tend to romanticize and accentuate the British losses. That doesn’t seem quite “right,” either.

RATING 6 / 10
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