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Humanising Haditha

By showing all sides as victims of war, Nick Broomfield’s Battle for Haditha can only find ‘common humanity’ in our ability to suffer.

David Chandler

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In making Battle for Haditha, which was shown on Channel 4 last night, film director Nick Broomfield has been widely congratulated for his desire to find humanity in the midst of the barbarism of war. Indeed, we are increasingly becoming used to a critical or postmodern perspective on war in popular culture, where war films are used to demonstrate and draw out our common humanity rather than to celebrate a particular identity. In humanising war, directors offer an explicit critique of traditional political and cultural framings of war as fought by ‘good guys’ against ‘bad guys’ for a progressive or positive goal.

Broomfield has been praised for bringing ‘symmetry’ into the asymmetric conflict of Iraq (1). Here the US soldiers are as much victims of war as are the insurgents and Iraqi civilians. The incident in Haditha, where 24 civilians, including women and children, were massacred by US marines after a roadside bombing of their convoy killed one of their number, is used to symbolise the war in Iraq more broadly. Haditha does this because, in dissecting (or humanising) one event, Broomfield is able to illustrate the lack of meaning which the war has for its proponents, making each death more tragic and unnecessary than the last.

Again and again the film emphasises that the US troops, particularly the leading soldier on the ground, Corporal Ramirez, feel that they are fighting for their own survival rather than for some grander cause. Ramirez feels let down by the lack of injury compensation offered if he had retired after an earlier tour of duty, and his request to see a doctor for his ongoing combat trauma is refused. None of the US troops expresses any racial or stereotypical view of Iraqis – instead they express a fear of insurgents using women and children in their attacks. In this way, US violence is understood as being based on concerns for their own survival, caught between the insurgency and an uncaring military bureaucracy.

Similarly, the roadside bombers are seen to have little at stake in the war but their own survival and attempts to make a living in the wreckage of Iraq. While working for the insurgents, the guy who lays the roadside device has no sympathy for al-Qaeda or the insurgency. He is a former Iraqi army officer who argues that the US is responsible for the insurgency after abolishing the army and offering only $50 compensation. His relationship to the insurgency appears to be purely a financial one, getting paid to plant the bomb so that he can feed his family.

Most powerfully, Broomfield gives context to the everyday lives of the families who are about to be massacred. Iraqi civilians are portrayed as being doubly victimised, threatened with death by both the foreign insurgents and the US occupiers. Broomfield suggests that ordinary Iraqis have little at stake in any side in the conflict. They are treated as if they are irrelevant, as much by the sheikh who considers the murdered locals as martyrs for the cause of Iraq, as by the US military who value their lives so little that they would rather ‘shoot first and ask questions later’.

The more the victims come to the forefront, the more the higher players are pushed to the margins. While our sympathy for the victims may not be entirely equal, there is one area where the equality is clear: that of the military, political and religious elites, who are seen to be equally responsible for the carnage (2). Rather than taking traditional sides in a war, here the perspective is anti-war, but in a way in which the responsibility for the Iraq war is spread thickly. As Tim Adams notes in the Observer: ‘His [Broomfield’s] righteous anger is reserved for officers and mullahs and politicians.’ (3) The ‘righteous anger’ is a moral statement about the elites’ distance from the suffering of the troops and civilians on the ground. Broomfield’s point in ‘humanising’ the war is an implicit critique of the politics of all sides: without a cause, war is just an increasing number of dead and maimed bodies.

There are two problems involved in Broomfield’s attempt to humanise the Iraq war. Firstly, there is a problem specific to Iraq: humanising a war of aggression is more problematic than humanising a civil conflict. Any attempt to do this inevitably means portraying the US troops more as victims than as aggressors. This could not have been done so easily if, for example, Fallujah, where over a thousand Iraqis died, had been used. Haditha brings the conflict down to the micro level, and in so doing creates a much more ‘level’ playing field.

Even in attempting to use the Haditha massacre to humanise the war, Broomfield provides us with a one-sided view of Haditha itself. In order to provide symmetry and cast the US troops as victims, the character of Ramirez is fictionalised and there is no portrayal of the cover-up, while the insurgents are seen to have filmed the surviving family members with the intention of making propaganda. Humanising the Iraq war inevitably means portraying the US troops as victims as much as occupiers.

The second problem is a broader one. War is not just about dehumanising the enemy, producing a view of our Hero and the alien Other as a villain or a passive victim. War is dehumanising because survival becomes the core question for all protagonists, whether active or passive, and our choices become progressively narrowed. The problem with humanising war is that we lose any real sense of humanity beyond our common capacity to suffer. As Bloomfield has stated, it is this pessimistic perspective which drives his humanism: ‘I think the starting point was there were no winners, only losers and victims. This isn’t just the Iraq war but any war.’ (4)

It is not true that there are no winners in wars, only losers and victims. The Iraq war has been a turning point in the presentation of military victory as more of a defeat for the victorious and occupying powers than for the vanquished Iraqis. Anyone reading Guardian journalist Jonathan Steele’s recent book Defeat, or viewing many of the TV programmes on the five-year anniversary of the Iraq war, could be forgiven for forgetting that US and UK forces defeated and overthrew the Iraqi regime and occupied the country (5). If is, of course, true that the Iraq war has caused, or rather brought to the fore, huge political and existential problems for the US and the UK; but it’s worth remembering that on the ground, in Iraq itself, their victory over Saddam’s forces was swift, and as a result of their current ‘phantom occupation’ – where troops spend much time in barracks – they are not the victims of an insurgent war in the way many people think.

Many are viewing Iraq through distinctly Western cultural spectacles. In this respect, bringing out the ‘human’ nature of war represents a deeply dehumanising and depoliticising undercurrent in our modern culture. Our understanding of Iraq seems to be shaped as much by our own feelings about our societies at home as it is by anything happening on the ground in Iraq. In this respect, Broomfield’s fictionalisation of Haditha was less a critique of the Iraq war than a reflection of our disconnected political sensibilities. War is dehumanising, but humanising war means more than just flattering us that we are all victims of forces outside of our control.

David Chandler is professor of international relations at the Centre for the Study of Democracy, University of Westminster and author of Empire in Denial: The Politics of State-building. Visit his website here.

Previously on spiked

David Chandler viewed Britain’s war against the Taliban as theatre. From Singapore to Basra, Frank Furedi looked at British militarism as farce. Brendan O’Neill called America’s and Britain’s phantom occupation of Iraq a ‘gesture invasion’. He also explained why death by friendly fire became a big issue in Iraq. James Heartfield felt that the road to war was paved with good intentions. Or read more at spiked issue War on Iraq.

(1) Battle for Haditha, Guardian, 1 February 2008

(2) Battle for Haditha, Observer, 3 February 2008

(3) Memories of a Massacre, Observer, 16 March 2008

(4) The search for humanity, Guardian, 31 January 2008

(5) Defeat: Why They Lost Iraq, Jonathan Steele, I. B. Tauris, 2008

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

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