The Hospital of War

This article is from the archive of The New York Sun before the launch of its new website in 2022. The Sun has neither altered nor updated such articles but will seek to correct any errors, mis-categorizations or other problems introduced during transfer.

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The American people are currently impatient with the progress of the war in Iraq, and the Left and many liberals are counting on this impatience to reverse or at least retard conservative political trends that have been dominant since the 1980s. It’s a fair enough bet, especially in the short-term, but it carries enormous risks on the downside, all of which are discernible in HBO’s gut-wrenching documentary on emergency medical personnel in Baghdad.

“Baghdad ER,” which premieres Sunday night at 8 p.m., focuses on the 86th Combat Support Hospital – 700 men and women who are responsible, in the words of one medevac sergeant, for doing “everything we can to make sure your loved ones come back to you.” There is no overt anti-war message, but the medical people are frequently heard muttering standard war-is-hell phrases like “sheer madness,” “stupid war,” and “a lot of young kids getting hurt.” And the cumulative effect of the film, which features graphic treatment of the most horrific injuries, is powerfully negative. MASH without the madcap humor, “Baghdad ER” is neither for weak stomachs nor supporters of the war.

The film largely neglects the extraordinary advances in medical technology that enable so many wounded, who surely would have died in earlier conflicts, to resume their lives at home. That, and the possibility that an enemy using improvised explosive devices (IEDs) to maim and kill our soldiers in Iraq is part of a global terrorist threat, has not quite penetrated the worldview of these particular producers.

What is on full display is the by-now familiar technique of identifying with our soldiers as the victims of war, rather than the enemies of peasants and working people everywhere. Even Jane Fonda figured out that the Jane Fonda routine wasn’t working. The victimhood theme is so relentless here that the only Purple Heart given out is tellingly presented to a soldier flat on his back and the only specific reference to that most dangerous idea of all – that everybody in Iraq is a volunteer – comes when a soldier says he volunteered to help pay the bills at home.

The most extended reference to personal valor on the battlefield comes when a gungho, tattooed, and not very articulate soldier expresses ambivalence about being sent home on medical leave. A medical person explains that this is because he and others like him don’t want to leave their buddies still in harm’s way. It used to be called self-sacrifice and, egad, high morale. Surely the filmmakers could have found an attractive spokesman for this point of view – that is, if they had wanted one.

From a technical point of view, “Baghdad ER” is quite competent.The dialogue is muddy and the lighting murky in places,but that is both a weakness and a strength of the documentary form, which often sacrifices lucidity for immediacy and excitement.And even if the material is often stacked for a particular point of view, the courage and grit of the soldiers manages to come through. This is the best-trained and most capable fighting force on the planet. It can’t help but show.

The storytelling could have been sharper with a smaller cast of characters. There are so many doctors and nurses and technicians and soldiers on camera that the narrative line occasionally falters. The viewer doesn’t really get to know anybody,but that may serve the purposes of this film, which fails to ask even one participant whether he or she believes in the war effort, preferring throwaway and (out-of-context?) lines on the futility of it all.

Inevitably, some of the wounded in “Baghdad ER” expire on the way to, or in, the operating theater. For the most part, this is handled with dignity and appropriate restraint. But in yet another indication of where the filmmakers’ hearts are, there is one sequence where a medical officer is asked what he wants for July 4th.”Not to have a dead soldier in my EMT,” he replies. He gets his wish on July 4th, but then the screen goes dark with the letters spelling July 5 and the poor guy gets two new dead-on-arrivals.Then, just in case we didn’t get it, the film fades out with the total number of battlefield casualties and deaths.

It would be wrong to ignore mortality and suffering in a show of this kind, but a more balanced approach would include some attention to the mission, as well as the soldiers’ views of the conflict.


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