Nobody ever checks into the 86th Combat Support Hospital, behind the lines in Baghdad’s Green Zone, to be treated for a migraine, a flu bug, or the mumps. What doctors and nurses see instead is a violent waste of wounded youth. The patient arrives by helicopter, usually on a stretcher, sometimes unconscious, always bleeding. And if in passing through this trauma center he happens not to leave behind a limb, nevertheless, some spur or fraction of mind will be forsaken—his sense of immunity, his belief in luck. He may have been handing out candy to children when the sniper’s bullet found him. Or he was cruising “Route Irish” in the Red Zone when an IED blew up his Humvee.
IED stands for improvised explosive device, by which the military means a homemade bomb. Route Irish is also known as IED Alley, the most dangerous road in Iraq. I can understand why the military would rather say “collateral damage” than “innocent bystanders” or “civilian dead.” But how calling a bomb by a bunch of initials makes it less bomblike and scary is unfathomable. Although a subcommittee for euphemisms at the Pentagon may have imagined that “device” would suggest a sort of toy, the young men and women in the 86th Combat Support Hospital operating room, with shrapnel in their eyes or intestines hanging out, seem not to be have been deceived.
Nor are the handheld cameras of veteran documentarians Jon Alpert and Matthew O’Neill deceived. They spent two months in Baghdad, in the hospital, in choppers, on a basketball court, and on night patrol; interviewing soldiers, surgeons, chaplains, medevac personnel, and ER nurses; looking at tattoos, amputations, EKGs, and ESPN; listening to mortars, nicknames, gallows humor, and cell-phone conversations between young men attached to IV drips and their mothers Stateside; following up on who left “dirty” Iraq for more complicated surgery in Germany or at Walter Reed and who returned for another shift in the Red Zone. No one tells a camera that he or she loves this war or hates it. “Sheer madness” is expostulated once, but it’s a visceral response to an excess of torn viscera. Nobody mentions Rummy, Condi, or Osama. They are breaking hearts, not scoring points. And yet…
Alpert and O’Neill were doubtless invited to visit the 86th because the military is rightly proud of what these trauma teams have accomplished. Because of them, 90 percent of American soldiers wounded in Iraq have so far survived, the highest rate for any of our wars. Even so, for all its cool Frederick Wiseman reticence, its radar eye and sonar ear, Baghdad ER ends up sotto voce antiwar. It almost had to. The Pentagon has shrewdly tried to keep a lid on photographs of the wounded, of body bags and flag-draped containers of the dead. Nor is a hospital where you go if you seek approval for a war. A hospital is where we go behind the rhetorical curtain. It’s not an accident that TV medical series like M*A*S*H and China Beach were both so antiwar. The more we see what war really looks like—the terror in the eyes that contradicts the bravado in the chatter—the harder the questions we ask about it.
Moreover, when we look at the stigmata of Baghdad ER, and recall such videotapes as the beating of Rodney King and the beheading of Daniel Pearl, we are reminded all over again of the impudence and the avoidance behavior of media theorists. So what if the motives of the men and women behind the cameras happen to be mixed, whether one is too arty, another mercenary, a third a violence junkie? Or if our examination of the pictures they bring back from the wound is voyeuristic or pornographic? Or if such witness, competing for notice among so many other clamors, seems more authentic the more it is amateurish—handheld, homemade, accidental, satellite surveillance? Here is what happened. Our obligation is to think past what happened to why, to make distinctions and connections and a difference in the atrocious world.
HBO. Premieres Sunday, May 21, 8 P.M.