The Digital Journalist
War Unvarnished:
"Baghdad ER"

by Ron Steinman

June 2006

On Sunday, May 21 at 8 p.m, HBO presented a documentary about the war in Iraq called "Baghdad ER." It is now available on HBO on Demand and will air regularly in prime time, as it should.

I originally had no intention of writing about this film. I have known Jon Alpert, one of the two directors, for more than 20 years. The other director, Matthew O'Neill, I do not know. The film and HBO were getting more than enough publicity in print and online. I decided enough was enough. After seeing the film in the quiet of my living room, however, I changed my mind and this is why.

Alpert and O'Neill spent two months in Iraq working with the 86th Combat Support Hospital with the complete cooperation of the U.S. Army. The film they made is a brilliant and powerful documentary. Cliché or not, it is an unflinching look at the war rarely seen on TV, especially these days where there is too little coverage of the war on TV other than endless talk.

Importantly, there is no narrator. There is no need for one. The action in the film speaks for itself, allowing the sequences to move from one to the next with a descriptive line or two in a black frame that separates each. With their seamless ability of seeming to be everywhere, Alpert and O'Neill demonstrate the horror of war and how it destroys lives, whether through death or maiming so horrible it defies the imagination. Yet, to their credit, they are never obtrusive.

The film is strong; its reality, potent. Blood and severed limbs are everywhere, so much so that without any effort you can the smell the blood on the sheets and on the floors. Seeing the hospital staff cleanse the operating room of blood, gore and severed limbs, before a new set of wounded arrives, brings home the horror of war better than a firefight. Even in war, the OR must be pristine before the residue of violence settles in to become a permanent fixture of the hospital.

The Army has reportedly advised its forces not to view the film because it may trigger post-traumatic stress disorder, PTSD. Well it might. And if it does, it probably means the Department of Defense recognizes the horror of this unnecessary war. Afraid of PTSD? A specious argument by the Army to do what? Protect veterans and their families from the truth of war? Though the military is not willing to admit it, every soldier in combat and every returned veteran is a candidate for PTSD. Just as important, seeing the result of war close-up also puts a lie to those "wonderfully" produced recruiting commercials that depict Army life as the eighth wonder of the world.

During the war in Vietnam, I was no stranger to military hospitals in my job as bureau chief for NBC News. In Army hospitals in many parts of the country, I witnessed triage, the emergency room (ER), and the operating room (OR). I saw what war did to our soldiers in South Vietnam, just as Alpert and O'Neill show what the war is doing to our young in Iraq. Having personally seen more than enough of what we see in this documentary, it was still a difficult film to watch. Mercifully, most people do not have my experience. For them, the film should be required viewing. These are sights rarely seen, and as horrifying as they are, ones that no one should miss.

During an interlude between treating patients, one dedicated surgeon says he hates war, but that he holds this time in his life very dear. He says he hopes he is making a difference. Despite his unease, I am sure he knows he is. Then, despite the carnage he sees every day, he asks, "Would I do it again?" He pauses and answers his own question: "In a heartbeat." Is he against the war? I don't presume to know his politics, but I think as a physician and humanitarian he is probably against the killing and maiming that goes with war.

This brings me to my final point. I am sure many will call this an anti-war film. By its nature, because it shows the cruelty of war, that would be a predictable comment. The film does nothing to glorify the Iraq war. But it makes no difference what Jon Alpert and Mathew O'Neill, or HBO, think about the war. It does matter that the public has a chance to see how dirty war really is, to hear dedicated medical personnel who never give up or give in to the serious wounds they treat, and who, it seems obvious, know that tomorrow can and probably will be worse than today. That honesty is all we can ask of any film whatever the subject, and with "Baghdad ER," it is exactly what we get.

© Ron Steinman

Ron Steinman, a regular contributor to The Digital Journalist, is an award-winning producer of television news and documentaries. He was NBC's bureau chief in Saigon during the Vietnam War. He is also an author and freelance documentarian through his company, Douglas/Steinman Productions. Buy Ron Steinman's book: Inside Television's First War.