Once Upon a Time in Iraq: A harrowing but flawed narrative of a traumatised nation

Once Upon a Time in Iraq: A harrowing but flawed narrative of a traumatised nation
Once Upon a Time in Iraq is a gripping but fragmented portrayal of a nation torn apart by war.
8 min read
29 July, 2020
A new documentary series traces events in Iraq from the 2003 invasion. [Getty]
War as the locus point of all things Iraqi is a popular but erroneous lens colouring the ways that the country and the 2003 invasion have been discussed by English-speaking media. 

Once Upon a Time in Iraq, a new BBC Two five-part documentary series by James Bluemel has been commended, largely in the West, for its perceived ability to challenge myopic views of the Iraq war. 

The series traces events between 2003, when occupation forces put Iraq in a stranglehold, and 2014, the moment the Islamic State was born. It yields the floor to Iraqi and American subjects who, though stood on opposite sides, share on camera their lived experiences of fighting and surviving the war, and the inner demons those events unleashed. 

A treasure-trove of archival footage animates the story, intertwined alongside sombre interviews. Participants are invited onto a dark, unadorned set, which feels akin to a therapy session, as they walk the audience down memory lane, pebbled with recollections of loss and trauma. 

From the American camp, we hear the accounts of occupying soldiers, the families of deceased servicemen, a Saddam Hussein-besotted CIA advisor, and New York Times media personnel. 

Sally Mars, who was aged six at the time of the invasion, is the youngest Iraqi female participant. A year before the series was broadcast, she and Waleed Neysif - one of the show's leading Iraqi voices - sat at a Baghdad cafe discussing musical collaborations, when Waleed told Sally, "Come! We're filming this documentary", she told The New Arab from Baghdad.

Once Upon a Time in Iraq has been commended, largely in the West, for its perceived ability to challenge myopic views of the war

Sally joked about her serendipitous participation and praised the show for the diversity of Iraqi perspectives presented, "shown candidly in a way no other documentary has before," she said.

Leafing through journals she wrote as a child, Sally recalls on camera her sensory experience of war, the stench of bodies strewn across streets, decomposing corpses in pickup trucks, and the sight of blood. Scenes, that as she describes, no child should bear witness to. 

Traumatic memories pepper the recollections of every Iraqi participant. Waleed, 18-years-old at the time US President George W. Bush ordered the war, is filmed looking back over footage of himself as a teenager in the early weeks of the invasion. As a fluent English speaker, Waleed accompanied Western journalists to the aftermath of crime scenes where families were extinguished from existence. 

Producers were able to track down Alaa Adel, another Iraqi participant, whom Waleed met as a 12-year-old child, blinded in one eye where a piece of shrapnel lodged itself after it pierced through her cheek following a car bomb explosion.

Reliving the moment of when he met Alaa and her family, Waleed summarised the experience as something which "f****d-him up for life". Alaa similarly describes how 17 years on, the sense of security she and her family were robbed of that day was something she never recovered.  

The series is interspersed with other Iraqi voices including mothers, widows, survivors, and an Iraqi translator recruited by occupying forces. We also hear from a Saddam Hussein loyalist, miscast as an advisor when in fact he merely held an administrative position at the Iraqi Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

Better known public figures from Iraq such as political satirist Ahmed Albasheer and Mosul Eye founder and historian, Omar Mohammed, also feature. Their beliefs and the positions shared by each are by no means unanimous, but what they do have in common is the view that Iraq is anything but better off after Saddam Hussein's removal.

Trust is not the key that allows Bluemel to access untold Iraqi stories. Those familiar with Iraq coverage will recognise that the series in fact recycles stories well documented by Western outlets. These include Ali Hussein, the sole survivor of the heinous Speicher Massacre by the Islamic State, Umm Qusay, a woman from Tikrit famed for sheltering military cadets during the massacre, and Mustafa Abed, who lost his leg as a child due to a US missile strike on his hometown of Fallujah. 

The documentary's attempt to recall the past is at best incomplete, in spite of its merits in bringing Iraqi suffering back into public consciousness

What the documentary recognises and taps into is a brimming desire within many Iraqis; the need to unburden themselves in absence of safe avenues where their stories can be shared and told even 17 years after Saddam Hussein was toppled. In a traumatised nation like Iraq, unending tragedies and rising poverty have busied civilians, focused not on the need to be heard, but the need to survive within such a bleak environment.  

In spite of the space the documentary opens up for Iraqis to express themselves, the historical timeline Bluemel crafts is limited. Negative Iraqi sentiments towards successive post-2003 governments and their failings are glaringly absent. Frustrations against the corrupt ruling elite that culminated in Iraq's October uprising last year, where Iraqis irrespective of sect rallied in the streets demanding wholesale change of the political order, are equally ignored.

Iraq's very own Arab Spring moment is labelled 'Sunni', with little mention of cross-sectarian solidarity that emerged at the time of protests that spread to Mosul and Baghdad.

Instead, Saddam Hussein's rule is the subject that assumes front and centre stage. His role in Iraq's calamitous trajectory is indeed impossible to skate over, but the obsessiveness feels tawdry. 

The documentary's attempt to recall the past is at best incomplete, in spite of its merits in bringing Iraqi suffering back into public consciousness. If the aim is really that, how do viewers square this against the editorial decision to airbrush British complicity and the participation of British forces in Basra from the story. This is not to undermine the colossal climb a project like this poses for any filmmaker. It is to dutifully critique the view that the documentary champions the Iraqi perspective. 

Negative Iraqi sentiments towards successive post-2003 governments and their failings are glaringly absent

A closer inspection of the narrative flags similar shortcomings, including a sanitised retelling of history by casting America as the sole conductor of war and thus, shifting attention away from America's partner in crime: Britain. 

The hour-long episode dedicated to events in Fallujah, the site of the fiercest urban battles between US Marine forces and Iraq's resistance movement, is void of necessary context. The footage is assessed to be from only the second battle, with no mention of the first, known as Operation Vigilant Resolve, whose key objective was not to neutralise the 'enemy' but to pacify the city in its entirety even if this meant the decimation of Fallujans. 

Overall, events in Fallujah are depicted as a black hole that incubated the insurgency. This revisionist reading is further reinforced by the attempt to draw a straight line between Saddam Hussein and the Iraqi insurgency which, intentionally or unconsciously, criminalises the population's right to self-defence. This myopia erodes any merits the documentary achieves.

Other tropes include the mislabelling of insurgents as 'Sunni' and less-than subtle sectarian clichés that in moments frame Iraqis as savage, camel riding folk, beset by primordial hatred. 

The most preposterous claim that brings this view to light is enunciated by former US Marine, turned-actor, Rudy Reyes who takes a hard swig of liquor before recounting how he and his colleagues shot dead countless "illiterate" civilians at a makeshift checkpoint, claiming that they could not read the signage warning them not to enter. Disappointingly, the interviewer leaves the spurious claim unchallenged.

Illiteracy rates in post-2003 Iraq have climbed to a new historical high. Prior to the invasion, the eradication of illiteracy was a feat that Iraq was synonymous with, gaining regional, international and UN recognition. Equally bemusing is the choice of footage that casts Iraq's army, before 2003, as a ragtag force of moustachioed overweight men.  

Claims that the documentary forces the public to revaluate events in the Iraq war feel naive

Another worn out trope introduced in episode one, is the tacit claim that Iraqis were relieved at the sight of Americans that many believed had come to liberate their country from dictatorship. This subtly implies that the arrival of occupying soldiers went unopposed. Subsequent episodes advance this view by framing Iraqi insurgents as 'Sunnis,' and the sole force opposed to America's mission, after the invasion upended years of 'Sunni rule'. 

Carefully selected footage and stories of children handing roses to uniformed American soldiers, is hardly evidence of a deep founded appreciation for occupational rule and the indignity Iraqis suffered as a result. 

While subjects were not asked about their feelings towards the existing government, Sally told The New Arab that she consciously brought up the woeful state of corruption in Iraq today during her interviews, none of which made it into the final cut. 

Read more: Tracing a lost past: National memory in the
forgotten photo archives of Iraq

Where the documentary does succeed is in its ability to capture the euphoria felt by journalists and retired US officers during their time in Iraq. We see retired Lieutenant Colonel Nate Sassaman, responsible for countless deaths, and NYT journalist Dexter Filkins, among others, discuss their roles and what they bore witness to with electrifying alacrity.

We see how Sassaman, 17 years on, riddled with demons, has settled into a new job as a leadership coach, boasting to his mentees stories of his time in Iraq's "Sunni triangle". 

Though deeply unsettling, it captures the pitiful confidence of men celebrated and written into history as virtuous patriots. 

The documentary is an important historical archive, that much is undeniable. But the story told chimes not with popular Iraqi sentiments but Britain's sanitised narrative, carefully stitched to exclude conversations about Britain and America's appeasement of the corrupt government in existence today. 

The claim that Bluemel's documentary forces the public to revaluate events in Iraq feels naive, particularly when recognising, as many Iraqis do, the ways that spurious claims, obsessions with sectarian identities and Saddam Hussein, form the framework through which Iraq's story is re-told and re-sold. 

Notwithstanding its successes in flinging open the doors of discussion, at the most basic level, the film fails in its message, perpetuating, by choice, a myopic and premade narrative of Iraq.

Nazli Tarzi is a freelance British-Iraqi journalist, specialising in Middle East politics, with a particular interest in Iraqi affairs. 

Follow her on Twitter: @NazliTarzi