Monday, April 05, 2010


Since Leni Riefenstahl put the nascent Third Reich on the map with "Triumph of the Will' back in the thirties, the documentary has maintained itself, not only as a form of propaganda but as an art form. That Mother Earth continues to have her troubles has only provided more opportunity for the cameraman - read to-day 'photo journalist'- to point the enlightening lens at things, that in years past, would have remained hidden. If the picture tells a thousand-word tale, then film or video can relate a saga. Where a picture can be staged, or edited or altered, live video is far more difficult (but not impossible) to fake. Particularly when it is taken in real time, out of doors.

How many world events have been affected by a photo, or by video? The assassination of a president captured by the home movie of an on-looker affected a generation. The moment a bullet was fired into the head of a bound captive gave the American public the notion that the war in Vietnam was not the clean war Look, Life  and National Geographic had been selling them. A host of live video in years to follow helped belie the claims of victory and a light in the tunnel. Vietnam was lost on the 6 o'clock news.

The lessons haven't been lost on the warfighters. 'Bad' - read a free and open - press can can damage a war effort by uncovering the bullshit with which such activity is normally festooned. And so, to-day, 'information operations' are every bit as important as strategy and tactics, for information often sets the stage, or defines and directs it.

One of the present's more notable 'information efforts' gone awry involves Fox News and retired Col. (and hero of the Contra wars) Oliver North. Two years back, Ollie , on a tour of western Afghanistan with a Fox News team in tow, had the opportunity to accompany a special forces unit on a raid on Afghan insurgents. The midnight visitation and the ensuing six hour 'battle' was, apparently, captured for posterity by the Fox News team. In the light of the next day the mistakes began to appear. The first was the large numbers of insurgent women and children killed in the Afghan compound, bombed by NATO aircraft after the raiders had reported being fired upon. Oliver North was among the first eyewitnesses denying that any women and children had been killed in a firefight with 'massive numbers' of insurgents. Unfortunately the Afghans had cameras too, and, within a day, UN representatives were documenting the carnage as well. It turned out, after initial denials and a lengthy investigation, that there had been some 'bad intel' that resulted in the deaths of 80 plus Afghans gathered for a family celebration. To add insult to injury, the dead male Afghans formed the main part of a native defense force contracted to guard a nearby US air base. Needless to say the video that would have corroborated Ollie's version of the incident was never released. The UN's photos were.

A case currently before a military court in the States was the subject of the movie 'Haditha'. A Marine sergeant is currently on trial for the manslaughter of a dozen or so Iraqis in a 'battle' that started when an American force, that had been 'frustrated' by insurgents hiding among the residents of the town, were struck by an IED which killed one of them. Shortly afterward, a car full of  'insurgents' (who later turned out to be university students) happened on to the scene. While these were being marshaled for interrogation, the Marines claimed they were fired-upon from a nearby house. When the six Iraqi men from the car started to flee. The sharpshooting Sgt. managed to drop every one of them. His unit then tackled the unseen insurgents hiding in the house. 'Prepping with hand grenades' as they went, the Marines 'fought' a room-to-room battle through one house and into two others in  pursuit of insurgents whom they never managed to see but still managed to engage. What they did engage however were a number of women, children and old men, only two of whom, a young brother and sister survived. The Marines suffered no casualties from all the reported gunfire. The movie portrayed the tale sympathetically as young men frustrated by war doing a little too much that left them shocked. The photos taken at the scene by one of the Marines, as well as an official record made the next day by a Marine photographer, and the concommittent photos and video released by the Iraqis, gave the impression that there was a good amount of latitude in the battle report and possibly some staging in the pictures. A photo of the first six dead shows them lying in a group near their car, they must have revivified for a later picture shows the corpses scattered.  The dead in the houses demonstrate the effect of the grenade prep, but some of the corpses showed an interesting pattern of  'accidental' gunshots, many between the eyes. To date charges have been withdrawn against all others involved.

There are some good documentaries out recently. An English photojournalist called Ross Kemp has done some excellent work with British forces in Afghanistan, an honest look at the life of a soldier. He has also done a couple of good recent programs on Gaza and Israel.

'The Lionesses' takes an unvarnished look at a handful US army women who were seconded to the Marines to assist in security problems involving female Iraqis. It depicts the unifying perspective of military service to the country as a public good, while making note of the fact that such service often derives from economic necessity and, in the case of such women, can be more destabilizing of family life and equally as traumatic on a personal level. The "Lionesses" were an afterthought in the cakewalk that turned into the Iraq of to-day.

An HBO effort 'Baghdad High' made in 2007 lets 4 Iraqi high-schoolers tell part of their story through the use of video cameras loaned to let them document their lives. Along with the normal high school existence - friends and studies, interests and loves, there is the backdrop of a Baghdad spinning out of control where the air is filled with the train-roar of helicopter engines. Shooting and explosions happen all too regularly and the increasing danger leads to increased security measures - even at school with some of the boys considering leaving school altogether. At the end of the film we are told that two boys have graduated and one of them is at university, the other can't afford it.  Of the others one has failed and quit, the fourth is repeating his year. Amazing that these young men are so  much like ourselves.

'Taxi to the dark Side' is a classic of the genre. A docudrama,  the film tells the story of  one Afghan, who through a fluke of fate and location, winds up a suspected insurgent in Bagram prison. The experience there was to take his life. But the investigation that resulted opened the book on the 'enhanced interrogation techniques' that also sullied the Iraq experience.

'Brothers in War' tells the story of a young American Army officer and his 'photo-journalist ' brother who follows him to Iraq to document his service there. The story also explores the relationships on the home front with parents, wives, families and girlfriends.

If the Vietnam war was well-documented - indeed as as claimed, 'lost' by the negative images it generated, then the 'Asian Wars' of the new millennium, too, will have their tales to tell. With the exception that, if they are lost, the loss can't be laid at the doorstep of a society misled by an antagonistic press.

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