'Baghdad ER': Saluting Valor On the Medical Front Lines

Medical personnel in the 86th Combat Support Hospital work feverishly to save American and Iraqi lives in the HBO documentary
Medical personnel in the 86th Combat Support Hospital work feverishly to save American and Iraqi lives in the HBO documentary "Baghdad ER." (HBO)
By Tom Shales
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, May 20, 2006

To read political motives into "Baghdad ER," a poignant and powerful documentary about military medical personnel working in Iraq, would be to insult and diminish not only the film but also its subjects. Even so, the right wing has started flapping already, and the Pentagon reputedly finds the movie worrisome.

Truth is always worrisome to those with vested interests. Those who would denigrate the film -- which is a lesson in humanity, not politics -- presumably have chosen to ignore the printed prologue on the screen: "This film is a tribute to the heroism and sacrifice of the soldiers who are the patients and staff of the 86th Combat Support Hospital" -- men and women working feverishly and around the clock to put wounded soldiers back together amid the horror of a bedeviling war.

"Baghdad ER," premiering tomorrow night on HBO (with a timely encore on Memorial Day at 10 p.m.), deals far more in actions than in words -- the sometimes desperate actions of medical personnel who repair wounds, alleviate suffering and try to restore the spirits of soldiers who arrive in the hospital with bodies riddled by shrapnel or with severely mangled limbs.

Among the first of innumerable stinging images: a nurse carrying a severed arm from the operating table to a plastic disposal bag. Says a corporal working with the team: "We do our best, our level best, to make sure that our people survive and make it back to their homes." The prologue states that 90 percent of the American soldiers wounded in the war survive, patched up at the Baghdad hospital and flown to Germany for more thorough and elaborate care. And the patients include not only American soldiers but also Iraqi citizens.

"It just hurts a little bit from the burns to keep my eyes open," says a young man who risks losing his vision (but doesn't, we learn later) from burns to his face. "It'll take time to heal -- just like my hand," philosophizes a National Guardsman who lost a thumb -- and his best buddy -- in a "traumatic incident": Their Humvee was hit by mortar fire.

The enemy's destructive weapon of choice is the IED -- improvised explosive devices that can be hidden along roadsides, in abandoned vehicles, almost anywhere. They are a coward's weapon, deposited under dark of night and left to do its worst, tearing victims apart when activated. Another problem is the insidious timing of double explosions -- one set to kill or maim as many victims as possible, then another calculated to go off when rescue workers are likely to have rushed to the aid of those injured in the first blast.

HBO leaked a print of the film to an op-ed pundit who wrote about it weeks ago and noted that it was neither pro-war nor antiwar. It sets one to wondering: What kind of documentary filmmaker of measurable sanity would set out to make a pro-war movie? Haven't the lunacy and inefficiency of war been fairly well established after all these centuries?

The more relevant question, and one more likely to stir debate, is whether the film, made by the brilliant documentarian Jon Alpert along with Matthew O'Neill, is for or against the Iraq war. Understandably, the constant influx of maimed, shattered and near-dead bodies takes its psychological toll on the medics. One of them finally erupts: "I hate this stupid war. I think it's the most ridiculous thing I've ever seen. I don't think it's more intelligent than any other war that's ever been fought."

Even so, he says the work done in the beleaguered hospital is "very dear to my heart" and deeply rewarding: "I hope I've had a chance to make a difference. Would I do it again? In a heartbeat." He's hardly giving aid and comfort to those calling for the withdrawal of American troops.

The camera is present at the most intimate and sometimes most mournful moments. After working feverishly to revive a badly injured soldier, the doctor on duty finally announces, "Okay, it's called," meaning the young man is pronounced dead. "Right now it's 11:56," he says for the record, and to his colleagues, "Nice try, guys."

For all the grimness, the doctors try to leaven the horror with humor, inevitably bringing to mind "M*A*S*H" and its depiction of comic relief among medical personnel in the Korean conflict. A doctor tells a "sick" joke about a double amputee to break the tension and explains that a little "gallows humor" is necessary because "it helps keep us sane."

One battered victim, it is noted, turned 21 the day before he was riddled with shrapnel, and a nurse, after promising him a beer once he gets to the hospital in Germany, mutters sadly, "Some of 'em aren't even old enough to drink." On the Fourth of July, one doctor announces his wish for the celebration: "No dead soldiers . . . today," and gets it. A National Guardsman from New York, one of the first victims seen in the film, was shot by a sniper, we learn, while he was giving out candy to Iraqi children.

An ER doctor tells one young soldier, who is choking back tears, that it's okay to cry over the loss of a buddy, and the soldier bursts out weeping. Later, a doctor whispers urgent encouragement into the ear of a badly wounded Marine: "Hang in there . . . keep fighting," hoping he can help the injured man steel his resolve to live. It may be the film's most wrenching sequence.

The choppers arrive with frequency with their cargo of bodies that are bloodied and torn and, sometimes, dead. No one says anything political or blames any particular elected official for the carnage, and no one comes right out and calls it monstrously misguided, either.

But one doctor, exasperated almost to the breaking point and seeming to speak for his similarly exhausted colleagues, pauses during a lull to wonder why any of them are there: "This war, and the number of lives affected by it, is just unbelievable. I have to think . . . we'll be in a better place for it. I have to believe that.

"Otherwise, this is just sheer madness."

"Baghdad ER," which brings the war home more painfully than perhaps any other film has done, or tried to do, is sheer, if bitter, brilliance.

Baghdad ER (60 minutes) airs tomorrow night at 8 on HBO.

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