A new three-part series, titled simply The Iraq War, sets out to document the deliberations of high-profile political decision-makers both before and after the invasion of Iraq in 2003, drawing upon an impressive array of archive and original interview material. Produced by documentary supremos Brook Lapping for BBC2, the Series Producer is Norma Percy. Percy, a former parliamentary researcher, has acquired a formidable reputation for gaining access to high-profile figures, although I have found her previous work hugely problematic. Her take on Balkan wars of the 1990s in The Death of Yugoslavia and The Fall of Milošević, for example, demonises Slobodan Milošević and presents the Serbs as the sole aggressors in the conflicts - an appealingly simple Manichean narrative that is fully consistent with the mainstream Western script, but which will not do as a serious account of the wars in the former Yugoslavia. Unfortunately, The Iraq War adopts the same techniques - and displays the same geopolitical biases - as Percy's earlier work.
Television critics have generally applauded the production. In a blog post for the Telegraph, for example, David Blair writes that: 'As with all the best documentaries, there was no attempt to exaggerate: episode one covered the build-up to war and the programme-makers allowed the drama to speak for itself'. But there are good grounds for questioning whether documentary producers can ever really adopt a 'hands-off' approach to their material, as Blair implies they can. Every documentary tells a story that is the result of innumerable choices, including the selection of interviewees and archive material, the style and content of the narration and editing. So what kind of story is told in The Iraq War? What points of view does the documentary, to use Blair's word, 'allow' - and by the same token, what perspectives does it disallow?
The series' use of a 'Voice of God' style of narration, its tendency to concentrate on testimony rather than voiceover, and its stately mis-en-scene (which largely consists of elite politicians - mostly men - talking dispassionately to camera in elegantly furnished rooms), all construct the production as authoritative. But The Iraq War has a clear pro-coalition bias. For one thing, the majority of the interviewees are key British and US politicians, along with members of the Iraqi interim government they installed. And these politicians are not interrogated; rather, they are given the opportunity to talk to camera uninterrupted by the interviewers' questions, which are edited out.
As one might expect, then, the documentary's take on the Iraq war reflects the point of view of the US and British ruling classes. The first episode, for example, ends with US Deputy National Security Adviser Stephen Hadley's comment that the US's attempt to kill Saddam Hussein before the invasion constituted a 'last ditch effort to head off a war' that 'regrettably failed', as though the US had been reluctantly drawn into the invasion. Throughout the documentary, meanwhile, violence and disorder are linked to Iraqi insurgents, while the coalition partners are constructed as harbingers of peace. At the end of the first episode, for instance, the narrator, Alex Jennings, asserts that 'America and Britain quickly won the war, but lost the peace'. In the second episode, he comments that in Fallujah in 2004, US forces 'hit back' after the killing of four contractors by insurgents - an extraordinary description of a devastating assault by the US Marines that left much of the city in ruins. According to The Iraq War, then, coalition forces fought reluctantly and defensively for the good of the Iraqi people. Indeed, for the politicians and advisers interviewed here, there is no doubt that the invasion was well-intentioned and benign, if not always successful. As Paul Bremer recalls saying to George W. Bush, apparently without irony, 'fixing a country is not something you do overnight'.
Often what is most revealing about a documentary is not so much what is said, but what is missed out. Significantly, there is no mention in any of the production's three episodes of Western oil and other industrial interests in Iraq, which arguably constituted a major part of the rationale for invasion; rather, the attack on Iraq is presented as a bid for 'régime change' (the title of the first episode). Hussein, we are reminded by several of the interviewees, was a brutal villain whose 'régime' had to be brought to an end; yet the violent history of the Western powers is predictably ignored. Ignored, too, are the lies told to justify the invasion of Iraq: namely, that Iraq possessed weapons of mass destruction, posed a deadly threat to the world, and had links to Al Qaeda. And what of the longer history of Iraq's relationship with the US - in particular the 12 years of inhuman sanctions that preceded the 2003 invasion and which surely undermine any claim that the Iraq war was fought out of a concern for the wellbeing of Iraqi people?
The Iraq War is certainly not without interest: it does provides some insights into the often murky relationships between politicians and journalists and into the differences of opinion among members of the British and US governments as the war drums began to beat (indeed, there can be little doubt that many sceptical politicians were forced to bite their tongues as the war began and many are likely to have been practising a sort of political Ketman ever since). Some moments in the documentary are even open to a critical reading. As John Crace notes in The Guardian, one of these comes in episode 3 when Jack Straw openly admits that he and Condoleeza Rice talked Ibrahim al-Jaafari into stepping down as Iraq's first Prime Minister - an action that indicates the extent of neo-colonial manipulation in post-invasion Iraq. What is missing, however - despite the occasional reference to the public opposition to the war - is the perspective of the working class, who were, in large number, the victims of the war and who had no interest in its prosecution.