At the outset, Once Upon a Time in Iraq (BBC Two) promises to tell the story of the 2003 invasion in an unfamiliar way, not from the perspective of the politicians or the analysts, but by asking the people who were there to tell their stories. Its director, James Bluemel, employed a similar tactic to devastating effect in the Bafta-winning Exodus: Our Journey and Our Journey to Europe, asking refugees fleeing Syria to tell their own stories. The approach is no less devastating here, and this five-part series is gripping, harrowing and, at times, darkly funny.
It begins with archive footage and the familiar voices of Bush and Blair. Then journalists, soldiers and Iraqi civilians take over, recounting the period leading up to, and including, the invasion in 2003, painstakingly unravelling the argument that the country was made safer and more stable. Bluemel has found an impressive array of voices, each of whom has a different take on what happened and what went wrong.
The standout is Waleed Nesyif, who vapes, smokes and wisecracks his way through his interview. As an 18-year-old, he sang in Iraq’s only heavy-metal band. In 2003, before the war, he took part in a sort of TV show cultural exchange, in which American and Iraqi teenagers spoke to each other from their respective countries. War, they knew, was coming, but they had the Backstreet Boys and a love of McDonald’s in common. (In one of the many drily funny moments, Nesyif talks of his infatuation with the west, and is excited by the arrival of a McDonald’s, which turns out to be a fake called MaDonal.) “Am I wrong or did I sound like Borat?” he says now. “Hello, people of America!”
After the invasion, he became a translator, earning more in a day than his father did in six months. But his love of the west, with blue jeans and Coca-Cola, soon fell apart. We see footage of him picking through the rubble of a family home obliterated by five US helicopters. This is the reality of the conflict: a single child’s shoe buried in sand, a 12-year-old boy’s torn-up geography textbook, bloodied blankets, a shattered baby doll. All his family, bar his father and brother, had been killed. “People can’t be that bad. They can’t be that evil,” Nesyif recalls thinking, as the old footage plays, showing the shock hitting him slowly but hard.
Bluemel asks the right questions at the right times. Another big figure is Sergeant Rudy Reyes, an elite US Marine who went into Iraq ahead of the main invasion in order to destroy strategic targets. He takes a shot of tequila before he begins to speak, then asks for the bottle and takes a huge gulp. He is matter-of-fact when it comes to talking about his job, calling himself and his fellow soldiers “very capable, violent professionals”, examining the way in which he was trained to kill with detached precision. But there are times when his detached precision begins to waver. He recalls putting up a sign in Arabic marking a roadblock, only to have it ignored by people who drove straight through it. “We killed some civilians,” he says, explaining that they realised later that some people could not read. Bluemel asks him if he thinks it was worth it. “Yes it’s worth it,” he says, then he pauses. “I mean it has to be worth it.” Another pause. “What’s the alternative?”
A former adviser to Saddam Hussein explains that he misses him every day, and dreams of him. An Iraqi woman talks of an attempted assassination against Saddam which resulted in deadly retaliations against those involved. Sally recalls being six years old when missiles fell on Baghdad, and her astonishment at the US troops, who were, she laughs, weirder than she expected them to be. They gave the children sweets, she gave one of the soldiers a flower and asked if he was a Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle because he had an enormous bag on his back. When she got home, her mother had locked the door in terror.
As an account of the events of 2003, this is enthralling, pacy and masterly. “We saw it on the news and thought we had missed the war,” says the photographer Ashley Gilbertson, recalling the invasion. But the war was yet to come. The immediate aftermath was a mess, “total bedlam”, as she puts it. The country was destroyed, the infrastructure gone, with no thought as to how to rebuild. The oil ministry was the only building left protected by the troops.