Judge Victor Valdivia wonders if the History Channel's next production will be called The 2012 Elections: A Look Back at Something That Hasn't Actually Happened Yet.
"We started with what can only be described as a bad plan, and then we didn't execute it well."—Col. Thomas Hammes, USMC (Ret.)
With The Iraq War, the History Channel purports to tell the full story of the 2003 invasion and its aftermath. What it actually does is highlight the hazards of attempting to put together a comprehensive history of events that haven't finished happening.
Facts of the Case
Here are the episodes contained on both discs:
• "One Year Later: Invasion" (45:18)
In March 2003, U.S. and British troops launch a massive invasion of Iraq designed to topple the reigning dictatorship of Saddam Hussein. A large and coordinated assault moves in from the south en route to Baghdad.
• "One Year Later: Tough Going" (45:18)
U.S. and British forces meet unexpected heavy resistance in southern cities, leading to the capture of several U.S. POWs, including Jessica Lynch.
• "One Year Later: Baghdad's Doorstep" (44:51)
U.S. forces finally defeat Iraqi Republican Guard troops in and around Baghdad and are able to take Baghdad Airport and many surrounding suburbs. From the north, U.S. Army soldiers team up with Kurdish resistance fighters to open up another front.
• "Eyewitness in Iraq" (45:04)
Combat photographers from various countries discuss some of the candid and graphic pictures taken before, during, and after the invasion.
• "One Year Later: Fall of Saddam" (45:17)
U.S. Marines finally enter Baghdad and capture the capital as Saddam's government collapses, and he escapes. The final step of the invasion is complete as U.S. forces capture the remaining cities in the north.
• "One Year Later: Aftermath" (45:18)
What began as a successful mission quickly sours as the total collapse of the Iraqi government leads to anarchy, looting, and riots. A series of disastrous decisions by the post-invasion civilian authority leads to the rise of a brutal and savage insurgency that leads to more deaths after the invasion than during the war.
• "U.S. Weapons against Iraq" (43:53)
An in-depth look at some of the technology and tactics used in the Iraq War.
• "Iraq War: Insurgency and Counterinsurgency"
By December 2005, the insurgency in Iraq has left a trail of blood and destruction that dwarfs anything that happened during the initial invasion. U.S. soldiers train Iraqi soldiers and police officers in counterinsurgency tactics to combat a new breed of well-trained and well-funded terrorists and guerillas.
The Iraq War is meant to work on two levels. As an in-depth look at the military and technological successes of the U.S. and coalition armies during the 2003 invasion, it's mostly informative. As a look at the political and global implications of the invasion and its aftermath, it's skimpy and badly dated. Much of the material on these two discs was produced in 2004, barely a year after the initial U.S. invasion, so some of what appears here has either been discredited or rendered irrelevant.
The shows that make up the bulk of the set are very thorough in detailing every major occurrence during the initial invasion. Every battle with Saddam's army, every fight with Ba'ath party loyalists, every decision made by Coalition commanders in the field during April 2003 is dissected in full, sometimes excruciating detail. In fact, the minute attention paid to many of these battles is occasionally numbing and excessive. As a result, while this does give it the edge as an exhaustive portrait of the actual invasion, it doesn't really work as a full picture of the war itself. Because this was mostly produced in 2004, much of the information here has dated badly. Given how disastrously the post-invasion period has turned out, is it really all that important to learn if Saddam's army held the airport for two or three days?
Such a stubbornly narrow focus is present virtually throughout the entire set. Despite what the liner notes promise, there is nothing here about the decisions made before the invasion. There is no examination of how the Bush administration justified it, how they planned it, or why they failed in assessing its effects. There is also no input from any Iraqis, civilians or otherwise, or any government officials or journalists. Only military personnel, from infantry all the way up to generals are interviewed, as well as a few Washington D.C. think-tank pundits. While the military heavy bias is unusual and gives a perspective rarely, if ever, seen on most TV news shows about the war, the narrow focus means that viewers never really get a larger overall picture of the war. As a result, how a successful invasion turned into a catastrophic and bloody occupation is a question that isn't clearly answered.
Even with all the detail however, the shows still have some rather significant holes in their storytelling that emphasize just how limited they really are. "One Year Later: Tough Going" asserts that U.S. troops expected less resistance from the southern cities of Iraq, as those were areas known to be hostile to Saddam's reign. Yet the show has plenty of footage of fierce battles that occurred there. Why the intelligence about this was wrong is never explained. Considering that faulty intelligence about Iraq is considered by most (even President Bush himself) to be a crucial flaw in the war's battle plan, this is a genuinely bizarre omission. The show also repeats the story about the capture and rescue of Private Jessica Lynch, a story that has since been discredited by Lynch herself as propaganda invented by civilian P.R. handlers at the Pentagon.
The post-invasion period of the war is only dealt with in two episodes, "Aftermath" and "Insurgency," and these shows do take a much more general approach to the war. "Insurgency" even has interviews with journalists and Iraqi civilians. Nonetheless, the insurgency is still addressed less in political or global terms and more in purely military ones. For instance, the decisions made by U.S. civilian authority Paul Bremer to disband the Iraqi Army and fire all members of Saddam's Ba'ath Party from any government posts would prove to be two of the single most calamitous decisions made during this war, and they would be instrumental in leading to the strength and ferocity of the insurgency. Yet they are all but glossed over here. Considering that the "Insurgency" show is meant to be an in-depth examination of how the insurgents came about and possible tactics that could be used to deal with them, there's no logical reason to sidestep this issue. It's worth mentioning, however, that "Insurgency" dates from 2005, unlike the other programs, so it's at least somewhat more up-to-date than most of the others. Nonetheless, though military buffs may find some of this compelling, anyone who is far more interested in the political and global implications of the war will find even these shows deeply unsatisfying.
The other two extra episodes are varied. "Eyewitness in Iraq" is a meticulous look at various press photographers from all over the world who spent time in Iraq before, during, and after the invasion. Many of the pictures they took are, as could be expected, shocking and gruesome, but there are others that are more informative, including shots of life in Baghdad just before the invasion and the day-to-day lives of Coalition soldiers. It's not an all-inclusive look, and isn't meant to be, but it does provide a seldom-seen side to war. It's worth watching, as it adds to a more rounded picture of the overall campaign. "U.S. Weapons against Iraq," on the other hand, is strictly tech stuff for hardcore gearheads. Anyone else will be bored and confused by it.
Since none of the material seen here is older than 2003, the video quality is better than on many History Channel programs. The full-screen transfer and stereo mix are acceptable.
If The Iraq War was more accurately titled Invasion of Iraq: A Military Perspective and was accompanied by more varied points of view, it might be considered a satisfactory (if occasionally flawed) program. The title and packaging, however, suggest a far more comprehensive examination than is actually seen here. Though the programming on the two discs totals six hours, the amount of material that isn't dated or extraneous is significantly less. There are better sources elsewhere.
Guilty of promising far more than it actually delivers.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: History Channel
• Eyewitness in Iraq
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