“I’ve made a number of films in the Middle East over the last 10 years, including the Bafta-nominated Tea with the Taliban, the first ever film to get inside the Taliban regime in Afghanistan. But when I proposed a documentary on the simmering insurgency war in Iraq in September 2003, I was turned down by every British broadcaster. The war was over, I was informed. “Baghdad,” explained one TV executive. “We’ve been there and done that.”
As far as the media were concerned, President Bush and Prime Minister Blair were right. The war was over. But I was getting calls from my contacts in the Middle East saying the complete opposite. So I packed my bags and camera, and went off to Iraq without a commission. I arrived in November 2003, seven months after President Bush declared: “Mission Accomplished”. My hotel came under rocket attack on my first night. And as I quickly discovered, the real war had only just begun.
I spent more than three months in Baghdad, and in the so-called Sunni Triangle towns like Fallujha, Ramadi and Samarra. By January 2004, it was clear that towns like Fallujha were already out of control, with US forces coming under regular attack. But the media were still ignoring the reality on the ground, and the White House was still attempting to conceal the true extent of the insurgency, flying their wounded back under the cover of darkness and banning media coverage of funerals back home.
I visited a U.S. military combat hospital and witnessed scenes reminiscent of Vietnam. Helicopters landed every hour, bringing in the new wounded. “I don’t want to get myself in trouble,” commented one medic. “But the American public are being just a little bit misled.” That was back in February 2004, the same month I visited the notorious Abu Ghraib prison and heard about the use of sexual and physical torture inside – three months before the American public learned about the same horrifying facts.
The locals knew all about the torture in Abu Ghraib months before the rest of us did. But because of the hazards involved, and the constraints of working with a large team to news deadlines, most television crews have failed to report on what is really happening on the ground in Iraq.
My film was only possible to make because I was a one-man team, and because I was able to spend three months on one story. I would travel to towns like Fallujha and remain over-night, eating and sleeping in local homes. This gave me a unique access and is the reason why Mission Accomplished is the first film ever made to include in-depth interviews with members of the Iraqi resistance, or the insurgents as they’re more commonly known.
I’ve worked for many years in the Middle East, making personal, video-diary films in the region, and I’ve learned the only way to cover the story properly is from within. People are often reluctant to talk, and often come across as extreme. But spend time in the region and you soon find yourself treated as a welcome guest by the same people. Even in Iraq, after I’d been attacked by an angry mob on the street, I was invited to a house in the town and treated like a king. The local sheik even insisted on feeding me grilled chicken by his hand.
I also spent a lot of time on American bases with American soldiers, and out on patrol. The European media are often critical of U.S. policy, but have recently begun to confuse American people with American foreign policy. Spending time with American soldiers, I was struck by their warmth and generosity towards me. And every time I went to a base, it was like coming home.
On one occasion I came under fire in Fallujha while out with the 82nd Airborne. It was an odd experience being on the receiving end in a town I knew so well. But I would have been prepared to shoot at anyone, even civilians, who came too close. And in a second, I was able to see how counter-insurgency wars are almost impossible to win. Especially when they’re being fought like this one in Iraq. In the three months I spent over there, I witnessed how U.S counter-insurgency tactics have helped turn an underground insurgency into a full-scale popular uprising.
The war is still being waged by a White House that refuses to accept the facts, and being reported by a media who are prepared to follow suit. Mission Accomplished shows the roots of this war, and shows how it’s now spreading. American policy has remained the same, but the war has got worse. American soldiers I met are now talking about being there for at least the next ten years. This film is about how we got to where we are today, but also provides a warning for tomorrow.
Read about Seans’ film Mission Accomplished