Television Reviews

DVD Review: War Feels Like War – Behind the Scenes in Iraq

When we think about both of the wars fought against Saddam Hussein, we think about the men and women of our military in harm’s way. Some think of the innocent people caught in the crossfire. Some people instantly think of the terrorists and other members of the opposition with hatred. Still others get angry at the politicians and businessmen for what they have wrought.

Hardly anyone gives any thought to those that bring the story home to us; the men and women who cover the war and try to help us see it in human terms for all those involved.

Follow a group of international journalists as they risk everything to cover WAR – the most challenging story of their lives…

War Feels Like War: POV shows what it’s like for the reporters covering the war. Americans seem to have a love/hate relationship with the media. People will decry them as distorting the truth, being intrusive, having an agenda, and at the same time stay glued to CNN the moment the SCUDS begin firing at Baghdad.

As the documentary opens, P.J. O’Rourke, from ABC radio, sits in an office with parakeets close by to warn him of poison from gas attacks. Other reporters are in containment suits in fear of the gas and nerve agents they were warned were coming. These are the headquarters of the talking heads we know so well from radio and television. Over 3,000 reporters were in Kuwait City as the invasion of Iraq approached. The action then turns to those not embedded with the military who strike out on their own in search of the story. These reporters follow the path the invading forces took into Iraq, but come away with something much different than what we saw.

The military was doing its best to control what the reporters saw, and their frustration is evident as they are being steered toward various staged photo-ops the military wants them to cover. There’s even a truly funny moment when the reporters are being steered to one of these areas with a military guide and one says “What a pile of $hit he’s giving us.”

Just like most of us have that love/hate relationship with the media, I felt the same ambiguity in this documentary. There was some excellent footage that hasn’t been sanitized for our viewing. It helps gain an idea of what both those serving over in the sandbox and those covering it go through. At the same time, some of the media covering the invasion act more like paparazzi tailing after Britney Spears. They are often in the face of the people suffering the most who are caught in the middle as the military blows through toward Baghdad. As the reporters sweep into Iraq following the invasion, it gets more gruesome.

At times the reporters say things that show how they get a terrible reputation. One female reporter talks about the day they were happy to be able to start photographing dead people. There’s a bit of remorse where she seems to briefly question what that says about her character (and the others surrounding her) but otherwise even as she’s trying to come to terms with what she’s been seeing, it’s all about the story.

What really struck me, though was the contrast in what was shown and how much control of the press has been surrendered to the military authorities in exchange for allowing embedded reporters to roll with the troops. What used to be impartial reporting has sold itself out to be able to be at the front with the soldiers and left scraps behind for others to pick at. I still think it’s horrible to be shoving a camera in the face of those grieving at a funeral in the name of getting “the real story” but it is something that wasn’t being shown otherwise. I ended up with mixed feelings on the whole subject, although not feeling quite as dirty as I do when viewing some of the gossip that passes as journalism nowadays.

This 60-minute documentary represents the culmination of three months of filming by Spanish filmmaker Esteban Uyarra. He followed around the journalists there on the fringes with a hand-held camera to capture their story, and to a lesser extent, the story of the civilians who weren’t terrorists, weren’t the enemy, and didn’t represent a danger to anyone. They were simply in the wrong place at the wrong time.

War is brutal, on all sides. We should know that by watching any documentary on the Second World War that hasn’t been sanitized. Those who don’t want to look at the faces that make up the collateral damage of the invasion, probably won’t like War Feels Like War: POV at all. I found it somewhat interesting, although if their objective was to get people to have some empathy for journalists covering the story it fails miserably. If anything, it serves to reinforce in many ways the bad reputation reports have for the way they cover a subject. Reporters are shown trying to espouse the journalistic integrity for getting the truth out, but in reality, it’s all about getting the story that sells, no matter what the cost to their souls or the hurt they inflict on those already suffering.

Available from Netflix.


• About POV
• PBS Online Resources

2 replies »

  1. Strictly speaking in my twin capacity as a guy who majored in journalism and studies military history, I don’t see the “media” as selling out when reporters agree to observe limits on what they can or can’t cover in order to be war correspondents. The first war where the press had free rein to cover a conflict without restrictions was Vietnam, and even though I believe that we would have lost there regardless, many Americans (especially right-wingers) believe that negative news stories helped shape the anti-war movement in the U.S. Many in the military certainly became bitter that reporters like David Halberstam and Neil Sheehan “weren’t playing ball” with the Pentagon like their WWII counterparts did in the 1940s and even in Korea. (A common complaint heard by reporters covering the war in Saigon was “Why can’t you guys be more like Ernie Pyle?”) And, of course, since many of the junior officers who stayed in their branches of service after Vietnam were senior officers during the first Gulf War, they demanded – and got – the right to limit reporters’ ability to cover events in a war zone.

    It’s a delicate balance that reporters must maintain. On the one hand, they have a duty to their profession to cover the news without bias, but journalists are human, and (like it or not) are biased. They’re also fellow citizens of the military personnel they cover, and while they are prohibited from actively participating in combat, they’re also not supposed to “aid and comfort” the enemy or endanger fellow countrymen by giving out information about ongoing military operations.

    Journalism is a noble profession, and I regret not having the ability to pursue it further than I did due to my limitations (physical and educational). It’s also a strange profession that, on the one hand, professes to be “fair and balanced,” yet allows its coverage of news to be colored by the whims and political affiliations of their respective owners/financiers. We journalism majors are taught from Day One to be “fair and impartial,” and we try to be (at least on the reporting side). But it’s at the leadership side of things (especially the publisher/higher management side) where things get screwy. That’s the side that determines what stories get coverage, which ones get pushed to what page, and which ones get “spiked.”)

    With fascism and authoritarianism rising throughout the world, including (and especially) in the U.S., I fret about the future of journalism and a free press in an ever more polarized society. The way we’re going, and in view of the vitriol aimed at “mainstream media” from both the left and right, I doubt that Western democracy (and MSM) will survive for long.

    • There’s a difference between rules meant for everyone’s (hopeful) safety and trying to control what the people back home are seeing. This documentary seemed to be more like the government having learned it’s lessons from Vietnam and what was reported back home that caused a backlash, and trying to prevent that with the Iraq war. It seemed like a lot of reporters were okay with being propagandists rather than reporters.

      Journalism was once a more noble profession. Since the advent of the 24 hour news cycle, it’s changed. There are still good journalists and reporters out there, but so many now just regurgitate what they are told or shown, rather than doing an investigation. It’s also cause some madness in the quest to be the first to report, without verifying what they are reporting. They are competing against websites now that don’t care about integrity or how what they say effects people, and when those sites get more hits than the news that is vetted, it drags all of the news” industry with it.