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Haditha film coming to Frontline on PBS

The upcoming Frontline broadcast of “Rules of Engagement: What Really Happened in Haditha” is a major event. A co-production with Yellow River Productions, it will air February 19th at 9 p.m. ET on PBS. For the first time, television viewers will hear the facts about the incident in Haditha.

Arun Rath is the documentary’s producer, writer, and director. He took some time from a hectic postproduction schedule to talk with Defend Our Marines.

Not Murtha's version of Haditha

"I am a journalist and tend to follow world news fairly closely, but before starting work on this project all I knew about the Haditha incident was basically the headlines," Rath told me.

"When I first heard about it I thought it was interesting and counterintuitive. I knew that Marines had more intense training than our other forces, so the idea that so many would suddenly snap under pressure seemed a little strange. But I also knew that horrible things happen in wars, and figured something bad must have happened.

"Once we started to look into the story more deeply, we realized how far off the popular notion of what happened in Haditha was. For instance, the idea that there were no firefights when we know that November 19, 2005 was a day of very intense attacks across the town. We spend some time in our film spelling this out, using an interview with Major (then Captain) Jeffrey Dinsmore, the battalion's intelligence officer, to help bring that day to life.  We were also able to obtain the ScanEagle video from that day. That will be eye-opening for much of our audience."

Access to major participants in the cases

"Rules of Engagement" was months in the making, and is based on unparalleled access to participants in the cases. Justin Sharratt (the first enlisted man to be exonerated of all charges) sat down for more than three hours of interviews with Rath and his crew. Kilo Company Marines and defense attorneys, free to discuss aspects of their cases that entered the public domain during the Article 32 hearings, were interviewed at length.  

The result is a much-anticipated broadcast.

“Initially, we wanted to do a film about civilian casualties in Iraq,” Rath said. “There had been much talk about the battle to win hearts and minds as General Petraeus took command in Iraq, since he literally wrote the book on counterinsurgency and had talked eloquently about the importance of protecting and winning over the civilian population in such a conflict. We thought Haditha would make for an interesting case study to help us understand these issues: in addition to involving civilian deaths, much had been made of the story in the Arab media, and winning the information/PR war is also a big part of winning hearts and minds.

“But as we delved into the story of Haditha, what had happened there alone—and what was made of the story—ended up being so interesting that it, and 3/1 Kilo Company, became the topic of the entire film.”

Focus on the enlisted men

Rath is passionate about the subject, and regrets that he ended up with far more material than he could use. 

"One frustration that lingers after putting this film together is how much fascinating material we had to leave out!" Rath says. "I was surprised by how hard it was to tell this story in an hour (and for TV news, that’s considered a huge amount of time).    

"For instance, I interviewed General Petraeus and Marine Corps Commandant General Conway—talking mainly about the difficulties of waging counterinsurgency—but neither ended up in the final cut of the film because this turned into a story about the infantry: what the squad commanded by SSGT Wuterich went through and the aftermath more than filled the hour. For this reason, we weren’t able to get into much detail about Lt. Col. Chessani’s case, or the other officers who were initially charged.

"We were able to get great access to film training in the simulated Iraqi town created at Mojave Viper in 29 Palms, California; but while we had planned to spend a portion of the film discussing changes in training, there just wasn’t time.

"And there are even some details about the incident and legal issues that we didn’t have time to get into. We filmed an entire sequence at the assistance center in Baghdad where solatia (condolence) payments are distributed to Iraqis who have been injured or lost relatives, or even suffered property damage. It’s a pretty interesting operation, and I don’t think most Americans are aware that we even do this, let alone the scale of the operation. But again, it took us too long and too far away from our story.

"I also wish we could have aired much more of our footage from our reporter Tim Gruza’s embed with Kilo in Anbar last August— in particular the interviews, which are just amazing. And Tim did a beautiful job shooting Kilo going on patrol, there’s so much footage (in high-def no less) that’s just stunning that couldn’t make the program.

"The good side is that we were able to get some material onto the Frontline website: we’ll have extra clips of some of those interviews, as well as some of our Mojave Viper footage, and transcripts of the interviews with Generals Conway and Petraeus."

Public opinion may begin to shift

I have not seen the film, but am heartened that Rath, a public broadcasting veteran of nearly fifteen years, is striving for a fair presentation of the facts. That is all any of us in the extended Defend Our Marines community have ever asked for—and have never gotten from the mainstream media.

I asked Rath what he hoped audiences would take away from his film.

“At the most basic level,” he responded. “I hope they'll come away with a better understanding of what happened in Haditha that day.  More importantly, I'm hoping that people will come away with a deeper appreciation of the extraordinarily difficult job our Marines and soldiers are undertaking in Iraq, in terms of trying to follow the Rules of Engagement in a situation where insurgents intentionally blend in with civilians.  

“We end the film on the ground with Kilo company on their latest deployment, and these young men speak about the challenges they face with a thoughtfulness and eloquence that seems uncannily beyond their years (at least well beyond what I was capable of at that age).  Perhaps if we can really instill in our audience a sense of what it's like to stand in those boots, there may be less of an inclination to rush to judgment the next time there are accusations of a 'massacre': maybe a crime was committed, maybe not, but that’s for the military justice system to decide.”

We’ll be watching.

 

David Allender
Defend Our Marines
February 11, 2008

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See the trailer at the link.