“The Battle for Haditha” is misnamed as it is actually about the Haditha Incident (alternately called the Haditha Massacre or Haditha Killings). It was probably the most infamous atrocity (or so it was claimed) of the Iraqi War. The reenactment was filmed in documentary style by British filmmaker Nick Broomfield. Broomfield cut his teeth on documentaries and used the minimalist approach for his second feature film. He produced, directed, and co-wrote the movie. Broomfield filmed in the city of Jerash, Jordan and used some ex-Marines in the cast and Iraqi refugees. The cast was allowed to improvise some of their lines. The finished product is controversial, to say the least.
The film opens with a montage of several Marines describing their feelings about being in Iraq. One says he’s only interested in surviving and does not know what he is there for. Another mentions the problem of having civilians turn into combatants. A third likens the situation to being similar to hunting because you have to think like the enemy. Cpl. Ramirez (Elliott Ruiz) likens Iraq to the asshole of the world and the insurgents are like dingleberries.
Words on the screen preview that the movie is about an incident in 2005 that involved an IED (improvised explosive device) killing a Marine and then subsequently the Marines killed 24 civilians. (The perceptive viewer gets an inkling of what is to come by noting that the word “marines” is not capitalized.) The Marines of Kilo Company, 3rd Battalion, 1st Marines are young and immature. They listen to heavy metal in their Humvees and delight in pranking each other. The barracks banter feels authentic. The video game generation goes to war.
The movie has three threads. The second revolves around Ahmad (Falah Flayla) who is a disgruntled Iraqi Army vet who is now unemployed. He does not like the foreign Al Qaeda jihadists, but agrees to plant a command-detonated IED for $500. He is assisted by a younger man who is just as immature as the Marines. They plant the bomb in broad daylight along a road.
The other thread follows a typical Iraqi family that is preparing to celebrate a toddler’s circumcision. Hiba (Yasmine Hanani) is pregnant and in love with Rasheid. The family and neighbors are aware of the bomb, but try to go about their lives and do not take sides. One remarks that if they tell the Americans about the bomb, the jihadists will kill them. If they don’t tell, the Americans will blame them. Spoken like a South Vietnamese civilian. The party is a good taste of Iraqi culture, but there is a heavy layer of dread.
On Nov. 9, 2005, Ramirez’s squad of eleven Marines in four Humvees are hit by the IED. The last Humvee is destroyed and a Marine is killed. At the same time a white car is stopped on the other side of the road. Ramirez, who is deeply affected by the death of his mate, executes the occupants. A relative of the men opens fire from a nearby home. Ramirez is given permission to take out the house, but it’s not the house the fire came from. He interprets the “Rules of Engagement” to justify shooting first and asking questions later.
House 1 is greeted with a fragmentation grenade. Ramirez and a few comrades indiscriminately kill most of the occupants although they are clearly noncombatants and none are armed. Hiba and her boyfriend survive by hiding behind a chest. The Marines move on to House 2 with similar results. The “battle” is being monitored back at headquarters where a colonel orders a helicopter strike on a group of individuals walking together. Hibas’ boyfriend is shot by a sniper because he is running (as per the ROEs = rules of engagement). He high-fives his mates. House 3 yields prisoners, but the killing is finally over. A captain arrives and in a prayer for Cpl. Terrazas mentions the battle they have won. He gives Ruiz a field promotion and recommends him for a Bronze Star.
The Marine Corps issues a press release that 15 civilians were killed by the IED and another 8 were insurgents that opened fire on the convoy. The story drew little media attention until a video made by the jihadists was released. It contains eyewitness accounts which force the military to investigate. Ramirez and three others are charged with murder.
Taken at face value the movie is entertaining. It’s definitely low budget, but Broomfield overcomes the vibe by giving it a vibrant documentary feel. This is through mostly hand-held cinematography. The negative side of this is some might swallow all of it as a factual documentary, although I am not accusing Broomfield of trying to put something over on the audience. However, it is clearly apparent that Broomfield is offering an alternative view to the Marine Corps version. The movie is obviously pro-Iraqi and anti-Marine Corps, but it is somewhat balanced. Ramirez is depicted as suffering from stress and the rest of his squad are not evil. The acting is adequate and does not get in the way of the story. Ruiz is good, if a bit too earnest. Hanani seems to have a future in the business.
The movie has some noteworthy themes that could be enlightening to anyone with little knowledge of the Iraqi War. Civilians get caught in the crossfire in a conflict like this. Rules end up being bent sometimes in stressful combat situations. Atrocities happen. Young Americans who view war as a game sometimes react outside the rules when confronted with its realities.
I spent the whole movie wondering how much was true and looking forward to finding out. It had some head-scratching moments like the planting of the bomb in plain sight. Earlier, the bombers had gone through a check point without the Marines bothering to check the back of the truck where the bomb was hidden. I suppose that was possible. When running away from the scene, the bombers open fire for no good reason. There is a scene where Ramirez goes to his commanding officer to admit to stress and ask to see a doctor. The officer denies the request and cites Marine Corps policy. I could not determine if this was factual, but it does not seem so.
I did a lot of research on the Haditha Incident and still cannot say definitively where the truth lies. Although it is compared to the My Lai Massacre, it is a lot less clear exactly what happened here. The movie presents the Iraqi version of what happened. The American version goes something like this. Ramirez represents Frank Wuterich. The IED explosion is the same in both versions, but from there the stories diverge. When the white car is stopped it is suspected of being involved in the ambush. One of the men runs so Wuterich shoots him and then proceeds to shoot the others. Fire comes from the direction of House 1 and Wuterich leads a fire team in. He did apparently tell them to shoot first, but it was dark and confusing inside. It was unclear the victims were unarmed and supposedly an AK-47 was heard being “racked”. The second house was taken because it was assumed someone from the first house ran there. The group admitted to firing through the door which happened to have a man on the other side. The situation inside this house was basically a replay of the first. Only prisoners were taken in House 3 ( as per the film ). At House 4, two men with AKs were shot and two others that were using the house as a refuge. This incident was surprisingly not depicted in the film, but the Iraqi version contends that the four were innocent and were executed.
The film adds a few things that even the Iraqis don’t claim. The bombers were fictionalized. There was no helicopter strike on a group. No one was shot by a sniper while running. The video was not by jihadists, it was done by a journalism student (who granted may have sympathized with the insurgents).
At the time the film was made the latest development was the charging of Wuterich and three others for murder and the charging of several higher officers for a cover-up and non-investigation. In the subsequent trial, all but Wuterich got off. He was found guilty of a much lesser charge and basically given a slap on the wrist. This lack of justice aggravated many, but NCIS did put 65 agents on the case and although the prosecution may have done a less than stellar job, it was understandably difficult to prove a case like this. For instance, no Iraqis would testify. Forensics tended to disprove the two execution scenarios and lenient interpretation of the ROEs left reasonable doubt as to premeditation or revenge. It is instructive to note that the military tightened up the Rules of Engagement after this to no longer condone shooting of clearly unarmed civilians.
So who is telling the truth – Broomfield and the liberal press or the military and Fox News? As usual in cases like this the truth is somewhere in between. Although I cannot discount the possibility that Broomfield is accurate, I lean towards the Marine version. With that said, I do not feel that even under a flexible interpretation of the ROEs, what happened in Houses 1 &2 and with the white car was justified. Like an ex-Marine said, the Marines were the baddest asses in this situation and they should have been capable of asking questions first and then shooting. To shoot civilians in two houses where they had not taken any fire from within indicated either payback or the desire to take no chances whatsoever. As far as the white car, it seems logical that confronted with a group of very pissed off Americans, one might run and Wuterich would have snapped. I do feel Wuterich got off easy. In this respect he reminds of Lt. Calley. The coverup also is reminiscent of My Lai and again the higher ups got off. The press release was ridiculously false and there was no attempt to get to the truth until Time magazine broke the story.
So, what to make of the film? I recommend it provided you realize it is one point of view about an historical incident. I also suggest that you watch the Front Line documentary "Rules of Engagement" afterwards. Then keep in mind that the truth is somewhere in the middle and we may never know what actually happened that day.
GRADE = B
the whole film