For those of us who are not avid horse racing fans, this weekend effectively ended our interest in the sport until next year. Until this past Saturday there still existed the potential for a Triple Crown winner. Unfortunately the tragic injury befalling Barbaro at the Preakness Stakes erased that possibility. Now the nation waits with bated breath to find out if Barbaro will even survive his broken ankle. For horse racing fanatics like Judi Hunt of Aberdeen, Washington, who has listened to or seen each and every Triple Crown race since 1948, the reaction was as expected. The New York Times reported Ms. Hunt as saying, "I cried yesterday when the horse came up lame. I just want to know how the horse is going to do." Such empathy and pity are both predictable and natural in such a heartrending circumstance. However if Americans cared as much about people as they do about horses, Sunday night’s presentation of the HBO documentary Baghdad ER might have actually awoken the somnolent majority of our citizenry who are as indifferent to the carnage in Iraq as they are to tax rates in Tanzania.
Sunday night’s premiere of Baghdad ER brought the horror of an American medical hospital in Iraq’s Green Zone into full view and perfect focus. Unlike countless episodes of MASH, the only humor was gallows humor and the laughs, when they occurred, were so obviously forced that they seemed to be the only way to fight back tears. Doctors and soldiers in the film reflect on the gut-wrenching misery usually with Tourette-like cursing but, more frequently, depressed resignation. These heroic medical personnel never become inured to the missing limbs, burned skin, and mangled corpses that are the raw materials of their production line. No sane human being ever could. Instead we get a vivid portrait of the only Americans who have seen the unspeakable carnage up close and way too personally. These are also the most credible Americans who seem to be taking a vocal stand on the mounting casualties as they futilely rush about like the Dutch boy trying to plug the dike.
Perhaps HBO’s film will open the eyes of the apathetic voting public. But since the film does not include any information on how to get rich in real estate, lose weight, or buy cheap gas, it probably won’t. And since none of the wounded or killed American soldiers hails from Great Neck, Grosse Point, or Glendale, "elite" opinion will remain dormant. Whether that opinion is of the "Stay the course (as long as my kid does not have to miss a semester or two at Yale)" variety best represented by your typical Republican suburbanite, or of the "I am angrily marching in protest of u2018No Blood for Oil’ this weekend (but not next weekend since I have to chaperone Tyler’s class trip to the organic farm on Saturday)" variety espoused by liberals on both coasts, no one but the doctors in the American military hospital in Baghdad seems bold enough to speak up for the injured piling up unnoticed like dust bunnies under a bed.
If you do in fact watch the documentary, and every American should watch its replay on Memorial Day regardless of his position on the American occupation of Iraq, the scenes of injury and suffering are more graphic than words can explain. Limbs dangling from tendons, open torsos filled with shrapnel and the dazed stares of shell-shocked soldier, all shove the horrors of war into our untroubled living rooms. Watching a nurse mop up a blood-covered a floor or cataloging a body part in a jar would (should?) provide even the most ardent supporters of our occupation with reason to pause. And in their pause they should ask themselves: Why am I not over there fighting this fight which I so stridently insist must be fought? Is this occupation really worth losing an arm, both arms, both legs, or both legs and an arm (as in fact happens to one of the soldiers in the film)? If red-blooded Americans from small rural towns I have never heard of are sacrificing life and limb so that the Boca Raton Little League can play its games free from terrorists and the shoppers of Bethesda can pile up debt, shouldn’t I or my progeny either take a role in fighting or, conversely, work to stop the unnecessary slaughter?
Alas, such questions will never get a fair hearing from those most in need of such introspection. Instead, remote controls will instantaneously remove any bloody images from our 54-inch flat screens should they too closely resemble the half-eaten, extra-large, Domino’s pepperoni pizza sitting on our laps. In a recent interview, one of the film’s co-creators Jon Alpert said, "We’re giving you the veneer of the violence. But it’s much, much worse than we portrayed it. We just didn’t think that an audience would tolerate that." If Mr. Alpert could predict the stock market as well as he can predict Americans’ tolerance for carnage, he would be richer than Warren Buffett. Let’s hope that he kept the more brutal scenes for history’s sake; even though we as a society rarely take the time to do a cost-benefit analysis of war, the evidence on the cost side keeps piling up while the benefits remain illusory. Maybe Saddam was in fact going to nuke me, my wife, our two cats, and the dry cleaners across the street. And maybe monkeys will fly out of my… In either case, he is now behind bars while suicidal maniacs with I.E.D.’s strapped to their chests are killing Americans whose kids are not benefiting from the services of $500 per hour SAT tutors or figuring out how to redeem their American Express Platinum Membership Rewards Point so that they can attend the ESPN Golf School with a "focus on the importance of swing mechanics, club control, and body behavior." One can safely assume that ESPN has made no special provision for any military amputees in attendance who might need special instruction in "chipping with one arm" or "putting while blind" since Iraq reminds the intended customer base of little more than the unraked sand trap on the 15th hole at their country club. At this point a complimentary invitation to even a handful of the 17,000+ wounded American soldiers would be a welcome statement of thanks as we approach Memorial Day, but in reality it remains just a wish.
We have reached a deplorable state where an injured horse elicits a stronger response than a dead or maimed fellow American. Recall for a moment the soldier cited in the film who lost both legs and an arm. He won’t ever again ride a bike as he did as an energetic young boy. He won’t be able to take leisurely evening strolls with his wife. He won’t be able to practice tackling or jump shooting with his son. And he won’t be able to walk his daughter down the aisle on the most important day of her life as he "hands" her off to the man of her dreams. But in this case the dream our future bride will live with will be a nightmare — seeing her father suffer and struggle while remembering that her fellow Americans cried for a horse.
Mark G. Brennan [send him email] writes from New York City.