Paying the Price: Killing the Children of Iraq

Monday, March 6, 2000 by

Tony Blair claims his quarrel is “not with the Iraqi people – it never has been”, yet has spent £60m of GB taxpayers money on a bombing campaign against Saddam Hussein that has resulted in the deaths of thousands of innocent Iraqis.

Sanctions enforced by the UN on Iraq since the Gulf War have killed more people than the two atomic bombs dropped on Japan in 1945, including over half a million children – many of whom weren’t even born when the Gulf War began. Raw, uncompromising statements that peppered John Pilger’s 90 minute film screened, to ITV’s credit, at peak time right across the network. It was upon such statistics and data that Pilger’s expert narrative was built and around which he sculpted a remarkably sustained, coherent and utterly compelling documentary which carefully and pointedly deconstructed the myth of UN sanctions from every possible angle.

Right from the start with Pilger’s initial exposition – juxtaposing the innocent dead with a montage of curdling platitudes from George Bush and Robin Cook – this was exemplary film-making. Argument and evidence were unfolded simultaneously. We saw a catalogue of crimes and a sequence of images which totally discredited both the UK and US governments. One and a half billion US dollars worth of aid is “on hold” as the official UN sanctions committee ponderously decided to ban the export of yellow fever vaccines because they could be used to make “weapons of mass destruction”.

Denis Halliday, former UN Assistant-General, explained why he resigned in 1998 in protest at this ridiculous dangerous shambles, and why he was proud to have “broken” the sanctions embargo to save a child’s life. We saw Iraqi professional medics selling anatomy and science books in a dusty market place to get enough money to buy their next meal. A primary school was featured where the kids have to withstand occasional tides of sewage that wash in from the bombed refinement works next door.

All the while, Pilger’s calm, forceful and mesmerising voice articulated the significance of the so-called reasoning behind the West’s ongoing legitimising of such conditions. He tried to get answers out of your typical one-dimensional grey bureaucrats; one babbled nonsensically about “methodologies”; another incredibly defended sanctions as a form of “development aid”. Pilger chatted to medical staff in several Iraqi hospitals and sensibly let their own words and faces (and silences) tell the scope of the crisis.

The most scathing and memorable section of the film was the last third, when Pilger sketched in crucial background and pre-history, soberly listing all the ways in which the UK and US first helped Saddam to power in 1979, then armed and fed him and his regime throughout the ’80s, and also conspired to thwart the Kurdish rebellion in 1991 fearing Saddam would be replaced by a regime even more anti-US! The tragedy veered close to grim farce with details of the countless Western bombing raids on Kurdish sheep in the so-called “no fly zones” of North Iraq.

And of course the war, just like the sanctions, goes on. Between May 1998 and January 2000 the US flew 36,000 sorties over Iraq, including 24,000 combat missions – almost as many carried out during NATO’s war on Serbia last year. Shells coated with depleted uranium are dropped all over the country, again as during the war on Serbia, with similar results (widespread deformities in newly born children). Blair was quoted as describing the purpose of these raids as prosecuting “vital humanitarian tasks”.

But all the while Pilger’s rage was understated – he never ranted or hectored the camera, and his case was all the more powerful for it. He ended by denouncing both the UK and US regimes from the top downwards, singling out Robin Cook for extreme ire. Cook had insisted on an unedited 10 minute monologue at the end of the film to put his point of view – Pilger and co-producer Alan Lowery correctly refused to rescind editorial control in this way. So Cook and Saddam Hussien ended up, as Pilger waspishly observed, “the only two people unable to appear in this film.”

As the credits rolled in silence, I was left feeling a degree of admiration for Carlton and ITV I’d not experienced in a very long time. A superbly made, completely gripping and flawlessly executed example of documentary film-making. What would the BBC have done? Maybe scheduled it post-10pm, as they now do with Panorama; or offloaded it onto BBC2 – in both instances, actively encouraging less people to tune in.

ITV, for whom Pilger has always made his films, cleared their post-watershed weekday line-up to create the 90 minutes needed for the programme to go out at exactly the right hour – a laudable move by a channel not known for unconventional, audacious evening scheduling. Of course this was in part due to the constant need to fill the huge gap left by scrapping News at Ten; nevertheless, the significance of the context in which this particular film was shown, coupled with the power of its narrative and message, means that Paying the Price is likely to be the most important programme screened by ITV this year.


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