A War Documentary Producer's Scars

For war documentary producer Michael Burke, the massacre at Fort Hood last November – in which an army major killed 13 people and wounded 30 – was no surprise. "Every soldier in Iraq is scared – that is the nature of war. Many take drugs and alcohol to keep going. No one is brave."

Burke should know. Since 1991, he has spent many years as a producer and cameraman filming some of the most dangerous combat in the world. He chose not to be 'embedded' – filming with American or British troops – but to operate on his own.

"My cameramen Richard Wild was killed after three days and I got shrapnel in the eye. I was the most scared person in the world. But I did not want to give up, I wanted to finish the story," he said in an interview in Hong Kong, where he has been based since April 2008.

He is currently making a documentary film about Nina Wang. It is a relief from the stress and danger of filming in Iraq, Afghanistan and the Middle East, where he spent most of the previous eight years.

His experiences have left him with a deep suspicion of US policy, a conviction that its soldiers should not be in Iraq, Afghanistan or Pakistan and that the situation in the three countries will only deteriorate as long as they are there.

"Iraq should never have been invaded. There were no weapons of mass destruction and, initially, no links to Al-Qaeda. Under Saddam, there was a functioning secular state. Now, in Iraq, nothing works – there is no water, no food, no health system and no security. The US soldiers are not welcome. War has not solved anything. The suffering and the killing have to be shown."

According to the Associated Press, more than 110,600 Iraqis have been killed from the start of the war until April this year. Unofficial estimates put the figure several times higher.

Burke sees it as his mission to show images of the plight of ordinary Iraqis and speak about it whenever he can. The Iraqi government and U.S. military control the media so tightly that few unauthorized images appear. Even if independent cameramen take images, it is hard to get them aired on mainstream channels in the west; they prefer to show their troops in a good light.

Burke and a BBC reporter made a 90-minute documentary, "On Whose Orders?", which accuses British soldiers in Basra of torturing and killing Iraqi prisoners in 2004, following an ambush of British troops.

The film set out to establish whether the troops used torture techniques that Britain outlawed in 1972 and, if so, who authorized their use. It took more than four years to get the film shown on British television, on the BBC Panorama program on February 24, 2008, in an abridged 28 minutes.

The production team faced court orders which banned them from speaking of the program, in the interests of national security, and skeptical editors uneasy about the accusations; they ordered the team back to Basra to do further interviews.

In July last year, three judges of the High Court in London vindicated the report, ruling that the British Ministry of Defence had provided misleading information. Among those interviewed was General Sir Michael Jackson, chief of the General Staff between 2003 and 2006, who spoke of the need to investigate thoroughly any allegations.

"He thanked us privately afterward," Burke said. "He said that they did not want such people in the British army."

Jackson has strongly criticized the U.S. post-war administration of Iraq. He described the approach taken by former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld as 'intellectually bankrupt' and focusing too much on military might rather than nation-building and diplomacy.

Burke is pessimistic about Iraq's future. "In addition to the foreign armies, there are 100,000 contractors, most of whom are mercenaries engaged in counter-insurgency and security operations. They are outside any chain of command or military or civil law. They can be very nasty people and are very trigger-happy.

"Before, Sunnis, Shiites and other communities lived peacefully together. Then there were a series of mysterious mosque bombings which no one could explain. They drove a wedge between the communities. Now they have been ethnically cleansed and live in their own corners. It is not safe to walk the streets.

"The GIs live in enormous fortified garrisons that are like a piece of America, with Pizza Hut and MacDonalds. They eat extremely well, with lobster and ice cream flown in from the U.S. Even the prepared meals they eat in the tanks are delicious."

One of the few parts of Iraq that functions is the oil industry; much of the revenue it generates goes to pay the U.S. for the war effort.

The outside world is ill-informed. Burke said that, because of the risks, most foreign reporters work inside the 'Green Zone', the highly protected area of central Baghdad that is home to the government and the giant U.S. embassy, and only go out with military escorts.

"The U.S. military bombed the offices of Al-Jazeera and Al-Arabiya and has banned Al-Jazeera from the country, because it does not like the kind of news it was reporting. A journalist is supposed to be neutral and objective. But if you are 'embedded', you cannot talk to ordinary Iraqis. So you have to choose one side or the other. As an independent journalist, you may be killed."

According to Iraqi government figures published last October, 269 journalists have been killed since 2003. Others have suffered severe psychological effects, such as a British freelancer who worked with Burke on many stories.

"He took the war very personally. He stalked (British Prime Minister) Tony Blair at the Labour Party conference because he wanted to criticize him. He lost his objectivity and editors no longer wanted his stories. You have to retain a certain distance," Burke said. "But I forgive him everything because of the things he saw and experienced."

He is also pessimistic about Pakistan and Afghanistan, where he has also worked. "In Pakistan, there is huge support for the Taliban among all classes of society, as Moslem and dedicated to driving out the Americans. Who is an 'insurgent' and a 'terrorist'? What do you do when someone invades your country? The Afghans have defeated everyone, including the British and the Russians. They will defeat the Allies too."

A graduate of Liverpool University in English Language and Literature, Burke made his first film in New York and went to work for a U.S. television company. He was sent to Mindanao in the southern Philippines and filmed the Moslem insurgency there.

Since then, he has made art and science films. "Most of my film documentaries have been about war." The two biggest supporters of his work are his two sons, aged 13 and 16. The younger one has posted videos of himself on Youtube, satirizing British politicians.

While he was working in Iraq, his wife in Britain told him that she wanted a divorce. "This is common for soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan. They call it the 'Dear John' letter. The wives at home say that they cannot endure the stress of waiting any longer." She has the custody of their two sons.

He came to Hong Kong for a change. "I relaxed. I had nightmares in which I would see my dead cameraman. I slept badly and was shaking but did not see a doctor."

He is making a documentary about heiress Nina Wang, who died in April 2007, leaving a fortune estimated at US$4.2 billion, which is contested in the courts by her heirs. "It started as a simple story but has turned out to be a very complex tale of greed, murder, kidnapping and Taiwan intelligence, involving billions of dollars. It is a much bigger story."

He is also doing work for the Education Bureau of the Hong Kong government, including a series of educational DVDs. He also does teaching and gives talks to universities and works with Dominic Lam, a Hong Kong artist, scientist and philanthropist.