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Review: On Blair, Powell and Iraq: How Do We Handle the Legacies of our Western War Crimes?

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Review: On Blair, Powell and Iraq: How Do We Handle the Legacies of our Western War Crimes?

Politics aside, the fundamental issue of Blair & Brown: The New Labour Revolution, the five-part BBC documentary series now available on iPlayer, is that it commits the cardinal sin of non-fiction storytelling. If the job of a documentarian is to discover the weather conditions, then you don’t ask the guy in the room selling umbrellas: you stick your head out of the window to see for yourself. In this instance it feels as if the producers have bought the umbrella and continued to use it in spite of the obvious sunlight. After the fall of Kabul to the Taliban earlier this year and the findings of the Chilcot Inquiry in 2016, it feels particularly tone deaf to be making such lightweight hagiography of an era and prime minister whose legacy will forever be defined by reckless military intervention.

Episodes 1-3 demonstrate the filmmakers’ propensity to play loose with facts and deliberate omissions, all in the aim of glamourising the era as a ‘revolution’ and idolising its primary figures. They ignore the contextual factors that paved the way for New Labour’s electoral victories in favour of celebrating the ingenuity of its subjects. In the fourth episode, however, the show’s tone shifts from the ignorant to the harmful when addressing the British military’s involvement in the Iraq War. People have the right to defend their actions, but former PM Tony Blair continues to use harmful and contradictory rhetoric in his explanations for the invasion. On the one hand he flexes his muscles as a policeman of democracy by overthrowing a dangerous dictator, but just minutes later emerges with statements such as “once you remove the dictator [extremist] forces erupt and make it extremely difficult to govern the aftermath”, a quote reducing the Arab world to a sweeping and neglectful characterisation. Blair wants to have his cake and eat it, and there’s never really a feeling that the multitude of talking heads used by the documentarians are being held to account.

The intent of this article is not to resurrect discourse on the morality of the Iraq War - a hatchet long buried - but to question the complicity of the media in managing the legacies of the figures involved in the ‘War on Terror’. In the same week that Blair & Brown’s fourth episode was broadcast, the death of Colin Powell was announced: the former US secretary of state who knowingly lied to the United Nations Security Council regarding American rationale for invasion. Obituaries from publications across the political spectrum focused on Powell’s role as a decorated army officer and Black political icon, painting him as an innocent bystander and honest civil servant dragged into the war-hungry malaise of the Bush administration. The fact remains that if Powell had chosen to resign rather than lie that day in 2003, thousands of lives would have been saved.

A similar myth is peddled by the 2018 film Vice, which relies on historical inaccuracy and far-fetched conspiracy theory to root the blame for Iraq, Afghanistan and even the rise of Donald Trump on former vice president Dick Cheney. Ultimately, it’s comforting to tell ourselves that the deaths of millions are down to a few reprehensible figures, rather than the inherently dangerous beliefs of moral authority and expansionism that have influenced foreign policy in the West for centuries. Often this is referred to as ‘common sense’, a phrase used in politics to create a form of ideological hegemony, and the media are culpable in perpetuating it.

In 2003 The Sun described Charles Kennedy, leader of the Liberal Democrats, as a “spineless reptile” for opposing the Iraq War, and have treated Robin Cook, who had resigned as Foreign Secretary that year, in a similar way. Having heavily influenced the political landscape heading into Iraq and Afghanistan, the papers now decry the country’s military humiliation in the Middle East, shifting their attention and reasoning for invasion to women’s rights, scarcely mentioned at the time — applying post-rational justification in order to excuse their reckless actions. Until this culture of ideological hegemony and historical revisionism is confronted with nuanced and balanced discussion and reflection, the West’s war criminals will live and die like Powell did: absurdly wealthy, defended by the elite, never having faced the consequences of their actions.

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