It ain't half hot, Mum

Television - Andrew Billen on why a "landmark" documentary about the Iraq war loses its way

The most telling moment in the first episode of Fighting the War (9pm, Sundays, BBC2) came when Major General Rob Fry received a knock on his office door. Fry, an avuncular guy with a tuft of grey hair sprouting from his upper forehead (as the bald say), was deputy chief of joint operations during the Iraq war. He had been explaining to a barely audible interviewer that the Americans had just decided to bring the start of the assault forward by 24 hours. A little fazed, he seemed most worried about how this would affect the timing of the Prime Minister's televised address to the nation. "The sequence which has just been outlined to me is not what we understood," he said, with military understatement.

One of the points made repeatedly by this documentary, a behind-the-scenes account of the Iraq war shot by nine separate crews, is that although British troops were not in Iraq for the ride, nor were they anywhere near the driving seat. What interested me, however, was that knock at the door that interrupted Fry's interview. Looking slightly like the gormless officer from It Ain't Half Hot Mum, an adjutant entered bearing news of "unconfirmed reports" that Iraq's deputy prime minister, Tariq Aziz, had defected to the US/UK forces. Fry kept his sang froid for a while but was soon speculating as wildly as a Fox News pundit: "What you might be seeing in that little interchange is the beginning of the entire fracturing of the Iraqi regime."

The report was complete nonsense, and soon corrected by Sky News, which is where, I would guess, the adjutant had picked it up in the first place, given that Sky News seemed to be on permanently at Permanent Joint Headquarters in Northwood, Middlesex. In this war, the army was as prey to misinformation as the rest of us, as witnessed when the Black Watch donned gas masks when the first scud missiles rained on Kuwait. So far the greatest revelation of the series is how far up towards high command the fog of war, or anti-Saddam propaganda, rose.

But back to my adjutant. On entering the office, he performed a magnificent double take. My God, the BBC was filming in there! This was not a man trained to deliver top-secret information to his commander in front of a television audience. After a moment's hesitation, however, he imparted his dodgy exclusive anyway. The secret was that the documentary-maker, Neil Grant, had arranged a deal for access in which whatever his crews gleaned would not be shared with the other BBC hacks but kept back until the war was over.

The result, intentional or not, was to make the news reporters look like ill-informed dupes. The programme had particular fun showing the BBC's dashing Ben Brown struggling to put up his own tent. The correspondents asking a patronising, cracker-nibbling military man how many men comprised a division have nothing to thank Grant for, either. But they were not that stupid. After being promised a visit to the port of Um Qasr, which the Ministry of Defence had announced "overwhelmed", the hacks, led by Channel 4's Alex Thomson, grew understandably impatient as their press trip there receded. The truth was Um Qasr had not been captured. A giggling female public relations officer asked her boss what excuse she should give the press. Tell them, he said, it is too "dark". Pants on fire.

The access gained on behalf of his 31-strong team by Grant, whose relationship with the military stretches back to 1996, when he made Defence of the Realm, is undoubtedly impressive and he has uncovered some vivid details. The control room in PJHQ's underground bunker in Northwood really does have a giant TV screen covering a wall, just like CTU in 24. Soldiers are advised to write farewell letters to their families in case they die and these are kept in a cardboard box sealed with sticky tape. To minimise friendly fire incidents, soldier are taught tank recognition by means of tiny Airfix models. So that place names become memorable, Iraqi towns are rechristened after British ones - thus a "forward assured assembly" area is being secured in "Barnsley".

So far there is little in military attitudes or voices that is unexpected. A major in the Queen's Dragoon Guards says a misty-eyed goodbye to the troops he trained as a sergeant major, men he "loved and jailed and almost had thrown out of the army for being complete characters". A female petty officer on board the HMS Ocean cries after her boyfriend takes off for the desert. When a helicopter crashes it becomes a "downbird", just like in Ridley Scott's Black Hawk Down.

The BBC is calling this a "landmark documentary series" and a "landmark access project". I hope it gains pace and clarity and that some characters emerge, because, at the moment, Grant seems to have missed a trick in not telling the war by following the stories of individual soldiers. The impressionistic approach is all very well, but the main impression is that our boys, and girls, are a brave but dull lot. Surely Grant's nine crews will finally find among our 45,000 troops one with a qualm about their dubious mission?

Andrew Billen is a staff writer on the Times

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