Coventry, England -- Veteran British director, Ken Loach, doesn't make movies for the popcorn munching, mainstream, cinema-going public, weaned on mindless blockbusters.
Instead he makes thought provoking, abrasive films that frequently challenge the political establishment and serve as a social conscience for his audiences. Loach's latest film, "Route Irish," which is his take on the occupation of Iraq by Western forces, is no exception.
It is not surprising that the Warwickshire-born Loach should make a film about Iraq, but what is surprising is that this film comes so many years after the United States-led invasion in 2003. During a question-and-answer session after a preview screening of "Route Irish," held at the University of Warwick, Loach was asked why he had delayed tackling this controversial subject. He explained that for some time he had wished to confront the public's apathy, war weariness and compassion fatigue and "reignite people's anger" against the occupation of Iraq, the overarching tragedy of which was not "our boys" returning home in body bags but the 1 million dead Iraqis and 4 million displaced persons.
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The problem for Loach, and screenwriter Paul Laverty, had been "how to find a human path into the story." The solution became apparent during the extensive research they conducted into the war, which included interviewing former soldiers who had served as private security contractors. Many of these men had returned from Iraq traumatized by their experiences, yet received no support or counselling from the British government, or Ministry of Defence.
Loach therefore sets his Iraq war film not in that country but in Liverpool, which is representative of the underprivileged, working class, industrial centers from where the majority of Britain's 'squaddies' and security contractors are recruited. The choice of Liverpool owes nothing to the link between Loach and Laverty's previously expressed sympathy with the Irish Socialist/Republican cause and the Irish heritage of a significant proportion of Liverpool's population. The filmmaker, now 74, explored imperialistic Britain's attempt to pacify nationalist Ireland in such hard-hitting films as "Hidden Agenda" (1990) and "The Wind That Shakes the Barley" (2006). With "Route Irish," he again places the protagonists at war, and explores the crucible it represents for those deigned to wage it.
The filmmaker revealed to his Coventry audience that having chosen Glasgow and the west of Scotland as the location for several of his previous films, such as "Carla's Song" and "My Name Is Joe," and given that his next film about a whisky distillery is to be shot in Glasgow, it would be a refreshing change to film elsewhere in Britain. His requirements were that the location should be a large, northern, industrial city with its own unique identity and with a river running through it. Liverpool, with its famous River Mersey and equally famous ferry (which feature prominently in the film), matched the criteria perfectly.
During the Q&A session that followed the March 10 preview screening of his latest film, "Route Irish," director Ken Loach was asked if he had any figures on the number of British contractors killed while employed in Iraq.
Loach replied that during the extensive research that his team conducted for the film they had attempted to obtain those figures from Britain's Ministry of Defence and other sources, but that those figures could not, or perhaps would not, be officially provided. The vagueness about security contractor casualties, of course, would serve the government's purpose, for by privatizing warfare, the true costs of the war can be hidden, as a contractor is often slain with little or no media coverage.
According to the U.S. Dept of Labor, insurance claims related to military contractors, up to April 2008, indicate that 1,292 U.S. contractors had been killed and 9,610 wounded in Iraq, among the 180,000 serving there. Estimates cited by Reuters in July 2007 states there were 130,000 contractors in Iraq then, compared with 157,000 U.S. troops. Reuters also determined then that since the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan commenced, there had been, on average, one contractor killed for every four members of the U.S. military.
The Houston Chronicle stated, In an article about the rising toll among contractors published Feb. 9, 2008, that 2007 was the worst year for U.S. military casualties in Iraq, with 901 personnel being killed, while in the same time-frame a reported 353 civilian contractors died in the employ of the United States.
"How can it be that the only official count of dead and wounded contractors in Iraq comes from the Labor Department rather than the Defense Department?" Steven Schooner, a law professor and associate dean at the George Washington University Law School, told the Houston Chronicle then. - Kieron Punch
It is in Liverpool, therefore, that we find former soldier and ex-security contractor, Fergus, attending the funeral of his lifelong best friend, Frankie, who was killed by an improvised explosive device while working for a security company on Route Irish the stretch of road from Baghdad's airport to the Green Zone that provides the film with its title.
Fergus, brilliantly played by Mark Womack in his first leading role, refuses to accept the 'official' version of events provided by the slick, Tony Blair-like boss of the security firm, that Frankie was just "in the wrong place at the wrong time." Fergus then begins a one-man crusade in which he employs the skills he acquired during his military career, including water boarding, to uncover the truth about Frankie's death.
Although Fergus' expensive riverside apartment, designer clothes and fast car suggest that he is an Iraq War success story, in reality he is a shell of a man, clearly suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder and haunted by flashbacks of the horrors he witnessed. To portray these flashbacks, Loach employs harrowing, real-life news reports and combat footage and skillfully allows the images of charred corpses and limbless torsos to explain the reality of Iraq's occupation with greater eloquence than if he had resorted to the device of political discourse, which is the trademark of his films.
Loach succeeds in his goal of bringing the war to the doorsteps of the British public by showing that men like Fergus have brought the conflict home with them in the nightmares replayed in their traumatized minds. These security contractors are victims of the conflict, too, but for them there is no heroes' homecoming parade, no rehabilitation for the blinded and crippled in an MOD hospital, and no guard of honor and flag-draped coffin for those who gave their lives. They are the casualty statistics the government can ignore. They personify the awkward questions the government can evade.
"Route Irish" can stand comparison with any fast-paced conspiracy thriller a remarkable feat considering that its budget was only £3 million Sterling yet in Loach's hands it becomes a savage indictment of the privatization of the Iraq war, the governments who abrogated their responsibilities and the security companies who were at the heart of the occupation yet answerable only to their shareholders.
"Route Irish" opened in the United Kingdom on 18 March, after hitting festival circuit in Norway, Sweden, Serbia, Greece and Brazil, since its premiere at Cannes in May. It is unlikely to be seen in the United States outside of film festivals. As Loach explained with a mischievous glint in his eye, "Britain and America have a different tradition of filmmaking, and my style of filmmaking doesn't appear to be popular there." WGT
The highway, the principal road between Baghdad's international airport and the city's heavily fortified "Green Zone," was named before the 69th's service there. American forces had designated many of the principal roads in the area of Baghdad with the names of American football teams. "Route Irish" was named for the "Fighting Irish" of Notre Dame. Nevertheless, for six months in 2005, the regiment's 1st Battalion did patrol the sector, so confusion about its naming is understandable.
The 1st Battalion of the 69th was assigned to patrol "Route Irish" on Feb. 12, 2005. Then, it was known as the most dangerous road in Iraq. The battalion was the core unit of Task Force Wolfhound, named for the 69th Regiment's Irish Wolfhound mascots, "Gentle when Stroked, Fierce when Provoked" (per the regimental motto). The battalion was led in Iraq by Lt. Col. Geoffrey Slack and Command Sergeant Major George Brett, and became part of the 256th "Tiger" Brigade Combat Team ("Les Tigres Louisianais"). As an aside, Slack is also descended from at least one of those Irish-born Louisiana Tigers that faced the 69th across more than one Civil War battlefield.
The second tactic Colonel Slack adopted was to partner with an Iraqi police battalion, especially to run check-points controlling access to "Route Irish," in order to stop the car-bombings that had been endemic. On one occasion, a patrol led by Capt. Mike Drew of "A" Company, hearing the firing of mortars, was able to react quickly enough to engage and destroy the enemy sniper-and-mortar team.
While deployed in Iraq, Wolfhound headquarters flew a 3-foot-by-5- foot reproduction of the 1st Color (Green Flag) of the 69th New York Volunteer Infantry of the American Civil War Irish Brigade.
During the battalion's service along "Route Irish," John Dunleavy, chairman of the New York Saint Patrick's Day Parade Committee, sent special St. Patrick's Parade pins to the 69th in Iraq, one for every soldier in the unit to wear on Saint Patrick's Day, including those on patrol. By Aug. 31, 2005, when the 69th had completed this assignment, "Route Irish" had become the safest road in the Baghdad area.
After the battalion's return from Iraq, the 69th's next commander, Lieutenant Colonel Chuck Crosby, the unit's executive officer in Iraq, established a special relationship between the 69th and the Army ROTC unit at Notre Dame. As a result, each March 17th, the Notre Dame Army ROTC Unit has a marching component with the 69th, which leads the parade. WGT
WGT's United Kingdom correspondent Kieron Punch is a Coventry-based writer and researcher, and previously authored WGT's series on 'The Forgotten 10.'
This feature was edited by Gerry Regan and produced by Joe Gannon.
Copyright © 2011 by Kieron Punch and GAR Media LLC. This article may not be resold, reprinted, or redistributed without prior permission from the author. Direct questions about permissions to firstname.lastname@example.org.