The National Geographic drama series, “The Long Road Home,” tells a version of the story of the battle for Sadr City in 2004, a key moment in Iraq War, and newly-released emails and other documents from the United States Army detail the extensive military support for the TV series and how the Pentagon repeatedly bent its own rules on providing assistance to entertainment productions.
Until April 2004, Sadr City was one of the quietest areas of Baghdad and coalition troops stationed there saw little action. That all changed on the night of April 4, known as ‘Black Sunday.’ Muqtada al-Sadr, the leader of a prominent Shia militia, had his newspaper shut down by Paul Bremer, leader of the Coalition Provisional Authority.
A few days later, one of al-Sadr’s top lieutenants was arrested. This sparked a vicious retaliation from the Sadrist movement, which ambushed a routine U.S. Army patrol in Sadr City and then attacked the forces sent in to retrieve them. It was a harbinger of what was to come, as the multi-form insurgency against the Western occupation of Iraq rapidly grew in size and violence in the following years.
The unanticipated siege of Sadr City was writ large across much of the country, with coalition forces frequently struck by attacks from unexpected sources. Back home in the U.S., the death of Army Specialist Casey Sheehan in the Sadr City battle saw his mother, Cindy, become one of the foremost anti-war voices in the country.
“The Long Road Home,” based on the book of the same name, portrays the Pentagon-approved version of this story.
Emails released under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) show that the Army considered refusing the producers’ requests for assistance but felt that this would risk “loss of ability to shape the Army portrayal and inclusion of Army messaging.”
One example of this “messaging” is that the series omits the context involving al-Sadr’s newspaper and opens with the attack on the patrol. Chris Henrikson, a veteran and outspoken critic of the Iraq War, highlighted this omission, commenting, “Much easier to hate the enemy when they attack for no reason.”
US Army emails on The Long … by on Scribd
Ultimately, the Army provided such extensive support that the drama probably could not have been made without Pentagon approval.
The show was mostly filmed via months of shooting on Fort Hood, home to the 1st Cavalry Division, who were attacked on Black Sunday. Much of this filming made use of Fort Hood’s “Iraqi village” training set, which doubled for Sadr City.
Cindy Sheehan commented on the production. “To use the set that my own son trained on to go and be killed is appalling.”
Asked if she was contacted by the producers or had any input on the show, which briefly portrays her in two episodes, Sheehan replied, “Not at all, as a matter of fact.”
Sheehan was interviewed by Martha Raddatz, author of the original book, but according to Sheehan, Raddataz “didn’t really include anything that I said.” She has never seen the series.
“How could I?” she said. Many of the families of the ones who died that day were very upset about the show.”
“My other son watched it, and it was very traumatizing for him,” Sheehan shared. “I was trying to watch the World Series the year the film came out because the Dodgers were playing, and there were so many ads for it. It was hard for me to watch.”
She added, “I don’t think it was right that they made this movie without getting any input or at least waivers from the families of those that were killed that day.”
This insensitive approach by the producers was echoed by the military, who realized that one of the men portrayed as dying in the battle, Sgt. Mitchell, “didn’t die in that mission, but in a different mission later.”
The email additionally noted, “If the change in fact was intentional for story purposes, understandable.”
The finished series not only contains dialogue referring to Mitchell’s death but also scenes of Lt. Col. Gary Volesky (the commander on the ground) asking for details about Mitchell and praying that he and another soldier are the last men to be killed in the operation.
Henrikson said, “It is a callous choice for a film to change the date and time of a soldier’s death.” He speculated as to why this inaccuracy was included, suggesting it “allowed the emphasis from the Colonel on the ‘last ones to die today.’ Maybe the writers felt it would help viewers trust the Lt. Colonel more, because he said those men would be the last two and they were, at least to the viewers.”
“Filmmakers always want military battles to be linear, for ease of storytelling, but reality seldom agrees,” Henrikson suggested.
Despite the callous nature of these inaccuracies, the military made no objections.
Army entertainment liaison Lt. Col. Timothy reviewed a rough cut of the first episode and commented, “No real issues. I can’t believe we missed the chin strap not being right on one of the actors’ helmet, but that’s pretty much it so far.”
This is not only misleading but also a flagrant violation of Defense Department instruction 5410.16, which says that, ‘DOD assistance may be provided to an entertainment media production…based on whether the production presents a reasonably realistic depiction of the Military Services and the DOD, including Service members, civilian personnel, events, missions, assets, and policies.’
US Army Entertainment Liais… by on Scribd
It was not only the rules on accuracy that the Army broke in their eagerness to support “The Long Road Home.” The emails, along with reports from the Army’s entertainment liaison office, show that the production company started building on Fort Hood before the contract between the military and the producers was completed.
Instruction 5410.16 makes clear that the Pentagon needs to “ensure that no material assistance is provided before a Production Assistance Agreement is signed.”
When it came to the company reimbursing the Pentagon’s costs, the producers balked at the initial estimate of $500,000.
For decades, the military has only been allowed to provide production assistance on a no-cost basis to the taxpayer so the production company has to pay for the fuel, vehicle maintenance, staffing hours, and so on. But the military broke the rules in order to reduce the amount of money the producers would have to pay, by “removing the cost to convoy to the set; calling all of it training, and some other variable that an inventive G3/S3 or G8/S4 invents to reduce the cost.”
In the same email, the Army noted that they could not redefine much of the ground action as STX (situational training exercise) because ‘it is COIN [counter-insurgency] based and does not support our current DATE [Decisive Action Training Environment] mission.’ But if ‘staged shots, where a driver is told to drive to a spot and stop and the gunner told to slew a certain direction’ cannot be called training, then how can driving a vehicle out to a movie set be called training?
This is potentially fraudulent activity by the Army’s Hollywood office, resulting in the Pentagon subsidizing a TV film series in exchange for it including what the Army emails called “strategic messaging.”
One example of this is especially galling. Army Specialist Tomas Young was shot during the fighting in Sadr City and paralyzed from the waist down. He had been in Iraq for only five days, having signed up just after the 9/11 attacks.
Young became an anti-war campaigner, one of the first Iraq war veterans to do so, and he met Sheehan at Camp Casey, the long-term protest outside President George W. Bush’s ranch in Crawford, Texas. (Young was later profiled in the documentary, “Body of War,” before he tragically died from his injuries.)
“The Long Road Home” depicts this meeting between Tomas and Cindy, but in a move Sheehan described as ‘cowardly’, the producers asked the military’s permission to include banners and t-shirts in this scene bearing the names and logos of various peace and anti-war organizations. The Army’s assessment was that they were “not using overtly political signs” and so there were “no red flags.”
Henrikson offered the opinion that “the signs, from the standpoint of the military, allow mentions of these anti-war orgs without diving too deeply into what they truly stand for.”
“Each one will have a specific philosophy on why they believe war is wrong, but if you’re trying to tacitly include groups with which you fundamentally disagree and whose views may upset your more neoconservative viewers, showing signs without talking philosophies allows them to make both sides happy or at least content.”
He went on, “And who is the dumb ass at the Army who decided their signs weren’t overtly political? Most of these groups are anti-war, anti-interventionists types; to say their signage wasn’t overtly political is to completely miss the point.”
The film does not reference Camp Casey or even identify it in a subtitle. While Tomas, Cindy, and others are shown attending an event, there is no dialogue. None of them articulate to the audience why they became peace activists or how they went from signing up for the war to protesting the war.
Over 8 hours, it devotes much of its time to glamorizing the war, and never allows 30 seconds for a main character to explain why they changed their mind.
As Sheehan put it, ‘The military [was] involved to make war look heroic and glamorous. It’s almost as bad as the overt propaganda films of World War II.”
”The fact that it doesn’t let Tomas or Cindy voice their strong views against war and simply shows signs demonstrates their desire to push the real notion of anti-war belief away from those who it might offend,” Henrikson concluded.