Michael Epstein’s documentary, House Two, examines the 2005 massacre perpetrated by U.S. Marines in Haditha and uncovers the shocking truth about the longest criminal investigation in Marine Corps history.
The term “fog of war” was first used to describe Prussian military offenses in by nineteenth-century analyst Carl von Clausewitz, who noted, “three-quarters of the factors on which action in war is based are wrapped in a fog of greater or lesser uncertainty.”
Anyone who might have expected some of this uncertainty to clear up in the intervening century-and-a-half – perhaps in the technological advancements which have brought communication far beyond courier on horseback – would be greatly disappointed. The fog of war, if anything, matured as a descriptor as modern warfare grew nastier, and fits the mantle of offenses found in combat today at least as much as in 1843.
Errol Morris, in his documentary about the Vietnam War and one of its chief architects, Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara, and made the term the film’s title in order to characterize the severe misjudgment which blighted American military tactics. His Fog of War came out in 2003, just as U.S. Military were moving in on another poorly understood and deeply divided region, Iraq, with the foolish hope that we could learn from our past mistakes.
Morris’ hit film could be seen as something of a precursor to House Two, a new movie by Michael Epstein which centers on the 2005 massacre perpetrated by U.S. Marines in Haditha, a city in western Iraq.
The doc makes its world premiere at Tribeca this year, but it’s clear that Epstein began the project when the investigation of the tragedy was just beginning after Time magazine reported on the matter in 2006.
It begins with interviews by Tim McGirk, the reporter who broke the story, and then settles into its primary, and shockingly intimate, coverage of the prime suspect of the atrocity, Staff Sergeant Frank Wuterich and his defense team.
The facts about Haditha became public record long before the military tribunal concluded its investigation in October 2007. On the early morning of November 19th, a makeshift roadside bomb was detonated, killing one Marine. His battalion immediately regrouped, under SSgt Wuterich, and killed five Iraqi men who happened to be nearby at the time, on the roadside and were thought to have placed the IED.
The team then went into the houses overlooking the site (which some Marines reported taking fire from), and subsequently entered into three different homes, shooting everyone inside on sight. By mid-morning, twenty-four unarmed civilians had been killed, about a third of which were women and small children.
Epstein’s documentary, as the title declaims, focuses only on one of these houses, largely because it was the site of greatest evidence that this was an act not in line with military protocol. One man, Younis Salim Khafif, was shot going to his door to see what the commotion was; his wife Alda Yasin Ahmed, and her six daughters and one son, were shot as they huddled together on her bed – only one thirteen-year-old girl survived.
A criminal investigation by NCIS determined through photos taken later that day that the bedroom shooting happened in a matter of seconds, by two soldiers firing M16 assault rifles, followed by a 9mm pistol, shot at execution range as a “death check.” It became the investigators’ assumptions that Wuterich, who would have led the troops through the house, had to be at least one of these assailants in the room, and he quickly became almost the central subject of the investigation.
Staff Sergeant Wuderich is shown in an oddly sympathetic light – one which almost has the hint of forgiveness
It becomes clear early in House Two that Wuterich and his appointed defense team worked closely with Epstein on this film, granting him extensive access to his home during the impending investigation, where he and his wife, Marisol, were raising two daughters.
Epstein capitalizes on this access with a unique and perhaps befitting cruelty – many times the film cuts directly between investigation photos of the crime scene (where victim’s bodies are only partially pixelated), particularly of the five and eight-year-old victims, to scenes of Wuterich playing with his own children, picking them up, telling them things like “Hate is a strong word” about the peas on their dinner plates.
Wuderich’s memory of the massacre is hopelessly repressed in his brain, and extensive efforts to recreate or recover his account, filmed in the presence of his defense team, offers little. This would really seem to indicate guilt, except that the concurrent NCIS investigation is uncovering discrepancies in the accounts of the other soldiers on his team which indicate at least some level of perjury on their part.
Honest about his frustration at the lack of recall, and his natural tendency to repress all emotions, Staff Sergeant Wuderich is shown in an oddly sympathetic light – one which almost has the hint of forgiveness about a crime which he undoubtedly played a large part in, whether or not he was pulling the trigger in the bedroom. “I can’t provide the answers to help myself out,” he confesses to us. It’s the closest we can get to some sense of apology.
Watching this film, I could not stop wondering whether it was intended to condemn or exonerate. The answer is sort of both: Epstein’s coverage of the investigation through NCIS and the Wuderich defense uncovers facts which strongly indicate it was not him pulling the trigger in house two, but rather two of his men – Lance Corporals Mendoza and Sherratt – who were both eventually granted immunity to offer contradictory evidence against Wuderich.
The legal narrative of the documentary shifts into a warped accounting of the facts even before the list of interviewees acknowledge the situation – explained as a uniquely myopic and negligent prosecution team which focused only on one man in the aftermath of group violence.
Gen. Mattis’ role in the tribunal was a surprise for many, even though Haditha was the longest, most expensive, and most publicized case in marine corps history.
It becomes clear that Wuderich gets at least somewhat scapegoated for the actions of his underlings, and this could perhaps be tragic if the prosecution hadn’t offered him a plea deal for a single count of dereliction of duty, “the least significant charge in the entire military code.”
The presence of an architect structuring the suit becomes clear. The plea was taken just as the NCIS team was preparing their evidence against Mendoza and Sherratt, evidence which would have entirely undone the case.
“Someone at a much higher level wanted to prosecute but didn’t want to convict, because a conviction of these Marines is a conviction of the marine corps,” Wuderich’s lawyer says. That, someone, was James N. “Mad Dog” Mattis, then Marine General, now Secretary of Defense, who, it is revealed, was overseeing the tribunal as a kind of judge.
There were some gasps in the audience at this, which speaks to the suppression of this narrative in the media, even when the Haditha case was the longest, most expensive, and most publicized case in marine corps history.
That would seem to indicate that Epstein’s documentary journalism is both groundbreaking and incredibly pertinent to today, and it is. But in the attempt to be so, House Two comes across as entirely forgetful of the actual harm and violence which galvanized the legal issue.
The actual events of Haditha are glossed over in both cause and effect, and we learn more about the layout of a single room than we do about the victims in it, the perpetrators of it, or its place in the context of the Iraq War. Late in the film, a soldier is briefly referenced as having urinated on the victim’s skull earlier that day, but this information feels almost incidental. Same massacre, different place.
This, unfortunately, results in a film which resembles the partially pixelated photos it employs throughout – extraordinarily precise details emerging from a hardly identifiable image.
The crime and lack of punishment, elucidated in detail, seem to say nothing about the greater morals or values that made them, which can be frustrating. House Two may have simply worked better if it had emphasized its most unique aspect – the quality time it spends with SSgt Wuderich – as the essence of the work, a profile of guilt unaccounted for.