[27 July 2007]
PopMatters Film and TV Editor
There were huge lines of Iraqis, engineers, public officials, people just willing to help, to translate, standing in line at the gates of the palace, made to wait, and not being received by anyone, just told, “Go away, don’t come back.”
If my speaking out adds even infinitesimally to the criticism that counts of this administration, then that’s good. I don’t pretend to say that I’ve been effective in that regard but I just can’t hold my peace any longer.
—Col. Lawrence Wilkerson
I don’t do quagmires.
— Donald Rusmfeld
You know the Iraq war is going badly. What you may not know is how it also started badly. Charles Ferguson’s smart, meticulous documentary No End in Sight explains that first year in detail, at once alarming and dismal. That its first scene is set in Iraq is telling (this after crediting upfront the security company who looked after the documentary team in country). For all the American arrogance, ignorance, and incompetence that have shaped Iraq’s present state of chaos—demonstrated here in a credits sequence that shows Donald Rumsfeld, George Bush, U.S. troops with guns, and various street and market images—the film proper starts in Baghdad 2006.
The first words sound over a public address system, subtitled: “We mourn the catastrophe by the hands of evil forces,” the speaker declares, his voice echoing over shots of security checks, barefoot kids seated on the street and snipers keeping watch on rooftops. The audience listens to an argument for executing detainees “who have the support of the Americans.” Narrator Campbell Scott breaks in here, over a split screen showing Bush at the USS Lincoln podium and the “Mission Accomplished” banner. Back in 2003, Scoot intones, the president declared the end of “major combat operations”. In case you’ve missed it, the contrast between U.S. posturing and reality “on the ground” is made even more emphatic by the next cut—to combat. Gunfire, hectic handheld camerawork, burning vehicles, frightened, grieving, and angry civilians: yet another car bomb has destroyed lives.
“Iraq has disintegrated into chaos,” notes Scott, followed by U.S. adviser to Iraq’s interior ministry Gerald Burke’s sobering assessment by numbers: “Baghdad has 10, 15 bombings a day, maybe 50 KIA. But I suspect that’s drastically underreported.” The sheer numbers of Iraqi deaths, injuries, and refugees are staggering, the film submits. “People who die are lucky,” says Iraqi journalist Ali Fadhil. “But people who are living, they are dead while they are alive.”
The devastation is clear enough in the footage assembled by Ferguson, a former Brookings Institution fellow and co-founder of a lucrative software company. Contextualizing the mayhem, a range of interviewees speak to the several stages of the war and occupation—in sections titled “The Void,” “Things Fall Apart,” and “Chaos”—laying out a sequence of events, decisions, and abject refusals to deal with situations that can best be described as shocking. (Though much of the information is available in books published by several of the interviewees, its arrangement here is profoundly instructive.) Beginning with former Defense Intelligence Agency analyst Marc Galasco’s recollection that the administration initiated post-9/11 efforts to “draw any relationship between Saddam and Al Qaeda,” this history includes footage of Dick Cheney, Rumsfeld, George Tenet, or Bush countering the film’s interviews. (The juxtapositions are disturbing, to say the least: when, for instance, former deputy secretary of State Richard Armitage suggests that Ferguson ask Condoleezza Rice about a particular point, the film includes a title card noting her refusal to be interviewed.)
The film offers a brief overview of the U.S.’ relationship with Iraq and the 2003 war, then provides a step-by-step description of the increasingly ruinous occupation. These steps are narrated in large part by authors whose names and books will be familiar to many viewers of the film: George Packer (The Assassin’s Gate) assesses a key point in the mismanagement, when Bush, in National Security Presidential Directive Number 24, gave control of post-war Iraq to the Pentagon. The administration’s thinking was notoriously colored by Ahmed Chalabi’s faulty predictions, dismissed by the intelligence community. The film underscores the lack of preparation for the occupation, noting that teams were put in place only weeks before they were expected to perform. One striking instance was ambassador Barbara Bodine’s placement “in charge of” Baghdad, without staff, security, or even telephones: “There truly were no plans,” she says.
It was not long before Paul Bremer’s disastrous tenure as head of the Coalition Provisional Authority shattered any initial good will toward the Americans. This tenure includes, of course, the infamous de-Baathification policy, which here elicits contradictory accounts by the CPA’s director of national security and defense Walter Slocombe and Col. Paul Hughes, chief of the Special Initiatives Office for the Office of Reconstruction and Humanitarian Assistance (ORHA). (Ferguson’s “re-interviews” of both men are pointed, intelligent, and reveal startling differences.) Though Marine Lieutenant Seth Moulton observes that they could have stopped the looting, the Pentagon refused to take responsibility. “The greatest mystery of post-war Iraq involves…. why the U.S. didn’t do anything to control the looting because in a way, everything that’s been a problem since then started in that first month,” says James Fallows (The Atlantic Monthly editor and author of Blind into Baghdad). As Armitage and Bodine both state, Washington instructed teams in Iraq not to interfere with the looting that Rumsfeld dismissed as the “untidy” effect of freedom.
With the looting (with costs estimated at some $12 billion by the CPA), the local population felt abandoned (Bodine says this was “when we lost a lot of Iraqis”). As museums were destroyed and oil refineries protected, it became clear where U.S. priorities lay. Journalist Nir Rosen (In the Belly of the Green Bird) describes a “pervasive sense of lawlessness that Iraq never recovered from,” following Rumsfeld’s cancellation of the First Cavalry division’s deployment. As Lt. General Jay Garner entered Baghdad with ORHA, he had no visible support, no information, no starting point to rebuild infrastructure or police the streets.
As the film shows, Muqtada al-Sadr entered into “the void,” encouraging Shiite resistance and organizing the violence against Iraqi civilians and U.S. troops. At the same time, the CPA was cycling administrators and staffers in and out, with calamitous results. As Major General Paul Eaton, put in charge of training the new Iraqi Army, says, “As soon as somebody would develop the appropriate relationships with the Iraqis, in 90 days, 100 days, 120 days, they would go home. And that is a terrible way to run an organization.” The official strategy included assigning contracts to U.S. companies, contradicting logic and other work being done by U.S. military advisors.
Again and again, the administration’s ideas and actions conflict with those of the military. Packer, seated artfully on a shadowy stairwell for his interview, says, “There was fraud, there was corruption, there was waste.” Iraqis had no electricity, water, communications, or sewage disposal. The film shows bombed out buildings and empty streets, U.S. military raids of homes (in aptly disturbing night vision green). Nir Rosen says, “It’s difficult to understand what it feels like to be an occupied person. They point their guns at you from their jeeps, they stop you when you’re driving. Iraqis would not understand instructions given to them at traffic checkpoints. They would approach too quickly, they would get shot and killed.”
Following the death of U.N. envoy Sérgio Vieira de Mello in August of 2003, the occupation took another downturn (Samantha Power, author of A Problem form Hell, points out that he was alive for over three hours under the rubble of the explosion). No End in Sight submits that the use of private contractors (who were “very short-sighted in what they’re doing,” says Lt. Moulton) adds to the sense of turmoil and Iraqis’ distrust. “What came in is worse than Saddam,” says one man, bereft, exhausted, and irate.
The title of No End in Sight resonates: the administration had no end in mind, and now no end seems possible, for the violence in Iraq or U.S. involvement. The mistakes made during the first year of the occupation can never be undone, the film argues, but they can be acknowledged, understood, and addressed. Thus far, the U.S. administration has apparently not initiated even these first steps.