No End in Sight (2007)

Charles Ferguson's smart, meticulous documentary No End in Sight explains the first year in Iraq in detail, at once alarming and dismal.

No End in Sight

Director: Charles Ferguson
Cast: Chris Allbritton, Richard Armitage, Linda Bilmes, Barbara Bodine, Gerald Burke, James Fallows, Gen. Jay Garner, Ann Gildroy, Hugo Gonzalez, Col. Paul Hughes, Seth Moulton, George Packer, Samantha Power, Nir Rosen, Walter Slocombe, David Yancey
MPAA rating: Unrated
Studio: Magnolia Pictures
First date: 2007
US Release Date: 2007-07-27 (Limited release)
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."

-- Yaroslav Trofimov

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.


In the wake of Malcolm Young's passing, Jesse Fink, author of The Youngs: The Brothers Who Built AC/DC, offers up his top 10 AC/DC songs, each seasoned with a dash of backstory.

Editor's Note: Originally published 30 July 2014.

10. “Bedlam in Belgium”
(Flick of the Switch, 1983)

This is a massively underrated barnstormer from the boys off the much-maligned (unfairly, I think) Flick of the Switch. The album was missing Mutt Lange, but the Youngs did have his very capable engineer, Tony Platt, as co-producer in the studio at Compass Point in the Bahamas. Tony’s a real pro. I think he did a perfectly fine job on this album, which also features the slamming “Nervous Shakedown”.

But what I find most interesting about “Bedlam in Belgium” is that it’s based on a fracas that broke out on stage in Kontich, Belgium, in 1977, involving Bon Scott, the rest of the band, and the local authorities. AC/DC had violated a noise curfew and things got hairy.

Yet Brian Johnson, more than half a decade later, wrote the lyrics with such insight; almost as if he was the one getting walloped by the Belgian police: He gave me a crack in the back with his gun / Hurt me so bad I could feel the blood run. Cracking lyrics, Bon-esque. Unfortunately for Brian, he was removed from lyric-writing duties from The Razors Edge (1990) onwards. All songs up to and including 2008’s Black Ice are Young/Young compositions.

Who’ll be writing the songs on the new album AC/DC has been working on in Vancouver? AC/DC fans can’t wait to hear them. Nor can I.

9. “Spellbound”
(For Those About to Rock We Salute You, 1981)

"Spellbound" really stands as a lasting monument to the genius of Mutt Lange, a man whose finely tuned ear and attention to detail filed the rough edges of Vanda & Young–era AC/DC and turned this commercially underperforming band for Atlantic Records into one of the biggest in the world. On “Spellbound” AC/DC sounds truly majestic. Lange just amplifies their natural power an extra notch. It’s crisp sounding, laden with dynamics and just awesome when Angus launches into his solo.

“Spellbound” is the closer on For Those About to Rock We Salute You, the last album Lange did with AC/DC, so chronologically it’s a significant song; it marks the end of an important era. For Those About to Rock was an unhappy experience for a lot of people. There was a lot of blood being spilled behind the scenes. It went to number one in the US but commercially was a massive disappointment after the performance of Back in Black. Much of the blame lies at the feet of Atlantic Records, then under Doug Morris, who made the decision to exhume an album they’d shelved in 1976, Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap, and release it in-between Back in Black and For Those About to Rock.

In the book Phil Carson, who signed AC/DC to Atlantic, calls it “one of the most crass decisions ever made by a record-company executive” and believes it undermined sales of For Those About to Rock.

8. “Down Payment Blues”
(Powerage, 1978)

This is one of the best songs off Powerage -- perhaps the high point of Bon Scott as a lyricist -- but also significant for its connection to “Back in Black”. There are key lines in it: Sitting in my Cadillac / Listening to my radio / Suzy baby get on in / Tell me where she wanna go / I'm living in a nightmare / She's looking like a wet dream / I got myself a Cadillac / But I can't afford the gasoline.

Bon loved writing about Cadillacs. He mentions them in “Rocker” off the Australian version of TNT and the international release of Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap: Got slicked black hair / Skin tight jeans / Cadillac car and a teenage dream.

Then you get to “Back in Black”. Bon’s dead but the lyrics have this spooky connection to “Down Payment Blues”: Back in the back / Of a Cadillac / Number one with a bullet, I’m a power pack.

Why was Brian singing about riding around in Cadillacs? He’d just joined AC/DC, wasn’t earning a lot and was on his best behavior. Bon had a reason to be singing about money. He was writing all the songs and just had a breakthrough album with Highway to Hell. Which begs the question: Could Bon also have written or part written the lyrics to “Back in Black”?

Bon’s late mother Isa said in 2006: “The last time we saw him was Christmas ’79, two months before he died. [Bon] told me he was working on the Back in Black album and that that was going to be it; that he was going to be a millionaire.”

7. “You Shook Me All Night Long”
(Back in Black, 1980)

Everyone knows and loves this song; it’s played everywhere. Shania Twain and Celine Dion have covered it. It’s one of AC/DC’s standbys. But who wrote it?

Former Mötley Crüe manager Doug Thaler is convinced Bon Scott, who’d passed away before the album was recorded, being replaced by Brian Johnson, wrote the lyrics. In fact he told me, “You can bet your life that Bon Scott wrote the lyrics to ‘You Shook Me All Night Long’.” That’s a pretty strong statement from a guy who used to be AC/DC’s American booking agent and knew the band intimately. I look into this claim in some depth in the book and draw my own conclusions.

I’m convinced Bon wrote it. In my opinion only Bon would have written a line like “She told me to come but I was already there.” Brian never matched the verve or wit of Bon in his lyrics and it’s why I think so much of AC/DC’s mid-'80s output suffers even when the guitar work of the Youngs was as good as it ever was.

But what’s also really interesting about this song in light of the recent hullabaloo over Taurus and Led Zeppelin is how much the opening guitar riff sounds similar to Head East’s “Never Been Any Reason”. I didn’t know a hell of a lot about Head East before I started working on this book, but came across “Never Been Any Reason” in the process of doing my research and was blown away when I heard it for the first time. AC/DC opened for Head East in Milwaukee in 1977. So the two bands crossed paths.

6. “Rock ’N’ Roll Damnation”
(Powerage, 1978)

It’s hard to get my head around the fact Mick Wall, the British rock writer and author of AC/DC: Hell Ain’t a Bad Place to Be, called this “a two-bit piece of head-bopping guff.” Not sure what track he was listening to when he wrote that -- maybe he was having a bad day -- but for me it’s one of the last of AC/DC’s classic boogie tracks and probably the best.

Mark Evans loves it almost as much as he loves “Highway to Hell". It has everything you want in an AC/DC song plus shakers, tambourines and handclaps, a real Motown touch that George Young and Harry Vanda brought to bear on the recording. They did something similar with the John Paul Young hit “Love Is in the Air”. Percussion was an underlying feature of many early AC/DC songs. This one really grooves. I never get tired of hearing it.

“Rock ’n’ Roll Damnation” was AC/DC’s first hit in the UK charts and a lot of the credit has to go to Michael Klenfner, best known as the fat guy with the moustache who stops Jake and Elwood backstage in the final reel of The Blues Brothers and offers them a recording contract. He was senior vice-president at Atlantic at the time, and insisted the band go back and record a radio-worthy single after they delivered the first cut of Powerage to New York.

Michael was a real champion of AC/DC behind the scenes at Atlantic, and never got the recognition he was due while he was still alive (he passed away in 2009). He ended up having a falling out with Atlantic president Jerry Greenberg over the choice of producer for Highway to Hell and got fired. But it was Klenfner who arguably did more for the band than anyone else while they were at Atlantic. His story deserves to be known by the fans.

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