The Reeler


July 25, 2007

No End in Sight

Iraq documentary burns through the fog of war with some awful truths

The title is both misleading and says it all. Charles Ferguson’s No End in Sight is overwhelming but never overbearing, partial but not partisan; that title offers the most blunt summary judgment that this essential documentary is willing to make, though its contents suggest no better conclusion.

Collecting an unprecedented number of former members of the Bush administration, diplomats, soldiers, journalists and political scientists (Ferguson himself is an MIT doctorate, this is his first film), No End in Sight is a clear-eyed, coherent dissection of how crucial decisions were made in the first weeks and months following the American invasion of Iraq, and how the literally unimaginable (and if you think you already have an idea, you are wrong) hubris, ignorance and ineptitude of several men in Washington created a religious, economical, political and civil confluence so catastrophic that there may be no return. This account -- more effective for its dispassion -- will bring you to your knees. Shame-making and ultimately enraging, if the facts as they are laid out here don’t inspire those exposed to them to shake off whatever individual degree of grip our collective torpor has and howl for change until it comes, then we are truly lost.

With narration provided by actor Campbell Scott, Ferguson begins with Iraq circa 2006; 10-15 bombings a day, 3 million Iraqis have fled, and those that remain consider the dead (several hundred each day, and rising) to be the lucky ones. Using archival news footage and talking head interviews with writers like George Packer and Samantha Power, Ferguson gives a brief history of embattled Iraq, from the Iran war through the Gulf conflict (whose devastating ending and resultant U.S. embargoes plunged the country into poverty), and up to 9/11, after which Marc Garlasco, then the Defense Intelligence Agency’s Senior Iraq Analyst, ruled out any connection between Iraq and Al Qaeda.

Getting journalists to talk shit about Iraq is easy (these days, anyway); getting security and defense advisors, intelligence officers and the deputy secretary of state -- one would imagine -- much less so. And yet here are Dick Armitage, Walter Slocombe, Robert Hutchings and Paul Hughes, the latter of whom Ferguson uses as something of a narrative touchstone, his experience in the Office of Reconstruction and Humanitarian Assistance and later the Coalition Provisional Authority one that threads through each of the film’s critical issues. The interviewees, with the exception of Slocombe, seem both relieved and defeated at the prospect of telling their on the ground story of the early months of the war.

Colonel Hughes especially is a man haunted by the scale and level of the failure of his country to manage the mess they created. Ferguson keeps his focus on the stories of the people who were actually in Iraq, and their observations of three key decisions in the spring and summer of 2003: The failure to enact martial law directly after the invasion, which allowed Baghdad’s looting to fester into a desperate, nationwide ratfuck of violence and lawlessness (including the pillaging of arms caches); the de-Ba'athification of the Iraqi government and the dissolution of the Iraqi army, which turned hundreds of thousands of angry professionals and soldiers into the streets, where the insurgency was bred.

Expert editing and pacing move the rapid-fire hits of history and policy along without a moment to spare, and Ferguson’s eye on his interview subjects is varied and integral. Most effective is a sequence in which Hughes and Slocombe are asked separately to recount the inner workings and execution of a single, devastating decision; intercut to perfection, Hughes' defiance and Slocombe’s disparity offer in microcosm how such arrogance and malignant oversight could prevail on a grand scale. The litany of grievances is great, but offered as what they are: the straight story, as told by its players. Notably excepted from their narrative duties are Paul Wolfowitz, Rumsfeld, Cheney and Rice, who all declined to be interviewed. The president himself is less present than you would think in this particular scenario (and can’t even be bothered to read the National Intelligence Council’s findings on the occupation), with Ambassador Paul Bremer -- inexperienced and ill-equipped for his position as head of the CPA in Iraq -- making the most wildly incoherent and tragically consequential decisions.

What we’re left with is as damning and concise a portrait of the policy “mistakes” (the word is truly inadequate for choices which border on criminally negligent) made by a handful of people who should have known better, while the rest of us were looking the other way. Remaining ignorant of these decisions -- of what happened to create the situation that has resulted in so much death and extreme suffering, and the actions being made in the name of American citizens and funded by their money -- is a different kind of crime. By the time Ferguson, his beleaguered testifiers and some of this country’s finest minds are through with their dizzying subject, “no end in sight” seems like a positively upbeat spin on the American occupation of Iraq; it is so much worse than that.

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