Say what you will about the Iraq war, but there's no shortage of information and analysis about it. Whether we're getting all -- or even the right -- data is another argument; as it is there's plenty of media available to support all sides. While I enjoy like-minded partisanship as much as the blowhard on the next barstool, I have more respect for a cogent, thoughtful work that can snake through the sound-bite minefields and draw all patrons up to the bar for a shared gasp of outrage.
Such is Charles Ferguson's documentary about the U.S. occupation of Iraq, No End in Sight, which condenses an enormous amount of information, primarily about the events in Washington, D.C., and Baghdad, during 2003. Ferguson's goal: to reveal the largely preventable errors made then that precipitated the mess we -- and the Iraqis -- are in now.
If you've been diligently paying attention all along, then No End is a valuable refresher précis, a sort of greatest-hits package of blunders and missteps. (Like all compilations, it's got some one-hit wonders: Remember Ahmed Chalabi?) But plenty of us have lost track of the details of the Iraq story; it's become background noise in our busy lives, squawking only intermittently for a fresh tragedy or new political spat. In many respects, "Iraq" now signifies a featureless mess, a catch-all term for this omnipresent Bad Thing Over There that we've simply incorporated alongside other irritants beyond our control.
Ferguson's film sits us down and calmly redraws the lines, once again throwing Iraq into sharp relief. Even the well-informed will be shocked by No End -- not because it necessarily reveals anything new, but because it puts so many stray details and fast-grab headlines into context. And that big picture revealed is universally devastating, whether you supported the war or not: We made an unmitigated mess of Iraq and it didn't have to happen that way.
To understand where we are now, Ferguson posits, it's imperative to look at how we got here. Thus, he lines up individuals who, for the most part, were directly involved in planning the war and the subsequent reconstruction. Interviewees include retired Army Gen. Jay Garner, whose boots were among the first on the ground after the war, and who was tasked with transforming Iraq into a democracy; reporters; military personnel; Col. Paul Hughes, who nearly had the Iraqi army re-assembled; functionaries at the Pentagon and State Department; and diplomatic staff.
Talking-head interviews are supplemented with archival and contemporary footage from Iraq. Again, there's nothing new here (though some of the material is considerably rawer than what plays on TV news) -- but the visuals help to underscore the policy discussions.
Needless to say, the people whom Ferguson lays much of the blame on -- President George W. Bush's inner circle of Vice President Dick Cheney, then Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld and former Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz -- don't grant interviews. But people who were around them provide damning details about a triumvirate of war planners who acted at worst arrogantly, and at best, carelessly.
Though some of the facts are dry, and perhaps went unnoticed at the time, in hindsight they are devastating. For instance, the initial post-war-planning team -- itself a hastily assembled group -- was convened just 50 days before the attack on Baghdad. People set aside more time to ponder their Christmas shopping. The onboard ambassador, a seasoned diplomat with Mid-East experience, Barbara Bodine, now says pointedly: "There truly were no [post-war] plans."
In retracing the decisions made in 2003, so many mistakes come to light that the armchair cynic can pick his favorite. Besides the devastating looting, Ferguson examines in detail three grievous errors, all made on the watch of L. Paul Bremer, head of the Coalition Provisional Authority: (1) not involving Iraqis in post-war planning and reconstruction; (2) the de-Baathification that scattered Iraq's valuable technocrats and intelligentsia to the winds; and (3) the disbanding of the Iraqi military, which left up to half-a-million armed, angry men to be swayed by burgeoning anti-U.S. uprisings.
Like the snowball rolling into an unstoppable avalanche, so too did early errors spur crises that rapidly metastasized into worse trouble. Ferguson lays out reason after reason -- all eminently understandable -- why the insurgency bloomed in 2003. When the data are assembled, it's glaringly obvious that what we now refer to as the monolithic "insurgency" in fact represents dozens of different angry, frustrated, disaffected, impoverished and disenfranchised factions. Good luck fixing that.
In fact, the more you learn about what occurred four years ago, the less optimistic you are about any immediate improvement. Ferguson doesn't offer any solutions; instead, his film is a post-mortem, a relatively dispassionate checklist of what went wrong. History has yet to be written on the final outcome of Iraq, but it's hard not to look at the events of 2003 as presented here and not see a colossal foreign-policy blunder, the costs of which -- economically, militarily, diplomatically -- have not even begun to be tallied.
Individually, perhaps, there's little we can do about the war. But informing ourselves -- about what mistakes were made, and how they continue to impact today -- should be mandatory citizenship, even if some of our elected officials seem blithely disinterested. No End in Sight isn't a fun film to watch, but then facing up to reality is often tough. In English, and some Arabic, with subtitles.
Starts Fri., Sept. 7. Squirrel Hill