Iraq: Mismanagement or Mass Murder?

No End in Sight explores how we got into Iraq and what screw-ups have made the situation spiral out of control

Michael Atkinson

A scene of the Iraq war from No End in Sight, directed by Charles Ferguson.

Take a step back and scan the media horizon for what it is, and something surprising arises from the vast, swampy trashland of corporate baloney and thought-control – the protest documentary. As in, hundreds of them, in theaters, on DVD and on TV. On-the-shoulder non-fiction films about the Bush administration and the Iraq war have proliferated like dandelions on a landfill. (You could count the feature docs about the Vietnam War made during the conflict itself on two hands.) We are witness to the most concentrated explosion of anti-war, anti-elite cultural action ever created.

But so what? The tsunami of movies has made little difference in the end. What the Bush Administration has conscientiously proven in its two terms is that if a cabal of mercenary schemers wants to twist the system to manufacture at least a temporary monarchal society, in which citizens have no input or voice, it can. The movies, coming week after week for years, enabled by digital technology in production as well as distribution, can only raise so much of a rumpus in the country’s tired, under-informed and often infantile forebrain. 

Such will surely be the case, at no large fault of its own, for Charles Ferguson’s No End in Sight, which at least has a special Jury Prize from the 2007 Sundance film festival on its resume. A supremely glossy, logical, high-end doc that takes task with the spectrum of the Bush administration’s actions from 911 to late 2006, Ferguson’s film is intelligence-report methodical, providing a primer on how we got into Iraq and what screw-ups have made the situation spiral out of control. If you attend to news like we all should (but far too few actually do), this material should be already familiar: the alien-agenda that sought to create a link between 911 and Saddam Hussein (and, arriving at none, settled for unsubstantiated declarations and full-speed-ahead war making anyway); the Rumsfeld-Cheney-Wolfowitz prevarications as to the war’s rationales; the ongoing sunny spin on the country’s collapse into anarchy (Rumsfeld’s Henny Penny, the sky is falling” comment is recycled a few times).

The body of Ferguson’s film is concerned with the catastrophic minutiae of postwar” reconstruction and security, or lack thereof, and this is where the film steps completely into an inoffensive centrist” borderland so comfortably occupied at present by most of the mainstream media. Granted, Ferguson’s focus on individual acts and decisions is admirably thorough – Cheney & Co. are never far from being held accountable (unlike Bush, whom Ferguson presumes is a complete stooge), from the ridiculous lack of reconstructive planning and the inadequate employment of troops, to Paul Bremer’s policy decisions that essentially created an angry, jobless and bloodthirsty insurgent army out of the standing Iraqi military, and therein helped turn a beleaguered country on the edge of decimation into a killing field. In fact, Ferguson has little work to do here – the press conferences of Rumsfeld alone could be edited together into the most damning, ludicrous portrait of duplicitous American power ever assembled. But the film depends also on fresh talking-heads interviews, specifically with the likes of ex-ORHA director Jay Garner, Col. Paul Hughes, ex-Ambassador Barbara Bodine, ex-Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage, and ex-Coalition Provisional Authority senior advisor Walter Slocombe, who provide a minute-by-minute recounting of what went so terribly wrong on the ground.

The defiant moral gravity of Bodine and Hughes, in particular, is hypnotic (whereas Slocombe, defending his and Bremer’s death-dealing mismanagement, cannot stop lying). But already we’re far afield. The question in the American media in 1971 wasn’t, why did we invade Indochina, and who’s going to be held responsible for the millions of civilian deaths?” but instead, how did the conflict go wrong, away from our noble ideals, and why shouldn’t we pull out before it gets worse?” Today, we’re hearing the identical refrain: we tried to do good, but now it’s a quagmire, the Bushian chant of victory” has become hollow nonsense, let’s think about how it went wrong and how we can disentangle ourselves from its grasp. This may be a way we can all live with ourselves, but it’s also an evil perversion of reality.

Indeed, Ferguson is characterized in his press packets as an ex-wonk who initially supported the invasion” – chilly words, once you doff the Rummy-realpolitik rose-colored shades. The film proceeds as if the war had an opportunity to be a righteous action, and might’ve resulted – by accident? – in a better life for the Iraqi people. But the first bombings of 2003, and the subsequent invasion, killed, conservatively, more than 10,000 Iraqi civilians in just a few months (the actual body count may well be five times as high). The numbers of injuries, disablements, destroyed homes and refugees just in the spring and summer of 2003 alone were enormous, long before Bremer and his team stepped into the fray (though exact figures, due to the supervisory amorality that Ferguson details so attentively, are impossible to find). By any human standard, it was wrong, it was fueled by lies and disregard for innocent life, and is tantamount to mass murder, period. 

Copious blood and fire footage notwithstanding, Ferguson’s outrage seems reserved for pencil-pusher hubris and misguided administrative technique. For a gloss over the fundamental homicidal point of state aggression, and a focus instead on how things are going,” we have Fox News.

Michael Atkinson is a film reviewer for In These Times. He has written or edited many books, including Exile Cinema: Filmmakers at Work Beyond Hollywood (2008) and the mystery novels Hemingway Deadlights (2009) and Hemingway Cutthroat (2010). He blogs at Zero For Conduct.
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