'No End in Sight,' A Direct Hit on Iraq War Makers
Friday, July 27, 2007
The script of Charles Ferguson's "No End in Sight" would certainly be in the hands of prosecutors in the event of impeachment hearings. The documentary is a furious, if quietly stated, indictment of the president and all his men in re the debacle that our adventure in Iraq has turned into. Ferguson builds a compelling case of bad judgment, error, stubbornness, arrogance, all of it adding up to a mess with no end in sight.
It's also, most impressively, an evocation of that horror. Astutely edited by Chad Beck and Cindy Lee, it assembles a depressing cascade of imagery from the war: the tanks pulling through the dusty, ancient towns; the young Americans scooting through the ruins in their Terminator shades; optics-festooned plastic rifles, looking for targets as the children and women flee; the detonation of a roadside bomb with its surreal combination of speed and energy; and, of course, the talking heads, who talk, then talk some more, then talk still more, that is, if they'll talk at all. (Wolfowitz, Bremer and Rumsfeld wouldn't; all are represented in archival footage.)
What we're left with, thankfully, is no psych-ward collection of nut-case radicals so unhinged by Bush's temerity that they dilate their nostrils and spray saliva and throb in their veins and arteries like creatures from another planet. No word of impeachment is broached, no partisan politics are referred to, and the usual subjects or frequent critics are nowhere in sight.
Instead, Ferguson, a Brookings scholar and software entrepreneur, has rounded up some unusual suspects. Mostly mid-level bureaucrats who served in the occupation and watched in horror as the chaos doubled and redoubled and nearly everyone became infected with nihilism and dread, they form an effective set of witnesses because they don't seem instinctively anti-Bush. Their attitude isn't the unearned moral superiority of people who never risked anything, but more a kind of melancholy of what is but what didn't have to be. To be sure, some of the complaints are common to all bureaucracies, military-diplomatic or plastic manufacturing or newspaper publishing: My supervisors didn't pay any attention to me; they made policy based on unrealistic wishful thinking; they wouldn't admit mistakes; they blundered ahead, going from bad to worse. Of this group, the diplomat Barbara Bodine and an early on-the-ground executive, retired Lt. Gen. Jay Garner, seem by far the most impressive and the least partisan. They are also, in some ways, the saddest. One of them -- I name no names -- seems a little self-dramatizing.
Then there are some journalists and authors, but nobody from the Nation or even the New Republic; Time and Atlantic Monthly are represented. Richard Armitage represents (forcefully) those at the State Department who never thought it was such a good idea. And Ferguson is lucky that the one Bushie with the guts to go before the camera is a ramrod-straight, tough-as-samurai-steel gent named Walter Slocombe, who refuses to blink, equivocate or back down. In the subtle moral landscape of the film, he makes a pretty good villain. Armitage and a lieutenant colonel named Paul Hughes are the heroes. A poor Marine lieutenant named Seth Moulton and an Army specialist who got blown up are the designated victims.
The case everybody makes seems pretty tight, and Ferguson keeps it simple for us morons of the unwashed public. He zeroes in on three decisions that U.S. administrator Paul Bremer made, seemingly on the spot without a lot of thought, the most disastrous of which was to disband the Iraqi army. Suddenly there are 500,000 men armed with AK-47s and RPGs with nothing to do, no way to make a living. The only thing that's free is ammo, as the country has more than 70 weapons dumps that the Americans are too short-handed to guard. Mischief seems almost preordained from that single mistake, and most of the witnesses say they warned Bremer against the shortsightedness of the decision, but he wouldn't listen.
In all this Bush is portrayed not as a master manipulator, nor as Karl Rove's sock-puppet, but as a man truly disengaged, even bored by the situation. It's distressing to learn that the president didn't even bother to read a one-page summary of arguments regarding a certain policy decision, but simply allowed Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld to decide.
Sometimes, Ferguson is petty. He briefly evokes but does not develop several smaller issues, such as the armor on Humvees and the use of contractors on security details. And he makes, in my view, much too much of the decision in the first days of the occupation not to send troops to guard the National Museum in Baghdad after massive looting had broken out all over the city. One witness says, "That's when we lost the Iraqi people." Maybe so, but if we'd sent a platoon to cover it and a Spec. 4 had panicked and pulled the trigger on his M240, the same people who decry the lack of protection would have decried the protection and made a myth out of the museum massacre and someone would say, " That's where we lost the Iraqi people." Or if the boy had panicked and didn't pull the trigger and a mob overwhelmed and murdered the platoon -- still another scandal. One way or another the museum was going to dissatisfy everyone and enter mythology. You'll have your opinion, but since I'm writing, I get to offer mine: Sorry, but no Iraqi plate or bowl, no matter how old, was worth a single American life.
Will history absolve Bush or Ferguson and his many allies in the press and in both the Democratic and Republican parties? You could say: Only time will tell. Or you could say: Bush. Or you could say: anti-Bush. Or you could say: Certitude is for fools.
No End in Sight (102 minutes, at Landmark's E Street Cinema) is not rated, but contains disturbing scenes of real combat violence.