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You know the Iraq war is going badly. What you may not know is how it also started badly. Charles Ferguson's smart, rigorous documentary No End in Sight explains the first year in detail at once distressing and dismal. Following a montage that indicates causes and effects — Donald Rumsfeld, George Bush, U.S. troops with guns and bombed-out streets — the film opens, appropriately, in Baghdad 2006.
The first words sound over a public address system: "We mourn the catastrophe by the hands of evil forces." The speaker argues for executing detainees "who have the support of the Americans." Narrator Campbell Scott breaks in over a split screen showing Bush at the now notorious USS Lincoln podium in 2003 and the "Mission Accomplished" banner. Cut to the aftermath of yet another car bomb: gunfire, flames and distraught civilians.
"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."
Context for such devastation becomes clear in the footage and interviews assembled by Ferguson, a former Brookings Institution fellow and co-founder of a lucrative software company. Organized into sections with titles like "The Void," "Things Fall Apart" and "Chaos," the film lays out a sequence of decisions and events, recalled by former officials and authors whose names will be familiar to many viewers. Seated artfully on a shadowy stairwell for his interview, George Packer (The Assassins' Gate) assesses a key point in the mismanagement, when Bush, in National Security Presidential Directive No. 24, gave control of post-war Iraq to the Pentagon. Teams to oversee the occupation were put in place only weeks before they were expected to perform. Ambassador Barbara Bodine was placed "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 (CPA) damaged initial Iraqi goodwill toward the Americans (including the decision to "de-Baathify" — to fire squads of young men with military and police training). Here, a disagreement over who did what arises, underlined by "re-interviews" with the CPA's senior advisor for national security and defense, Walter Slocombe, and Col. Paul Hughes of the Office of Reconstruction and Humanitarian Assistance (ORHA). Looting (with costs estimated at $12 billion by the CPA) began almost immediately, and though Marine Lt. Seth Moulton says they could have stopped it, the Pentagon refused to interfere with what Rumsfeld dismissed as the "untidy" effect of freedom. Journalist Nir Rosen (In the Belly of the Green Bird) describes a "pervasive sense of lawlessness that Iraq never recovered from."
Muqtada al-Sadr entered into "the void," encouraging Shiite resistance and organizing the violence. At the same time, the CPA was cycling personnel in and out. As Maj. Gen. Paul Eaton, 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 work by the U.S. military. At times, the film underlines disagreement and lack of coordination by noting who would not be interviewed, as when Richard Armitage suggests that Ferguson ask Condoleezza Rice about a particular point, the film includes a title card noting her absence.
"There was fraud, there was corruption, there was waste," says Packer. Iraqis had no electricity, water, communications or sewage disposal. The film shows deserted streets, charred remains and night-vision-goggled footage of U.S. military raids of homes. "It's difficult to understand what it feels like to be an occupied person," says Rosen. "They point their guns at you from their jeeps, they stop you when you're driving. ... Iraqis would approach too quickly, they would get shot and killed."
When U.N. envoy Sergio Vieira de Mello was killed in an explosion in August 2003, the occupation took another downturn: The U.N. pulled out and the U.S. made more questionable decisions, including hiring private security contractors, who are "very shortsighted in what they're doing," says Lt. Moulton. Says one Iraqi man on the street, visibly irate, "What came in is worse than Saddam."
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 can never be undone, the film argues, but they can be acknowledged and addressed. Thus far, the U.S. administration has not, apparently, taken even these first steps.
NO END IN SIGHT
Directed by Charles FergusonA Magnolia Pictures release