Bad War

'No End in Sight' traces the mess in Iraq

August 15-21, 2007

Maybe it’s not fair, but I blame Steven Spielberg for all of this. His 1998 Saving Private Ryan turned WW II into a video game with corn syrup sweeter than any ever rationed to wartime audiences. From that movie on, you could feel the change in the air. When WW II was spoken of, it was no longer in terms of “Never again.” It was more like, “Granddad had his Good War. Where’s mine?”

Those who led us into Iraq pimped that parallel with the Good War. Those who advised holding off and waiting for more details were made into modern-day Neville Chamberlains, seen to appease the Hitler of the Euphrates. Trying to repeat tragedy as spectacle, the Bush administration set the stage for years of unending horror. And now the movie-made mess is examined in a movie, No End in Sight, a documentary of great concision and intelligence.

Director Charles Ferguson didn’t get to talk to the architects of the war. Since Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld, Rice and Wolfowitz declined to be interviewed, he is left with the unanswered question: How could they be so utterly lacking in foresight? How could they refuse to recognize the catastrophe, and then try to laugh it all off like sportsmen who had lost a bet? How can you make as much money and have as much prestige as Donald Rumsfeld made and had, and still brush off anyone bringing you bad news as a Chicken Little? We see Rumsfeld’s act reprised in No End in Sight at the infamous April 11, 2003, press conference. Using that gruff yet chuckling mannerism that the press ate up with a spoon, Rumsfeld simply tells the world that “[shit] happens.”

Since we’re not yet able to crack the mind set of these five, “shit happens” may be the only way to explain this epic bungle. We’ll have to wait for their self-justifying memoirs, I guess. Having to do the detective work himself, Ferguson pinpoints the moment in which the war was well and truly lost. Clearly that moment was May 2003, the date when Paul Bremer of the Coalition Provisional Authority implemented the administration’s de-Baath-ification plans. These made hundreds of thousands of Iraqis jobless. It also meant the dismissal of soldiers who could have brought order to Iraq when there was still order to be got.

The U.S. Army’s Col. Paul Hughes, interviewed here, has tragic stories of Iraqi officers begging to be allowed to stop the looting of Baghdad. The Army advised against the drastic purge, but they didn’t get a vote. Understaffed and undersupplied, American soldiers tried to keep order as the situation deteriorated. Meanwhile, Sadaam opened the prisons before he ran for it, leaving 100,000 criminals–the apolitical and violent kind–running free.

Unguarded weapons depots were ransacked by the mob. The Coalition Provisional Authority crouched behind seven miles of blast walls. Bremer, the wizard of this Oz, addressed the world through a press spokesman who didn’t know how to speak Arabic. The offices inside were staffed with an ever-rotating staff of recently graduated Republican donors’ kids.

Rumsfeld clowned. Our intellectually lazy president strutted through his photo opportunities, repeating the prediction that dead-enders were in their last throes of resistance. Yet he had reports that proved otherwise. As we see here during a Sept. 21, 2004, press conference–and it’s evidence that’s as damning as Bush’s moment of cataleptic stillness in Fahrenheit 9/11–he hadn’t bothered to read even the bullet points on the one-page summary of the reports brought to him.

More than any documentary yet, No End in Sight is The Dummy’s Guide to the Iraq War. It’s a lean, rigorously researched film. Ferguson interviews reporters like George Packer (The Assassin’s Gate) as well as former officials like Richard Armitage and two members of the National Intelligence Council, which coordinates the information our leaders would rather not read. Campbell Scott’s sober narration and Peter Nashel’s ominous music advance the action.

Since this documentary is a few months old, it doesn’t record the more current bad news: 4,000 soldiers of the Mother of all Coalitions are dead, of which some 3,600 are ours. Ferguson estimates the long-term bill to be in the end about $1.8 trillion. That doesn’t include the possibility of failure, of some cleric becoming the new Saladin, and holding the west over an oil barrel.

What can we do? As Ricks writes, reusing a World War I allusion, we have an army of lions led by donkeys. The Greeks had a specific goddess of folly, called Ate (ah-tee), to blame it all on, a daughter of Zeus who alighted on men to derange them and lead them into self destruction.

‘No End in Sight’ screens at the Rialto Lakeside Cinemas, 551 Summerfield Road, Santa Rosa. 707.525.4840.

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