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‘No End in Sight’ will leave you floored, enraged

Documentary presents a sober look at the mistakes U.S. has made in Iraq
/ Source: The Associated Press

Whether you’ve been following the developments in Iraq over the past four-plus years, blow by devastating blow, or you’ve chosen to shut them out of your mind because they’re just too complex or depressing to bear, watching the documentary “No End in Sight” will leave you floored, agape and enraged anew.

Writer-director-producer Charles Ferguson, a political scientist and software entrepreneur making his first film, presents a clear-eyed, sobering analysis of myriad mistakes the United States has made in Iraq, starting from the original invasion in March 2003.

Ferguson doesn’t really get into the philosophical reasons behind the war and he doesn’t tell you anything that hasn’t already been reported. But the cumulative, comprehensive body of interviews and images is just completely damning — exhaustive and exhausting, painful to watch but necessary.

While much of the film consists of potentially dry talking heads detailing their experiences and frustrations during the occupation — from former Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage and retired Gen. Jay Garner to journalists, Marines and other soldiers on the ground — the combined power of their calm words has an even greater impact than the showmanship of a Michael Moore movie.

Some of the best and best-known Iraq documentaries so far have come from the perspective of individuals, including “Gunner Palace” and “The War Tapes,” about U.S. troops immersed in combat, and the Oscar-nominated “Iraq in Fragments” and “My Country, My Country,” about the effects of war on civilians. By now, enough time has passed to take a step back and look at the big picture, even as it continues to unfold, as the title indicates, with no end in sight.

Culling from more than 200 hours of footage (with editors Chad Beck and Cindy Lee), Ferguson presents some basic facts that explain how the situation deteriorated so vastly, so rapidly. With help from narrator Campbell Scott, we are told that the U.S. military was never ordered to stop the looting that broke out right after the fall of Baghdad, which set the initial precedent of chaos. Besides, there weren’t enough troops sent over in the first place to instill order — former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld and his deputy, Paul Wolfowitz, figured that about 100,000 would be sufficient, when other military officials including Armitage and then-Secretary of State Colin Powell, who had actual experience in this area, urged that several hundred thousand would be required.

Following the creation of the Office for Reconstruction and Humanitarian Assistance (ORHA) under Garner’s leadership, which had practically no existing structure in place, not enough people and barely any who spoke Arabic, L. Paul Bremer was sent to Iraq to take over those same duties under the newly designed Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA). (To quote Ambassador Barbara Bodine, tasked with overseeing the city of Baghdad: “There were no plans.”)

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And as nearly everyone in the film attests, it was Bremer’s fateful decisions that led to the most severe damage. Bremer, an ambassador and friend of President Bush’s who had no experience in the Middle East, had never seen combat, spoke no Arabic and knew nothing about postwar reconstruction, promptly broke up Saddam Hussein’s Baath party, leaving tens of thousands of government workers jobless. Then he disbanded the Iraqi military, sending hundreds of thousands of angry, armed men into the streets and, eventually, into the insurgency.

What’s so astonishing about watching all these bits of history is not merely that they happened, but that they were only the beginning. Seeing Rumsfeld at a news conference, dismissing the proliferation of civilian violence with a flippant, “Stuff happens,” as if the sky were falling, may have made for vaguely amusing theater back then, but now it’s just incredibly sad.

Rumsfeld wouldn’t be interviewed for this movie — neither would Wolfowitz, Bremer, Vice President Dick Cheney or Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice. But maybe in time they’ll watch it while flipping channels late at night. They might learn something.