Thursday, September 06, 2007

Iraq Documentary: No End in Sight - Willful? Incompetence

Charles Ferguson's new documentary on the (mis)handling of the aftermath of the US invasion Iraq is all the more powerful because the filmmaker supported the war. We begin with a helpful review by the New Yorker, Then a review in the form of a letter to a friend by Carl; and finally a very good review by the World Socialist Website (WSWS). In his intro to the Trotkist WSWS review, Carl helpfully explains why their "War for Oil" theory doesn't make sense. If they wanted the oil (or control of the oil) they wouldn't have destroyed the country.


David Denby:

The New Yorker

August 2007

Review of No End in Sight

There isn’t much that’s factually new in “No End in Sight,” Charles Ferguson’s extraordinary documentary about the American occupation of Iraq—at least, not for people who have kept up with the best reporting on the war and have read such books as “Fiasco,” by Thomas E. Ricks, and “The Assassins’ Gate,” by the New Yorker writer George Packer, who appears in the film. Yet we need to hear the story again and again, for no amount of rage and disbelief can turn what the Bush Administration did into someone else’s problem. The occupation is our problem, a dead eagle hanging around our necks. Though the facts in “No End in Sight” are well known, the movie is still a classic.

Modest and attentive and quietly outraged, this collection of interviews, news footage, and narrated history gathers weight and strength and delivers, in chronological order, an overwhelming pattern of folly: In the run-up to the invasion of March, 2003, and then in the early months of the occupation, all the people who actually knew anything about Iraq and the Middle East—anyone who had serious experience in military, intelligence, or reconstruction work—were either ignored or dismissed by the Department of Defense, with White House backing. They were then replaced by ignorant and inexperienced ideologues who refused to hear what the knowledgeable told them. Ferguson establishes the disastrous thinking around such turning points as the decision not to stop the looting that followed the invasion; the de-Baathification of the professional classes of Iraq; and the disbanding of the Iraqi Army, which sent some half a million armed men into the streets. “No End in Sight” is an exposure of the psychopathology of power.

Ferguson earned a Ph.D. in political science from M.I.T., but went into Web design, only to sell his company to Microsoft, in 1996. He is one of the new plutocrats (Andrew Jarecki, of “Capturing the Friedmans,” is another) who unaccountably refused to buy a vineyard in the Napa Valley and instead turned to filmmaking. He paid for the movie himself—it cost two million dollars—and hired some of the best talent he could find: the cinematographer Antonio Rossi, the composer Peter Nashel, and the documentary producer Alex Gibney, who advised him to hold down the rhetoric and build up the interview subjects so that they become real characters. No better counsel has ever been given to a first-time director and writer. Despite the often gruesome subject, this is an exceptionally elegant-looking film, and it provides what can only be called sensuous rewards. It’s necessary for us to see, and feel, how utterly torn up Baghdad and Falluja and other sites in Iraq are. And it’s moving to see the faces and hear the voices of the losers in the policy wars, including former Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage, who makes it clear, in his terse and guarded way, that he and his boss, Colin Powell, got exactly nowhere whenever they offered sane advice; General Jay Garner, the first American proconsul in Iraq, who was replaced by the fatuous L. Paul Bremer, and wishes that he had been able to fight harder against Bremer’s decisions to disband the Iraqi military; and, most painfully, Colonel Paul Hughes, who was in touch with Iraqi officers commanding troops ready to maintain order in Baghdad, only to be shut down, from Washington, by Walter Slocombe, the senior adviser for national security and defense for the Coalition Provisional Authority. The madness continues: Slocombe, for example, still refuses, in an interview, to admit that the disbanding of the Army had anything to do with the insurgency. The bitterest revelation of “No End in Sight” is that the people who got it right are in agony, whereas the people who got it wrong are practically serene.

Letter from Carl:

I saw No end in sight yesterday. Yes, I knew that Ferguson was in favor of the war when it started, and still might have been in favor if it weren't for the systematic destruction of Iraq that followed US occupation. This is what he focusses on, rather single-mindedly, and the story is so astonishing that it presents a convincing case that the appalling destruction of the country is what was intended by Cheyney/Rumsfeld/Wolfowitz et al. I'm not sure he believes this, or would be willing to say it if he did. Yet the story he tells makes any other conclusion hard to believe. Over and over they were told (and the people who told them are interviewed) that dismantling the army, the police, the civili administration, would lead to a widespread insurgency, that making members of the Baath party unemployable would feed it, and leaving enormous ammunition dumps unguarded would help arm it (and those are just the highlights).
The inevitable question this film raises is that if you were intent on destroying Iraq could you have devised a better plan? The alternative view: "Stuff happens" is expressed by an insouciant Rumsfeld, denying, at a press conference, that there was anything to worry about.
Since I have long believed in the dictum; "Men intend the foreseeable consequences of their actions" most of this didn't come as a surprise to me, but the material about the CPA's allowing enormous weapons stores to fall into the hands of the "insurgents" was something I hadn't considered before, and lends a gruesomely hypocritical flavor to the slogan. "Support our troops."

I don't think this film will turn out to be a good investment. It must have cost rather a lot (including the expense of bodyguards in Iraq) and it doesn't try to appeal to the public in the way that Michael Moore apparently does. The audience at the Film Forum seemed to be intently watching, but with very little in the way of emotional reactions.

It is because he had hoped that the war would be a success, that his exposé of the step-by-step systematic destruction of the country we were supposed to be saving (or at least exploiting) is so powerful. The reviews are full of words like "astonishing," and "jaw-dropping." Here are a few excerpts:

staggering callousness and incompetence
calamitous errors

seemingly boundless behind-the-scenes ineptitude
a catalog of horrors so absurd and relentless it verges on farce, or Greek tragedy.

Time and again, Rumsfeld and company failed to consult and even actively ignored military strategists, postwar reconstruction experts and diplomats familiar with the region
the sheer scale and depth of this appalling failure la times

The knowledge and expertise of military, diplomatic and technical professionals was overridden by the ideological certainty of political loyalists. Republican Party operatives, including recent college graduates with little or no relevant experience, were put in charge of delicate and complicated administrative areas. Those who did not demonstrate lock-step fidelity to the White House line were ignored or pushed aside. nytimes

In general, ideology makes imbeciles of everyone caught in its grip. Time

No End in Sight," lays out the disastrous missteps of the U.S. occupation of Iraq. The magnitude of the errors perpetrated by the Bush administration—ignorance, incompetence, arrogance, bad or nonexistent planning, cronyism and naiveté—can make you weep with anger. newsweek

presented in a concentrated dose, as this movie does, the raw facts are staggering. At some point, during a sequence about unguarded weapons depots that Iraqis raided, I wrote in my notepad, "This is unbelievable." Then there's the monetary waste, the low troop levels, the lack of suitable body armor for the troops, and Rumsfeld's haughty dismissal -- it's always Rumsfeld -- of why that armor's not there. It's as though the administration actively wanted this to go badly. boston globe



August 29, 2007

Carl introduces the WSWS review:

Although the reviewer naturally takes issue with Ferguson's politics (that we should learn from our mistakes when the time for the next war comes) as do I, she's very impressed by the film, as am I. Whether or not Ferguson wanted to raise the question of whether the chaos and destruction was intentional, his film does. The reviewer's phrase "willful incompetence" says it all. (By the way, this Trotskyist website is a believer in the 'war for oil' explanation, which is undermined by the way the occupation has played out. if they wanted to seize the oil resources, it made no sense to destroy the state apparatus, the army, and the police and leave munition dumps unguarded. They would want to get the place up and running so that they could exploit its wealth. This is what Wolfowitz & co. were talking about when they advertised that the whole thing could be financed by what we'd save by driving the cost of oil down. If they intended to exploit Iraq they wouldn't have destroyed it, but destroying it makes serves Israeli interests as well as those of the war party (creation of enemies.) --Carl

World Socialist Web Site

WSWS : Arts Review : Film Reviews
No End In Sight: An establishment view of what went wrong
By Christie Schaefer
30 August 2007

Written and directed by Charles Ferguson
No End in Sight, the documentary by Charles Ferguson, opens and closes with a montage of images of the US invasion and occupation of Iraq. From early, warm greetings of American troops by some Iraqis, through the consequent demolition of the country and many of its people, the descent into chaos is presented as a time-lapse sequence of mounting despair.
Ferguson, a former Brookings Institution fellow and co-founder of a software firm, is a liberal establishment figure who believes that the war in Iraq has gone horribly wrong. He makes clear in interviews that his purpose in making the film, which he financed himself, is to point out the mistakes made by the Bush administration, so that future administrations can carry out interventions more effectively.

Ferguson told the San Francisco Chronicle: “Unfortunately, it’s too late for Iraq. ... But this is not the last time America is going to go to war. This is not the last time where there will be a debate about what to do about a failed state or a dictator. I hope people come away with the understanding that war is sometimes necessary. And if you go to war, you’re going to have to do it very carefully and with humility.”

That being said, No End in Sight’s director goes about his work intelligently. He weaves news conferences and interviews with key players (those who were willing to talk with him) to reconstruct a time line of events in a comprehensible manner.
Ferguson presents a picture of almost breathtaking US shortsightedness. An even more catastrophic situation could only have been created, one gets the sense, if those involved had been actively working to bring about such a result. As it is, the willful incompetence and the disregarding of experts and eyewitnesses as to the conditions on the ground have helped create hellish conditions for an Iraqi population already rendered weak by over a decade of a lethal embargo and economic isolation.

Time and again, Ferguson notes, surprise decisions were made from Washington to be carried out by those in the field. Such decisions included the disbanding of the Iraqi army—whose former members were armed and knew where to procure further weapons (great caches of which were left unguarded). This took place in the midst of negotiations with the leaders of the army, which was beginning to prove its usefulness to the US in reining in some of the disorder. For the Americans, this decision proved especially damaging. This effectively deprived approximately 100,000 people of their livelihoods, starving their families and encouraging them to join the resistance.

Although this is not new territory, as much the same documentation can be found in Imperial Life in the Emerald City (Rajiv Chandrasekaran, Alfred Knopf, 2006) and other such books, Ferguson makes good use of his materials and successfully personalizes this war.

Most effective are the sections in which he directly questions the active players. The level of unpreparedness in the run-up to the war is astonishing. Ambassador Barbara Bodine, in charge of Baghdad in the spring of 2003, states that there was not so much as a telephone when she arrived in the Iraqi capital as head of the Office for Reconstruction and Humanitarian Assistance. Her group spent the first weeks gathering such things as chairs for their office and trying to find the whereabouts of anyone who might have a clue as to the running of the place. Her situation was not atypical.

It is also revealed that at the time of George W. Bush’s “Bring it on” speech (July 2, 2003, almost four months after the invasion), only one in eight US Humvees were equipped with armor. Ferguson introduces us to a number of veterans of the war, disabled by being caught in their Humvees by IEDs. They share not only their own stories, but provide insight into what was occurring on the front lines.

The casual disregard of Bush and his administration (including Congress) for the people they were sending into combat is breathtaking. We are treated to Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld’s infamous answer to a soldier’s question as to why there was no armor and soldiers had to scrounge in landfills for extra metal to retrofit their Humvees, “You fight a war with the army you have.”

No End in Sight raises the issue of private contractors from two points of view. Again, indicating his own view of things, Ferguson first discusses the actual cost of the mercenaries as opposed to their efficiency; he also considers their overall behavior. Since the director’s concern is to indicate how such a war might be properly conducted, he shows us images of a fort built by local workers (being paid enough to support their families, and thereby given less reason to join the resistance) under the direction of US troops. Their fort cost approximately $200,000 and was completed in about six months. The film contrasts to this a fort being built by contractors, which cost ten times more and was uncompleted. In either case, it should be noted, the colonialist character of the occupation remains the same.

We also see more troubling images in a home movie made by a group of contractors in an armored vehicle. As they drive along a popular street, they level their guns and fire at anyone who follows them, amid whoops, racial slurs and loud country-and-western music. To them, it seems, this is nothing more than a playground. They are held neither to international nor military law, having been given a free pass to create mayhem.

Within definite limits, No End in Sight provides a starting point for understanding the disastrous character of Bush administration policy. Its simple layout and the almost hands-off interviewing style give a balanced picture of what has happened and why. Officials are condemned by the contradiction between their words and reality. Ferguson presents much valuable and harrowing material. His notion that such a neo-colonial adventure could be done ‘properly’ is what needs to be rejected.

Copyright 1998-2007
World Socialist Web Site
All rights reserved

No comments: