Like a dictator’s statue in a grandiose plaza, the Iraq War can be seen and hated from various angles. Some filmmakers have loathed it through the eyes of US soldiers (in Gunner Palace and Occupation: Dreamland), others from the viewpoint of Iraqi civilians (My Country, My Country and Iraq in Fragments). These documentarians observe the war from ground level. Charles Ferguson, who wrote, produced and directed the invaluable No End in Sight, hates the war from a novel perspective. He looks at it from the top, or as close to it as he can get.
At telling moments in No End in Sight, an inserted title will dryly explain that Ferguson failed to secure an interview with this or that subject: Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld, Paul Wolfowitz, Paul Bremer. But here are some of the people who did talk to him: Gen. Jay Garner, who ostensibly ran Iraq for a few weeks in 2003 as director of the short-lived Office of Reconstruction and Humanitarian Assistance (ORHA); Ambassador Barbara Bodine, in charge of Baghdad for ORHA; Col. Paul Hughes, director of strategic policy for the occupation (2003); Col. Lawrence Wilkerson, former chief of staff to Colin Powell; and Robert Hutchings, chairman of the National Intelligence Council (2003-05).
Ferguson relies on other sorts of witnesses as well (journalists, academics, soldiers, Iraqi officials) and a dense compilation of archival footage that ranges in effect from absurdity (Rumsfeld’s news conferences) to horror. But it’s the well-credentialed informants who establish the character of No End in Sight, by means of their privileged knowledge of the war and their shared experience of having been overruled by the Cheney-Rumsfeld inner circle. These are the people who weren’t listened to. By adopting their perspective, Ferguson unquestionably gives a slanted, partial view of the war–but one that is indispensable and peculiarly damning.
The peculiarity is evident in the way Ferguson allots his screen time. Although No End in Sight recounts more than twenty years of history, from the Iran-Iraq war to the present, by far the longest section of the film covers a period of just four months, from January 20 to May 23, 2003. On the first of those dates, while preparing to invade, Bush assigned responsibility for postwar Iraq to the Pentagon, which would act through the newly created ORHA. On the latter date, Paul Bremer of the even newer Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) finished undoing everything that ORHA had been trying to achieve.
ORHA had begun assembling an interim Iraqi government. CPA dismissed the attempt. ORHA had sought to work with whatever Iraqi managerial class it could locate. CPA effectively got rid of all trained personnel by banning Baath Party members from public employment. ORHA had been registering members of the Iraqi army with the aim of organizing a police force and national guard. On May 23, the CPA disbanded the army, plunging into desperation the families of some 400,000 now-jobless men with guns. In Ferguson’s eyes, the history of the Iraq War is essentially a story about these early, rotten decisions, which by the end of May 2003, he argues, had already consigned the country to chaos and civil war.
How does Ferguson go about making this case? A typical sequence (reconstructed here in approximation) might begin with archival footage of the looted National Museum and the immolated National Archive, with a voiceover narration (spoken by Campbell Scott) setting forth the bare facts of the event. Iraqis in the ruins cry out the heartbroken commentary. From this setup, Ferguson cuts to interviews with Hughes, who testifies that US troops were made to stand by (“There was no order to establish martial law”), and with Barbara Bodine, who makes it clear that this idleness was deliberate policy. (“The word came from Washington not to interfere with the looting. There was to be no police work.”) You see further images of buildings being ripped apart, machinery being carted away in the streets, fires raging, people sifting through rubble. A journalist, in this case Nir Rosen, sums up the situation: “Guys with guns took over–and they were the Iraqi guys with guns.” Then comes a clip of Rumsfeld cutting up at a news conference: “Stuff happens.”