No End in Sight

No End in Sight

Written, Directed and Produced by Charles Ferguson

Documentary, 102 minutes

For those of us Americans whose knowledge of our involvement in Iraq is confined to newspaper headlines and the occasional Internet news capsule, “No End in Sight” is a remarkable and riveting history lesson in what’s been going over there for the last four years. It is essential viewing for anyone wanting to know why Iraq is in the mess it’s in today, and what role the U.S. has played in making that mess. It should certainly be essential viewing for those elected officials who will be deciding the fate of our future involvement in Iraq, not to mention the fate of any similar invasions under even slight consideration. It turns out the idea of ousting a dictator and handing a people their freedom is a lot more complicated than it sounds.

The man behind the wheel of this lucid and intelligent film is Charles Ferguson, a former software entrepreneur turned political scientist. After receiving his doctorate in political science from MIT, Mr. Ferguson went on to make his fortune in the software business during the Internet boom, selling his start-up to Microsoft for over $100 million in 1996. His fortune made, Ferguson then went back to politics, working as a consultant at the Brookings Institution, a liberal-leaning political think-tank.

A lover of film since childhood, and with a bundle of discretionary income at his disposal, Ferguson had been toying with the idea of trying his hand at filmmaking. When he finally decided to make a film, the enormous quagmire in Iraq became the topic he couldn’t ignore, and so he put his energy and $2 million of his own money into making a documentary about Iraq. The result is an extraordinary triumph for a first-time director, an elegantly made chronicle of events and decisions that have turned Iraq into the hotbed of unrest and insurgencies it is today.

Unlike Michael Moore, an activist who shamelessly uses his documentaries as propaganda tools in the service of his own political agenda, Charles Ferguson seems less a revolutionary and provocateur and more a thoughtful intellectual who searches for understanding through painstaking research and dispassionate analysis. “No End is Sight” is the product of a calmly systematic desire for knowledge, and as such, does not offer solutions, only profound insight. Ferguson’s background as a political scholar sets the sober and methodic tone for this documentary, but that doesn’t mean it’s boringly academic. On the contrary, the film is a rollercoaster of emotionally wrenching accounts by those who witnessed the gross ineptitude of the Bush administration and the results of its arrogance and incompetence.

Through interviews with the initial team of American diplomats who were put in charge of reconstruction after the overthrow of Hussein’s regime, the film clearly and methodically uncovers, one after the other, the U.S. policy decisions that caused Iraq to move further and further into chaos; decisions that were made without taking into account the recommendations of knowledgeable advisors. It was as though the inner circle of the Bush administration—Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld, Paul Wolfowitz, Condoleeza Rice, and of course George Bush himself—had seen reconstruction as an afterthought, and then scrambled to put together a team of diplomats and advisors, sent them to Iraq with little preparation, and then proceeded to ignore them for several months and then relieve them of their duties. Key players in this initial core reconstruction team—General Jay Garner, who was appointed head of the team, Baghdad and central Iraq coordinator Barbara Bodine, and military advisor Colonel Paul Hughes—recall in often barely veiled bitter testimony the chaos they found themselves in, their efforts at strategic planning that went unheeded, and the events leading to their dismissal during a round of questionable administrative repositioning that culminated in what has become known as the most egregious error of all—the appointing of Washington bureaucrat L. Paul Bremer as the governor of Iraq.

The most scathing criticism given by those interviewed is directed at the policy decisions Bremer enacted during his tenure in Iraq. Hindsight, and clear-headed explanations from Garner, Hughes, and then deputy secretary of state Richard Armitage, leave no doubt that Bremer made three fateful decisions, all of which ended up fueling the insurgencies that now plague Iraq. What is the most frustrating of all is that these men clearly understood the devastating consequences of Bremer’s decisions, but nobody would listen. It’s a classic case of the men in the field knowing more than the boss in the ivory tower, and it underscores the arrogance of a small group of men, and one woman, whose rigid ideology and lack of experience led them to turn a deaf ear to the advise of their peers.

Much like the documentaries of Errol Morris, “No End in Sight” relies on the elegant power of understatement for its emotional impact. The outrage is there, sometimes barely contained by those interviewed, but it is constantly tempered by the relentlessly cool-headed insistence on keeping to facts and statistics, the refusal to linger on easy emotional triggers, and the minimalist, almost steel-like quality of the music, composed for the film by Peter Nashel. Even events of obvious wrenching emotional power, such as the bombing of the U.N. headquarters that killed U.N. envoy Sergio Vieira de Mello—a man many considered a capable counterpoint to U.S. dominance—are recounted with subdued emotion. The film does not show us how to feel; our emotional response comes directly from the events themselves, retold with almost passionless exactitude. The grief we feel at the news of Vieira de Mello’s death therefore comes out of our own interpretation of the story; it comes to us from the ground up, to put it figuratively, rather than from the top down. Our emotional response comes from within, not from above.

In another scene of similar restraint, the somber voice of narrator Campbell Scott recalls the extensive looting that occurred in Baghdad immediately after the ousting of Hussein. The decision not to declare Marshall law is one of the first of many wrong-thinking decisions; in this case, the resulting lack of law and order led to acts that have left permanent scars on the country and its people, including the destruction and loss of a centuries-old cultural heritage when the National Library and Museum was looted. Ferguson offers one raw image of the gutted building; it looks like a cadaver picked over by vultures, and then we see subtitles of the sheer number of books stolen or destroyed. The loss is irreparable, and Ferguson’s understated tone in communicating the magnitude of that loss makes it all the more devastating.

The Iraq war is number one on the list of debate topics that will concern candidates in the upcoming presidential election. American sentiment is turning against military involvement in Iraq’s reconstruction, and now the big question is no longer if we should leave, but when we should leave. With such a clear picture in “No End in Sight” that Iraq’s current troubles are largely due to mistakes the Bush administration made during the US occupation, it seems almost cold-hearted for us to think of leaving the Iraqi people to clean up the mess we made. It’s like removing shackles from a prisoner and accidentally injuring his foot, and then forcing him to walk home on his own; and home is a thousand miles away.

Ferguson gives no answers in his film about what we should do, but he has said in interviews that a precipitous pullout of our troops would almost certainly result in a bloodbath. It seems clear after watching “No End in Sight” that the U.S should hold itself at least partially accountable for the troubles Iraq faces today. The logical extension of that is our moral responsibility to make amends for our mistakes that have caused such misery. It seems clear that we have a debt to pay. We went into this country without thinking about the repercussions. Let’s not do the same getting out of it.

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Beverly Berning has recently begun her fourth career as a high school teacher of French and Italian, but her love of film remains steadfast. A former film student who aspired to be just like her idols Woody Allen, Erik Rohmer and Charlie Kaufman, she has been writing reviews for Culturevulture since 2006.