Why You Should Watch "No End in Sight" (And What You Don't Learn from It)

News Abroad

Mr. Shenkman is the editor of HNN.

The producers of No End in Sight, which opens this month in movie houses across the country, believe it will be the Inconvenient Truth of the Iraq War. I very much doubt it. It's like a good Frontline documentary (without, unfortunately, Frontline's sonorous narrator), but lacks the usual elements needed to draw millions of movie goers. There's no celebrity host comparable to Michael Moore or Al Gore. There's no Michael Moore humor (or Al Gore humor for that matter). There's not even a moment comparable to Al Gore's standing on a platform that rises to the ceiling as he tracks the rising levels of CO2 on a chart.

Nonetheless, the documentary's well worth watching. Even those who have been following the war closely will gain a greater understanding of the disastrous decisions that led to the debacle (though if you read George Packer's The Assassins' Gate there will be fewer surprises). It is one thing to know that the Pentagon failed to begin preparing for the occupation of Iraq until January 2003 -- two months prior to the invasion -- and another to hear (former) U.S. Ambassador Barbara K. Bodine, a member of the Office for Reconstruction and Humanitarian Assistance (OHRA), say that the Pentagon refused to patrol any of the Baghdad sites marked for protection on the OHRA list except for the oil ministry. It was news to me to hear that OHRA even had a list. That was both encouraging and depressing. It was encouraging to hear that OHRA had a list. It was depressing to discover that the Pentagon ignored it.

The documentary never gets to the bottom of the question of why this was so other than to suggest Donald Rumsfeld believed that looting wasn't his problem. His military was for fighting not patrolling. But Rumsfeld's no idiot, so he must have had an idea in mind of how things were going to work out. Did he expect Ahmed Chalabi to take over and restore order? If so, and the documentary seems to imply this, why then didn't he see to it that Chalabi had the resources needed to take control of the country? By the time the war started the Pentagon seems to have given up on Chalabi. If so, who did Rumsfeld think was going to lead Iraq? Jay Garner, who was initially put in charge of Iraq's reconstruction, was slated to stay just a few months. Eventually, of course, Garner was replaced by Paul Bremer, who was made the head of the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA). But at the time of the invasion a Paul Bremer--a kind of imperial god on the order of Douglas MacArthur--wasn't envisioned.

The ridiculousness of the whole war effort is epitomized in an exchange between Col. Paul Hughes, chief of ORHA's Special Initiatives Office, and Walter Slocomb, the CPA's director of national security and defense. I found the exchange riveting and repulsive. On the key issue concerning the disbanding of the Iraqi army these two high officials could not agree on the most basic facts. Hughes says at the time the order was issued he had lined up 137,000 Iraqi soldiers to join a US-led Iraqi army. Slocomb flatly says that's nonsense. Bremer for his part apparently believed the order to disband the Iraqi army was non-negotiable because it had come from the Pentagon. The reader is left scratching his head. If the Pentagon was issuing this order then why did the colonel in charge of contacts with the Iraqi army not agree with the assumptions underlying the order? Worse, Hughes says on camera that he had not even been told the Iraqi army was being disbanded. So who was really in charge? We never find out.

That may not be the fault of the documentary makers. But another equally serious flaw in the narrative is. The documentary leaves the impression that if only Barbara Bodine, Paul Hughes, Jay Garner and some others were listened to the Iraq War might have turned out well. This is a useful narrative device and it helps the viewer sustain moral outrage at the course of events unfolding on the screen throughout the movie. If only, the viewer thinks, these people had been listened to all might have turned out well.

Nonsense. Given the highfalutin goals the president established for the war it is impossible for things to have turned out well. The goal of creating a democracy in Iraq was inconsistent with the goal of creating a stable country. The more democracy you had the less stability. Elections put in power thugs like Muqtada al-Sadr, whose interests were at odds with the occupiers. Besides, it never seemed likely that a largely Christian army plopped down in the middle of the Muslim Middle East was going to be able to succeed if the occupation lasted more than a few months (as this one almost certainly would have to unless we were willing to turn the country over to a strongman). In short what was wrong with the Iraq War fundamentally wasn't the way it was fought but the way it was conceived. And that is barely hinted at in the documentary.

Still, I recommend seeing it. It's good to be reminded every single day of the incompetence with which this ugly useless war has been waged.

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Sol Alex Cohen - 11/7/2007

There once must have been a time when "leaders" paid the consequences of their actions -- especially actions resulting in tragedy. The Iraq invasion and occupation is a tragedy and the testimony of those in the positions of authority, whose judgment was flawed to an extent never matched in US history is worthy of a Sophocles or Euripeded. My reaction was initially one of extreme depression. I wanted to turn off the DVD. But that emotion was followed by a homicidal rage against these draft-dodgers and couchside warriors who have consigned thousands of our young people (rural poor, primarily) and hundreds of thousands of Iraqis to death -- and not one of whom has displayed the slightest regret for their actions (and stupidities).

Historians seem unanimous in described Athens after Salamis as filled with hubris, the cause of its downfall. Did not Santayana say that those who failed to learn the lesson of history are doomed to relive that history? The Bushes, Cheneys, Powells, Rices, Rumsfelds, Wolfowitzes, Feiths, et all have learned nothing -- but we pay the price.

Peter K. Clarke - 10/9/2007

"In short what was wrong with the Iraq War fundamentally wasn't the way it was fought but the way it was conceived."

And also the way it was authorized in 2002-03 by a huge, bi-partisan and sleepwalking majority in the U.S. Congress.

And cheerled then too by many US journalists and intellectuals and would-be historians who ought to have known better, including a slew who were indiscriminately featured on HNN.

HNN - 8/17/2007

Thank you Tim!

Tim Lacy - 8/15/2007

Rick: Great piece. I haven't yet seen the movie, but am planning to. Your observations and criticisms will help me be a better critical viewer - even though I'm already predisposed to the opinions expressed in your last "Nonsense" paragraph. - TL

Randll Reese Besch - 8/13/2007

Also the fact that even though the
Congress abnegated their authority to declare war yet again, they hadn't given explicit orders to go to war anyway. A warcrime on par with what the Germans and Japanese hung for after the second half of the Great War. Russia didn't and so the USA won't unless they are conquered.
Perhaps the film makers could get Noam Chomsky or Juan Cole to narrarate and ask the questions or clarifications as needed.