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No End in Sight   A

Magnolia Pictures / Representational Pictures

Year Released: 2007
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
Director: Charles Ferguson
Writer: Charles Ferguson
Cast: Amb. Barbara Bodine, Chris Allbritton, Col. Lawrence Wilkerson, Col. Paul Hughes, Walter Slocombe, Seth Moulton, David Yancey, Gen. Jay Garner, George Packer, Gerald Burke, Hugo Gonzalez, Samantha Power, James Fallows.

Review by Rob Vaux
"How do you fuck that up? How do you fuck that up?!"
--Ritchie Cusack (William Hurt), A History of Violence

One cannot condemn a standing political figure without becoming politicized. Your target's defenders will devalue your arguments as a matter of course, while those on the other side will lionize you as a champion of unvarnished integrity. No End in Sight is an excellent documentary first because it attempts to break that cycle of spin -- a necessary step if we are to salvage anything from the mess it chronicles. Its ruthless and chilling deconstruction of the war in Iraq paints the Bush administration as abject incompetents, blinded by hubris and charging headlong into an ongoing disaster that defies belief. And yet it does so without overt bias, without argumentative grandstanding, and without what its critics will doubtless dismiss as "a liberal agenda." It is, in effect, a piece of investigative journalism -- the kind that we used to expect from major media outlets before they decided that Lindsay Lohan was much more important -- and its message should be dispassionately studied by anyone who presumes to care about the future of this country.

The differences between director Charles Ferguson's approach and, say, a piece of Michael Moore agitprop can be sensed immediately. No End in Sight dispenses with flashy technique and amusing witticisms, instead adopting a straightforward presentation that stresses substance over style. The details are dense and demand close attention, spread across talking-head interviews, news footage, still photos, and coverage shot in Iraq. Yet while their technique is typical, Ferguson and editors Chad Beck and Cindy Lee also deliver an uncanny amount of clarity, aided by bracing narration from Campbell Scott that keeps things in sharp focus. The film deliberately refrains from standard left-wing talking points: the dodgy justifications for invading Iraq, the incidents at Abu Ghraib, the accusations of profiteering from Halliburton and similar companies, etc. None of that appears here, save in a few fleeting comments that the film quietly lets pass. Instead, it takes the Bush administration on its own terms -- accepting that the invasion was fully justified and that a free and democratic Iraq is vital to U.S. interests -- before demonstrating the cascade of imbecilic mistakes that utterly annihilated any hope of reaching those goals.

It begins with a brief history of the region, emphasizing that Hussein had little to do with 9/11, but also stressing his ghoulish human rights abuses and reminding us that he was tolerated by earlier U.S. administrations for the sake of political expediency. That was the mistake that Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld, and other key members of the Bush team hoped to correct. Unfortunately, there are night managers at Dunkin' Donuts with a better sense of logistics and resource allocation. The first blunder came early: turning control of postwar planning over to the Defense Department rather than the State Department, which was better-equipped for the task and which had prepared an extensive multivolume report on how to organize and administrate a Hussein-free Iraq. That plan was tossed aside and replaced by Rumsfeld's pie-in-the-sky wishful thinking -- ignoring a complicated reality in hopes of achieving quick victory on the cheap. Army Chief of Staff Eric Shinseki recommended an invasion force of several hundred thousand troops; less than half that were sent. When looting broke out after the invasion, the U.S. military was ordered to do nothing, thus establishing an atmosphere of lawlessness that only grew worse as the occupation continued. Experienced personnel on the ground were replaced by shockingly unqualified political appointees -- most notably occupation head honcho L. Paul Bremer, whose incompetence borders on treason. With no real reconstruction plans in place, American forces stretched thin, and a power vacuum rapidly being filled by local thugs, Bremer executed a series of decisions that effectively sent Iraq off the deep end. Specifically, he removed 50,000 members of Hussein's Ba'ath Party from their jobs (thus leaving vital facilities like power plants and sewage treatment centers inoperable) and disbanded the Iraqi Army en masse (which had been standing by to help us and could have provided a dearly needed infusion of manpower). In one fell stroke, basic services had been disemboweled, educated technocrats went begging in the streets, and half a million Iraqi soldiers were left unemployed, pissed off, and with detailed knowledge about where all the guns were.

For some reason, this caused a bit of a snag.

No End in Sight reveals these details through copious news footage and citation of key documents, but most potently through its interview subjects. The faces onscreen are not armchair intellectuals or liberal politicians, but those who directly faced the consequences of our actions: Paul Hughes, Director of Strategic Policy for the U.S. occupation; Barbara Bodine, placed in charge of Baghdad before Bremer's arrival; Richard Armitage and Lawrence Wilkerson, senior assistants to then-Secretary of State Colin Powell; journalists in Baghdad; Iraqi government officials; and U.S. soldiers themselves. They speak in tones of stunned disbelief about advice ignored, opportunities wasted, and readily identifiable problems sneeringly dismissed before spiraling out of control. Ferguson contrasts such grim assessments with now-infamous news footage of senior Cabinet members laughing at reports of unrest, snarling cowboy slogans of the "Bring 'em on" variety, and so forth. These days, that's like shooting fish in a barrel, but it also underscores the cognitive disconnect between those running the war and the cataclysmic impact of their decisions.

Though his message is clear, Ferguson deftly avoids easy rhetorical traps. He weighs the pros and cons of various arguments, presenting as many details as he can and allowing us to draw our own conclusions. Most refreshingly, he refrains from making assumptions about the administration's motives, which grants the film considerable argumentative strength. We never hear "Bush did this because..." (which would reduce the film to partisan posturing) but simply "Bush did this." Its conclusions, therefore, are not colored by hysterical polemic, but by the cold clear assessment of reality -- thus becoming that much harder to dismiss.

And reality is what No End in Sight pleads for most effectively. We got into this mess, it argues, because we weren't able to face the facts of the situation. We glossed over issues that we found inconvenient, we ridiculed those who envisioned anything but overwhelming victory, and in the process, we enabled the very enemy we presumably went over there to destroy. The most troubling aspect is that it's taken so long for us to realize it. Though the information presented here has been available for some time (notably in Thomas E. Ricks' book Fiasco and similar texts), the mainstream media never really bothered with it... and we, the American people, remained profoundly unwilling to listen. My colleague, MaryAnn Johanson, has noted that more and more theatrical documentaries are serving the same purpose as traditional news these days. No End in Sight is a sterling, infuriating example of that trend, its message shaded by the fact that it should have been at the top of our national agenda years ago. It wants us to understand this problem so that we can begin to solve it -- a task delayed by years of unchecked arrogance and a public that naively swallowed everything it was told. Republicans and Democrats alike are preaching easy, one-word solutions, but it may take decades before we can finally recover; no end in sight indeed. If you want to understand how things reached their current state -- or just see the situation for what it is rather than what politicians on either side want you to believe -- then Ferguson's film is an outstanding place to start.

Review published 07.26.2007.

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