Ten best lists are thick on the ground now. Amidst the arcane little films that go into narrow release in December so critics can add them to their lists, you will find the name of one documentary popping up again and again: No End In Sight: The American Occupation of Iraq. If success in art is the perfect realization of a work’s intentions, No End In Sight deserves to be called flawless. (For the record, one tiny and insignificant factual error is corrected on the Web site). It’s out on DVD now, and if you haven’t seen it, I urge you to correct that oversight immediately.
This is a first film by Charles Ferguson, who made his money selling an early Internet software company to Microsoft, and has since devoted himself to independent study and writing on politics and technology. Its remarkable power is in the clarity of its intentions. This is not an antiwar film per se. Instead, Ferguson focuses on the aftermath of the brief official war in Iraq: once the U.S. undertook to invade, how was that mission handled? How were the relevant decisions made? What have been the consequences since?
Almost all the talking heads are officials who were directly involved: military personnel, ambassadors, members and envoys of federal departments, experts appointed to key roles on the ground in Iraq, UN representatives, and so on. One of the most remarkable things about the film is how many of these normally close-mouthed individuals decided that the moment had come to share detailed, often revealing accounts of their interactions with high officials, of their observation of U.S. representatives’ conduct in the months and years following President Bush’s declaration of “Mission Accomplished.”
They describe a veritable stupidity festival, in which ignorant policymakers relied on little more than hunches to make decisions enormously destructive to peace and meaningful security, decisions that directly contradicted the best advice of nearly everyone who actually understood the situation. One after another, they conclude that while the U.S. had the opportunity to create goodwill in the region, this panorama of ideologically driven blunders has instead created a training ground for terror and revenge.
The generals and undersecretaries, ambassadors and envoys who say these things are establishment figures to the core. Many of them would still not oppose a mission to oust Saddam Hussein, had it been conducted with intelligence and sensitivity. Their cumulative impact onscreen is devastating and irrefutable. There is absolutely nothing in the film that would make it unsuitable for showing to your diehard Republican next-door neighbor or your gung-ho ex-Army uncle; and I can’t imagine anyone who sees it remaining unmoved.
A friend of mine recently observed that in contrast to the Vietnam era, when outrage was the dominant flavor of films about the war, today’s films are all about despair. The point is tempting, but I think there’s more to it. Forty years ago, it’s true, our moral outrage—our shock at what was being done in our names, at what young men were being compelled to do in our names—seemed sufficient to end the war. Now we have had four decades to get over the shock and four decades of training in a style of discourse that considers such emotion illegitimate if it is used to counter official policy. When we who are critical of government express strong feeling, we are told to be reasonable and marshal our evidence. (Anne Coulter gets a free pass, however.) So I don’t know that the outrage is missing. As far as I can see, many of us still feel it. But I think we often tamp it down in the hope that if we conform to the dominant style, our words will be more effective.
No End In Sight accepts these constraints and beats them at their own game. The film is around 90 minutes in length, but the DVD contains perhaps three times that much additional material, mostly unedited footage of interviews, both with those who appear in the film and others, equally affecting, who do not. The few sparks of anger that escape the banked fires of outrage these ultra-controlled individuals attempt to contain seemed to me ten times as powerful as the yelling out loud I did while I watched them struggle with themselves.
Ferguson’s book based on this same material is due out at the end of January. I wish either the book or the film could be required for every citizen of this country as pre-election education. Please don’t miss it.