05 November 2007

Dead certainty

Charles Ferguson's No End in Sight is the kind of no-nonsense, straight-laced documentary that has the critics swooning and Academy Award nomination written all over it. While I don't think it is the be-all and end-all for Iraq films, it is very powerful inside its limited scope, though I did find it lacking one important element.

The great majority of the film concerns the calamitous first six months of the occupation, where one disastrous decision after another by the Bush Administration quickly ended any possibility of a peaceful transition to democracy (provided any such possibility ever existed, which I'll talk about in a moment). Widely praised for his strict adherence to "insiders" as talking heads, former reconstruction officials, journalists, etc., Ferguson covers a time period which often goes forgotten and chronicles the policy of ignorance and outright callousness that is frequently shocking and always infuriating.

It began with the reassignment of Iraqi reconstruction from the State Department to the Pentagon, ignoring the piles of research State had already compiled. Rumsfeld then turned a deaf ear to several of his top generals suggesting that far more troops would be needed for the occupation and instead sent in a force inadequate to stop the widespread looting and trashing of the country that immediately followed the end of the war--including the destruction of much of the Iraqi National Museum, home to some of the most prized treasures of ancient Mesopotamian archeology.

The film interviews at length Gen. Jay Garner, the man initially left in charge of the reconstruction without much in the way of a plan or support from his superiors, a oft-repeated lament from other reconstruction staffers. Garner was quickly replaced by L. Paul Bremer and the Coalition Provisional Authority, which proceeded to turn a budding disaster into a hellish catastrophe. Bremer staffed much of the CPA with the recently-graduated sons and daughters of Republican donors, often in positions where they had no experience or training, such as handing over control of Baghdad's traffic control to one fresh-faced "intern" with no municipal planning experience. Years later, the rest of the world would learn of the American preference for cronyism when we found out the hard way that the man in charge of emergency response was much better qualified to maintain Arabian horses (but he was Somebody who knew Somebody, and that's how our capitalism works).

The dizzying failure climaxed with "deBa'athification", the firing of much of the former government staff, and the disbanding of the Iraqi military. Not only did this remove a large pool of ready-made knowledgeable civil servants and security forces, it left many influential people angry and unemployed, a great many of whom were also very well-schooled in the art of blowing things up.

What the film doesn't offer is any kind of explanation for why Rumsfeld, Wolfowitz and Bremer made those disastrous decisions. There's never any suggestion of whether there was an official malicious philosophy or whether they were simply Very Stupid People making Very Bad Decisions. The film did take some antiwar criticism for providing cover to the "incompetence dodge" of liberal hawks who claim everything would have gone just swell if only they had been in charge rather than Bush's bumbling band. There might be something to this, although we should perhaps give Ferguson some benefit of the doubt; none of the aforementioned Bush dead-enders would appear on camera, and no one suggests that a more competent reconstruction would have justified the military action. (As you might guess, I think there were reasons, but they'll have to wait until I get to Naomi Klein's The Shock Doctrine, which has been sitting on my desk waiting for a review for a few weeks now.)

Despite its flaw, though, the movie does have its utility, particularly for those few straggling remnants of the Gospel Band looking for American benevolence in Iraq, convinced every bit of bad news is courtesy of the stab-in-the-back liberal media. If their persistence survives No End in Sight, they are truly impervious to reality.

No End in Sight trailer