"The world is better off without Saddam Hussein in power." — Republican talking point since 2003
"Saddam hurt us badly, it's true. This is something we won't forget. But what came is worse than Saddam." — Iraqi man at Baghdad market in No End in Sight
What is most troubling about the endlessly repeated assertion that "the world is better off without Saddam Hussein in power" is not just that it sounds so seductively true while quite likely being false. It's that the phrase is designed, fundamentally, to close off discussion. It's a preemptive strike on fact, truth, and honest analysis.
Consequently, what's so rewarding about No End in Sight, the most thorough and sober documentary yet made about the Iraq war, is how the film stands up for the primacy of such values. In this film, written, directed, and produced by political scientist and first-time filmmaker Charles Ferguson (who holds an MIT doctorate and experience at the Brookings Institution), truth trumps ideology, as it no longer seems to in American politics.
No End in Sight is not the partisan polemic many might expect from an Iraq war documentary, though it may well be taken that way by the dead-enders still clinging loyally to the by-now discredited administration that launched the war. What No End in Sight aims to be is a history of the American occupation of Iraq, from its very origins to something close to the present day. As such, it's a calmly furious yet meticulous record of human failure.
The central dynamic of No End in Sight very much mirrors the reality of the Bush years: It's an account of massive failure in which the bulk of the participants — i.e., Ferguson's interview subjects — come from within the administration (the rest are journalists), and liberal/Democratic opposition is persona non grata. The disagreements presented here are the ones that have largely defined the past six years of American life — those between pragmatists and ideologues (or "competents and incompetents" or "appeasers and aggressors" — take your pick) within the Bush administration. These are battles that pitted experienced analysts against relatively inexperienced policymakers with the department of defense (DOD) and aggressive, empowered DOD officials against their more reasonable yet more ineffectual counterparts at the state department.
Most of the figures most responsible for the Iraq disaster — Donald Rumsfeld, Dick Cheney, Rumsfeld deputy Paul Wolfowitz, overmatched occupation commander Paul Bremer — declined to be interviewed for the film. And so the perspective that emerges is one that has been too little seen: That of the career defense strategists and diplomats and soldiers swept up in the mess, now horrified and haunted by what they witnessed.
These are people such as: Col. Paul Hughes, director of strategic policy for the U.S. occupation, who was working on reassembling the Iraqi army before orders from Washington came to disband it; Barbara Bodine, a state department Mideast expert and part of the initial staff at the Office of Reconstruction and Humanitarian Assistance, who was soon fired for "offering opinions that were counter to the prevailing wisdom in Baghdad at the time"; Marc Garlasco, a senior Iraq analyst for the Defense Intelligence Agency, who was tasked in the immediate aftermath of 9/11 with finding a connection between al-Qaeda and Saddam Hussein, eventually reporting that none existed, only to see the vice president contradict him — without evidence — on national television; and Seth Moulton, a marine on the ground in Iraq watching in horror the misbehavior and waste of American private contractors.
The president himself barely registers here, which seems apt, as No End in Sight portrays President Bush as oddly disconnected from the day-to-day reality of the war he launched. Instead, the villain, to the extent there is one (or only one) is Defense Secretary Rumsfeld, who is thoroughly discredited through the repetitive use of a very simple device: the juxtaposition of his date-stamped press conference clips with what we subsequently know. This puts Rumsfeld's blustery, sarcastic press conferences ("I don't do quagmires," he quips) in proper perspective, making them corrosive, revolting displays of ignorance and arrogance.
No End in Sight doesn't expend a lot of energy questioning the morality of or initial justification(s) for the war, which may upset those who demand more of a polemic. But the film certainly doesn't dissuade anyone from concluding that the war was immoral or unjustified from the outset, including plenty of material that damns the war in conception without the need for Ferguson himself to make that case. The film also refuses to make any arguments for what should be done now, ending with a series of thoughts from its various interview subjects without endorsing any of them (though the film's own pessimistic perspective is perhaps right there in the title).
Instead, No End in Sight focuses on the U.S. occupation itself, tracing, in merciless detail, the series of human errors that took an already bad situation and made it horrifically worse. Central to this perspective is the belief that, even if the war was a mistake in its very conception, it didn't have to go as tragically awry as it did. This is backed up by footage of the immediate aftermath of the U.S. invasion and the testimony of a Time reporter who was on the scene, who says, "It was a confusing, loud, noisy, scary, hopeful place all wrapped together" — a situation where "the presence of Americans hadn't yet been rejected." But, No End in Sight asserts that that rejection was already inevitable.
The litany of deadly mistakes made by the American occupation that Ferguson cites begins before the war, with Bush's decision to put the defense department — and therefore Rumsfeld — in total control of the effort, with the horribly abbreviated planning for occupation, and with the refusal to follow military advice about the number of troops it would take to occupy the country.
"It's hard to conceive that it would take more forces to provide stability in post-Saddam Iraq than it would take to conduct the war itself and secure the surrender of Saddam's security forces and his army. Hard to imagine," Wolfowitz is shown telling Congress prior to the invasion.
From there, the mistakes pile up: reliance on untrustworthy exile Ahmed Chalabi, not stopping the post-invasion looting, not protecting the country's infrastructure and culture (aside from the Oil Ministry), and then the biggest mistake: disbanding the Iraqi army and thus putting 500,000 armed men out of work.
No End in Sight implies that these decisions and others like them — uniformly dictated from Washington by a small cabal consisting primarily of Cheney, Rumsfeld, and Wolfowitz — created the chaos that fed the insurgency. Sectarian militias, No End in Sight asserts, initially emerged as sources of neighborhood security to fill a vacuum America created by removing Saddam and leaving nothing in his place.
Instead, the American invasion and occupation of Iraq has resulted in nearly 4,000 American deaths so far, many thousand more soldiers seriously injured, hundreds of thousands of Iraqi casualties, and a projected cost of nearly $2 trillion. The occupation has also elevated Iran (the greatest beneficiary of the quagmire), set a violent civil war on top of 20 percent of the world's oil supply, and offers no end in sight.
As a sober, detailed record of a massive, ongoing, man-made tragedy, No End in Sight may be slightly energizing in its respect for the truth, but the emotion it provokes is a commingling of sorrow and rage. As Moulton the marine says near the end of the film: "Are you telling me that's the best America can do? Don't tell me that. That makes me angry."