Meme on Film
In a country riven by dissent and angry partisanship, there are very few subjects about which there is broad consensus. One of the very few things our “uniter, not a divider” President has managed to bring the vast majority of American together on is the conclusion that the Iraq war has been badly mismanaged. Charles Ferguson’s important and powerful new documentary, “No End in Sight,” provides the evidence to support that belief, and does it so well that it should be embraced by all the constituents of that consensus. Yet I predict it will be very controversial.
(In one of the few “perks” ever offered to me as a blogger, I was sent a pre-release review copy. The film opens in select theaters on July 27th.)
The movie is thoroughly professional, well-written and produced, and should be seen by anyone who takes our country and its foreign policy seriously. But I’m no Gene Siskel, so you aren’t going to get a real movie review out of me. I’d rather talk about the political implications.
For the pro-Bush “dead enders,” the movie will be anathema, of course, but it is just another fire hose spewing inconvenient facts into what has become a flood of them; the people who most need to hear this message will shut it out. But by now that is a small group. There are now large numbers of Republicans and other former backers of the war who may be more receptive to Ferguson’s film. What may shock and awe them is not the film’s thesis itself, but the extraordinary access Ferguson got to the dramatis personae of this ongoing tragedy. It did not really sink in for me until after I had watched the film how remarkable it is that any senior members of the Bush team gave on-camera interviews for this movie, let alone the long list that wound up doing so. Recall that message discipline was until only recently the signal attribute of this White House; remember that more than 150,000 troops remain in Iraq. Yet Richard Armitage, Generals Jay Garner and Paul Eaton, former Ambassador Barbara Bodine and several other players at the center of the decision-making process freely confirm the cosmic stupidity driving every decision about the Iraq war. It is now to be expected that such finger-pointing will become public years after the smoke has cleared; for these people to offer their damning insights while bullets still fly is an indication of just how disgusted these career soldiers, diplomats and politicians have become with the men at the top.
I opposed the war from the outset. And I have been steadfast in my belief that the biggest in the constellation of tragedies was the belief that it could have turned out any differently. (A close second is the belief that we had the right to impose our will and topple the very regime we once supported, but leave that aside for a moment.)
For me, the most thought-provoking aspect of the film is the evidence Ferguson presents that could be seen as supporting the proposition that it might have been possible for things to have gone very differently. The film strongly suggests that, had even a few of the opportunities to do something – anything – right been taken, the Iraqi military could well have worked to maintain order, sources of national pride like the National Museum of Iraq might have been preserved, and the sickening sectarian violence might never have gained such horrifying momentum.
I’m not saying I’m convinced. The idea that the experts could have done it right but for the incompetence of the Administration is obviously a seductive one for those very experts, and in “No End in Sight” we do not hear from anyone who argues that the enterprise was doomed from the start. The film has a clear point of view, even if that point of view is presented by the actors (in the political sense) as much as by the director. But the movie is compelling and thought-provoking even for those of us who are familiar with its subject, and that is high praise indeed for any documentary.
I am wary of what Sam Rosenfeld and Matthew Ygelsias called the “incompetence dodge” – the way in which so many cheerleaders for this war have seized upon the mismanagement of the war as a way of avoiding responsibility for their blind, jingoistic enthusiasm for the decision to go to Iraq in the first place. And so I fully expect the Andrew Sullivans of our world to seize upon this documentary as a form of vindication. That worries me – there are fundamental questions outside the scope of this film that are vital, and if the movie gets the audience it deserves, I can imagine that those questions will be banished from “serious” discourse. The Wise Men have already started to congeal around the view that their beautiful war was a good idea badly executed. They will eagerly embrace anything that will help them to avoid the deeper questions that could bring down the larger evil of which they are a part.
But we should not commit the mirror-image mistake of refusing to entertain the possibility that some of our assumptions might be open to question, too. Our certainty that chaos was inevitable ought to be subject to examination, too. Iraq was, despite its underlying ethnic divisions, a country. It was run by a ruthless dictator, to be sure, but can we really say with certainty that once that one finger was forcibly removed from the dike, the deluge was coming no matter what? That dictator relied upon an elaborate mechanism to keep order, and to keep ethnic tensions in check. I think we have to admit that there is at least some possibility that those forces might have served another master well enough and long enough to prevent the death spiral that now prevails.
I would have opposed the war even if you could have assured me a priori it would have led to a “good” outcome. In my view even success would not have made it right. And success might, paradoxically, have made our own slow descent into a police state faster or harder to unwind. So conceding Ferguson’s point – that it might have turned out differently – does not absolve the war’s supporters of their own grave errors.
This country desperately needs a robust debate about how and why the decision to go to war in Iraq was made, and about the limits and uses of our military power. But it no longer needs a debate about the stunning incompetence with which the occupation of Iraq was executed. “No End in Sight” is overwhelming and dispositive, making further discussion about that subject superfluous. As Ferguson shows, literally every decision – every decision – was seemingly calculated to achieve maximum chaos. The sooner the country acknowledges these inarguable failures, and moves on to ask why, the sooner we can try to begin repairing the damage – not to Iraq, which I suspect is a problem we can have no role in improving, but at home, where the damage might still be salvageable.