A grim filmic history of the Iraq occupation | AspenTimes.com

A grim filmic history of the Iraq occupation

Stewart Oksenhorn

"No End in Sight," Charles Ferguson's documentary of the American occupation of Iraq, shows Oct. 15-17 at the Wheeler Opera House. (Courtesy Magnolia Pictures)

The American occupation in Iraq continues. Counting back to the invasion of March 20, 2003, it’s endured longer than our involvement in World War II and nearly twice as long as the presidency of John F. Kennedy. Technically, the iPod was launched first, but it hasn’t been part of our national consciousness any longer than the war in Iraq.With the White House digging in and refusing to put a deadline for withdrawal of troops, the occupation threatens to cross into the next decade. Or, as the title of a new documentary puts it, there’s “No End in Sight.”Clearly, the American presence in Iraq is not history, in the sense that it has not yet passed into the past. And yet that’s how Charles Ferguson’s film treats it – with a historical perspective, as though the narrative of the occupation had settled pretty well into accepted fact. There is a point of view to “No End in Sight” – that most every major decision on the war was ill-conceived, if it was thought out at all – and that take has been adopted by all but the most recalcitrant backers of the Bush administration. This view is reinforced by some dramatic elements. Most every time a controversial point is raised, it is followed by the graphic: “So and so” – insert any prominent Republican architect of the war – “refused to be interviewed for this film.”

But unlike numerous recent, left-leaning documentaries, “No End in Sight” is methodical, based on talking-head recollections, public records and documentary footage, rather than arguments. The narration, by actor Campbell Scott, is sober, more the stuff of the History Channel than Michael Moore.In line with its straightforward nature, “No End in Sight” is arranged chronologically. Even with that approach, it takes no time at all to get to the heart of the bungling of the job. The moment the mission turned from invasion, with the purpose of unseating Saddam Hussein, to occupation, things slid downhill. Footage from the invasion shows Iraqis actually welcoming American troops, but it now seems like another era. With no plan and little manpower in place to manage the power vacuum, Iraq spiraled into chaos. The national library, archive and museum were all plundered; no one thought to guard the doors.The Bush administration – or perhaps it should be called the Cheney administration as the film asserts that the president didn’t always participate in critical decisions – had an opportunity to display better judgment at a key moment. When Paul Bremer stepped in, in May 2003, to lead post-invasion Iraq as administrator of the Coalition Provisional Authority, there was a chance to turn the tide. Instead, Bremer’s first days featured three colossal blunders: halting the formation of an interim Iraqi government; de-Ba’athification, which purged members of Saddam’s Ba’ath party from the rebuilding of the country; and disbanding the Iraq army, which left half a million Iraqis, plus their families, infuriated, jobless – and armed.

These decisions were directed by a tiny group of White House insiders who had spent virtually no time in Iraq. There was no consultation with the CIA, the National Security Council, the State Department. This was from-the-hip cowboy justice. If there is a theme to “No End in Sight,” it is this narrow-mindedness, which resulted in ignoring advice and not thinking even weeks ahead. One formerly hopeful Iraqi, the office manager of the Washington Post’s Baghdad bureau, ruefully notes, “We thought everything was planned, everything was prepared.” Sorry, but planning for the eventual occupation of the country of 22 million was limited to 60 days (compared to two years for the occupation of Germany).The history of the occupation of Iraq has been written, even as the occupation carries on and on.Stewart Oksenhorn’s e-mail address is stewart@aspentimes.com.

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