The director of the chilling "No End in Sight" explains how the Iraq occupation went horribly wrong. Plus: The American who made the world notice Darfur.
By Andrew O'Hehir
If everybody in this polarized country could be convinced to sit down tonight and watch the documentaries "No End in Sight" and "The Devil Came on Horseback," we might pull our troops out of Iraq next week and send them to Darfur the week after that.
But then, like every other idea relating to the collective dream-state known as American politics, that is no doubt wishful thinking. I watched those two films through my own distorted lens, and you'll see them through yours. What unites them is a passionate commitment to craft that signals, in turn, a belief in something so old-fashioned it seems Platonic: the idea of film as a medium for transcending subjectivity and opinion and grasping for truth.
Neither of these films is predicated on political ideology; I couldn't tell you whether the people who made them were Republicans or Democrats, and it doesn't much matter. Taken together they serve as an indictment of U.S. foreign policy that's more damning than the collected works of Noam Chomsky. In "No End in Sight," Charles Ferguson's magisterial history of the American occupation of Iraq over the past four years, it appears that all the crucial policy decisions affecting Iraq's future, the entire Middle East and by extension the world were made by a tiny, closeted group of ideologues with no expertise in the country, the region, Arab culture, military affairs or much of anything else.
We were too busy fucking up Iraq to save the people of Darfur, apparently. As Annie Sundberg and Ricki Stern's horrifying "The Devil Came on Horseback" makes clear, the State Department under Colin Powell investigated reports that government-sponsored Arab militias were carrying out a campaign of genocide against black Africans in that Sudanese province, decided they were true -- and did absolutely nothing. Being the world's sole superpower comes with responsibilities, and evidently that means spreading outrageous lies about the wars we start, while sweeping under the carpet the ones we refuse to stop. How can any American still wonder why our country is perceived as a force of immorality, chaos and disorder?
From the first frames of Charles Ferguson's "No End in Sight," replaying some of the oddest and twitchiest podium performances of Donald Rumsfeld during those heady days of spring 2003, you may feel the crushing weight of an almost Sophoclean impending doom. That was when that famous statue of Saddam came crashing down, when at least a few Iraqis really did greet American troops with kisses and flowers, when studly George W. Bush flew onto that aircraft carrier, with the world seemingly on its knees before his codpiece, to declare "Mission Accomplished."
Even at that point, says Ferguson, the war was already a gruesome failure. American troops arrived in Baghdad with insufficient numbers, no communications technology, very few translators, and almost no understanding of what they were supposed to do when the "major conflict" stopped. You may have blocked all this from your memory, but it will come flooding back: Looting spread through the city, devastating the national museum of antiquities, the national archives and almost every other public building. By the time American administrators made any serious effort to get the place up and running, Iraq's infrastructure had been destroyed, its army and most of its government bureaucracy were officially unemployed, and all the weapons, machinery and anything else of value were gone.
Ferguson is a political scientist and one-time technology pioneer (he sold his former company, Vermeer Technologies, to Microsoft in 1996, for $133 million) whose approach to the Iraq occupation is resolutely analytical and nonideological. He was not an opponent of the war, at least going into it. That may reduce his credibility in some quarters, but his foreign-policy credentials helped gain him access to a remarkable number of diplomatic, military and intelligence insiders, including several who provided background information but declined to appear on camera.
Ferguson's high-level interviewees include former Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage; Col. Lawrence Wilkerson, the former chief of staff to Colin Powell at the State Department; Gen. Jay Garner, the first coalition administrator of occupied Iraq; Col. Paul Hughes, who directed strategic policy for the U.S. occupation during its early stages; Barbara Bodine, who was ambassador in charge of Baghdad under the occupation; and Robert Hutchings, former chairman of the National Intelligence Council. That's not to mention numerous affiliated experts and sources, from Time reporter Chris Allbritton to Atlantic Monthly editor James Fallows, former Defense Intelligence Agency analyst Marc Garlasco, Harvard scholars Linda Bilmes and Samantha Power, and several American officers and soldiers who served on the ground.
These people represent a wide range of opinions and analyses, and many of Ferguson's insiders remain team players and (in many cases) loyal Republicans. All of them seem motivated by a combination of disgust and amazement at how badly things have gone since the fall of Baghdad and by a genuine desire to help make sense of it all. Only one interviewee, a former Defense Department advisor named Walter Slocombe, even attempts to pretend that the occupation hasn't been a disaster, with nothing but bad news ahead. Slocombe belonged to the small group of Pentagon insiders who made almost all the major decisions about Iraq and was the only one willing to appear on camera. (Shockingly, Rumsfeld, Paul Wolfowitz, Douglas Feith and Dick Cheney all resisted Ferguson's overtures.)
You don't have to sympathize with these people as individuals, or with their hard-headed, realpolitik, we're-the-grownups approach to policy, to be profoundly shocked by the story of arrogance, piss-poor planning and all-around incompetence that unfolds in "No End in Sight." It's one thing for those of us who opposed the whole damn thing from the get-go to waggle our fingers and say we told them so. It's quite another to see people who presumably thought the general idea was OK (as Ferguson did), and who were entrusted with various details of the project, speak wistfully about their massive failure, whose ripple effects will go on screwing up the world far into the lives of our children and grandchildren.
Ferguson met me in his large and empty New York apartment, in a West Village luxury high-rise overlooking the Hudson River. (He spends much of his time at another house in Berkeley, Calif., where he lectures at the UC-Berkeley journalism school.) His living room is at least as large as my entire apartment, and it contains a grand piano he does not know how to play. He speaks quietly, thoughtfully and precisely, but almost never laughs or displays emotion. Despite the ruthless rationality of his policy dissection in "No End in Sight," he says the ultimate explanation for the botched occupation of Iraq may lie in that murkiest of realms, individual human psychology.
You're a newcomer to making films. What made you think you wanted to make one, and make this one in particular?
I've been obsessed with movies since I was a little kid. I love movies of all kinds, trash as well as high culture. I wanted to make films for a long time, and I came to a point in my life, about three years ago, when I no longer had an excuse not to do it. I had time and I had financial security. I had finished a book I was working on ["The Broadband Problem: Anatomy of a Market Failure and a Policy Dilemma," published in 2004]. I started thinking about making a movie, and then our president gave us the Iraq war. It just seemed obvious and important.
I thought of it fairly early on, and friends of mine dissuaded me, saying that it was a difficult first film to make and that many people would be making it. After a year of waiting, nobody was making it.
Well, that's true. There have been numerous other films about the Iraq war, but they've been very granular and subjective. More about what happened to individuals on the ground, whether they were American soldiers or Iraqi civilians. Nobody's tried to take this global, policy-oriented perspective.
I assume your foreign-policy expertise literally made this film possible. I mean, if I called up Larry Wilkerson or Dick Armitage and said I wanted to interview them about the Iraq war and their role in planning and executing it, they might tell me to go jump in the lake.
I don't know what they would say to others, but they didn't say that to me. Larry Wilkerson has spoken out a fair bit; he's been quoted in the press. But I believe that we have the only lengthy interview that Richard Armitage has done about the Iraq war, which is a bit of a surprise. But it's true.
Yeah, he's very cagey and very loyal. He never directly criticizes his former boss [Powell] or the president. But at the same time, he does seem to want to express grave reservations about what happened. People will kind of have to see it, but to me he looks like he's radiating disapproval when he talks about the White House and the political decision making that went down.
I think we used four minutes of him in the film, but the interview was an hour and a half long. We're going to put that up on the Web site at some point. There are places where he's very cagey and doesn't quite say what he thinks, and there are other places where he's remarkably candid. When I asked him to assign a grade to the war, the planning and all the foreign-policy making that went into it, he said, well, you have to distinguish between the military campaign itself and the subsequent occupation. He said he would give the military campaign an A and the occupation a C-minus. For somebody who was the deputy secretary of state during the relevant period, that's a striking statement.
Sure. He's about as much of a trusted Republican policy insider as you can find in the world. He worked for Reagan and both Bushes. If I'm not mistaken, he worked for George W. Bush's election campaign.
Did you meet other insiders, people at or near his level, who weren't willing to go on the record?
Yes, quite a number of them. Particularly career military officers who are still serving. But also people in the State Department and elsewhere. One person in the intelligence community, quite senior, who was working for a high-level policy person during the planning of the war and the occupation period and then went back to their intelligence job. We had quite a long conversation, just as this person was heading back to Iraq for a yearlong period, and what they had to say was quite disturbing. I also spoke to a high-level military officer who was working for high-level civilians during the occupation.
You have obviously tried to avoid making a directly political film. It's certainly not an antiwar film in any general sense. I understand that, going back to March 2003 or whenever, you were not necessarily opposed to the war.
That is correct. I was very favorably inclined, in a general way, to the idea of using military force to remove Saddam. Partly for reasons of regional stability -- geopolitical, WMD-related reasons -- and partly for humanitarian reasons. Now, reasonable people can disagree about whether it was wise or just or necessary or important to use force to remove Saddam, but there's a perfectly reasonable case that it should have been done at some point. Which is of course quite different from saying that I was in favor of what the Bush administration actually did. The film is, I guess, about the disjuncture between those two things.
[Pause.] Well, it's actually not about the first thing. I consciously made a film that wasn't about the question of whether it was right or wrong to use military force to remove Saddam. I tried to make a film about what actually happened.
This story reminds me of Greek tragedy in a way. A certain number of things have to go wrong in a certain order before we end up with Oedipus killing his father and sleeping with his mother, in fulfillment of a dire prophecy. This is a story about everything going wrong all the time. I guess it's more like Murphy's Law in action on a grand, fatalistic scale.
I certainly agree with that last statement. I think they made so many horrendous mistakes that they kind of overdetermined the result. Any three of those mistakes might have doomed the occupation. The fact that they made 500, you know, or 1,000 -- certainly by early 2004 it was already over, actually.
Right, that's certainly the case you make. I think for many Americans, the episode in Fallujah early in 2004, when those four contractors were killed, dragged through the streets, and hung from the bridge, was a turning point. But you think it was already too late by then.
It probably was. Even after the first half-dozen fundamental errors -- not enough troops, allowing the looting, [coalition administrator L. Paul] Bremer's three early decisions, the early handling of the political decision, the mishandling of the U.N., not guarding the weapons -- even at that point, in July or August of 2003, if they had realized then, "Oh God, we've really blown it," you can conceive of how they could have recouped the situation. But after six months of having a half-million Iraqi military men on the streets with no income, it was too late.
My translator when I was in Baghdad had been an emergency-room doctor. He worked through the war. When the Americans invaded, he was making seven dollars a day. The country was in ruins. There was 40 to 50 percent unemployment, and then you take the entire army and throw it into the streets, give each soldier a $50 severance payment, and let that stew for six months. What do you expect?
Let's talk about Bremer. It's too bad that you couldn't get him on camera. He plays a very important role in the whole fiasco.
We tried hard. Really hard.
You spend a lot of time developing the consequences of the three decisions that Bremer made just as he was arriving there in May 2003, a few weeks after the occupation began. Run through those for us.
He made these decisions essentially simultaneously. One was to institute a formal American occupation and to delay for what turned out to be a long period -- over a year -- sovereignty for the Iraqi nation. The second was his de-Baathification order, which purged the Iraqi government of most of its senior administrators and technocrats, including many who were not affiliated with Saddam. By most accounts, that crippled the economy and administration of the country. The third, and by far the most important, was disbanding the entire Iraqi military and intelligence services.
Right. So that we wound up with however many thousands of men on the street.
The lowest estimate is 450,000. Somewhere between 450,000 and 650,000.
Out of work, financially destitute and psychologically...
You make the case in the film that a large percentage of the Iraqi military was prepared to come back to work and do what armies are supposed to do after they surrender -- take orders from the new boss in town, and do their jobs.
Yep. The exact fraction of the army that could have been used in that way and how quickly they could have been called can be debated. But there's no question that at least half the army, and possibly the overwhelming majority, could have been recalled and used pretty quickly. In fact, 137,000 soldiers had already signed registration statements, giving a lot of information to the American occupiers and stating their willingness to return to duty.
That shocked me. I mean, you're the expert. But just to take that number, if you've got 137,000 Iraqi troops in somewhat good shape, who speak the language and know the country, and they're prepared to follow orders from American commanders on the ground, and you assign them to police the streets and secure public buildings and restore some semblance of public order -- well, it strikes me that you've got a vastly different situation, almost right away.
Sure, of course. A completely different situation.
Maybe this was not what you intended, but this film seems like a strong defense of the foreign-policy and intelligence communities, and to a significant extent the military leadership. You argue that most of those professionals made correct or at least reasonable predictions and prognostications, and that what happened wasn't their fault. Is that fair?
Hmm. I think it's largely fair. I don't think any of them was perfect. The intelligence community did get roughly correct its assessment that Iraq was a troubled place and that occupying it would be difficult, there would be tensions and so on. But they got the WMD thing wrong. They got it wrong under intense political pressure from the White House, no question. But they still got it wrong. They also didn't know much about Iraq, and knew virtually none of the things you needed to know to run an effective occupation. You would want to know the names, addresses and telephone numbers of the top, say, 2,000 administrators in the country so you could make the place run. Well, they didn't. When the occupiers got to Baghdad, they didn't have telephones and they didn't have interpreters. They had no idea how to get in touch with anyone. No idea.
The military understood that more troops were required, but did they make that case forcefully to the president? No. Something very different would have happened if all four of the joint chiefs had stood up in public or gone to the president. I don't think they could have stopped the war, but could they have gotten another 50,000 troops? Yes, I think so.
All these groups had significant flaws that contributed to the problems, but it's nonetheless correct that on balance what happened in Iraq is a vindication of the general proposition that you should pay attention to the professional opinion of people who spend their lives looking at a certain class of questions. If you totally ignore them, you do so at your peril.
Late in the film you ask Gen. Jay Garner, who was briefly Bremer's predecessor in running occupied Iraq, why all these mistakes were made. He says he doesn't know, that he finds it puzzling. Just to take Bremer's three key decisions, how do you explain them? Anybody who knew anything about Iraq thought they were bad ideas. So where were they coming from?
This really is the core of the whole thing. Those three decisions, and a lot of others, were made by a very small group of people in a very short period of time. They were made by some combination of Bremer, Wolfowitz, Rumsfeld, Feith and Walter Slocombe. Dick Cheney was indirectly involved, but he was not part of the meetings and discussions at which these decisions were made. These decisions were made at a series of meetings in the Pentagon between May 1 and May 9 [of 2003], and it was at one of those meetings on May 9 that Bremer decided to dissolve the army, on Slocombe's recommendation.
This group of people had never been to Iraq. [Actually, Rumsfeld was there in 1983, at the time of his infamous handshake with Saddam Hussein.] None of them spoke Arabic. None of them had serious experience in the Mideast. Only one of them had served in the military at all, and that was Rumsfeld, who was a Navy pilot in the 1950s. They had no postwar reconstruction experience. In a perfect vacuum of information, these guys made these extraordinary, sweeping decisions. Many of the most important decisions were made this way, by less than six people. Arguably less than four. That small group of people, allowed to behave this way by President Bush, basically felt that they knew enough that they did not have to consult with anyone else. When they did talk to other people and were told, "This is a crazy thing," they simply disregarded everything they heard.
One thing that keeps coming up in the film is the lack of Arabic speakers among the Americans who went to Iraq. This just seems like a critical failing and an incredibly dumb mistake to make. I know it's not an easy language for English speakers, but there are Americans who speak it and they can be found.
There are 600,000 Americans who speak Arabic. Not to mention the possibility of hiring people from many other nations. Yes, it's astonishing. Part of the problem, although it's well below the top 10 mistakes on the list, was an overreliance on wealthy, cultivated Iraqi exiles who spoke English.
Ahmad Chalabi, for instance.
For example. Others as well. That gave them a very slanted, limited view of what Iraq was like and Iraqis were like. If you were an Iraqi who hadn't gone to Harvard, didn't have a Ph.D., weren't politically extremely conservative, didn't speak fluent English, and hadn't lived in the United States for 10 years, you were out of the loop. You didn't get to talk to these guys.
You haven't used the word "neoconservative" in describing that small group of men who made the decisions, and I imagine you've got a good reason for that. But clearly those guys are united by a shared ideology and view of the world. Didn't that play a defining role in how they understood the conflict and its aftermath, and every decision they made?
To some extent it clearly did. At the same time, much of what was done was contrary to their own interests, as they themselves would have defined those interests. If you think that it's important to remove Saddam by force and install a democratic regime in Iraq in order to remake the Middle East, then you don't do 10 of the things they did. Like not have anybody who spoke Arabic, and so forth. Many things. So I think that ideology's not a sufficient explanation. I think this has to have something to do with the individual psychologies of the very small number of people who were in control of this.
So if Paul Wolfowitz has a shrink, maybe he can help us figure this out.
Maybe. Certainly with regard to Bremer, and probably also Cheney and Wolfowitz and Rumsfeld, you need to ask psychological questions. You also need to ask, how can it be that three, four, five people can impose their psychological predispositions on an entire nation without other places in the system controlling them, disciplining them, limiting them? Yet somehow that happened.
In the film, you bring events up to pretty much the beginning of 2007, with that horrible number of what you think the war has cost so far.
OK, $1.8 trillion. I have no way of understanding a sum that large. Beyond spending a lot more money, what has happened in the last six or seven months, if anything, to change the picture?
Well, it now seems increasingly likely that domestic political pressure will force at least a drawdown or partial withdrawal by the United States. It's impossible to say exactly what will happen as a result of that. I speak to many different people about this, and their opinions range widely. The center of gravity of their opinions is that the situation will be bad no matter what we do. If we stay it's bad; if we leave it's bad. If we reduce our presence but don't totally leave, it's also bad.
They differ about how bad. The best scenario is pretty much Northern Ireland, a low-grade civil war that lasts 20 or 30 years.
That would be a lot better than what we've got now, wouldn't it?
Well, it's more or less what we've got now. It's more violent than Northern Ireland ever was, but it's kind of in that zone. It's not Congo, it's not Rwanda, it's not Somalia. Many people think that those models are real possibilities.
Well, that's encouraging. Do you have any feeling about what the right thing to do is?
No, I don't. Honestly. I've asked this question of many well-informed people, who are much better attuned to what's going on in Iraq than I am. Some people think we have to effect a partition of the country, as gracefully as possible. Other people think that's very dangerous and can't be done. Baghdad is too integrated and heterogeneous, there's too much intermarriage, it's important to preserve an Iraqi nation-state. Should we withdraw or stay? Should we be forceful toward the Iranians, or conciliatory? How do we handle the Turks? How do we handle the Kurds? How do we deal with oil revenues? It's very complicated, and people say very different things. I don't think anybody knows. In private, people will say, well, let's try something. If it looks like it's working, we'll go with it. If it doesn't work, we'll have to be prepared to change course rapidly.
George Packer, I believe, recently wrote that in his judgment this is now the worst foreign-policy blunder in American history. Is that overstated?
It could well prove to be true. The Vietnam War killed 3 million people, but its geopolitical ramifications were relatively limited. This war has so far killed a quarter of a million, but it could easily kill a million or more. And its geopolitical ramifications could be enormous and long-lasting. It could trigger enduring civil wars and conflict in the Mideast, a nuclear arms race. It could be very bad."No End in Sight" opens July 27 at Film Forum in New York and the E Street Cinema in Washington; Aug. 3 in Los Angeles; Aug. 10 in Chicago, Minneapolis, Philadelphia, Portland, Ore., San Francisco and Seattle; Aug. 17 in Detroit and St. Louis; Aug. 24 in Boston; Aug. 31 in Indianapolis and Austin, Texas; and Sept. 7 in Durango, Colo., with more cities to follow."The Devil Comes on Horseback": The first Holocaust of the 21st century, as a ratings flop
This shouldn't be a competitive sport or anything, but I'm pretty sure that Annie Sundberg and Ricki Stern's documentary "The Devil Came on Horseback" has the most horrifying images I have ever seen in a motion picture. There aren't words to describe them, really. There are pictures of people who have been tortured and burned alive, children who have been chained in place and hacked to pieces, corpses reduced to ghostly outlines of ash on the ground, people so badly mutilated you can't identify them as male or female, child or adult. You won't sleep well after you see this movie, and I don't suppose you should.
One could argue that Claude Lanzmann's "Shoah," which includes very few images of atrocity, is a more chilling exploration of genocidal history. But "The Devil Came on Horseback" has galvanized audiences at film festivals around the world precisely because it presents, in its calm, measured fashion and without much ceremony, pictures that nobody really wants to see.
Most of those photographs were taken by Brian Steidle, a former U.S. Marine Corps captain who served for six months as an unarmed military observer in and around the Sudanese province of Darfur, not realizing at the time that he was one of a tiny number of documentary eyewitnesses to the ongoing massacres that have resulted in about 450,000 deaths and perhaps 2.5 million refugees, according to some estimates. In 2003, the long-running civil war between Sudan's Arab-dominated government and the largely black southern rebels sputtered to a close, freeing the government to focus on a few unrelated bands of ragtag rebels in Darfur.
As everyone except Sudan's government now admits, the Arab militias known as "janjaweed" (linguistic experts differ, but Steidle says it means "devil on a horse") who have been killing off or driving out the black population of Darfur are funded, supported and egged on by Sudanese authorities, often with air support from Antonov bombers. The African Union sent a tiny group of observers to Sudan, with the faint hope of quelling the violence, toward the end of 2003. Among them was Steidle, who snapped away with his telephoto lens as he watched janjaweed raiders shoot children, rape women, massacre men and burn entire villages to the ground.
Of course "The Devil Came on Horseback" is about a big issue, a horrifying conflict most of us, including our highest officials, have chosen not to learn too much about. But it's also about a smaller, exemplary issue, the transformation of an ordinary, jocked-out military dude into a crusader. Steidle says he joined the African Union's observer force mostly out of a taste for travel and exotic adventure; he was hoping to retire soon, at age 35, and spend the rest of his life on his sailboat. He came back from the Sudan partway through 2004 and tried to forget about the whole thing.
But after realizing that he was virtually the only American who had seen the Darfur massacres personally, and could prove it, he became something of a national conscience and gadfly, testifying before Congress, speaking at rallies, talking to journalists whenever and wherever he could. Nicholas Kristof of the New York Times published several of his pictures to accompany an Op-Ed, which created a brief wave of media interest in Darfur, and in the question of whether the West could or should do something.
Steidle says he often had the thought in Darfur that if Americans could see what he was seeing, Marines would be there inside a week. Fearsome as they are to Darfur's villagers, the janjaweed are bands of a few dozen men with automatic weapons and Toyota pickup trucks. Two or three battalions of Western troops with helicopters and armored vehicles would suffice to stop them; a few more could disperse or kill them. (And believe me, after you see this movie you won't feel too many scruples about using force against those people.)
But the people of Darfur, predictably, have become more collateral damage in the bottomless fiasco documented in Ferguson's film. Both in the political and financial senses, U.S. policy makers believe they cannot afford to intervene in another overseas conflict, and the tense racial politics that affects all interactions between the West and the developing world, between the United Nations and the barely functioning African Union, has meant that bureaucrats continue to dither in big cities while the killing goes on.
Steidle and his activist sister continue to work for Darfur-related charities and visit the refugee camps across the border in Chad (for obvious reasons, he can't return to the Sudan). He has written a book, and testified before the International Criminal Court in the Hague, giving names, dates and places of the massacres he observed. But if the court hands down indictments, who's going to go into that hellhole and arrest the suspects? To paraphrase Gandhi's famous quip, international justice sounds like a good idea, but we haven't seen it yet. Ultimately, if the American people are too numb, too infotained and too narcotized to care, then we don't have anyone to blame for Darfur, or for the next Darfur, whenever and wherever it happens."The Devil Came on Horseback" is now playing at the IFC Center in New York. It opens Aug. 17 in Boston and Helena, Mont., Aug. 24 in San Francisco, Sept. 7 in Nashville and Sept. 21 in Seattle. Other screenings include July 28 in Philadelphia, July 29 in Rochester, Minn., July 31 in Sedona, Ariz., Aug. 6 in Wilmington, N.C., Aug. 23 in Huntington, N.Y., Aug. 28 in Norfolk, Va., Sept. 7 in St. Louis and Sept. 20 in Milwaukee. See Web site for complete schedule.