By this late date in the Iraq war, everyone has a favorite—and by “favorite” I mean “most comically appalling”—story of occupation incompetence. Here’s mine: In May 2003, as newly appointed administrator L. Paul Bremer was in the midst of dissolving the Iraqi army, he pledged to swiftly replace it with “a New Iraqi Corps, as the first step in forming a national self-defense capability for a free Iraq.” Unfortunately, Bremer did not speak Arabic, and was thus unaware that the acronym NIC, when pronounced in the native tongue of the people it was designed to represent, sounded exactly like the local colloquialism for sexual intercourse. The name was swiftly changed to New Iraqi Army—but not before providing a hint that the American experiment in nation building was completely fucked.
Charles Ferguson’s documentary No End in Sight does not recount this anecdote; it is too busy laying out a larger history of blinkered ideologues plummeting into a desert nightmare. Sober and measured, the movie plays as a prosecutorial brief against the Bush administration—and the first cinematic document of the Iraq occupation worth the time it takes to watch. Ferguson is a former Brookings scholar, and maybe it’s his wonkish background that gives him the confidence to rely on old-fashioned narrative elements like talking heads and ground-level footage. His argument leans on the journalistic efforts of George Packer and James Fallows (both of whom spent time in Baghdad and emerged with well-reasoned books), so he does not waste film with hysterical nattering about blood and oil. Instead, he charts the precise coordinates of each misstep.
First come the insufficient ground troops, unable to prevent devastating looting—$12 million worth of destruction in less than a month, leaving the Office of Reconstruction and Humanitarian Assistance, or ORHA, with no infrastructure to reconstruct. Then comes Bremer, eradicating the Iraqi army and de-Baathificating his way to a population of unemployed, armed men. And look there, outside the Green Zone wall: a civil war led by previously ignored imams exploiting the absence of running water or law enforcement.
Totalitarian governments are said to take on pathological personalities; No End in Sight amply demonstrates that the Bush administration’s warped democracy has the character of an adolescent. Unpleasant facts are studiously ignored; plans are things for old phonies to make. A telling clip from a Donald Rumsfeld press conference shows the defense secretary dodging a question about whether peacekeeping operations are bogging down: “I don’t do quagmires,” he says. This is, strictly speaking, an accurate statement: In every meaningful sense, the quagmire did him.
While winding his way through the wreckage, Ferguson is not above some oversimplification and favoritism. ORHA, for example, beatified by Ferguson as the betrayed hero of the occupation, was described recently by a Washington Post Baghdad bureau chief as the “Office of Really Hapless Americans.” But despite its few flaws, No End in Sight provides ample context, and deservedly provokes outrage.
If many Americans are more depressed than angered by four years of war, it’s at least in part because we are confronted by a daily litany of casualties immediately followed by partisan spin. Here, finally, is a lucid chart that begins to provide some meaning. What it says most clearly is that America walked into a miserable, oppressed country, made promises left and right, and now is about to walk out again without a single promise kept. The most horrible thing about this war is not, perhaps, that George W. Bush lied about Iraq. It’s that Bush lied to Iraq. There’s nothing remotely funny about that.