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War without end

Filmmaker pieces together a dead-on reckoning of US freefall in Iraq

The word quagmire is frequently used to describe what's become of the current situation in Iraq. It implies a mess that's increasingly difficult to climb out of, a gradual sinking. That's not a word Donald Rumsfeld would have used. As one of the architects of that current situation, which began with an American military invasion in early 2003, he had a different idea of the war.

In one of the more telling moments in Charles Ferguson's bone-chilling new documentary, "No End in Sight," when a reporter offers "quagmire" as an apt description, Rumsfeld takes umbrage. With the debonair assurance of an old Hollywood star, he says, "That's somebody else's word. I don't do quagmires." Ferguson's film is a clear-sighted counterpoint to the former secretary of defense's impression. As the title suggests, it's a seemingly infinite mess.

A raft of documentaries have come along since the start of the war, some of them accusatory, some investigative, some empathetic, nearly all of them skeptical. None is better argued or more searing than "No End in Sight." It's soberly made, too. The lack of overt sensationalism doesn't leave us with a starchy piece of nonfiction. It has the seriousness of a "Frontline" piece (not to mention actual "Frontline" footage) without the testiness of a jeremiad. Ferguson surrounds himself with some excellent technicians who transform a rookie's impressive leap into journalism (the director is an Internet millionaire) into a damning political thriller.

His film could have been subtitled "How the Insurgency Got Started and Why It'll Be Extremely Difficult to Stop." There's no dwelling on the specious case made to invade. Instead, the film uses its amazing sources to explain what went wrong postinvasion. The people Ferguson interviews, from reporters and former high-ranking Bush administration officials to candid soldiers and knowledgeable Iraqis, explain how the war was effectively lost after the first few months.

The administration, for starters, had no real plan. The movie exposes an almost farcical lack of preparedness for the task of occupation. It's explained that the United States' occupation of Germany after World War II was two years in the making. The occupation of Iraq involved about two months of planning. The Office of Reconstruction and Humanitarian Assistance, the organization responsible for overseeing basic services to Iraq, was never really allowed to do its job.

But it was the riots and looting after Saddam Hussein's regime was overthrown that really transformed everything. Baghdad was violently stripped apart -- $12 billion in damage, someone surmises, and as the city was being destroyed the US military did very little to stop it. There was no official declaration of martial law. Amid footage of chaos and burning, the film cuts to Rumsfeld, appalled that the media would blow the destruction out of proportion. But during that month of riots, it's argued that the Americans irrevocably lost the hearts and minds of the Iraqis. ORHA drew up a list of extremely important sites the military needed to protect (the museum and the library, for instance), but they went unguarded and were gutted of their treasures. The Iraqis began to wonder whether the United States had encouraged the looting.

"Quagmire" actually starts to seem like an inadequate description. It's too passive. The Iraq we read about and see in this film is a nationwide forest fire, burning on "bitter embers." That's what L. Paul Bremer, who led the Coalition Provisional Authority, which governed Iraq until June 2004, reductively calls it, in press conference footage. The flashpoint was the unmitigated looting. But Bremer himself stoked a lot of the fire with his dismantling of the Iraqi military, which, the film explains, left half a million armed men with no one to serve, and his de-Baathification program, which left engineers, librarians, teachers -- the intelligentsia, basically -- jobless. The unofficial employment rate was believed to be 50 percent. So it was easy for clerics like Muqtada al Sadr to fill the void and give the angry and disenfranchised a purpose.

We hear a lot about the incompetence of the officials running the occupation, their lack of communication with the men and women on the ground, their aloof distance from the Iraqis themselves. It has always seemed like a CEO's war (the lack of military experience, the surge of private contractors). But presented in a concentrated dose, as this movie does, the raw facts are staggering. At some point, during a sequence about unguarded weapons depots that Iraqis raided, I wrote in my notepad, "This is unbelievable." Then there's the monetary waste, the low troop levels, the lack of suitable body armor for the troops, and Rumsfeld's haughty dismissal -- it's always Rumsfeld -- of why that armor's not there. It's as though the administration actively wanted this to go badly.

A lot of the ground in "No End in Sight" has been covered, explained, and explored in the dozens of books released during the last four years, especially in George Packer's "The Assassins' Gate." The movie is more of a supplement to such books than a substitute. But on its own terms, the film is tough-minded and essential -- a severely galling reality check.

'Related'

No End in Sight

Written and directed by: Charles Ferguson

Narrated by: Campbell Scott

At: Kendall Square, Cambridge

Running time: 101 minutes

Unrated

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