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Tuesday, 02 October 2007 11:07

Charles Ferguson's Compelling Documentary Shows Why There's 'No End in Sight' in Iraq

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A BUZZFLASH INTERVIEW

This war and the principal decisions about this war and the occupation were made by a startlingly small number of people ... I don't think there's ever been a situation in which such vital decisions were made over a quite considerable time, a couple of years, by such a small number of people, with so little debate inside the government, so little consultation, and so little outside review.

if you look at this collection of people, and you kind of ask yourself, do these people have the experience, the expertise, the knowledge, that's required to make appropriate judgments here, they didn't. They had none of it.

-- Charles Ferguson, writer/director/producer, No End in Sight

* * *

"No End in Sight" is a top-notch documentary that peels away at the layers of gross incompetence that marked the malfeasance and mismanagement of the post-"Mission Accomplished" Iraq period.

In an extraordinarily professional and gripping film for an expose of such a potentially tedious topic, first time write/director/producer Charles Ferguson pulls off a stunningly successful account of how the Bush Administration stumbled at every step following Saddam's overthrow.

Ferguson, coming out from nowhere in the film world, understands how to keep his narrative focused, the value of tight editing, and how to make a complex story so lucid and compelling.

He somehow received access to key insiders who openly discuss, often with a baffled expression, the inexplicable disastrous decisions made by the Bush/Cheney/Rumsfeld/Wolfowitz/Rice inner circle. The revelations, from these former top level officials, is often jaw-dropping.

"No End in Sight" sticks to the facts. In the end, you are left with one haunting question: Was this chaos due to arrrogantly misguided decisions, or was it planned chaos, along the lines of Naomi Klein's theory on disaster capitalism? Did Bush and company want the infrastructure and bureaucracy of Iraq gutted so that it would be easier to graft onto the nation a Neo-Con economic, governmental and military model?

Ferguson is disciplined enough not to veer off into speculation about motives in "No End in Sight." The story of how the Bush Administration squandered opportunities at every turn is what he concentrates on.

As to whether the "five tops" were merely prodigiously disastrous in their decision making or they were consciously knocking down the Iraqi infrastructure in order to more easily establish their Neo-Con dreams would make a good subject for another documentary.

In the meantime, we can't recommend "No End in Sight" enough. It brought home the point to us that the Bush war brain trust brought America to a nadir of massive mismanagement that would never be tolerated in a corporation, and shamed us all. The so-called Iraq "reconstruction" period was, in effect, the Iraq destruction period.

They should have been shown the door long ago.

* * *

BuzzFlash: I saw No End in Sight with my 87-year-old mother, and we were both just blown away by it. Your background is that you have a bachelor's degree in math, a Ph.D. from M.I.T. in political science, and experience consulting for the government and businesses. You were a founder of the company that developed Front Page, but you had never before done a film. As a first-time director, producer and writer of this film, how did you end up with such a superb product?

Charles Ferguson: Somehow I was able to persuade very good people to work with me. They did their own jobs well, and in very significant measure, they taught me my job. That's the single most critical thing. Secondarily, I think it was significantly beneficial that I had the kind of background that I did. My policy background helped somewhat in understanding and structuring the substance of the film.

BuzzFlash: There are many documentaries made, and at BuzzFlash we see most of the ones dealing with politics or government affairs. I can't overstate the significance of your film in terms of professional quality, let alone content. The editing is superb. The music was completely, unexpectedly helpful in setting a tone and moving the film along. This is a very gripping documentary about a very somber and solemn subject. The 103 minutes go by quickly because the film is so superbly paced.

This is a very sound, professional documentary, and it's very, very disciplined in its focus. You tell the story about the initial period and attempt at reconstruction in Iraq in a compelling way. How did you go about deciding to tell the story the way in which you did?

Charles Ferguson: It emerged out of the confluence of the way I thought about it and the way the editors thought about it. We took an immense about of footage. I did sixty or seventy interviews in the United States, and another several dozen in Iraq. We had probably 250-300 hours of our own footage, as well as additional footage, and all the interviews were transcribed to produce twenty-five hundred pages of material.

I read all that. The editors read all that. The editors also watched all the interviews. I produced a couple of documents, and the editors produced a couple of documents, but more importantly, they also produced a six-hour assembly, which was their initial take on the most interesting material.

Then we set to work and tried to join the things they thought were good with the things I thought were good, to structure it in a way that satisfied both my academic, wonky demand for rigor and correctness, on the one hand, and the desires of the editors and of me, trying to be a filmmaker, on the other.

It also helped that I have just loved film for a long time. I've watched a lot of films, including a lot of documentaries. I would go to the Telluride Film Festival every year, and I've been to a lot of other film festivals. I've just seen a lot of films. I think that also helped.

BuzzFlash: Again, I can't emphasize enough how compellingly this film moves along, given that a very large portion of it is what in the industry is known as talking heads, meaning interviews. This has such a compelling pace that it constantly has the viewer entranced. This is a very accessible film. It tells a very forthright story. Did you line up the story before the interviews? Or are you saying that the interviews gave it its focus?

Charles Ferguson: It was a combination of the two. Before I did the interviews, I had some idea of what I wanted the film to contain and what I wanted it to say. But I learned an enormous amount in the process of doing the interviews. People frequently said startling and rather dramatic things, some of which are in the film, some of which are not, because you can only fit so much into 103 minutes.

I guess there are a couple of other things that perhaps helped. I did go into it hoping and feeling that it was important and possible to make a film about a political subject, a policy subject, and yet for it to be interesting and compelling -- to make a film about a policy subject that was rigorously accurate, yet interesting.

I hadn't really thought of this, but it may also have helped that I like thrillers and mysteries -- I've read a lot of them, I'm writing one, and I've also seen a lot of them. I like their structure. I like the kinds of things that they do. I found that there were certain elements of this story that were similar to investigative journalism and to investigation in general.

Needless to say, the Bush administration and senior officials were not eager to tell me everything that had occurred in the White House and in Iraq and in the Pentagon. So I had to find out. There's a side of me -- maybe it's a little bit childish, actually -- but there's a side of me that just loves it when somebody's trying to prevent me from understanding something.

BuzzFlash: You raise a very important point. One can look at this Iraq narrative as a thriller, or suspense. Certainly, as you're watching it, that is a very strong element. As much as we had read about the Iraq war over the years, we still found this enormously compelling. It did have that element of, how is this going to unfold, even though this is a historical documentary. We may know a lot about what is occurring in the film, but we're hearing it from voices we haven't necessarily heard it from before in quite this way.

But usually, in a thriller, you end up with a motive being discovered. In this case, there's a brilliant dissection of the failures of the management of the reconstruction, but at the end of this film, you're still not quite sure if the failures were due to incompetence, or arrogance, or whether they were willful. That was an issue that you didn't explore. That was probably wise, because you may have started losing focus and getting into a highly speculative realm, but what do you think about that? Ambassador Barbara Bodine, for instance, sometimes has a befuddled look on her face, as if to say: I just don't understand how all this happened. Was this just incompetence?

Charles Ferguson: It wasn't just incompetence. There certainly was some incompetence from inexperience, both at high levels and at low levels. Many people who were selected to work for the Coalition Provisional Authority were selected primarily because of their political and ideological credentials, as opposed to their expertise. In fact, people with expertise were deliberately selected out. So there was some incompetence at low levels. There was also, interestingly, some incompetence at high levels principally associated with inexperience.

I don't think inexperience alone would have produced this disaster. It had to be combined with an arrogance, and rigidity, and ideological blindness that prevented these inexperienced people from listening to others who had more experience, and prevented them from correcting their behavior once its mistakes and consequences were becoming apparent.

But there was inexperience and incompetence at higher levels, as well. This war and the principal decisions about this war and the occupation were made by a startlingly small number of people, in a way, unique in American political history. I don't think there's ever been a situation in which such vital decisions were made over a quite considerable time, a couple of years, by such a small number of people, with so little debate inside the government, so little consultation, and so little outside review.

So who were those people? They were President Bush -- although he was very passive for the first couple of years of this --

BuzzFlash: You have one person in the film who twice says Bush didn't read the National Intelligent Estimates and other key documents. The President dismissed at least one of those documents, and the person you interviewed who was responsible for them said he didn't even read it.

Charles Ferguson: Yes, he was remarkably disengaged. Many people said things like that. So, there was President Bush. There was Vice President Cheney. There was Secretary Rumsfeld, and Deputy Secretary Wolfowitz. Maybe you would count Douglas Feith, the undersecretary of defense for policy. And there's Paul Bremer. Maybe you would count Condoleezza Rice, maybe not. That's it.

Those people made all of the critical decisions about the war and the occupation, with astonishingly little input from other people. And if you look at those people and their backgrounds, only one of them had ever served in the active duty military, which was Rumsfeld. None of them had ever been in combat. None of them had actually been in a war. Most of them had not served in the military at all. Cheney didn't. Wolfowitz didn't. Rice didn't. Bremer didn't.

None of them had any experience with the Arab world. None of them spoke Arabic. None of them had ever served in the Arab world. None of them had ever worked in a serious way on Mideast issues. You could argue that Cheney did, because he was Secretary of Defense during the first Gulf War, but that war stopped after a hundred hours of combat.

Quite importantly, none of them had ever worked in a post-conflict situation. None of them had ever worked in a nation-building, reconstruction, occupation environment.

BuzzFlash: We know now that Cheney sai, after the first Iraq war, that it would have been foolish to go into Baghdad and try to depose Saddam Hussein.

Charles Ferguson: He did say that. But regardless of that statement, if you look at this collection of people, and you kind of ask yourself, do these people have the experience, the expertise, the knowledge, that's required to make appropriate judgments here, they didn't. They had none of it.

Now, that wasn't unique to them. But what was unique to them was this feeling that they knew best, and that they didn't have to listen to anybody else, no matter how strongly some very experienced persons disagreed with them.

BuzzFlash: I'd like to react to two of your points.

To us, the example of appointments seems a case of willful malfeasance. It is just common sense in terms of management. This isn't just arrogance, it is political partisanship. You have an example, in the movie, of a young woman, just out of college, with parental party affiliations to the Republican Party or the Bush campaign, who was supposed to oversee the strategy for traffic flow in Baghdad. She had had no experience in this area whatsoever. To me, that is not just arrogance. That is willful neglect of responsibilities in order to achieve partisan paybacks or goals. I don't think anyone would assume that such a person is an appropriate hire for reconstruction and nation-building. That is a political decision.

The second thing relates to what you said regarding the small group of people who were really giving the orders on nation-building and reconstruction. One of the three points you emphasize in your film, and which was a hot topic this week, was the disbanding of the Iraqi army. The film goes into some detail about this. Paul Bremer has been in the news lately seeming to say of disbanding the army, look, it's a done deal. This has come down from Washington. The army's going to be disbanded.

What do you make of that? In the L.A. Times, there was a piece in which President Bush says the intention was to keep the Iraqi army intact. And he doesn't know how it quite happened that it was disbanded. He can't recollect that, according to the L.A. Times. Then Paul Bremer said, well, that's not true. I informed him personally. He sent me a note thanking me for letting him know -- or something of that sort.

Another curious development, in The New York Times, Paul Bremer has an op-ed where he now says not only was this a collective decision, to disband the army, but that was the right decision. So he's still defending that decision. This has been a key flash point of discussion over the last few years. But it comes to the compelling forefront in your documentary. What do you make of that whole dust-up?

Charles Ferguson: There are many things to say about it. Why is Bush informed? It appears that, in fact, he was informed of Bremer's decision the day before the disbandment of the army was publicly announced. It was publicly announced on May 23, 2003. And in his book, which he published in 2006, Bremer says that Rumsfeld informed the President the day before the public announcement. In addition, Bremer had written Bush this letter also the day before he announced it. The dissolution of the army was publicly announced and was covered by the media, so there's certainly no excuse for President Bush not to have known about it at that point.

It is also true, however, that the previous plan had been to keep the Iraqi army and to acquire the Iraqi army. Bush had been briefed repeatedly about that plan and its desirability by several people, including General Jay Garner, who was in charge of the occupation of Iraq until Bremer's arrival. That had been the plan, and Garner and Hughes had been acting in accordance with that plan, up until Bremer’s dissolution order.

I have read Bremer's new op-ed piece it, but I want to read it very, very carefully in order to understand whether he is literally lying, or whether he's being very clever in his evasions. He at least strongly implies that he very fully and widely consulted with the occupation authorities in Iraq and with the rest of the government before he issued the dissolution order. That is false. The decision to disband the Iraqi army was made on May 9, 2003, the day before Bremer left for Baghdad for the first time. And it was a decision. It was not an idea that they were going to discuss, and consider, and ask other people about. It was a decision.

It was a decision that they reached before any of the relevant people, including Bremer and Walt Slocombe, who was his advisor on military matters concerning the Iraqi army, had ever been to Iraq at all. And I can prove that. They reached that decision without speaking either with General Garner, or with General McKiernan, or with Colonel Paul Hughes, who was, at that time, in charge of recalling the Iraqi army. The decision took all of those people by surprise.

As Bremer says in the op-ed article, it is true that between May 12 and May 23, a draft of the order disbanding the army was circulated to some people. It was not circulated to Colin Powell. It was not circulated to Richard Armitage, Deputy Secretary of State, nor to the CIA, nor to the National Security Council, all of whom were taken by surprise by the public announcement on May 23 that the army was being disbanded.

BuzzFlash: And Colonel Hughes was not aware of it, who was responsible for bringing this together.

Charles Ferguson: Correct. He was not informed of it at all, and only learned of it when it was publicly announced on May 23. The order was circulated to some senior people in the military in Iraq, including General McKiernan and General Abizaid. And it was shown by Bremer to General Garner a couple of days after Bremer arrived in Baghdad, around May 13 or 14.

They all objected to it. But they were told that it was a decision that had already been made and could not be reversed. And, in fact, it wasn't reversed. So Mr. Bremer is being truthful when he says that the civilian people above him -- Rumsfeld, Bush -- were aware of his decision. But he is being completely deceitful in his representations that this was a decision that had been reached in consultation with the rest of the government, and that most people in the rest of the government were in agreement with it. That is absolutely, completely false, and provably so.

BuzzFlash: The core of your film concerns three major management failures of nation building. The two others that you point out are the de-Baathification, which led to a large unemployment problem, to say the least, and appears to have helped fuel the insurgency, and the decision about troop levels, based largely on a Rumsfeld decision, with fewer troops than had been recommended by the Pentagon brass.

Anarchy and looting resulted. The U.S. troops who were there just stood by as the capitol and other parts of Iraq were looted. The level of lawlessness was astonishing. And that was a very key decision. I recall that Rumsfeld more or less dismissed the whole looting issue as a media hyperbole story, saying he keeps seeing the same place looted over and over again on television. He was quite dismissive of the whole idea that there was a serious crime and looting problem and chaos going on in Baghdad.

Your film does make somewhat of the correlation that maybe that was due to the fact that we went in with too few troops. So they only protected the oil ministry. The national museum and library were looted and the other ministries -- basically the bureaucratic infrastructure that ran Iraq was wiped out for the most part. What do you make of that?

Your film documents that this was not a story cooked up by the press. American troops stood by and were apparently ordered not to intervene.

Was it merely a question of not having adequate troop levels? Or at some point did Rumsfeld not care if the infrastructure was destroyed? Or perhaps -- this is speculation -- perhaps he didn't mind it at all because it was easier to build up a new infrastructure from nothing than to try to work with an infrastructure that many people in this group felt was a tainted infrastructure, because it had been run by Saddam Hussein. Therefore, just let it collapse. Let it be looted.

Charles Ferguson: We don't know for sure. There's no evidence that Rumsfeld and the other people involved in these decisions wanted Iraq to end up the way it is now. I think that they're unhappy with the way things are now. I don't think they actively wanted to destroy the country. But it's very possible that they just didn't care very much.

And there is some evidence that Rumsfeld wanted to stay away from any decisions or actions which would have either the legal or practical effect of giving the United States responsibility and accountability for Iraq's condition. His view seems to have been, we're there to get rid of Saddam and install a new government -- one based on a system to our liking, and run by people to our liking -- and then get out, and maybe retain bases. But it's not our job to police Iraq and prevent crime and so on. That's somebody else's job.

Then, for example, if you declare martial law under the Geneva Conventions, you acquire certain legal rights, but you also acquire certain legal responsibilities according to international law and the treaty. There is some evidence that Rumsfeld wanted to stay away from all that, and that's part of why martial law was not declared. In fact, General McKiernan wanted to declare martial law, and had drawn up an order which was very like martial law, and was told by the Pentagon that he could not.

I think it was a combination of not understanding the seriousness of the destruction, because they weren't listening -- not because the information wasn't there. They didn't trust or believe the people giving them that kind of information. It was partially not believing the reports that the destruction was so extensive. It was partially not believing that the consequences of the destruction would be all that important. And it was partially not caring. I think it was some combination of those things. Exactly what combination, we may never know. We'd have to get inside the head of Donald Rumsfeld to know for sure.

BuzzFlash: Yes. That would be an interesting experience. I don't know whether he's dissembling or just delusional. It's hard to explain how someone can make comments so far removed from reality.

In your documentary, there is an encounter when Rumsfeld is in Iraq where a soldier asks why they aren't getting more protection in the case of armored Humvees. Rumsfeld's response was simply, you go in with the army you have. He was totally unsympathetic to the position of the soldiers who are risking their lives for their nation at the behest of their Commander in Chief. Here we have the Secretary of Defense just sort of acting as if he was dealing with a Washington correspondent, and just belittling the question, indicating that he knows more, and this is just the reality, and this is how things are, and live with it, buddy. He's talking with a soldier who has to risk his life every day going out in a Humvee that's not armored, and the Secretary of Defense didn't reassure him at all. What is going on when someone makes a statement like that?

Charles Ferguson: It certainly is quite appalling. I've never met Secretary Rumsfeld. I've been told by a number of people who have dealt with him that he is widely regarded as being very arrogant, and frequently a dismissive and insensitive man. Certainly, his behavior in regard to several questions in the Iraq war and occupation suggests that. It certainly suggests a striking degree of arrogance and insensitivity.

BuzzFlash: What experience in government have you had?

Charles Ferguson: I did various pieces of consulting to the federal government through several administrations. Actually, the first time that I consulted to the government was to the Reagan administration when I was still a graduate student, on high technology trade matters and various things related to government policy towards high technology industries, and R & D, trade, intellectual property -- things like that. I did consulting at various times to the Bush administration, the Reagan administration, and the Clinton administration.

BuzzFlash: Then you went on to co-found Vermeer, the corporation that produced Front Page, which was then purchased by Microsoft?

Charles Ferguson: That's right.

BuzzFlash: Now are you going to be doing more films?

Charles Ferguson: I would love to do more films. Despite its grim subject matter, I found the process of making films one of the most interesting, compelling, absorbing, rewarding things I've ever done.

BuzzFlash: How did you get access to the level of people you did? I think all of them are former Bush administration officials. You have Wilkerson, Armitage, Bodine, and so forth. How did they trust that you were going to give them a fair shake in this documentary, to get them to appear in it, and to be interviewed for the documentary?

Charles Ferguson: One thing was that, in some cases, these people were desperate to tell their stories -- they had very strong emotions and very strong opinions about what they had experienced. They'd been through this incredibly devastating experience, and nobody was asking them about it. They had not received nearly the kind of attention that their information deserved. That happened several times, I think.

BuzzFlash: So there were participants in the reconstruction who were very eager to tell their side of the story.

Charles Ferguson: Yes, in some cases, at least to somebody that they trusted. I think the second thing was that my background helped. I had a Ph.D. in political science. My thesis advisor had been deputy national security advisor for President Kennedy. I was a member of the Council for Foreign Relations. I had credentials and experience and contacts.

I was not going to turn this into a light comedy -- they knew that I was going to do something serious. And by the time I spoke to senior people, I'd already done a lot of research. They could tell fairly quickly, from the letter I wrote them, from their initial conversations with me, that I knew what I was talking about. I actually had done a lot of work and was taking the subject seriously.

BuzzFlash: Your film is currently in theaters in select locations, and it is coming out on DVD on October 31. We're already taking advance orders for it on BuzzFlash.com, and there's been a tremendous response.

I think there's a thirst for the type of laser light you bring to this topic, which does deal with the initial, so-called "reconstruction period" in Iraq. And one thing we also wanted to emphasize about the film to people who are reading this is that it is gripping -- your film does a wonderful job of making it a suspense story, as appalling as this failure was. I think that's important for people to know. This is a film that really sucks you in.

The way the images of Iraq are handled, and the music that accompanies it all add to that movement that keeps one involved. I notice on the web site it says, have your Congressperson see this film. Do you think many Congresspeople have seen this? Can a film have an impact on an elected official if they saw it?

Charles Ferguson: Yes, there have already been two screenings in Congress, and there's going to be a third one in October, sponsored by a bipartisan committee. A number of Congresspeople and Senators have requested copies of the film, and a number of them, I know, have already seen it. Some of them have gone to theaters to see it.

BuzzFlash: How did you come up with the title, No End in Sight?

Charles Ferguson: We discussed the impact of titles. I did want something that expressed the idea that this wasn't over -- that this was something that people still needed to be concerned about.

BuzzFlash: It could equally have been, "No Light at the End of the Tunnel"!

Well, we can't encourage people enough to see this film. Thanks again. A tremendous accomplishment for a first time out, and a real service to advancing the discussion of public policy and examining a crucial historical period in American history, based on incredible access to the people who were intimately involved in this failed process of nation-building.

BuzzFlash interview conducted by Mark Karlin.

* * *

Resources

No End in Sight (2007), Acclaimed Documentary on the Bushevik Fiasco in Iraq (Advance Order for Oct. 30), directed by Charles Ferguson, a BuzzFlash premium.
http://www.cferguson.com/ (Charles Ferguson's Home Page)

A Conversation with Filmmaker Charles Ferguson (Charlie Rose)

http://noendinsightmovie.com/

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Charles_H._Ferguson

Bio (at Huffington Post)

"No End" director fires an op-ed video salvo (Reuters)

A BUZZFLASH INTERVIEW

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