The daily details of the American presence in Iraq are frightening enough: String them together into a comprehensive overview and it unfolds like a horror show. Charles Ferguson's incisive, "the story thus far" documentary covers the first four years in a postwar history that has achieved a kind of classically tragic dimension. It's filled with hubris, miscalculation, willful blindness, betrayal, chaos and dismal failure, and Ferguson tells it all with clear, almost brutal concision.
After a quick summary of efforts made by the Bush White House to draw a link between 9/11 and Iraq — one sufficiently credible to justify a preemptive war — and crucial debates about troop levels, Ferguson jumps past the details of American bombing to the meat of the matter: the grievous errors made in the days immediately following the fall of Saddam Hussein and how those who knew better were powerless to stop them from being made. The first big mistake: the failure to declare martial law and stop the postwar sack of Baghdad, a move that would have reassured the Iraqi people that this war really was about them. But it was three fateful decisions made by L. Paul Bremer, the U.S. Administrator of Iraq and overseer of the U.S.-led occupation, that triggered catastrophe: halting the formation of an interim Iraqi government; the "de-Baathification" process that purged 50,000 Iraqis from their jobs and crippled the government, educational system and economy; and, most disastrously, the surprise disbanding of the entire Iraqi military and intelligence services — a move that not only put another 500,000 Iraqis out of work but created an angry counterforce that knew where Saddam kept his weapons and how to use them. Instead of stopping a postwar insurgency, Bremer created one, and his decisions turned Baghdad into a lawless no-man's-land where militias and guerrilla groups battle it out alongside kidnappers and common criminals.
Beyond the loss of some 4,000 American lives and nearly 100 times as many Iraqis, the tragedy of the occupation is that it didn't have to become the quagmire that it did. It's clear from Ferguson's interviews with the likes of Col. Paul Hughes and Ambassador Barbara Bodine that coalition forces in Iraq probably had the brains, brawn and will to work with the Iraqi people. But they were hamstrung by a small cadre of civilians in Washington — Donald Rumsfeld, Dick Cheney, Paul Wolfowitz, Condoleezza Rice — who spoke only among themselves before advising a president who couldn't even be bothered to read the one-page executive summaries real experts prepared for his benefit. The anger that fuels Ferguson's film is felt in nearly every frame, but it's best expressed in the final moments, when young lieutenant Seth Moulton — who saw too many of his fellow marines die in faraway places like Najaf — nearly breaks his careful composure as he refuses to believe that this terrible mess is the best America can do. leave a comment --Ken Fox