In the current debate over the Iraq war, Charles Ferguson’s debut documentary, No End in Sight, takes what is perhaps the most troubling position of all: the war could have gone right. Largely sidestepping questions about the justness of the war and focusing on the few months leading up to and immediately following the invasion, Ferguson pinpoints the mistakes that laid the groundwork for the current conflict. And while it’s commonplace to view Iraq’s violent civil strife as being just as inevitable as the discovery of WMDs was once believed to have been, Ferguson assembles a convincing group of talking heads — including General Jay Garner and Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage — who assert otherwise and lay blame accordingly.
For news-aware viewers, Ferguson’s basic argument will be familiar. Insufficient troop levels, the failure to stop Iraqi postwar looting, poor advance planning and the decision to disband the Iraqi military combined to create an active, deadly insurgency that the U.S. military was unequipped to handle. What makes Ferguson’s doc revelatory and necessary, however, is his gripping and exact detailing of these failures and his giving voice to the government officials (largely from the State Department) whose realistic counsel was deliberately ignored by Bush, Cheney and Rumsfeld.
With a Ph.D. in political science from MIT, Ferguson was well versed in the arcana of foreign-policy-speak, but before beginning No End in Sight he had never made a movie. Having achieved success in the technology field — in 1996 he sold his company Vermeer Technologies to Microsoft, which incorporated Vermeer’s FrontPage into its Microsoft Office software — he self-financed his film, bringing on a talented team headed up by executive producer Alex Gibney, whose own documentary on Iraq, Taxi to the Dark Side, is being released later this year. I sat down with Ferguson at New York’s Mercer Hotel to discuss making a first doc, post–Michael Moore political filmmaking and the future of Iraq. Magnolia Pictures opens the film in late July.
I first saw your film at Sundance this year, and I watched it again last night. I was surprised to discover that my initial memory of the film wasn’t entirely accurate. While I remembered very vividly the film’s depiction of the dysfunctional relationship between the policy makers in the Bush administration and the veteran State Department people, I also remembered it as an anti–Iraq war film. But watching it again last night, that latter memory seemed incorrect. The film seemed to be neither pro- nor anti-war. Rather, it seemed to say that whether you supported the war or not, the outcome could have been different. It didn’t have to go this badly. I’m very gratified to hear it because that was definitely my intention. I wanted to make a film that did not take a position on whether or not it was a good thing to use military force to depose Saddam Hussein. I wanted to make a film that was about what actually happened, and to show that what actually happened was not what needed to happen. And in fact [the film] might even appeal more to people who were for [the war], because it would show them, Look, you were betrayed; it didn’t have to be done this way.
Tell me about your decision to make the film. It’s your first film, and you come out of the software business. Why films? Why not write a book? Actually, I had the idea to make a film in part because I know a lot of the people who wrote the books. I’ve known George Packard [author of The Assassins’ Gate: America in Iraq] for 10 or 15 years. He and I used to play poker when I was a graduate student at MIT. What the people who wrote the books told me in 2003 and early 2004 was greatly at variance with the administration, and it was clear to me by early 2004 that horrendous mistakes had been made and that there was a high risk that this was going to turn out very badly. At that time I approached a number of people and said, “I think it’d be interesting to make a film about this.” These were serious people, and they all basically said the same thing, which was, It’s a great idea, but don’t do it for two reasons. One, it’s a difficult first film to make; you’ve never made a movie before, and this might not be the place to start. And the other thing they said, which turned out not to be true, was that 10 other more experienced people were going to be making this same movie. I waited a year and a half and nobody else was making this movie, and so, in mid- to late 2005, I said, “Goddamn it, I’m going to make this movie!”
What was your first step after this decision? I have a number of friends in the film world, and they put me in touch with other people, and one of the people that I spoke with was Alex Gibney. I had seen Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room and a film he made about the blues called Lightning in a Bottle, which I thought was a great film. We talked, and he agreed to help me. And then I started hiring people, and, as is often the case, my employees taught me my job. I was very blessed with the people that I was able to attract to work on it. And so I just started.
Many documentary makers begin their projects with huge question marks — subjects they hope to interview on camera, facts or events they need to uncover in order for their films to work. What was the success of your film dependent on? [Access] was a huge issue for me. And in that regard, quite by happenstance, our timing was good. For the first two years, even the first three years after the invasion of Iraq, nobody would talk — certainly not on the record. The journalists who wrote the books were able to get around that to some extent because, first of all, they spent years doing it, and second, they don’t have to put people on camera. They can also rely on anonymous sources. But filmmakers can’t do that. So when I started making the film, basically nobody would talk. But then the facade started to crack, and the first big crack was Lawrence Wilkerson, chief of staff to Colin Powell, who resigned in disgust. Shortly after he resigned, he made a very striking public speech about the administration and the war. After that, many more people started to come forward, and by the time we were finishing the film we had more people willing to talk than we could include. It was very late in the process that Richard Armitage, who had been deputy secretary of state, agreed to give us an interview. It was the first interview that he had given to anybody about this.
Why do you think yours was the first? I don’t know — maybe it was because of my background. He and I have a considerable number of mutual acquaintances. Maybe we just got lucky.
When you approached your interview subjects, what did you tell them you were doing? I was very straight. I said, “I’m doing a documentary about Iraq.” And frequently the question would come up, “Is this going to be like Michael Moore?” I said, “No, I have a Ph.D. in political science — this is going to be a serious film, and everything in it is going to be true. I’m going to take accuracy extremely seriously.” And that helped. It might not help at the box office, [laughs] but it helped get people to talk to me.
Did you begin the film with a certain thesis about the handling of the war, or was the filmmaking a process of discovery for you? Very much the latter. When I started making the film, I already knew that the occupation of Iraq was not exactly a shining success, but I was still quite staggered by what we discovered. People would tell me jaw-dropping things, things you really just couldn’t believe, on quite a regular basis. For two months most of the people running the occupation didn’t have telephones, didn’t have e-mail. Of the first 167 people who flew in, five spoke Arabic. It was crazy, and I had no idea that it was that bad.
The only person in the film representing the administration policymaker side is Walter Slocombe [Director of National Security and Defense in the Coalition Provisional Authority]. Why do you think all of those people you cite in the film turned you down? I think that by the time we approached them it was already clear to them that the war had been disastrously mismanaged and was going badly. And also I think that that was one place where my background worked against me. They knew that I was a serious guy, and that if I had a camera trained on them the questions were going to be rough.
You mentioned Michael Moore a moment ago. On the one hand he has popularized political documentary filmmaking and grown its audience exponentially. On the other hand, for documentary directors the success of his approach, with all of its editorializing and use of humor, must create an internal debate. Were you ever tempted to editorialize more than you do in your film in order to appeal to his audience? I made a very conscious decision to stay away from all of that. I think there are three things about Michael Moore’s films. One, they’re witty and entertaining. Two, they’re opinionated. I personally don’t mind that they’re opinionated, and I like that they’re entertaining. But the third thing about them is that they’re not always accurate. And I wanted [No End in Sight] to be totally accurate. Fahrenheit 9/11 makes some positive contributions and interesting points, but there’s also a lot of its critique that’s frankly bullshit. There’s this scene of this little Iraqi kid getting a haircut, and everybody in Iraq is supposed to be wonderful and happy until the bad Americans come. Well, that’s horseshit. Iraq was an awful place. My translator had been trained as an emergency room doctor and made seven dollars a month. That was typical. Another translator I used committed a capital crime in Iraq under Saddam Hussein: he used a Hewlett Packard LaserJet Printer. Saddam Hussein had decided that certain companies were inherently evil, because, I think, they did business with Israel, and if you used their equipment you were taken away and shot. [My translator] had heard that this was going to happen to him, and buried his LaserJet printer under six feet of dirt in his backyard so the secret police wouldn’t find it when they searched his house! Now, the one regret that I may have [about No End in Sight] is that I think that I could have made it entertaining and darkly witty in places without sacrificing accuracy. We didn’t do that because it didn’t seem to fit and in part just because of pressures of time. I wanted to get the film out fast.
You do it in a couple of places. There’s the story of the Georgetown student hired to design the Baghdad traffic grid, and you wind up cutting to that footage of the traffic jam and the cars turning the wrong way. That’s a very cinematic punch line. Yeah, in a couple of places we did it, but obviously not the way Moore does. He does it very successfully, and more power to him.
PAUL BREMER (LEFT) AND GENERAL JAY GARNER.
In the debate between Slocombe and Paul Hughes [former director of the Strategic Policy Office for the Coalition Provisional Authority in Iraq] over the soundness of the decision-making following CPA Head Paul Bremer’s replacing of General Jay Garner in Iraq, Slocombe has several awkward moments answering your questions. There’s one moment when you cut to him and there’s an extended pause before he even begins to speak. Hughes, however, is always dead on. Was that the way those two guys really were, or were you editing it... No, that’s the way they were. Paul Hughes is just a totally straight-ahead guy, one of the most decent human beings I’ve ever met. Slocombe’s a slimy guy. I grilled him for a total of five hours over two interviews, and we weren’t enjoying ourselves. I’m very surprised that he submitted himself to the second interview. By the time the second interview came, he knew that I knew what I was doing and that I’d done my homework. And if you’ve done your homework about that subject, then he doesn’t come off too well.
Why do you think he agreed to the second interview? I don’t know. Maybe part of him is ashamed. Maybe part of him wanted to confess. I really don’t know.
I noticed that you gave your security company and bodyguards front credits. I’m sure they deserved it more than many people who have front credits. Thank you. I had to fight with a couple of people to put [those credits in], but they kept me alive, and that’s kind of important.
Tell me about the decision to hire them. Deciding you need security is a really easy decision. [laughs] Trust me, you need security! So that took about a quarter of a second. Who to use, though, was very tough. The world of private security contractors is a complicated world, a secretive, dangerous and frequently unpleasant world. I checked out a lot of people and eventually settled on this Kurdish security firm with American top management — ex–Special Forces, primarily. Then, in addition to the firm, I hired a former Kurdish intelligence [agent] to be my personal bodyguard. He was with me all the time, day and night. When we went out of our compound, I went with a security detail of 10 heavily armed men in three armored cars. There were some times when I would go out very low-profile without the security detail. I would be dressed as an Iraqi, but there’d be six Iraqis walking near me but not with me, carrying field weapons. In those circumstances you can walk around Baghdad for maybe 15 to 20 minutes at a time, but you should never go back to the same place twice. And if someone nearby you uses a cell phone, you get out right then. Baghdad is dangerous.
Did you ever have a close call? Yes. No one tried to kill us, but the way that I [traveled] to Baghdad was through the Baghdad airport. It was closed for a week, which was a common occurrence, so after sitting in Turkey for a week we decided we would drive. We went in a convoy of four armored pickup trucks with machine gun turrets in the back, driving overnight from Irbil to Baghdad. On the drive, three times, our convoy had to stop because IEDs [improvised explosive devices] had either just gone off or had just been discovered immediately ahead of us. If that’s a representative experience of the average drive from Irbil to Baghdad, then that suggests that this is not a very safe country. Also, every time I met an Iraqi, even if it was somebody completely unconnected with security matters, I would ask them what their personal experiences had been. I’d ask them, Has anybody tried to kill you? Have you ever been kidnapped? Have any of your relatives or friends ever been kidnapped? Have any of your relatives or friends been killed? Everybody said yes. Everybody. The level of violence is clearly extremely high, much higher than the official numbers suggest.
I want to ask you about the resonance of the film’s title. Your film is coming out at a time at which some people are contemplating an end in sight for the Iraq occupation. What do you think is going to happen in the coming months? There’s a lot of posturing right now on both sides of the debate, but no one knows what’s going to happen. Whatever happens, it isn’t going to be good. I think we know that. But what’s being discussed in Congress is the withdrawal of American combat troops. There are a total of about 200,000 to 210,000 functionally military personnel in Iraq. There are 40,000 to 45,000 private military contractors and 160,000 U.S. armed forces. Of those U.S. armed forces, only about, I think, 35,000 are combat troops. So even if all of the combat troops are withdrawn, there’s still going to be over 100,000 American forces still in Iraq. What are they going to be doing? They’re going to be performing logistical functions, security functions, guarding convoys, trying to prevent the oil fields from being blown up, protecting the Green Zone, although the Green Zone is actually primarily protected now by hapless third-world soldiers — that was something that I wanted to put in the film but it didn’t fit. And nobody, even those people who pretend to be discussing or advocating withdrawal, nobody is talking about complete American withdrawal. I think that even very left-wing people, at least if they’re in Congress, if they’re involved in a serious way, understand that if we completely pulled out, there would be a bloodbath. So we’re stuck there for a while. And even if we were to pull out, there certainly wouldn’t be any end in sight for the Iraqis. I think there’s going to be a significant American military presence in Iraq for 20 to 30 more years. It’s very hard to see any way around that.
No one is advocating a complete withdrawal? Very few people, maybe Kucinich, but no mainstream political figure is advocating a complete American withdrawal. [EDITOR’S NOTE: Several weeks after this interview, Democratic candidate Bill Richardson called for a complete troop withdrawal from Iraq.] And I think that it’s very clear that if there was a complete American withdrawal, we’d see something that would look a lot more like Rwanda than what we currently see. Basically there would be a proxy war between the Iranians on one side and the Saudis on the other. Maybe the Saudis, the Egyptians, and the Jordanians on the other. And it wouldn’t be good for anybody. Now, that’s not to say that keeping American troops there is wonderful either. It’s not. It’s just that it’s a little bit better than the way things would otherwise be. And I don’t think that any of the parties are being as honest about this as they should be.
What was your own position in the debate during the run-up to the war? Well, in the debate about whether to use military force to remove Saddam, there were strange bedfellows on both sides. In favor of the war, there were the neocons but also the left-wing humanitarian interventionists.
The Christopher Hitchens crowd. Hitchens, Ignatieff, there were a number of them. On the other side, there was an equally strange alliance between people who were left wing and principled against the war, and then the utterly hardcore realists like Brent Scowcroft who were against the war purely in the most utilitarian and ruthless ways: Yes, [Saddam] is nasty, yes, he’s killing his citizens, but we don’t have to care. I found both those sides to be somewhat unappetizing, but if I had to put myself anywhere, I would say that I was leaning towards the humanitarian intervention [position]. I certainly had worries about how it would actually be done given who was doing it, but my worries were vast underestimates of what actually occurred. I was not nearly as worried as I should have been. I wasn’t remotely close. Going into the war, I thought, On a net basis this is probably going to come out okay, and boy, was I wrong. In retrospect, I regard myself as having been inexcusably naïve about [the outcome], because one thing that a Ph.D. in political science ought to teach you is to be skeptical. Don’t be for something until you really know what’s going on.
If the current debate could be begun again in a different light, what do you think should be said? Well, a good start would be apologizing. I mean that quite seriously, actually. Saying, Look, we really blew it here, this is really bad, and nothing that we can possibly do is going to make it perfect. We have some obligation to try to prevent the worst from happening, and there are various ways that we can try and envision doing that. People have discussed a multinational force that would gradually take over. There are problems with that, and some people don’t think that it would be a net improvement. I’m not equipped to say, but it’s worth exploring. Also, maybe a partial, incomplete, unofficial but nonetheless helpful partitioning of the country. But sometimes there’s no solution. In Northern Ireland it took 30 years before a new generation came to their senses and said, “Why are we doing this?” And I think it’s going to be like that here. Many Iraqis say that this generation is finished but that a generation from now, people are going to be tired of killing each other at some point.