“Don’t Tell Me That This is the Best America Can Do”

Last year I got in touch with a friend who had backed Alibris in its very early days. At the time he invested, he warned me that he could be “pathologically intense” and he had occasionally proven his point. A man with Twain’s “pen warmed up in hell”, he had written a book that had left him toxic in certain Silicon Valley precincts. In the course of briefly catching up, he mentioned that he had spent an impressive sum of money on personal security during the last month.

“Doing what?”

“I am making a movie. In Baghdad. About the war. I wrote it and I’m directing and producing it.”

Investor. Friend. Baghdad. Toxic. War. Pathologically intense. I confess that this did not strike me as a winning combination. Charles Ferguson is an exceptionally smart, entrepreneurial, and, yes, intense guy. After grad school in political science, he
published provocative articles and books about technology businesses. In the mid 90s, he started a software company with fellow MIT grad Randy Forgaard and named it Vermeer Technologies after his favorite Dutch painter.
They released their signature product, FrontPage, in 1996 and were promptly acquired by Microsoft. The irony of this was not lost on those who read Charles’ frequent criticisms of Gates & Co. Charles would have likely sold his Microsoft stock on principle, but the terms of the deal required that he hold it for three years. During this time, the stock roughly tripled, so Charles became comfortably rich.

The title of his book about his experiences, High Stakes, No Prisoners: How I Won My David and Goliath Battle in Silicon Valley — a Winner’s Tale of Greed and Glory in the Internet Wars says it all: the book is a tell-all expose of the foibles of Silicon
Valley’s princes (even though Vermeer was based in Massachusetts, not California). Written as a trash-talking victory lap, he declares the Valley a place where “one finds little evidence that the meek shall inherit the earth”, dishes Oracle founder and CEO Larry Ellison “severely warped”, and generally gets a load of invective off of his chest.

Amazon compared the book to having lunch with a co-worker where you suddenly find yourself listening to “a savage stream of unflattering assessments of bosses, wicked gossip, and the-emperor-has-no-clothes analysis of your industry”.

Ferguson spent the next few years writing and investing (this Tech Review article on Google struck me as brilliant at the time and has stood up very well). Still, it was not necessarily comforting to picture him wandering around a war zone with a camera followed by guys with AK-47s covering his backside. Although he might be safer in Baghdad than parts of Palo Alto, this latest entrepreneurial venture seemed truly high stakes, no prisoners. It seemed likely that it would turn out extraordinarily well or end disastrously.
Ferguson sought help from Alex Gibney, the screenwriter-director of the award-winning “Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room”.

“It was the weirdest experience,” says Gibney, who got a call from Ferguson out of the blue in late 2005. “He had never made a film before. He’d invented a Web construction program and sold it for a zillion dollars. He was a political science professor. He knew a lot of people in the foreign-policy arena. He’d done some writing. He wanted to do a film about the occupation of Iraq. He came to New York, and we discussed it. The subject was important. ‘Would you help me?’ I gingerly went forward: ‘Let’s see how it goes.’ ”
Charles, whose voice is in the film but who keeps himself behind the camera, describes how he decided to make the film here:

Eventually an email arrives announcing that the film had been finished and had been accepted for showing at the Sundance Film Festival. Remarkable. Several weeks later I glance up at CNN in an airport and see that No End in Sight won best documentary at Sundance and received a Special Jury Prize. Amazing. The movie has been picked up for limited but decent national distribution. It is out and now enjoys a rare “A-” average from both professional reviewers and viewers on Yahoo! Movies. In the critical consensus of American Film Reviewers, major film reviewers around the country rank it #5 out of sixty or so movies currently playing. Having now seen it, I am confident that the film will surely contend for an Oscar (postscript: it won Best Documentary).

This is wonderful — and at some level completely extraordinary. So tonight I took the whole family to see it. (After all, if there is no end in sight, the kids may inherit this one).

No End in Sight is a cool-headed, devastating film that succeeds for at least three reasons. First, Ferguson interviews mainly Republicans. This is not Michael Moore playing adolescent poseur with his own camera. It is a lucid, relentlessly factual view of a peacekeeping effort that has been as incompetent as the warmaking effort was brilliant. Charles designed his film to reach across partisan lines — something that few political films even attempt.
Ferguson, like most of humanity, sits comfortably to the right of Michael Moore in any case. He was sympathetic to using force to remove Saddam Hussein and spends little time worrying about the origins of the war. You hardly hear a word about bogus WMDs; his focus is the execution of the occupation. He interviews Bush Administration insiders at length, including Secretary of State Colin Powell’s Deputy Richard L. Armitage and his Chief of Staff, Lawrence Wilkerson. We quickly understand the disastrous consequences of the Bush directive that gave control of post-war Iraq to a Pentagon in the thrall of Ahmed Chalabi. Chalabi was the exiled founder of the Iraqi National Congress whom neocons dubbed “the George Washington of Iraq” even though he was wanted for embezzling nearly $300 million through a bank he had created in Jordan.

Ferguson gets access to senior military leaders who were in Iraq during the critical early months including Col. Paul Hughes, a strategic planner for the Coalition Provisional Authority, Jay Garner, the retired lieutenant general who served as head of the Organization of Recovery and Humanitarian Assistance in Iraq, and Barbara Bodine, ambassador in charge of Baghdad. These military leaders and Bush Administration officials repeatedly describe the disastrous and occasionally comic lack of preparation for the occupation. Teams were frequently assigned only a few weeks before they were expected to arrive in country and perform vital work. Barbara Bodine describes arriving in Baghdad without staff, security, or telephones, noting that “there truly were no plans.” Ferguson spends time on the ground spent outside the Green Zone (it is perhaps notable that Charles thanks Falcon Security prominently in the opening credits, not in mousetype at the end).

Charles gives the authors of several books on Iraq a chance to summarize their arguments: Nir Rosen (” In the Belly of the Green Bird”), James Fallows (” Blind Into Baghdad”), Yaroslav Trofimov (” Faith at War”), Samantha Power (” Problem from Hell”), and George Packer (” The Assassins’ Gate”). Packer’s experience in Baghdad reportedly inspired Ferguson to make the film. (Charles inexplicably shoots Packer from below while seated in some kind of stairwell with lighting that deeply shadows his face. This gives the impression that Packer is either an oracle or has enemies as vicious as those chasing Omar Fekeiki, an Iraqi who managed the Washington Post’s Baghdad office who could well need the anonymity his back lighting gives him.)

The second reason the film works is that it is rigorously fact-based and focuses on what many analysts have concluded were the Bush administrations three most catastrophic decisions:

The decision to neither declare martial law, empower an Iraqi government, nor prevent massive destruction, aka “looting”. “Looting” is a completely inadequate term for what took place in Iraq. It suggests poor folks grabbing groceries in the wake of a riot or disaster. In Iraq, looters salted the earth, disassembling entire buildings for their rebar and copper. “Looters” drove forklifts and used industrial cranes. They disassembled not only priceless museums but entire factories. Iraqis trashed their communications systems, information assets of all kinds, computer and teleco infrastructure, office furniture, and books. “The greatest mystery of post-war Iraq involves…. why the U.S. didn’t do anything to control the looting because in a way, everything that’s been a problem since then started in that first month,” noted James Fallows.

The decision to pursue radical “de-Baathification”, meaning to prevent any member of Sadaam’s former Baath Party from holding public sector employment. Since the private sector consists roughly of butchers, bakers, and candlestick makers, this step removed anyone with technical, leadership, or teaching skills from the economy. It disenfranchised exactly the people that were most vital to rebuild the country. And these were the country’s thought leaders — meaning that as each was told they had no future in Iraq, they influenced dozens of others.

The breathtakingly stupid and enormously consequential decision to dissolve the Iraqi military. Without this decision, there is a chance that you could repair the first bad decision and rescind the second. But the decision to humiliate hundreds of thousands of men trained at arms with ready access to Sadaam’s enormous weapon’s caches unleashed the insurgency and turned Iraq over to sectarian militia associated with extremist mullahs.

The film lays these decisions out calmly, but also shows them to be the result of shocking ignorance, willful incompetence, and an impeachable disregard for American interests. If George Bush were working for Iran, it would be hard to come up with a better course of action than the one he and Rumsfeld directed. If your goal was to create a vacuum for Islamic thugs like Muqtada al-Sadr, you would start with these three steps. You would create a huge void, knowing that it would be filled by the last remaining institution in society: Shiite and Sunni militias and mullahs. These three decisions would guarantee anarchy, civil war, and ultimately genocide.

The final reason that No End in Sight works is that Ferguson orchestrates three sets of contrasting voices into a powerful chorus. One group of voices are the authors. The film uses them as background narrative and as teachers who accompany the audience through the film. Packer and Samantha Power of Harvard are especially effective in this role. One wonders if Charles considered using Thomas Ricks, the Washington Post military editor and author of Fiasco — still one of the best books on the failed occupation.

The second part of the chorus is current or former Bush Administration officials, most of whom bemoaned the tendency of the administration to completely ignore the deep knowledge and experience of military, diplomatic and technical professionals in favor of the blind certainty of political loyalists. Ferguson does not limit his interviews to disaffected professionals from State. He all but fillets Walter Slocombe, the incompetent Pentagon official who acquiesced to the firing of the Iraqi army without even visiting the country.

He tells us again the stories of Republican Party operatives (including clueless students just out of college) being put in charge of sensitive or complex areas of post-war administration for six months before returning home. And we hear the Deputy Secretary of State detail a decision making process that completely excluded the part of the American government consisting of people with expertise, experience, and language skills relevant to Iraq.

The third voice in the movie comes from soldiers. It starts quietly, but tears you apart by the closing scene. The contrast between warrior and bureaucrat, remorseful or not, is palpable and from the heart. We meet all too briefly First Lieutenant Ann Gildroy, who joined the Marines out of Georgetown Foreign Service School a month before 9/11. We hear from two men nearly killed by IEDs: Hugo Gonzales, an Army Field Artillery Gunner from Puerto Rico and David Yancey, an MP who served in the 155th Combat Team. Both men were and are badly injured; both are trying to find meaning in their sacrifice and that of their comrades.

Most memorably however, we hear from Marine Lieutenant Seth Moulton. They don’t make many guys like this — but the ones they make end up United States Marines. (They also often end up in public life, and Moulton today is a well-regarded Congressman from Massachusetts with a strong future). Moulton grew up in the old whaling town of Marblehead, Massachusetts and attended Andover — one of America’s most elite prep schools. Then Harvard, where he was a physics student, crew member, and organ player. His classmates selected him to give the oration at their 2001 commencement (his best line: “When you’re damned if you do and damned if you don’t; always do.”) Moulton thought about a career on Wall Street, but decided to join the Marines.

“I have a degree in physics, but I knew I didn’t want to spend my life in a lab, I wanted to do some sort of service… We can talk a lot about what we wish we did in the past and the kind of world we’d like to have for the future, but this is not just a question of what we want for tomorrow. It’s a question of what we’re willing to do today.”

Moulton deployed to Kuwait in January 2003 and fought with the First Marine Regiment in the attack on Baghdad. In Hillah, Moulton oversaw Iraq’s largest-circulation newspaper and started a television channel and a radio station with his translator (you can see some clips from the Seth and Mohammed show here). In 2004, Moulton led his platoon into combat with the Mahdi militia of Muqtada al-Sadr in the Sadr City area of Baghdad and in the city of Najaf. (He described his experiences to NPR and reflects in the NYT on the kinds of soldiers we need. The combat photos in this post are of Moulton and his platoon during in the assault on Najaf).

Moulton has more formal education than most Marines, but like many front line officers seems focused and incapable of guile. He is the kind of soldier men trust with their lives. Having helped document the treasonous incompetence of the US occupation, Moulton takes the final word of the film and it burns long after you leave the theater.

Looking straight at the camera and speaking calmly, he asks “You’re telling me that this is the best America can do?” “No way. Don’t tell me that. That makes me angry.”