WBUR’s On Point: Discussion with Charles Ferguson “about his award-winning new documentary "No End in Sight," about how Washington ran Iraq after the fall of Baghdad.”
Guests: Charles Ferguson, Director and Producer of "No End in Sight: The American Occupation of Iraq" (winner of the Sundance Film Festival special jury prize for documentary); and Drew Erdmann, former Director for Iran, Iraq and Strategic Planning at the National Security Council, former Coalition Provisional Authority Senior Advisor to the Iraqi Ministry of Higher Education.
On Point: The great machine of American government has many flaws. But it also has a lot of well-trained, well-educated man and women with real experience in things like post-war stabilization operations. In 2003, they were sent to Iraq for the most ambitious, high-risk mission of their lives. And then they say their bosses ignored virtually everything they had to say. A new documentary, “No End in Sight,” tells their story. Even if it was a mistake to invade Iraq in the first place, did the postwar mission have to go so desperately wrong? Was this really the best America could do? …Charles Ferguson, what is in this film that is different from what we’ve heard to this point about the war in Iraq?
Charles Ferguson: I tried as best I could to assemble a comprehensive view of what went wrong – of what happened, actually. And what happened, unfortunately, is largely a catalogue of what went wrong. Very few things went right. And to try and provide, in one place and in the duration of a film, an explanation for how Iraq came to be where it is now, and indeed where Iraq actually is now.
OP: You’re not a filmmaker. In fact, this was your very first effort. It’s getting extraordinary reviews and top prize at the film festival. So why did you – an MIT professor, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution – why did you want to make a movie?
CF: Well, in the first place I just love movies in a personal way ever since I was a child. I’ve had kind of a secret desire to make films for a long time. I’ve come to a point in my life where I had the opportunity to do that. I’d made some money and I had no immediate serious obligations. Then one night in 2004 I had dinner with George Packer who’s the journalist who writes for the New Yorker and who was just about to write what became a very well-known book about Iraq, “The Assassins’ Gate.” Over the course of three hours of conversation over dinner, George made it clear to me that what had happened in Iraq was dramatically different and dramatically worse than was generally understood – and certainly than the administration was portraying it. I thought someone had to tell the story. There are several very good books about the Iraq war, George’s among them. But the American public, for better or worse, doesn’t tend to read books in the same way that they watch films. And I felt it was important that there also be a film about this. Film does convey some things that books can’t.
OP: So you interviewed dozens of government insiders for the film, who were on the ground in Iraq during the reconstruction period. What did these high level military officers and civilian experts have to gain by speaking so frankly with you – and often so negatively – about their experiences there?
CF: I think most of these people felt an enormous sense of sadness and frustration and anger in some cases verging on desperation about what had happened, what they had seen, what they had been powerless to change, what they had tried so hard to change. I think for many of them it was kind of an act of catharsis. People were frequently very emotional when they were speaking with me…
OP: So. Set the table for this documentary with us. In the film you give us an historical reminder, actually. You say that during World War II the US spent two years preparing for the invasion of Germany. Give us an idea, from these interviews that you did, of how much time was spent -- not planning for the invasion of Iraq but for its reconstruction.
CF: It’s an astonishing story. There was a national security presidential directive, signed on January 20, 2003, which handed responsibility for postwar Iraq to Donald Rumsfeld at the Pentagon, itself an unprecedented decision. But what was even more extraordinary was that the organization that was supposed to run – and did run – postwar Iraq was not created until after than order was signed, less than two months before the invasion. And not only was that true, but when it was created there was nobody in it and so it started hiring people. When Barbara Bodine, for example, was taken from the Foreign Service to run 40% of postwar Iraq, she arrived at this organization in late March of 2003 and discovered that she didn’t have any staff, she didn’t have a secretary. When most people arrived there were no computers…
OP: … no telephones!…
CF: …no phones for a while. In fact, no telephones for the first several weeks of the occupation of Iraq. The organization that occupied Iraq for the first several weeks after the war entered Iraq in convoys of SUV’s, unarmored SUV’s. There were about 400 of these people in 160 unarmored SUV’s. Of those 400 people, fewer than a dozen spoke Arabic and they had between them 8 satellite phones. They did not have email. They did not have internet access. They had no idea who to contact to start running Iraq.
OP: And so what were the initial missteps, given that scene and given what they had to work with? What initially went wrong, first out of the gate?
CF: The first few things that went wrong were things that occurred before the war even began. The first, to which I just alluded, was the fact that the planning for the occupation of Iraq didn’t start until less than two months before the war. So there was no real opportunity to create a serious plan for how to run the country. The second mistake that had been made well before the war was that Donald Rumsfeld and Paul Wolfowitz at the Pentagon overruled the unanimous advice of the military and many people with military experience, including Colin Powell and Richard Armitage at the State Department, that the number of troops required for the occupation of Iraq was vastly greater than the number deployed. In fact initially Rumsfeld and Wolfowitz had argued for an invasion and occupation force of less than 100,000 people.
OP: That was still being debated within a month of going in.
CF: That’s correct.
OP: There’s seems to be a consensus among the military men and civilian leaders in the film that the lawlessness and the looting just after the invasion set the stage – led to everything that has been a problem since then. That all started in the first month in Iraq. Why? Why was that?
CF: Another extraordinary story. Looting doesn’t begin to cover it. That word cannot describe what happened in Iraq and what happened in Baghdad after Saddam was deposed. In fact, the looting started as soon as American troops entered Iraq. Every time they would advance, take a city, and Saddam’s military would retreat or surrender, looting broke out immediately. There weren’t enough troops to secure these areas. Rusted was pressing for fast movement to Baghdad. But for the three weeks before Americans reached Baghdad, they already knew and had witnessed massive looting all along the way. Then, when they reached Baghdad, deposed the regime, and took over the city, looting immediately reached epidemic proportions. You have to understand that this is a society that lived under a brutal dictatorship for over 20 years and that had lived under extremely severe economic sanctions for over a decade. The population had been reduced to very extreme poverty.
OP: Let’s listen to a clip… I want to play a piece from “No End in Sight.” This is a period when events are unfolding fast and furiously in Iraq. Military and civilian advisers are calling Washington, writing them memos, warning and advising. Meanwhile, the Secretary of Defense, Donald Rumsfeld told a different story to the Pentagon press corps.
Donald Rumsfeld: I picked up a newspaper today and I couldn’t believe it! I read eight headlines that talked about chaos, violence, unrest – and it just was henny-penny, the sky is falling!
Man’s voice: Just imagine the room, the suite, that we’re sitting in and all that you have is concrete walls. Everything is gone.
Woman’s voice: We’re talking people coming in with industrial cranes and walking off with parts of a power plant!
Donald Rumsfeld: Think what’s happened in our cities when we’ve had riots and problems and looting. Stuff happens!
Man’s voice: This was not just people stealing stuff from grocery stores. I mean, this was people chipping concrete walls into little pieces so they could the rebar out.
Donald Rumsfeld: The images you are seeing on TV, you’re seeing over and over and over and over, and it’s the same picture of some person walking out of some building with a vase.
Woman’s voice: I think that was probably the day we lost the Iraqis.
Donald Rumsfeld: And you think, “My goodness, were there that many vases?” [laughter from the press corps] “Is it possible there were that many vases in the whole country”
OP: Was it arrogance? Was it trying to skew the facts? What was that!
CF: There’s this cocktail – a furious, horrible cocktail – of arrogance, ideological rigidity, and also a massive dose of pure incompetence.
OP: We’re talking about the civilian and military experts sent to stabilize Iraq after the US invasion and how and why they failed, and who they hold responsible… Charles, I want to get into the three crucial, critical, pivotal decisions made by Paul Bremer who was running reconstruction on the ground in Iraq in the initial period after the invasion, as identified by your military and civilian experts in the film. The first was to stop the formation of the interim Iraqi government. The second was de-Baathification – which essentially purged 50,000 members of the Baath party, which created permanent unemployment and really crippled the Iraq government and the educational system in the country as stated in the film. But thirdly, the disbanding of the Iraqi army seemed by all accounts to be the most devastating decision of all. Can you tell us why?
CF: The disbanding of the army, the intelligence services, and the secret police threw half a million armed men into the streets with no severance pay and no notice. These were desperately poor people in many cases, often supporting not only themselves but also large extended families. And the earlier plan had been to recall the Iraqi military and use it to stabilize the country, guard its borders and begin reconstruction. Instead what happened was that these desperate men went around the country to large numbers of unguarded weapons depots and looted them and created the insurgency.
OP: Let me play another clip from the film. This is Colonel Paul Hughes describing some of the work that was going on, on the ground: “Whole battalions of the Iraqi army, names, numbers, offering to fall in under American commanders and stabilize the country. And yet, back in Washington, the White House was not listening.”
Narrator: Even more remarkable than the decision to disband the army was how that decision was made. Secretly, over a single week, by a few men in Washington, DC, who had never been to Iraq. They did not consult with military commanders in Iraq, the Joint Chiefs of Staff, ORHA, the State Department, the CIA, the National Security Council, or even – apparently – the president of the United States. Walter Slocombe and Paul Hughes were reinterviewed in order to reconstruct the events leading to the dissolution of the army.
Col. Paul Hughes: These guys called themselves “the independent military gathering.” The independent military gathering had 100,000 on the 9th of May – this was a nationwide effort. I wanted the printouts, I wanted the disks, and they gave them to me, and I took them back with me to ORHA. I said, “Here we go.” And I told Walt and his crew that I’d got these things, they’re here waiting for you.
OP: So Paul Bremer made this decision to disband the army during his first days in Iraq and really, according to the colonel, without consulting anybody. How can a decision like that be made by one or two or even a handful of people without greater consultation?
CF: That’s a very good question! These people – including Bremer and Walter Slocombe – neither of them had ever served in the military. Neither of them had ever been to Iraq. They had no experience with postwar reconstruction. They had no experience running an occupation organization. And they took this enormous, sweeping, horrific decision. In Bremer’s case, he made this decision on May 9, his 9th day of work at the Pentagon. He left for Iraq the following day, arrived in Baghdad on May 12th. And this decision came as a complete shock to the military commanders on the ground, to the people running the occupation authority, to the State Department, to the National Security Council. We have people in the film who say that. And hearing them say that – hearing former deputy secretary of State Richard Armitage tell me that the way he learned about the dissolution of the Iraqi army was that one day Jerry Bremer announced that he’d disbanded the army. My jaw dropped!
OP: I’d like to add another voice to the conversation. Joining us now from Austin, Texas, is Drew Erdmann. He’s one of those experts we’ve been talking about. He was on the first civilian convoy into Iraq in April, 2003, and was made responsible for restoring Iraq’s universities. He is a scholar who has studied the history of other great postwar stabilization operations. He’s worked in the NSC under Condoleezza Rice, and at the State Department. He was later an adviser to the Iraq Study Group. …Drew, what is your reaction to what you’re hearing and frankly to what you saw in the film?
Drew Erdmann: I found the film incredibly powerful – and that’s an individual assessment. Since 2003, I had not read any of the books on Iraq. And I had not sat down and watched anything for 100 minutes recounting that period of time. So that was a very emotional experience watching it again kind of unfold before me with many familiar faces. I knew most of the people who were interviewed.
OP: As an expert from an historical perspective having studied this, give us a sense of what you’re responsible for as an occupying force in a country after you invade it.
DE: I believe under international law, you are responsible for basic law and order as well as an orderly transition to a stable, homegrown regime. And in doing so, not fundamentally disrupting the existing domestic structures of the government. So the first and foremost responsibility is actually to provide essential security for the population.
OP: So “essential security,” but it’s not just securing streets and getting the guns out of the hands of the bad guys. It’s also generally about infrastructure of an organized society from functioning traffic lights to the payroll of your civil servants to schools and universities. There’s a lot here!
DE: Exactly. Those are all the things that come with it that are necessary in order to have a stable society and a stable transition to an indigenous, stable political structure.
OP: So when you heard about the disbanding of the Iraq army and some of these other things – the non-formation of the interim Iraqi government, the de-Baathification, the no physical bureaucratic structure left, the looting that was going on. What’s your sense about what went wrong?
DE: Well, again, my point of view as someone on the ground operating in a very tense environment without a lot of sleep, I was focused mostly on the task ahead of me. Which was, in my case, helping to restart the university system of Iraq. I will say that I absolutely agree with the film’s portrayal of 1) on the one hand, when we entered Iraq, I think the film does a very good job of emphasizing that many Iraqis were genuine hopeful that there would be a transition to something better. There was, I think, a window of opportunity and receptivity to what may come. But also, without a doubt, the corrosive impact of the lawlessness that descended upon Iraqi society cannot be underestimated. It shook the confidence of Iraqis in the Coalition, but it also helped accelerate the forces within Iraqi society, pitting different groups of Iraqis against one another. So in that period of time we were making progress, but at the same time you could begin to feel the insurgency beginning to reconstitute itself and get traction.
OP: Charles Ferguson – how was it, based on your interviews and the work that you did in Iraq and the interviews that you did for the film – how was it that the insurgency gained ground so quickly and we got caught by surprise? We had no control over it.
CF: We made these horrific mistakes. Iraq’s unemployment rate was estimated to be over 40% when we entered the country. The first thing we did was angered and disenfranchised and rendered unemployed over half a million men with weapons experience and access to weapons. And then we didn’t guard the weapons that were awash throughout Iraq. And soon – I’d say within 60-90 days of the beginning of the occupation – you could buy enough military hardware to outfit a small army in any town square in Iraq.
OP: Paul Hughes, in the film, said the Iraqi army commanders were essentially waiting for a plan. Officers would come to him at US headquarters and say, “Here we are! Here are my men! We’re ready to go!” And they were turned down. And then, of course, they had access to these unguarded weapons stashes, and it just rolled on from there.
CF: Yes, it did. Yes, it did. And in many cases people joined the insurgency for purely financial reasons. When I was in Iraq, my translator was a former emergency room doctor who, as an emergency room doctor under Saddam’s regime, had been living on $7 a month. This was a desperately poor society. So for somebody who had already been angered by everything the US had done, to be offered $500 to plant an IED, that’s a fortune. So there were many reasons. Another reason, by the way, is that in the months before the way, Saddam opened all of Iraq’s prisons and released 100,000 common criminals into the streets. These people started committing kidnappings. They would often perform acts on behalf of the insurgency, purely for money. They began forming large criminal gangs and kidnapping became a large-scale industry. There’s a complicated relationship between ordinary crime for money and the insurgency in Iraq that’s reminiscent in some ways of the narco-traffickers in South America, for example, who have private armies or are linked with communist insurgencies and so on. So I would say within six months of our alienating the population, there was an enormous and well-funded insurgency underway.
OP: I want to play another clip from the film. Throughout the movie, you get a real, palpable sense of the anger and frustration of people in government, our civil servants, that they felt they were talking to a brick wall. There’s one really startling account where the president’s own National Intelligence Council presents him with a one-page document in 2004 warning that civil war was erupting. Paul Hutchins, a member of that board, realizes that the president did not read that single page warning.
Narrator: Beginning in 2004, the National Intelligence Council, a powerful, 12-person committee that sits on top of America’s intelligence community, conducted several assessments of the growing insurgency which it presented to the White House and senior administration officials.
George Bush: The CIA laid out, uh, a… several scenarios saying life could be lousy, life could be okay, life could be better.
Paul Hutchins: The president hadn’t read it. Not even the one-page summary over which we worked so hard to produce a single readable page.
OP: I think what you hear from these people is that the Iraq Project had a very small number of people assigned to it – four to six people making all the important decisions. And none of them say that President Bush was in that circle. Is that right?
CF: It seems that the president was remarkably passive and disengaged for the first 18 to 24 months of the war and occupation combined. Over and over again people told me, in the interviews that I filmed, that they were in briefings, that they presented briefings to the National Security Council, to the president, to the cabinet, and there would be recommendations typically developed by Rumsfeld or Bremer. And the president would say “yes,” and ask very few questions. Never criticized anything, never read documents, and basically let Vice President Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld, Paul Wolfowitz and L. Paul Bremer run everything. And they apparently had enormous confidence in their own judgment, disastrously…
OP: … And they all shared, as you say in the film, similar characteristics.
CF: Well, one characteristic that they shared, which I think had a disastrous effect on all this, was that although they had remarkable confidence in their own judgment, they actually had very little relevant experience. The only person in the top senior group of top administration officials involved in the war who had ever served in the military at all was Defense Secretary Rumsfeld who’d been a Navy pilot in the 1950’s but had never seen combat. None of the others – Condoleezza Rice, Paul Wolfowitz, Vice President Cheney, L. Paul Bremer… the president … had ever served in active duty military and had never seen combat. It was this disastrous combination of enormous self-confidence and very little personal knowledge.
OP: …I’d like to go to the phones… Cathy from Williamsville, New York.
Cathy: …I’ve started to read about Islam. I’m sure the people who were not with Saddam were very, probably, relieved to see us coming like the French were in World War II. But do you think it’s possible, now that you’ve been over there, and this ideology did declare war on us… how will we defend ourselves? If it’s blown in Iraq, and we’ve not done the right things to bring any kind of peace and stability over there, what do we do to protect ourselves? Now that you’ve been over there and seen that? And they’re not going to stay over there, the radicals. They are going to here. What should so do, from all the people you’ve talked to?
OP: Charles, do you want to tackle that?
CF: It’s an enormously difficult question and indeed if it proves impossible to stabilize Iraq and provide it with a reasonable government and a reasonable level of security, then we face the very real prospect that it’s going to turn into another Afghanistan, another Pakistan, a very disorganized and violent place which will be a home and a breeding ground for terrorists, some of whom have European passports and can therefore travel relatively freely. It is indeed a very frightening possibility. In part for that reason, most of the people with whom I speak about these matters feel that it’s very like that, as a practical matter, it’s going to be necessary for the US to maintain a substantial military presence in Iraq – probably for decades. Just to keep some minimal level of military security and counter-terrorism active in the area.
OP: …What we’ve been talking about this hour is, at heart, the shame, anger, and worry that a small army of Americans carry around with them today – the experts who tried to stabilize Iraq and why they think they failed so badly. Why wouldn’t the leadership in Washington listen to its own people? Did Cheney, Rumsfeld, Paul Bremer and the president ignore their own experts? What were they really trying to do? …Drew, I want to turn to you for a moment because we hear in the film a lot about these men surrounding the president, men he relied on quite heavily for decision-making, and you speak from a historical perspective about presidents having to shake up their inner circle. You tell the story of President Eisenhower firing some of his West Point friends during World War II and the significance of that. Can you remind us about that?
DE: It’s a broader observation about the need for accountability. I can’t speak to the inner circle of the president for obvious reasons – I wasn’t there for those key decisions. But as a general observation, at different points in our history when we have encountered challenging situations related to warfare or post-conflict situations, people have been held accountable. And example that I would use is that Dwight David Eisenhower in 1942-43, when he was in charge of the post-conflict stabilization of North Africa, things were not going particularly well. He recognized number one in the combat phase that he was going to be held accountable and he fired some of his former associates and friends. But also he recognized that if he did not perform well in North Africa in the post-conflict phase, he himself may be relieved of command. And that kind of clarity tends to focus the mind.
OP: Troy is calling from Boston.
Troy: …You mentioned something which has been particularly chafing to me – the fact that none of the individuals involved in the decision-making process had prior military experience with the exception of Rumsfeld. And he saw no action. What I don’t understand is the dynamic that prevented Colin Powell, Secretary of State at the time, from participating in the decision-making process in light of the fact that he was the individual that prosecuted the first Gulf war?
CF: Well, to a very large extent, State Department was frozen out of discussions and decision-making, both in the planning for the war and also in the subsequent occupation phase. In fact, Donald Rumsfeld ordered General Jay Garner, the first leader of the Iraq occupation, not to employ people in the State Department who had been involved in the Future of Iraq Project, which was a large study that the State Department commissioned on postwar Iraq. Colin Powell and his deputy, Richard Armitage, did speak up to some extent and did express concerns about troop levels, but, to a large extent, they were ignored. It has to be said also that Colin Powell and Richard Armitage did not speak up loudly enough to endanger their jobs. I regret having to say that, but there is some question about whether they fully expressed what they felt and whether they might have been concerned about losing the ear of the president and also losing their jobs if they’d been completely forthright. But there’s also the question that they did speak up to some extent and they were simply brushed aside.
OP: Brushed aside, but they were often surprised by the decisions that were made on the ground. They didn’t know about them!
CF: Yes. Often they were not consulted at all in advance. When they learned of something, they would occasionally express concerns. They had some concerns about the looting. They expressed concerns about troop levels. I think that they expressed some concerns about the dissolution of the army. The military certainly did. There’s a remarkable clip in the film of General McKernan, the leader of American ground forces at the time, describing his reaction to the dissolution of the army. But when they expressed those concerns, Rumsfeld and Cheney simply did not listen.
OP: Here’s another clip from the film… Advisers kept asking for more people on the ground, but often they were getting the wrong people. Here you can hear Col. Paul Hughes and then Ray Jennings of Georgetown University talking about the young people with no qualifications but all the right connections coming to Baghdad to help run the country!
Col. Paul Hughes: We were getting new people in, after Bremer showed up – kids, right out of college, you know, they had a baccalaureate degree, just got it the previous spring, daddy made a contribution to the campaign so the kid gets a chance to go over and experience some fun travel and adventure. Pretty boys, that’s what I called them. They sat around Bremer’s front door and did nothing.
Male voice: During the course of my time, when I was in the Green Zone in the palace, I bumped into one of my students. Just graduated. I asked her what she was doing. And she said, Well, she couldn’t believe her luck on being asked to do the traffic plan for the city! And I asked her if she had any training in municipal planning, and she said no.
OP: Drew Erdmann, being and expert and yourself working on the ground in Iraq, your response when you hear something like that?
DE: Well, I think one thing people need to remember is that I think there are elements in what we just heard which are certainly true. But there are also, throughout the occupation period, there were consistently high level, skilled professionals also there. So I think sometimes in the popular mind, there’s an exaggerated impression of some of the people who had come over with very little background and very little experience. There certainly were some. There’s no denying it. Nonetheless, it’s good to remember there were professional people from USAID, professional people from the State Department as well as the military, Treasury, and others. I would note that there were actually some successes. [laughs] We often forget that.
OP: Yes. What did we do right?
DE: One of the success stories and I would argue there were two. One is that there was extensive prewar planning for the humanitarian relief of Iraq. We may forget that there was a fear that there would be mass dislocations of refugees. There was actually coordination with NGO’s about how to handle that, prepositioning of equipment. Luckily, that did not happen. But there was extensive planning and preparation for that. The other operation I think people totally neglect is that the US Treasury had a very successful effort of stabilizing the currency of Iraq. People forget that there were actually two currencies: one in the Kurdish zone, and one down south. Through the Treasury Department’s plan, that was stabilized and Iraq managed to transition to a unified currency, all without inflation – which was absolutely incredible! And if you think about what could have happened in Iraq, imagine the situation with hyperinflation in place, a total disintegration of the economy. I always remind people, Iraq can get worse!
OP: …Jamil is calling from Norwich, Massachusetts.
Jamil: … Unfortunately, I feel very disappointed there is an arrogance and inappropriate hubris on the part of this administration in understanding what is needed. A lot of people, including myself, tried to advise in various capacities. I’m an Iraqi expatriate and I work here. But people just did not want to listen. By that I mean people – Rumsfeld, whatever, Cheney, Wolfowitz… And unfortunately we are paying a very, very heavy price for this hubris. And that’s not uncommon. I think it occurred in Vietnam as well. Something that we really need to learn as a society. When things don’t go well, we need to have an open mind.
OP: Jamil, thank you. I think in the film, Charles Ferguson, what struck me from these insider accounts wasn’t just about foreign diplomacy. There seemed to be a consensus that described an arrogance, a lack of understand, or a blatant disregard for basic humanity. Instead of going in as a partner to these people, our policies set them against us.
CF: They certainly had that effect. It’s complicated. I think partially it was arrogance. I think that partially it was a blindness that came from this overwhelming sense that obviously we’re right and obviously everybody’s going to agree with us when they see the miraculous things that we’ve done for them. And I think that there’s also, to some extent, there was this sense that well, you know, we own the place. We just defeated Saddam’s army. We occupied the country. If we do something that somebody doesn’t like, well, too bad for them! They can’t do anything about it! I think there was an element of that as well.
OP: More from the movie, “No End in Sight.” From a military perspective now. Here is Seth Moulton. He’s a lieutenant in the US Marines who served in Iraq. In the movie, he has his own stories to tell about trying to get it right in Iraq and discovering that nothing he and his men can do is enough. And to this day he carries shame and anger around with him.
Seth Moulton: And are you telling me that’s the best America can do? Don’t tell me that! Don’t tell the Marines who fought for a month in Najav that! Don’t tell the Marines who are fighting every day in Falluja that’s the best America can do! That makes me angry.
OP: That’s at the end of the movie, Charles. Is that sort of the general sense? That that’s the best America can do?
CF: Many people felt that. Many felt just this enormous sense of sadness and frustration that they see so many good, competent, committed, well-intention people in this country who were ready to do what would have been necessary to make this work. Even people who were opposed to the war. Many of the people who participated in the film – and who participated in the occupation – had opposed the war initially. But they nonetheless felt that – if it was done well – good things could come from it. And then they saw this disaster unfold. And there’s this enormous sense of sadness that we’ve ruined a country and that we’ve also given the world a very sad and hopefully distorted sense of what America is like.
OP: Calling from Melrose, Massachusetts. Andrew:
Andrew: …I saw the film on Friday in New York City and I thought it was an amazing film. I hope people watch it. I just wanted to bring up the part of the film where it was said that the National Museum and the archives were destroyed. The archives and National Museum might be national heritage, but it’s also a global one. I think whoever is responsible for allowing such an atrocity to happen should be held responsible. I was wondering if you could say something about how, exactly the Museum and archives were destroyed. How could America let that happen?
CF: This is something that I believe Drew was involved with himself.
Drew: Yes, I was. …It’s referenced in the movie that the civilians and ORHA put together a list of priorities to be dealt with by the military. I was the person who drafted that list. And it is true that a variety of sites were highlighted. I believe #1 on the list were the National Museum. One part of the story that people need to remember is that certain things were identified as priorities. What happened was there was a basic breakdown at time in coordination between the civilian side of the operation and the military. So it’s not through deliberate action at all. It was actually that things were identified in advance but through bureaucratic and organizational complexities – where the military, I was subsequently told, was focused on war fighting. And therefore some of these issues about what to do after that transition did not receive the priority. I can remember being told that directly by one of the military officers that was involved in this process. And so I think there are these organizational dynamics of the complexity of the US government that, regrettably, some problems are identified and action is not taken against them to solve that problem. Until, perhaps, it’s too late.
CF: I do have to add something to that. It’s extremely clear, from the interviews I conducted, that the reason the military didn’t do anything about the historical sites, the cultural sites – and many other things, including stopping the looting –- is that Donald Rumsfeld told them not to.
OP: Ambassador Bodine in the film says that it was those first couple of weeks when, essentially, the physical structure of the country was being destroyed. That Iraqis felt like, this isn’t really about us. And many hearts and minds were lost at that point.
OP: What’s your sense, having written, and directed, and produced this film? What’s your own personal analysis generally speaking of what happened in this reconstruction? What went wrong, based on what you’ve learned?
CF: [long sigh] Perfect storm, you know? The 9/11 tragedy gave the political right to do what it wanted, and a small number of people who had enormous power high jacked the machinery of this country. And they used it to inflict their ideas on another society. And we’re going to be paying for it for decades.
OP: Drew Erdmann, I give you the last word.
DE: I think it is a tragedy what happened. And I think one thing the film does extremely well is to capture again the pain of those who worked on it, across the US government as well as the Iraqis who strived to make a better outcome in an extremely demanding situation. We will remember this for as long as we live.