2016 is a strangely appropriate year to release a documentary about the war in Iraq. Nearly half a decade after the last American combat troops officially withdrew from the country, Iraq and the surrounding region remains marred in the political infighting and sectarian violence that erupted soon after Saddam fell. Meanwhile, recent attacks by affiliates of the Iraqi-born Islamic State have rocked the Western world, raising the prospect of more to come. And of course, despite official claims that America’s combat mission in the Middle East is over, U.S. boots are back on the ground. The Iraq War is far from being won.
All of this is to say that the 78 minutes of uncensored combat footage compiled in Michael Ware’s documentary, “Only The Dead See The End Of War,” which premieres on HBO on March 28, is still very relevant today. Filmed over the course of Ware’s tenure as a TIME and CNN war correspondent in Iraq, “Only The Dead” is a brutally honest, and necessary, summary of a conflict most Americans are still struggling to make sense of, even as we are being drawn back in for round two.
Ware arrived in northern Iraq on the eve of the invasion in 2003. He stuck around for the next seven years, during which time he embedded with Western forces across the country, and occasionally filmed behind enemy lines. The documentary begins under mortar fire in Kurdistan, and the combat only picks up steam as Ware makes his way through post-Saddam Baghdad, the Second Battle of Fallujah, and then Ramadi, where U.S. Marines are locked in a running gun battle with Abu Musab al-Zarqawi’s suicidal army. If you fought in Iraq, this is a rare opportunity to give the civilians in your life an unfiltered glimpse at what that experience was really like.
“I can understand that for any veteran this is not an easy film to watch,” Ware told Task & Purpose in an interview on March 22, the day ISIS bombs killed 31 people and wounded more than 300 in Brussels. “It’s going to bring back more than any other film has done.”
Task & Purpose spoke with Ware about the legacy of the Iraq War, terrorism in Europe, and how nearly a decade of combat shaped his worldview.
Are you surprised by what happened today in Brussels?
No, of course I’m not surprised by what happened today in Brussels. What happened today in Brussels is part of the new normal. Isn’t this what we’ve been living with now? Isn’t this what Europe has been living with? To those of us who actually remembered that a few days ago was the 13th year anniversary of the Iraq invasion, in some kind of perverse way none of this is a surprise.
Do you see a link between that attack and the invasion of Iraq?
Yes, I draw a direct line between then and now. When we in the West invaded Iraq, we inadvertently unleashed the Islamic State upon ourselves and the world. It was the ultimate unintended consequence. No one could’ve foreseen it. The Islamic State was born in our invasion. That’s a fact of history that no one can change, regardless of their political persuasion. And it’s a generational reality that we’re all still learning how to do deal with.
As someone who was in Iraq for almost the entirety of the war, where do you think we went wrong?
The invasion was 21 days of stunningly successful maneuver warfare. Militarily, it was brilliant. In three weeks,we brought down an entire regime. But the next day after the invasion, the Iraq War began. And that’s the thing we’re still living with. There were endless mistakes in that. From the disbandment to the Iraqi military to the de-Ba’athification and beyond. The insurgency never had to happen. I remember, in the summer of 2003, before the insurgency began, when it was just a few angry guys picking up their Kalashnikovs and taking potshots at passing American convoys. I was sitting down and meeting with staff officers with the Iraqi military, and one of them in particular sat there with me and said, “Michael, in the 70s, I did Ranger and pathfinder training in the United States. In the 80s, I used U.S. satellite imagery to kill Iranians. I like to drink whiskey and I like to chase women. We’d never, ever let al-Qaeda into this country. When you removed Saddam, we had no complaint. So how is it that now, during the occupation, we’re on the opposite side of this thing?” It took four or five years, roughly two and a half combat deaths, and maybe a quarter of a million civilian deaths, before we came to our agreement with the insurgency, which we called the Tribal Awakening or the Sons of Iraq, and we put 107,000 insurgents on the U.S. government payroll and the insurgency stopped over night. So, for me, the greatest mistake we ever made was the insurgency we never had to have.
What was the general attitude among the American soldiers during the early days of the Iraq War and how did you see it shift as the insurgency started to fire up?
As we all know, any soldier’s or Marine’s war is the 200 yards directly in front of him. Once a soldier or Marine is deployed, it doesn’t matter who sent him or why they sent him. No one is fighting for a particular president or administration, or a particular policy, or even a noble idea like democracy. What our boys on the ground are fighting for is the brother next to them. A soldier or a Marine will lay down their life to make sure the man next to him will get home. And they know that the man next to them would do the same for them. Isn’t that the nature of all wars and all soldiers and Marines throughout history?
So you think the attitude remained fairly consistent throughout the war?
Look, we had a professional military that was ordered to go to the Middle East and take down a brutal regime, and they did that. But once we did that, and the occupation began, I think that the ordinary grunt did not know who was shooting at them and couldn’t understand why they would be shooting, because we’re bringing the Iraqis democracy and reconstruction and liberation and all of these things — promises that ultimately we did not fulfill. So, at first, there were honest people in uniform who did not understand what was happening around them. As time went on, that obviously affected morale. At the end of the day, everyone was a professional and there was a job to be done; however, over time, as the years started to go by, there was both an increasing cynicism I found amongst the fighting men and women about the reality of the mission and the reality of the possible outcomes. But also, bit by bit, a growing understanding of the complexity of the operation environment.
What does al-Zarqawi represent to you?
Oh, he represents a lot of things. He represents the present and the future. He represents a kind of holy war that Osama Bin Ladin never imagined in his wildest dreams. He represents the new normal that we are now living with, as we see in Brussels and Paris and San Bernardino and Sidney. But on a broader, more existential level, which I think we touch upon in the film, Zarqawi represents that darker part of the human soul. It’s about the duality of man. It’s what Joseph Conrad wrote about in “Heart of Darkness.” There’s a light and a dark inside of all of us. I think someone like Zarqawi found the most extreme form of the dark that is beyond the understanding of anyone of us with any sort of moral compass. But like any fighting man will know, we all have to go to those dark places to survive, to complete the mission, or to bring our friends home. I think something as ugly as Zarqawi poses a lot of questions about the nature of all of us. And until we grapple with those questions and come to understand those things, the ultimate answer to something like the Islamic State will not appear.
How did your experience at war inform your overall world view?
You know yourself. We never see the world the same again, but would you ever want to? Until the day I die, I will walk with ghosts. But in some ways I consider that a privilege. None of us will ever see the world with the same eyes again, but I would never trade that for anything. I think we see the world in a whole new light, and it’s a luminescent light. Our souls might be a lot darker but there’s something about life that we can see that I don’t think anyone other than the three million who served can possibly hope to see.
Who did you make this film for?
Nobody has ever asked me that before. To be honest, I don’t have a fucking clue. I guess on one level, I made it for myself, because I just had to get it out of me. On another level, we made a 78 minute film that comes from over 350 hours of tape. When I came home, one of the things that I came to accept is that I was honor bound to do something with all of those tapes. I was honor bound to do something for all of the lives that are captured in my footage. So, in some way, I made it for everyone who is in those tapes. By the same token, I made it for everyone who was not in those tapes — all of the people here back home. Our greatest hope with this film is that we nudge the needle of the audience’s understanding of war. There have been a lot of noble efforts that have come out of Hollywood, telling the story of war. And there have been a lot of noble efforts made in documentaries about our modern wars, our so-called Wars on Terror. But in all of them, I think, the audience is giving the comfort of watching from a distance. It’s either from Hollywood, so the blood is corn syrup. Or, if it’s a documentary, they still feel separated from what they’re seeing on the screen. Our greatest hope is that we dissolve that distance between the viewer and the experience. We want this to be a war film that people don’t watch. We want this to be a war film that people actually feel.
How do you hope American soldiers will react to this film?
Let’s face it: we all trip over our Iraq or Afghan wars almost every day. They sneak up and bite us in moments when we least expect in ways we never saw coming. Hopefully, over time, we get better at learning how to deal with them. But these wars will never, ever leave us. It’s about management. It’s about trying to learn how to live the rest of our lives while dealing with this stuff, and carrying our wars, and carrying our dead, and carrying our living dead. Quite frankly, there was a point when I counted myself among the living dead. I don’t know how the veteran will respond to my film. I do know how some of the veterans in my film have responded, because I’ve reconnected with them, and I’ve been humbled by their reaction to the film. I have been brought to my knees and brought to tears by the way some of the soldiers in my film have responded. To me that means fucking everything.