The images in “Only the Dead See the End of War,” a kind of video memoir of journalist Michael Ware’s seven years covering the Iraq War, are harrowing, terrifying, and enlightening. They provide an on-the-ground peek at the grisly reality of the Iraq War, a reality that was hidden from most Americans for years, per government policy. We watch as car bombs explode, as the insurgency prepares to fight back against the U.S., and as American soldiers take gunfire in the streets of Baghdad.
Having been on the ground for years reporting for Time magazine, Ware has amassed a huge body of video, but it’s clear from “Only the Dead” that he and his co-director Bill Guttentag had no idea how to shape it into a cohesive documentary. They have opted, unfortunately, to thread it together with some hammy, overwrought narration by Ware himself. Ware seems to be honestly trying to express the horror and confusion of Iraq at the peak of the fighting, but relying on turgid, fundamentally meaningless pronouncements about “the recesses in our souls we never knew we had” has the effect of trivializing the people Ware has filmed.
Struggling for a narrative throughline, Ware focuses on the rise of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the ruthless leader of Al Qaeda in Iraq, while at the same time, using his own experience as a framing device. But the film offers too little in the way of context to work as a study of al-Zarqawi—the main takeaway seems to be that he was a really, really bad dude, which is not exactly revelatory—and Ware never gives enough of himself for the film to work as a personal story. In his narration, he comes off as grim and slightly pompous, constantly going on about the darkness he discovered in his own soul but never exposing that darkness in an honest, revealing way. The effect is worsened by a portentously pounding score.
“Only the Dead” is at its best when it lets the footage speak for itself, allowing the audience to draw its own conclusions. Particularly interesting are scenes in which American soldiers interrogate the locals because these encounters foreground the deep divide between the people of Iraq and the men occupying them. The soldiers, who know that any given person on the street may be working for the insurgency, are afraid. Their only rational position is to distrust everyone they meet. This fear and mistrust then manifests itself as a brusque and aggressive attitude, which only deepens the fear and mistrust of the military among the Iraqis. In some of the film’s most excruciating moments, we see how much the war has hardened these men, to defend themselves against the overwhelming misery of the invasion with callousness and abuse.
In the film’s most harrowing moment, a man is shot by American forces. The man, helpless, slowly bleeding to death, is dragged across the street, where he continues to bleed out, convulsing, as the soldiers coldly crack jokes and deny him medical assistance. Those of us who have not been to war can’t judge these soldiers for their behavior, but neither can we ignore the cruelty of this moment. It is a truly wrenching scene, and one which exposes, in the way only on-the-ground reportage can, the brutality of combat. Then, lest we be confused, here comes Ware’s voice to inform us that “the brutality of it all had shaved away at our souls,” thus turning this morally and emotionally complicated scene into a grim “moment.”