‘Only the Dead See the End of War’ Is Hard to Watch
But watch anyway
It’s tough writing about HBO’s new documentary Only the Dead See the End of War without spoiling it. The final 15 minutes are a revelation — and they retroactively inform the whole film. Without them, Only the Dead kinda feels like war pornography. Albeit war pornography accompanied by the ramblings of an unhinged adrenaline junky.
But those final moments … Well, they change everything.
Only the Dead See the End of War is a documentary that makes demands on its viewers. Filmmaker Michael Ware, a former CNN reporter who was with the network’s Baghdad bureau during the worst years of the American occupation, is calling himself to account for his role in the conflict.
He asks you to experience the worst parts of America’s war in Iraq, and practically begs you to pass judgement. Because he doesn’t want to be alone in judging himself.
Only the Dead See the End of War chronicles Ware’s seven years covering the Iraq war — first for Time and then for CNN. Ware arrived in Iraq right before U.S. troops invaded in early 2003. He describes himself as a small-town boy from Australia who didn’t understand what he had signed up for. “I was in my 30s and still young and dumb enough for war to have its false sense of adventure,” he says.
The film’s style is … strange. This is not the polished image audiences have seen over and over again on cable news. Ware’s footage is raw and ugly. The audio drops in and out. The video is low-res and grainy. More than once, some angry Iraqi interrupts Ware and forces him to stop filming some scene of horror.
And those scenes of horror are plentiful in Only the Dead See the End of War.
But that’s a good thing. Ware filmed a side of the war many in the West never see — the dark, unsanitized side. Ware narrates his Hellish journey in gravely, serious tones. This is his own personal story. He tells it like he’s trying to justify the experience to himself.
It’s as compelling as it is disturbing.
“I’m not sure when things went wrong with me,” Ware explains. In Iraqi Kurdistan before the invasion, Ware witnesses a fellow journalist die in a suicide bombing. It shakes him, yet he still seems flippant, saying they “collected the dead man’s body and sent him home.”
Ware travels to Baghdad and watches the insurgency takes roots. His camera bobs through the aftermath of a 2003 bombing of the Jordanian embassy and lingers on the bloodied and battered bodies of the dead.
As the insurgency deepens, Ware makes contact with its nationalist wing. He travels with masked men as they move through the desert, mortaring coalition forces. He receives late-night visits from hard men who hand him footage of executions and manifestos. Footage he’d rather not watch.
Because of the trust these men place in Ware, he gains a kind of access to terrorist leader Abu Musab Al Zarqawi. The Jordanian militant feeds Ware footage and information at a slow drip, almost taunting the reporter to get closer to the madness. “I would never know why he sent it to me,” Ware explains. “I felt he’d made me complicit somehow.”
Ware’s fascination with Al Zarqawi ends when the journalist goes too far chasing the story — and almost loses his life. Soon after, the Americans catch up the terrorist leader and the Australian turns his focus to Fallujah and Ramadi.
Ware journeys through Al Anbar province with the U.S. Marines. The Marines are angry and aggressive. They hate their enemies. And they do and say things you never want to see or hear an American soldier do or say. Watching the Marines zip-tie and blindfold a local shopkeeper with duct tape is hard to watch. Out of context, it seems awful.
But it’s important that outside observers maintain their perspective and empathy, not just for the Iraqis but for the men and women we send to fight our wars. I was not there in Al Anbar with Ware and the Marines. I have no idea what it was like to be on the ground in Iraq in the late days of the insurgency. I have a hard time passing judgement.
Ware does, too. He intersperses scenes of Marines firing on houses and harassing locals with footage from the hard drives of Iraq’s terrorist networks. One moment Iraqi children chase after an American Humvee, hurling rocks at Marines. The next moment, Islamists hang suspected thieves by their wrists and fire AK-47s into their bodies.
All this horror builds to the film’s final moments — when Ware faces a moral choice and makes, in his own mind, the wrong decision. “I became a man I never thought I’d be,” he explains. To say it’s an upsetting climax is to rob the documentary of its power. For me, the sheltered son of a suburban military family, it’s beyond the pale.
But I’m glad I watched. Only the Dead See the End of War helps me to understand. It’s as if I were watching Ware dig through hundreds of hours of his own footage looking for justification for an action he regrets.