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Michael Ware's hair-raising documentary Only the Dead explains how he reported the beginnings of the Iraq insurgency that begat Daesh.

By John Martinkus.

Michael Ware’s war record

Michael Ware (centre)
Credit: Franco Pagetti

“It’s not over,” Michael Ware told me in December 2003. “It is only the beginning.”

We were drinking in the front bar of Young & Jackson in Melbourne. Time magazine had given him time off from his new position as Baghdad bureau chief to cover the Rugby World Cup here. Based in Iraq since the United States-led invasion in March that year, he had just scored a cover story for Time and in a way the rugby tour was his reward. He had gone out with insurgents and filmed and interviewed them as they attacked US forces in the Iraqi capital. At that time, no one else from the mainstream press had done that. Indeed, many of the foreign press corp in Baghdad still really didn’t believe an insurgency existed. They had swallowed the Bush administration’s line: that the increasing attacks on US forces in Baghdad were the result of disgruntled Saddam Hussein supporters, or “dead-enders”, as then secretary of defence Donald Rumsfeld described them. As Ware patiently explained how and when he had made contact with the nascent insurgency and gained sufficient trust for them to allow him to film their attacks, it became clear to me that the triumphant rhetoric of the Bush, Blair and Howard administrations and their many supporters in the Western media was just that: rhetoric.

For me it was the starting point of four reporting trips to Iraq in 2004 and later in 2007, and seven years covering the war in Afghanistan. For Mick, it was a brief respite from an almost continuous assignment in Iraq, first for Time and then as bureau chief for CNN, which only ended when the bulk of US troops withdrew in 2009. I’d be shot at, blown up and eventually kidnapped by Sunni insurgents as I wrote a book, filed print reports and filmed stories from Iraq for SBS. For Mick the physical danger, intrigue and psychological pressure of working in that environment and documenting the sufferings of that conflict – Sunni, Shia, civilians and combatants of all sides – was something he would deal with daily for seven long years. While other journalists came and went, Mick lived in Baghdad and became one of the pre-eminent authorities on what was actually going on in what became the ongoing multi-sided conflict that replaced Saddam.

Which is why his new 80-minute film, Only the Dead, covering that period is seen as essential viewing for anyone who wants to understand not just the Iraq war but also the current situation in Iraq and Syria and the rise of ISIS. It has been well received so far, winning the Sydney Film Festival’s documentary award with its first screening in Sydney this year. In the US, critics have called it “the most challenging unflinching thing you will ever see in a cinema”. Another wrote: “Anyone who sees this film will never be the same again. We have nudged the needle of audience experience of war.” When the film was screened at the Telluride festival in the US this year, Meryl Streep compared it to Apocalypse Now and Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. As Mick puts it: “I filmed accidentally in the war in Iraq. We did for real what Apocalypse Now did in cinema.”

The documentary itself is a narrative compiled from videos shot by Mick on a small handheld camera as he gathered stories for Time and CNN in Iraq. It is augmented by the extensive archive of insurgent material to which, because of his contacts, Mick had access. It is the depth and rawness of the footage, but more importantly the knowledge, background and access to the most pivotal moments and personalities of the war, that sustains this documentary at a thriller-like pace and takes the viewer headlong into the dark recesses of both the war in Iraq and the effects of such violence on the human soul.

Only the Dead traces the brutal evolution of the insurgency under the tutelage of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, an insurgency that was becoming more effective and deadly, even as the US and its allies refused to acknowledge it existed. An insurgency that continued to morph and metastasise into what has become Daesh today.

But perhaps the most revealing aspect of this film is what this journey does to the psyche of the witness-narrator Michael Ware himself.

 

I first met Michael in East Timor in December 1999. He was still unknown, there on his first overseas assignment for The Courier-Mail, and those of us correspondents who had spent the past year in Timor covering the violence initially laughed at the new reporter who was so angry he had missed the war. We were, at last, enjoying the peace. I remember a Canadian friend of mine saying Mick was so keen that had he arrived any earlier he would have got us killed.

Ware made up for lost time, breaking stories and staying in Timor for five months. He then moved to Time, which still had a South Pacific bureau based in Sydney at the time. After 9/11, he pestered his management to send him to Afghanistan. He was a long way down the list of experienced Time correspondents queueing to be sent to cover the US-led invasion. But soon four journalists, including our mutual friend, Australian cameraman Harry Burton, were killed in cold blood as they tried to drive to the capital Kabul when the Taliban were falling. Suddenly Mick was the only Time staffer on the waiting list and was sent to Kandahar to cover for a correspondent who wanted a break. He ended up stretching out the three-week posting to 13 months covering the Taliban and the US military, learning the local language and customs and, most importantly, how to blend in. When the war in Iraq began brewing he was an obvious choice to send.

But while most of the correspondents were embedded with the main US force that was going to push up to Baghdad from Kuwait, Mick was sent to cover the invasion from the north, in Kurdistan, which was seen as a bit of a sideshow.

And it was in Kurdistan that Michael had his first experience of dealing with the Islamists who would later come to dominate the insurgency in Iraq. The Kurds were not only fighting the army of Saddam, they were fighting a Sunni militant organisation called Ansar al-Sunna. Ansar al-Sunna carried out a suicide bombing that killed, among others, an ABC cameraman. At the bomb site Michael found a fragment of an Australian passport with the name “Paul M” on it. He called an ABC colleague in Sydney and asked if they had anyone in Kurdistan. They did: his name was Paul Moran. Mick had to tell them he was dead. He helped the surviving ABC journalist, Eric Campbell, get to safety and retrieved Moran’s remains. It was his first experience of a suicide bombing.

Months later in Baghdad, just around the corner from the rented Time house in the upscale suburb of Mansour, there was a massive suicide bombing outside the Jordanian embassy. Arriving at the blast scene moments later, Mick realised it was the same modus operandi of the same Islamists determined to start an insurgency. “When I got to that scene I instantly knew what I was looking at because I had seen it in the north,” he told me. “I knew a whole new war had begun.” That was the beginning of the insurgency in Iraq and Michael began to work his contacts to find out who did this and why it had begun.

Only the Dead traces this evolution of the insurgency. Other massive suicide bombings quickly followed. The UN compound, the Red Cross and then increasingly frequent attacks on the American forces. “The Americans didn’t know who was shooting at them. In the summer of ’03 they were like, ‘Who are you and why are you doing this?’ ”

Over the next four years, Michael traced the evolution of what he says became four wars in Iraq. He explains how there was the war between the US and the insurgents, dominated by former Saddam-era officers; the US war against the Islamists, dominated by Zarqawi; the civil war between the Sunni and Shiite; and the war between the forces loyal to and sponsored by the Iranians against everyone else. “It was only after 2500 US soldiers’ deaths and four years later that the US finally realised what was happening,” he says. “It took four years.”

As for the Western media and its coverage of Iraq, Michael is scathing. Initially his reporting was often derided, both in the US and Australia, as being sympathetic to the insurgents or tinged with anti-American sentiment. “It took the right-wing commentariat years longer than the Bush administration to catch up with what was really happening in Iraq,” he says. “These self-opinionated blowhards in the safety of a far distant armchair had no knowledge, no understanding, of what was going on. The United States military, the CIA, understood and were far more receptive. The Western intelligence services and the military knew they were wrong. These opinion-makers have much to answer for… a gross, egregious, unforgivable disservice by loud-mouthed opinion-makers who chose to rant in print and on TV about which they knew nothing.”

Ware is equally scathing of pundits on the left who opposed the war without directly experiencing it. “In the same magnitude, left writers were equally deranged and off the mark unless they had been there. Both the left and the right failed the Australian and US people.” He adds the one universal truth he learnt covering Iraq for all those years: “Basic true journalism dies when we go to war but ultimately true journalism triumphs.”

 

In 2007, in Baghdad, Mick showed me footage he had shot of an incident. He had been with some US troops in a compound searching for insurgents when a young man had been spotted nearby with an AK-47. He was immediately shot in the head by the soldiers and lay on the ground seemingly dead. The soldiers gathered around the body and talked matter-of-factly about him. Then, as Mick films, the body suddenly splutters and it becomes clear the boy is still breathing. The soldiers just stand around watching, looking down casually, as the laboured breathing becomes audible. Mick continues filming and this later haunts him as he watches the film of the incident over and over in his house in Baghdad: he did nothing to help the Iraqi boy either. After almost 20 excruciating minutes, the Iraqi boy dies.

Back in Baghdad, Mick and his producer edited the footage in several different ways to try to have the incident aired on CNN. As we watched the footage in his room in Baghdad, I remember him saying, “I want to show the American people what this war is doing to their kids.” CNN never ran the footage. It was too raw and brutal. Now with this film, Mick is showing it. He is showing what this war has done.

 

Michael Ware will present special event screenings of Only the Dead, followed by Q&As, from October 20. www.only-the-dead.com

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Oct 17, 2015 as "War record". Subscribe here.

John Martinkus
is a foreign correspondent and author.