ONLY THE DEAD

Reviewed by GREG KING

Documentary

Directors: Michael Ware and Bill Guttentag.

The film takes its title from a quote attributed to Plato: “Only the dead have seen the end of war.” And that is the perfect title for this harrowing, confronting and uncensored up close and personal look at the horrors of war from a veteran war correspondent who spent seven years in Iraq.

In 2003 when the US invaded Iraq to topple Saddam Hussein and his tyrannical regime, veteran Australian journalist Michael Ware went along to cover the war for TIME magazine and CNN. The operation to oust Hussein was successful, but then the US got bogged down fighting insurgents and the many rival terrorists groups that emerged to try and fill the power vacuum. These groups used terror tactics and suicide bombings against both the military forces and the civilian population.

Over the course of seven years Ware would spend time on the front line embedded with US soldiers. He carried a little handicam with him, which acted as a sort of notebook for him to record his experiences and thoughts. Ware captures the grisly aftermath of suicide bombings, the chaos of a war in which the enemy is not easily identified. He serves up some harrowing footage, none more so than when a group of soldiers stand around watching a wounded insurgent slowly die.

He even sought out the insurgent groups to get their perspective on the war. He became chosen by Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the notorious Al-Qaeda leader, to show footage of a suicide bombing to the world. The nascent terrorist organisation that would become ISIS chose Ware as the conduit to pass on film from one of the world’s leading terrorists in which he outlined his terror strategy for Iraq. He was even kidnapped by IS forces at one stage and faced the prospect of being beheaded.

For Ware, what he witnessed profoundly affected him and was the equivalent of his own journey into the heart of darkness. He carried a lot of psychological baggage out of Iraq, and it took him a long time to get over what he had witnessed. As Ware points out, one grows desensitised by the constant sight of blood and carnage. The making of this film was something of a cathartic experience for Ware.

Over the course of seven years Ware had accumulated a massive amount of raw unedited footage, which he had stored in boxes in his mother’s house back in Brisbane during trips home. He then approached veteran Oscar winning documentary filmmaker Bill Guttentag (Death In Nanking, etc) and editor Jane Moran to assemble the hundreds of hours of footage into the powerful 77 minutes that we see on screen.

This footage offers a stark contrast to the way in which Hollywood has glorified or depicted the war in Iraq in films like The Green Room or The Hurt Locker. Ware shows the real deal, war and death in all its ugliness and brutality. The result is unforgettable, uncomfortable, distressing, and disturbing to watch. And also thought provoking.

★★★

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