Only The Dead Have Seen the End of War

From 2003 until 2010 the Australian journalist Michael Ware was based in Iraq as he reported on the war for Time Magazine. He compiled his film into a documentary which was released in 2015 called Only The Dead. Despite being four years old this documentary is still as poignant as it is harrowing and as tensions and conflicts continue in the Middle East Ware’s exploration of war is as resonant as ever.

Michael Ware gained a reputation in Iraq for being one of the few journalists to live in the country near-continuously for the duration of the American occupation. He also was not only embedded with American forces but also with insurgent groups. The film itself is a compilation of footage filmed on a Handycam by Ware and a fellow journalist. It is simply a taste of the hundreds of hours of footage he accumulated over the almost decade he was there. This leads to an outlook on war, those who have not been privy to first-hand, have never had. You are drawn into intense firefights, terrifying insurgent meetings and the shocking and often gruesome aftermath of suicide bombings. The sounds of the war are occasionally drowned out by a smooth Australian drawl as Ware offers commentary to make sense of the carnage on the screen.

Some documentaries about war look at the geopolitical, tactical and strategic elements of the conflict thus removing themselves from the sordid business of death that occurs on the ground. Others do occupy themselves with this sordid business but often in an attempt to glorify the actions of soldiers on one side and denounce the actions of those on another whilst sharing a censored version of the conflict. Either which way the viewer is shielded from the bloodshed and the suffering to one degree or another. Only The Dead is completely different. Ware said in an interview that he hoped every person who watched it would find themselves at one point or the other in Iraq rather than just observing it. This is why this film is excellent. Ware eloquently explains the complex geopolitical nuances of the differences in the various groups of combatants and their cause to arms but at the same time he never lets up from driving tragedy and hardship further into the viewer. Some films are gory and gruesome for the sheer sake of it; Only the Dead is gory and gruesome because that’s what war is.

The film also highlights the complexities and personal battles of ethics that journalists have to deal with when reporting controversial subjects. The line between journalism and propaganda is often blurred and this is seen multiple times throughout the film. Videos made by insurgent groups are published in part, including the execution of contractor Nicholas Berg and the executions of others, as well as a film made by one of the leading terrorists Abu Musab Al-Zaqawi that was given to Ware in 2004 for publication. Ware often talks about an obsession with the war and Al-Zaqawi in particular. This is not more evident when he explains an experience where he was briefly kidnapped and nearly executed but the thought of leaving Iraq never crossed his mind. This obsession combined with the blurred lines between journalism and propaganda creates this masterpiece which plays to the morbid curiosity within each one of us; or as Ware would say “the dark place in our hearts”.

Without doubt the most harrowing scene in the film is the last. A young man is shot by American soldiers and he is dragged into a compound, covered in blood, not dead but nearly dead. Ware is silent. As the man dies slowly and painfully you draw every agonising breath with him, silent yourself, as you will the soldiers to help him. They don’t, the man dies, and Ware describes the exact feeling of powerlessness that he conveys to the viewer as the one he felt as he saw that and filmed it first-hand. For us in the West conflict, the tragedy, pain and suffering that comes with it, is far removed. This documentary allows each and every viewer to take a step closer to the horrific tragedy that is war. It is uncomfortable, it is sickening, and it is depressing but it is absolutely necessary. Ware says that in the course of his experience in some unknown place, at some forgotten hour, he became a man he never thought he’d be. To say just by watching it the effect is the same would be to trivialise his experience; however you can’t help but to go through this terrifying transformation with him.