If a picture is worth a thousand words, it takes an awful lot of pictures – grisly, horrific ones – to drown out the banality of the verbiage in “Only the Dead See the End of War,” Michael Ware’s video memoir of his seven years covering the conflict in Iraq. The Australian journalist’s heavy-handed narration is frequently groan inducing (“I no longer cared about dying”), but this otherwise-gripping HBO documentary nevertheless provides a stark portrait of the ruthlessness of jihadists and the brutality of war.
Ware arrived in Iraq in 2003 for what was supposed to be a three-week assignment for Time magazine. He left seven years later, having covered the fighting from both sides – spending time with the insurgency as well as U.S. troops – capturing an array of grim images that are presented in unflinching fashion, including close-up footage of a hooded gunman executing a handcuffed prisoner, and graphic evidence of a beheading.
In a more quietly gruesome moment, U.S. soldiers shoot a suspected terrorist, then leave the man lying there – chest heaving, blood splattered across the head – as he takes a very, very long time to die.
Ware uses as his focus the rise of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the founder of Al Qaeda in Iraq. Having gained access to the insurgents, he’s able to present footage from their perspective of suicide bombings and guerrilla attacks against U.S. forces. Eventually, Ware embedded with U.S. troops during heavy action in Fallujah and Ramadi, but only after being kidnapped and nearly executed.
It is, by any measure, a harrowing account — and a timely one, given recent acts of terrorism in Europe. Yet the film (directed by Bill Guttentag) seeks to heighten the drama in ways that aren’t required, from the pounding and foreboding musical scoring to Ware’s grave descriptions, which include lines about “the brutality of it all having slowly shaved away at our souls” and “showed us recesses in our souls we never knew we had.” At times, it feels as if this real-life portrait is determined to emulate Martin Sheen’s narration in “Apocalypse Now.”
HBO describes the film as “an illuminating window into the origins of a modern terrorist organization,” which is an apt characterization. Yet while watching it is no picnic due to the graphic nature of what’s on screen, “Only the Dead See the End of War” ultimately proves harder on the ears than it is on the eyes.