Only the Dead
(M) Directed by Michael Ware
by Mark Hadley
Only the Dead is both riveting and revolting; a film that should be viewed with extreme caution, but viewed nonetheless. It contains footage that reveals the darkest heart of militant Islam, as well as the shadows in those who chase their stories and ultimately we who watch. According to the director, “We all have dark places, deep within. I discovered a place inside me I never knew I had.”
Michael Ware is an Australian journalist who spent seven years living in Iraq working for CNN and Time Magazine. Only the Dead is pieced together from the horrors he filmed. The documentary covers that part of the Iraqi Insurgency when al-Qaeda and the original group that formed the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) were indistinguishable. Though the organisations have since disavowed each other, the war crimes, atrocities and ethnic cleansing ISIL carries out in Syria today are mere reflections of the tactics learnt at the knee of infamous al-Qaeda terrorist Abu Musab al-Zarqawi.
Only the Dead doesn’t aim to pass judgment on the conflict itself or even most of the combatants. First and foremost it is an examination of Ware’s own descent into the evil he was purporting to report on. Ware’s profession leads him to develop deep relationships with Islamist fighters until he eventually becomes a go-between for Zarqawi and his horrific media campaign. The result is not only a disturbing revelation of the barbarous acts taking place at that time but the transformation of the very normal people caught up in them:
“I felt [Zarqawi] had made me complicit somehow in his war. [But] if he was obscene, the dark idea of him was becoming perverse.”
However Ware stops short of suggesting these terrors are a reflection of Islam, and instead turns his attention to humanity in general.
The documentary takes its name from a quote variously attributed to General Douglas MacArthur and Plato, but most likely the work of 20th century philosopher George Santayana:
“The poor fellows think they are safe! They think that the war is over! Only the dead have seen the end of war.” 1
Ware uses the thought to reflect on humanity’s seeming inability to leave violence behind. His disembodied voice wonders whether we will ever be able to move beyond the sort of inhumanity that characterises the Taliban, al Qaeda and now ISIL. It’s not just the perpetrators or the victims who are scarred by such extreme violence but those who report on it as well. Ware says his exposure to the terrorist leader’s atrocities wore away at his soul, reducing his essential humanity even after the terrorist’s death:
“Zarqawi’s men kept on fighting, the dark idea he had unleashed too powerful to contain. He showed us recesses in our hearts we didn’t know we had. I was just so twisted up inside. At some dark hour I became a man I never thought I’d be.”
Ware reached this conclusion when he found himself filming the slow death of an Iraqi insurgent wounded by US Marines. His unrelenting camera work testifies better than his words to how unconcerned he had become. However, watching Only the Dead, I began to wonder whether Ware and I had more in common than I’d initially suspected. Certainly I haven’t been exposed to anything like the distressing events the documentary portrays. Yet as I watched I found myself making strange mental comparisons with films I’d already seen. “That shot was just like the one in Lone Survivor … The Hurtlocker’s camera angles were much better … that execution was nowhere near as disturbing as the one in American Sniper…” A slate of Hollywood films were minimising the shocking reality of what Ware was showing me. In short, my familiarity with this particular theatre of horror had eroded my sympathy.
It would be reassuring to believe the darkness Ware discusses is only present in the hearts of the fighters committing atrocities in the Middle East, that it is somehow a product of an aberrant religion, but Only the Dead won’t permit that conclusion. This isn’t a Christian production but the director has brought to light a Christian truth. According to Jesus it is not only the Islamic heart but the human one that is sick. Given the right set of opportunities we are capable of any sin:
“For it is from within, out of a person’s heart, that evil thoughts come – sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, greed, malice, deceit, lewdness, envy, slander, arrogance and folly. All these evils come from inside and defile a person.” 2
And if the illness is a spiritual one, then cure is also. We may support diplomatic efforts and even military intervention but they cannot transform the heart. Only the Gospel will end conflict that sort of conflict in the Middle East. However seeing it conquer will take more courage and commitment on the part of believers than any taskforce aimed at mere civil peace. As Paul concludes:
“How can they call on the one they have not believed in? And how can they believe in the one of whom they have not heard? And how can they hear without someone preaching to them?” 3