I had "Sopranos" withdrawal Sunday night so I watched an advance copy of "Frontline's" excellent "Endgame" (PBS Tuesday night) on the many botched decisions that led to the current nightmare in Iraq, right up to the current "surge" of troops into Baghdad. It wasn't a bad substitute: "Endgame" is packed with disturbing graphic violence, vain, petty bosses making bad decisions, hapless lieutenants carrying them out, and an ambiguous ending the audience can argue about for a while. Except with "Endgame," the story continues after the screen goes black, and events in Baghdad confirm that the bad news goes on and on and on.
The most remarkable figure is retired Maj. Gen. Jack Keane, who was the Army's second in command at the time of the war and is now one of the architects of the surge. Keane is surreally honest about how the Pentagon's bad planning set up the current catastrophe. "We never even considered an insurgency," Keane says, noting that Donald Rumsfeld and the generals around him were always focused on a short battle and quick exit from Iraq, with most troops expected to be out by fall 2003. "Endgame" also shows just how inadequate those generals were to the task: Ricardo Sanchez, who ran the early stages of the war, was an inexperienced junior lieutenant general; his replacement, George Casey, had no combat experience. He was "one of the most anonymous generals ... no one knows who he is," military sources told "Frontline." Even as the insurgency exploded and the Bush administration insisted it was being defeated -- yes, Vice President Dick Cheney shows up declaring it's in its "last throes" -- Keane insists "we never had that as a mission, defeating an insurgency." Instead Rumsfeld and Casey were trying to maintain the U.S. military's "light footprint" and shore up Iraqi forces to fight insurgents instead.
As in Bob Woodward's "State of Denial," Condoleezza Rice and her trusted advisor Philip Zelikow ride to the rescue, or try to, attempting to get President Bush to see that the war can't be won unless the U.S. military adopts a more aggressive strategy: to clear the country of insurgents, hold the peace so residents can feel secure, and build infrastructure like schools and hospitals, as well as new civic institutions, to develop democracy -- or "clear, hold and build," as Rice began to describe it. "Endgame" captures Rumsfeld's fury at Rice's new strategy, showing him directly contradicting her in front of reporters. As usual, Bush is feckless; at a Camp David meeting scheduled to chart a new war plan in June 2006, surge architect Fred Kagan arrives in a Chinook -- "a very cool experience," Kagan tells us; wow, Fred, I'm happy for you -- only to find Bush there briefly. He's flying to Baghdad for a surprise five-and-a-half-hour visit to meet newly elected Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki instead. When Bush returns, war policy is basically unchanged. Casey does start moving his men out of their huge, isolated bases in Operation Together Forward II, but there aren't enough troops to make a difference, and the Iraqis can't do their part. "I knew the operation would fail," says a glum Keane.
Of course, after the "thumpin'" Bush received in the 2006 midterms, he dumps Rumsfeld. Here "Endgame" gets a little murky trying to explain what we should take from that chain of events. The producers let New York Times reporter Michael Gordon slur Democrats by noting the "irony" that Rumsfeld was doing what they wanted, trying to get troops out as quickly as possible. There's so much wrong with that statement, it's hard to know where to begin. Democrats who opposed Rumsfeld's war to start with, and then never had the information he did about how it was going, can't be associated with the many, many ways he botched it. Gordon is one of the Bush administration's favorite Timesmen -- as evidenced by the amazing fact that he got to attend a meeting last week in which Adm. William J. Fallon and U.S. ambassador Ryan Crocker told al-Maliki they needed to see faster political progress, and then reported al-Maliki's "thumpin'" on the front page of the Times -- and his point of view mucks up the documentary a bit.
"Endgame" then gallops to a close, with Bush and Cheney turning to Keane and Kagan to begin the so-called surge. Suddenly the "clear, hold and build" strategy was U.S. policy, at least in Baghdad and Anbar province. But where they proposed at least 35,000 combat troops for Baghdad alone, the surge was only slated to add 22,000, leading one source to tell "Frontline," "That's not a surge, that's a dribble." Even Keane admits he doesn't know if the surge can succeed, but says it's better than doing nothing. We'll see. The documentary has perfect timing, with the surge declared complete at the end of this month. On Sunday Iraq commander Gen. David Petraeus told reporters that U.S. troops would be fighting far beyond September, when he's expected to report on the progress of the surge, but that success will take years, not months. "Endgame" was far more depressing than "The Sopranos," because real people are still dying, with no end in sight.