The dark heart of the Middle East: review of Only the Dead

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 in Iraq working for CNN and Time magazine. Only the Dead is pieced together from the horrors he filmed. The documentary covers part of the Iraqi insurgency when al-Qaeda and the group that formed the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) were indistinguishable. What continues in Syria today is a mere reflection of the tactics learnt at the knee of infamous al-Qaeda terrorist Abu Musab al-Zarqawi.

First and foremost, the film is an examination of Ware’s own descent into the evil he was purporting to report on. The result is not only a disturbing revelation of the barbarous acts taking place at that time but the transformation of the 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.”

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.”

TIME magazine correpsondent Michael Ware taking note during the Attack in Tal'Afar. On days two and three of the massive U.S. attack on the al Qaeda stronghold of Tall Afar, soldiers of the 1st and 3rd U.S. Special Forces Groups, soldiers of the Blue Platoon, Grim Troop, Sabre Squadron, 3rd Armored Cavalry Regiment, and Iraqi special forces of the 36th Commando Brigade and soldiers of the 2nd Iraqi Army Division, clear Shiite Turkoman civilians from their homes in southern Tall Afar, Ninawa governorate, Iraq on Sept. 4, 2005. Their homes line what U.S. planners dubbed 'Route Corvette'. Soon, combat engulfed the forces' northern advance towards Route Barracuda, the gateway to the al-Qaeda stronghold in the Sarai district, as insurgents engaged them with sniper fire and RPGs from rooftops and windows along the ancient winding laneways. Civilians not yet cleared were caught in the crossfire, rushing past the battling soldiers even as insurgents were taken prisoner in the midst of the fight.

TIME magazine correpsondent Michael Ware taking note during the Attack in Tal’Afar.

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.

It would be reassuring to believe the darkness Ware discusses is present only in the hearts of the fighters committing atrocities in the Middle East, that it is somehow a product of an aberrant religion, but this film won’t permit that conclusion. 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 (Mk 7:21-23).

And if the illness is a spiritual one, then the cure is also. We may support diplomatic efforts and even military intervention, but they cannot transform the heart. Only the gospel will end 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 the Apostle 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?” (Romans 10:14)

See an interview with Michael Ware, here.