Only the Dead documents the experience of Michael Ware, an Australian journalist who arrived in Iraq in early 2003 and spent eleven months-per-year there for seven years. Ware made contact soon after the fall of Saddam Hussein with those resisting the new order, at a time when the Americans were struggling to map such forces.
Ware established communication with the more nationalist-Islamist forces. Once in that milieu, the globalist jihadists, who were working in the shadows, a small, foreign-dominated force towards which even many insurgents were guarded, found him. The leader of the jihadists, Ahmad al-Khalayleh, became something of an obsession for Ware as he stepped onto the world stage with his gruesome tactics as Abu Musab al-Zarqawi. Zarqawi, the “Shaykh of the Slaughters,” would found an organization that became a movement and then burst Iraq’s frontiers, known to us now as the Islamic State (IS).
In tracking Zarqawi and his men, Ware presents some incredible footage and gives some snapshots from the fascinating days, whose effects we are all still feeling, when the Iraqi insurgency was taking root.
Structured essentially as a video-essay or video-diary, the film gives us access to the footage taken by Ware in roughly the order he took it. “I witnessed the birth of what is now Islamic State,” Ware has said. This isn’t quite true—that had happened three years before at a camp in Taliban Afghanistan, and the organization had been on Iraqi soil since April 2002. But Ware was in place to see some of the organization’s crucial steps toward the caliphate.
Ware, a tenacious journalist, reached out through intermediaries and kept at it until he made contact with the insurgents. Those he came across initially were localized Islamists: remnants of the regime, the Muslim Brotherhood and other independent Islamists, and the regime’s tribal clientele that lost its smuggling and other revenue streams under the new order. In time, the other element of the insurgency—the globalist Jihadi-Salafists—sought him.
Ware shows what is probably the first video of a post-Saddam insurgent attack:
And was also given the first video made by IS of a suicide attack in Iraq:
Ware was on-the-ground as Zarqawi’s jihadists moved to dominate the insurgency, beginning with the trio of “spectacular” terrorist attacks in Baghdad in August 2003. Recognizing this danger, in July 2004, the U.S. reward for Zarqawi’s capture or killing was raised to $25 million, equal to Usama bin Ladin. It is this dynamic that gives the film its most dramatic moment.
In September 2004, Zarqawi’s forces pushed local insurgents out of Haifa Street in Baghdad. The area was a stronghold of the fallen regime: lots of the Tikriti clansmen moved there after the Ba’ath Party took over, and many joined the military and intelligence services. Ware took an incredible risk by visiting the place after the Zarqawi’ist takeover, and it nearly got him killed:
Many might have chosen to take a break from Iraq at that stage. Ware did not. It was on to Fallujah for the second battle of 2004, Operation PHANTOM FURY, where Ware was in the thick of things:
That transpired to be a pyrrhic victory: decisive in military terms, it did tremendous political damage to the U.S.-led Coalition and IS’s forces had largely abandoned the city before the battle even started, relocating to Mosul. Taking advantage of the Coalition’s deployments to Mosul, IS overran large sections of Mosul for several weeks before being forced out.
The film’s most searing indictment of the Coalition’s pre-surge conduct of the war comes when Ware embeds with the troops in Ramadi in August 2005. There were five bases in the city, where American soldiers literally waited to be attacked. This “static defence” meant stress levels and casualties were very high:
It also, of course, meant that the initiative was entirely with Zarqawi, who could recruit and dominate the countryside and even within the city. The opportunity to rule the streets was Zarqawi’s, as a leaked video showed:
The population did not have to be massively sympathetic to IS; it just had to have enough points of common interest and be frightened enough, which is not difficult since a few men with guns can outmatch a lot of unarmed people.
In Anbar, the resentment of the Americans was high, and IS offered a way to turn back the clock. Additionally, as mentioned, the Americans didn’t make it easy for people who wanted to side with them over the jihadists: security is everyone’s first priority, and for that it was IS that had to be placated, not the Americans. It was this dynamic the surge reversed by being population-centric.
The most disturbing scene is the concluding one. In 2007, Ware is on a raid with soldiers and a U.S. sniper intercepts an insurgent seeking to ambush them. The insurgent is mortally wounded, but he is alive and by the letter of the law should have received some medical attention. He receives none. “All I had to do was say something. Anything. Simply clear my throat to force the soldiers to give him the medical aid they were meant to. But I didn’t. I just let it happen,” Ware says.
The film’s title comes from a quote, usually attributed to Plato, that “only the dead have seen the end of war”. Ware has struggled with the after-effects of his experiences and concluded, “All war is pointless”. The debate about pacifism will not be resolved, but what Ware recorded of this war is far from pointless. A riveting account on its own merits, it gives some vignettes of events that matter still.
One of the benefits of Ware’s gritty, block-level experience and footage is that it shows what Zarqawi’s men were actually doing, how they had chosen to wage their war to expel the Americans and build their Islamic state. And it provides supporting evidence to a new paper by Craig Whiteside, which examines IS through the prism of Mao Zedong’s three-stage revolutionary warfare: building and preserving a core network of ideologues; expanding this nation-wide and becoming a mature, bureaucratic organization; and making the decisive move to defeat the old order in its core areas and establish the caliphate.
IS being able to issue death sentences and carry them out in the streets in Anbar, as seen in Ware’s film, was a demonstration that without formal territorial control, IS was able to exert a lot of societal influence. In true Maoist fashion, IS had raised violence to levels where societal norms collapsed, inflamed “contradictions” (sectarianism in this case) to draw the community it aimed to lead closer to it, and into this chaos introduced parallel structures that compelled greater obedience than the state—while leaving the state to fill in the gaps IS was as-yet not mature enough to handle.
This was something Ware could see: despite the apparently-optimistic statistics at various times, the Americans were losing control. These tactics remained constant: IS was a “shadow authority” in Mosul, its one remaining urban holding after the strategic defeat in mid-2008, before overtly conquering the city in June 2014
Zarqawi’s bayat to al-Qaeda in late 2004 was something he had tried to avoid, but he soon solved the conditions that made it necessary. Through extortion networks (“taxes”), oil trade, and captured military hardware IS became self-sufficient by 2005, and its tensions with al-Qaeda began early and never ceased.
IS had also proven able to eliminate its enemies, setting up effectively Special Operations teams like the Umar Brigade. This provoked a backlash when expanded from Shi’a targets to Sunni rivals, but IS is a highly adaptable organization and its scope was recalibrated after the Awakening by Zarqawi’s successor, Hamid al-Zawi (Abu Umar al-Baghdadi). There would be less assassinations, more political outreach—and it worked, with assassinations after that often having some local legitimacy.
Two Maoist lessons examined by Whiteside stand out in IS’s conduct: avoiding engagements on disadvantageous terms and indoctrinating recruits to keep them loyal to the cause in times of military dormancy. IS’s methodology has consistently demonstrated both. With the sole exception of Kobani, IS has retreated from urban areas when outmatched, sometimes after a show of resistance and sometimes not, preserving its fighters; and focused on the politico-religious instruction among its fighters.
From Fallujah to Palmyra to Sirte, IS has melted away from urban areas when a clearly superior force is ranged against them. Just this week, IS quit Jarabulus virtually without a shot being fired since they knew, after the losses in Manbij and with the Turkish army among the invading forces, there was no way they could hold off. And the men who implemented Zarqawi’s caliphate—whether it was military men like Samir al-Khlifawi (Haji Bakr), one of the architects of IS’s expansion into Syria, or, probably more importantly, religious figures like Abd al-Rahman al-Qaduli (Abu Ali al-Anbari), who would have succeeded Zarqawi had he not been taken into prison just months before Zarqawi was killed—stuck to the project through its nadir, when its ranks were depleted, its leadership nearly destroyed, and the survivors driven into the deserts.
Al-Khlifawi and al-Qaduli had made a conscious choice to join Zarqawi’s movement just as Ware was making his contacts, in that early phase when the Ba’athi-Salafist remnants of the Saddam regime were far more powerful. This dispels any notion that IS is a Ba’athist “Party of the Return” wrapped in a shahada; jihadist ideology was key to the life-and-death decisions of its leadership. And al-Qaduli and those like him have primed cadres to follow in their wake as IS returns to a state of hardship in the next few years.
Another important figure who has remained through it all is Taha Falaha (Abu Muhammad al-Adnani), recruited by Zarqawi in 2002, who now oversees IS-held areas in Syria and the foreign attacks. In his capacity as IS’s spokesman, Falaha has perfectly given voice to the Maoist idea of the cause being kept alive even when the military situation turns negative.
“Were we defeated when we lost the cities in Iraq and retreated in the desert without any city or land?” Falaha asked rhetorically in a speech in May. “Certainly not! True defeat is the loss of willpower and desire to fight.” An editorial in IS’s newsletter, al-Naba, echoed this, saying that the only way IS would be defeated is if the “entire generation of Muslims that was witness to the … return of the caliphate … is wiped out.”
One of IS’s notable characteristics is how ideologically stable it is. Unlike many guerrilla armies, which adapt their ideology to local conditions, IS has exerted considerable efforts to adapt the population to its ideology. IS has also physically reshaped the society in its core areas in Iraq, with control and finance mechanisms emplaced that it would require local buy-in to uproot. Unfortunately, the current anti-IS campaign has crucially failed at this aspect by utilizing forces deemed illegitimate by local populations, ensuring IS will outlast the collapse of its statelet, reverting back through the stages of Maoist warfare as necessary.
This is to say that everything IS is now was there from the start, which means parts of it appear in Ware’s recordings, giving a glimpse of what was coming—even if only in retrospect.