Michael Ware Walks Through a Heart of Darkness of His Own

By Eleanor Laurence

When did you decide you wanted to do this project?

I was a writer. I wasn’t a filmmaker. I certainly didn’t go to Iraq to make a film. But once I picked up a small video camera, I quickly realized its value as a notebook because it could record the dialogue that I couldn’t when the bullets are flying and the bombs are going off. Each year when I would return to Australia to visit my family, I would dump that year’s batch of tapes into a Tupperware box under my mother’s bed. After seven years I eventually came home for good, but it wasn’t until about a year later that I actually began to start watching those tapes. It was at that point that I knew that I needed to do something.

The documentary is on one level one man’s journey through the horror of war. Did you see a parallel between your narrative and Heart of Darkness or Apocalypse Now?

One of the things that led me to the narrative was by accident I happened to pick up an old dog-eared copy of Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. And it’s when I read that, that’s when I finally saw the story. There was this journey upriver in pursuit of one man and the darkness that he represented. But I still struggled; I found it very hard to insert myself into the story. I’ve spent a career telling other people’s stories, so it was [co-director] Bill [Guttentag] and others who helped me accept that, yes, I very much was part of the story. And for me, that story was akin to the Heart of Darkness.

The parallel to Conrad’s book does speak to the fact that Only the Dead gets at something beyond the specifics of a single war.

That’s exactly what we’re after. On one level it is one man’s journey through a war; you follow in my descent and come with me as I find my darkest place. On another level, it’s about the Iraq war and we witness the birth of the Islamic State. But also, in our highest ambition, it could also be seen as part of the conversation about the nature of us as human beings because in the end, we all have the light and the dark within us. You know it when you see what it is that our boys in uniform have to go through, the dark place they have to get to in order to fight and survive; when you see what it is that the Iraqis have to endure, the dark choices that some of these people that we now call the Islamic State have made -- I think all of that more broadly reflects upon the human condition.

What was your process for reaching out to the insurgents?

One of the most important tenets of journalism is that there are always two sides to a story. So as I was going about reporting for Time magazine, I would ask, “Did you serve in Saddam’s military?” “What happened to you during the invasion?” “Where are your comrades now?” “Who are the insurgents?” And it was first through one person who said, “Look, I’m not one of these people carrying a gun, but perhaps you would like to go and speak to my old war buddy.” Then I would go to speak to that person, and I would have to gain his trust. That was all done sitting in their homes, or sitting in their villages, drinking tea, with their children running about. It was relationship by relationship, trust by trust. It got to a point where no other journalist could get through because unless you’d been there right from the very beginning and gained all that trust, by the beginning of 2004, it was far too dangerous at that point and the insurgency was closed off.

Would you say that speaks to how the lines of “them” and “us” become more and more pronounced as you continue down a path of violence?

Well certainly for the soldiers, they often—and by necessity—have a one-dimensional view of the other people they are fighting. Yet, even as time went by, even the U.S. soldiers could understand the insurgency. If you’ve served in the military and then, no matter how well-intended, a foreign force comes and occupies your country, what are you going to do? You’re going to fight back. I think everyone in uniform could understand that. What was entirely different was the arrival of what we now call the Islamic State. Because look, there wasn’t just one war in Iraq. There were at least four wars. There was the American war against the insurgents, fighting to free their country from what they saw as a foreign occupier. Then there was a holy war with the people we now call the Islamic State. Then there was the Civil War between the Iraqis themselves. And then finally there was the Iranian soft war against virtually everyone else named above.

In the film, after receiving the tapes from Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, you say, “I felt he had made me complicit somehow in his war.” What do you see as the distinction between the journalist and the bystander in the warzone?

As journalists, we’re there to observe and record, but at the same token, the observer does in some way change the observed. So journalists constantly have to be vigilant about maintaining that middle line. In war, everybody lies. Our government. Their government. The bad guys. The good guys. Even the civilians, through exaggeration and confusion. So we’re constantly bombarded with very “well-crafted” information, and it’s always up to us to distill from these pieces of propaganda some glimmer of truth. The difference with Zarqawi was that his was such a dark and hellish agenda that there was something different about receiving that one tape. And that’s when I first felt my brush with true darkness. And I think that’s when I first felt that it might start infecting my own soul.

Can you discuss the end of the documentary and the scene where you film a young insurgent dying? Were you aware of your silence in that moment?

I can almost tell you the exact frame that it suddenly occurred to me that I could do something and I was choosing not to. What I was trying to do was film the indifference of the soldiers, but then it occurred to me that I had become as indifferent as they were. It was a conscious choice that I made. Now, in a greater journalistic sense, the hope—you know, the desperate hope—is that by filming this one moment, you can tell a much greater story. Forget the fact we’re not there to intervene as we spoke about. There nonetheless remains the question of your own humanity and morality. And that choice made consciously at that moment in that farmyard, really told me about where I, in my heart, had arrived.

Only the Dead See the End of War is available to stream.