Film Review: The Western Front

05/13/2010 01:59 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Today most Americans believe the United States should not have gone into Iraq. The cost in lives and treasure and national reputation was too great. The benefit to country was small - well, for most it was zero. Believing invading Iraq was a mistake, few Americans are interested in understanding the mistakes we made after invading. The media has moved on to Afghanistan, sort of. Documentary films focus on chronicling the lives of our soldiers and Marines in the combat zone, occasionally. The Pentagon prefers to conduct its "autopsy" in private, definitely.

Now, however, there is a superb film that picks apart what we did wrong in Iraq and what our military did right. The Western Front does not cover everything -- the deceptions of the Bush Administration, the unintelligence of the intelligence community, the incompetence of the US civilian authority in Baghdad, the mercenariness of the humanitarian and reconstruction industry, the inflexibility of the US military leadership - no one film could indulge all those wrongs. Instead, The Western Focus focuses on our military in Iraq, what it did on the ground in the most violent province in Iraq.

In 2004 and 2005 Zackary Iscol was a U.S. Marine Lieutenant leading a combined platoon of Marines and Iraqis in Al Anbar Province, the birthplace and stronghold of the Iraq insurgency. He fought in the Battle of Fallujah, the bloodiest and most destructive engagement in the Iraq War with some of the heaviest urban combat since the Battle of Huế in Vietnam. Upon returning home in 2005, Lieutenant Iscol believed -- as did nearly all of the US military -- that the Battle of Fallujah had broken the back of the Iraqi insurgency. That victory in Fallujah was the beginning of the end for the Iraq War.

Not true; in fact, the opposite was true. The insurgency expanded and violence spread and security deteriorated. Iraq plunged into a horrific civil war. Winning the Battle of Fallujah, paradoxically, was a turning point not for winding down the war but for ratcheting up the war. This irony is the central investigative focus of The Western Front.


When discharged from the Marine Corps in 2007, Iscol felt uneasy about decisions he had made during the war and questioned what our overall efforts had achieved. The following year he returned to Al Anbar Province, interviewing Iraqis and Marines he had served with in combat. The Western Front is a balanced, compelling story of a former Marine and Iraq combat veteran who returns to Iraq to navigate through some sensitive terrain, searching not for enemies but for the truth, which he finds.

Iscol makes the fundamental point that they were ignorant of Iraq. Didn't know the language -- Iscol himself was dependent upon his Iraqi translator -- clueless about the country's history, viewing its tribal society as anarchic and irrelevant. They believed the Iraqi enemy was essentially one group, whereas they were many: Former Ba'ath supporters, nationalists, foreign fighters, religious fanatics, etc. All of which was an omen that the US military did not understand the conflict.

Meanwhile, the complexity and difficulty of separating the civilians from the fighters resulted in large numbers of civilian causalities. This became a highly effective recruitment tool for the insurgency -- recruiting new fighters and more civilian supporters. When civilians are killed, the local population nearly always holds the foreign military responsible, the foreign military that fired the weapons.

In modern warfare, when opposing a force that has overwhelming firepower and superior technology, the insurgents often remain in close proximity to civilians. They snuggle close for logistical support, for concealment, and at times for human shields. And the results have been gruesome. Whereas in World War I only 10 percent of the fatalities were non-combatants, in World War II this percentage climbed to approximately 50 percent, and today the number of civilians killed in wars makes up some 80 percent of the dead. Increasingly the price for war is being paid by the non-combatants.

In 2004, when U.S. Marines defeated the insurgents in Fallujah and other towns and villages throughout the hotbed province of Al Anbar, more than 2,000 Iraqi civilians were also killed. And the Iraqi insurgency received a huge spike in new fighters and civilian supporters that led to greater violence.

"By killing the enemy," former Marine Iscol says, "we made more enemy. Our power to kill was a paradox."

And spreading the violence created a huge exodus of Iraqis. Some 4 million --one in eight Iraqis -- fled the country. Worse, most were highly educated and religiously moderate, those Iraqis essential for bringing stability to their hemorrhaging country. The center was hightailing it out of the exploding house.

In 2006, two years after the Battle of Fallujah, the US military began shifting its strategy from emphasizing the killing of insurgents -- that killed large numbers of civilians -- to emphasizing the partnering with Iraqis. In Al Anbar, tribal leaders joined in a partnership with US Marines. Much of the impetus for this came from tribal members pressing their leaders to act. The tribal bosses recruited members for paramilitary units and a new Iraq Police, while the Marines trained, equipped, and mentored the new security forces. And the violence decreased and the overall security situation improved.

The true turning point of the Iraq War, then, was not winning the Battle of Fallujah, but shifting the US military strategy from focusing on killing insurgents to working with Iraq's tribal leaders.

First-time filmmaker Zackary Iscol does a superb job in spotlighting the failed US military strategy in Iraq and illuminating the successful strategy that followed, concluding that "killing your enemies is not how you defeat them."

In modern insurgency warfare, killing the enemy often works against defeating the enemy, while the road to undermining armed resistance is generally paved with non-violent actions. This doesn't mean force is never utilized; it means that force is the last, not the first, option. It means understanding that the rules of winning armed conflicts have changed immensely since World War II. It means the US military brass needs to watch this insightful, smart documentary.

The Western Front is an artful mesh of interviews and narration and intimate camera work resulting in a smooth presentation that picks apart a difficult subject. Regardless of your position on the US invading and occupying Iraq, what the US military did wrong in Iraq and what it did to reduce the violence is important. It is something all of us need to know.

Whereas the lesson of the Vietnam War was don't get bogged down in an insurgency war, and the lesson of the Mogadishu fiasco was don't go into a fighting environment without sufficient strength, The Western Front presents the lesson from the Iraq War as don't overly rely on force to defeat an armed insurgency. It's a vital lesson.