Looking at today’s Afghanistan and Iraq, the targets of the post 9/11 invasions, it’s worth remembering how these wars were sold to western publics as both justified and necessary. The road to hell indeed, paved with fine intentions.
Some kind of military response to the worst terrorist attacks on the American homeland was probably inevitable. Yet long-running wars that make matters worse could have been avoided. Afghanistan at least remains territorially intact, if wracked by poor governance, rampant corruption and high levels of violence. There’s a reason Afghans are second only to Syrians among desperate refugees seeking asylum in Europe (some 200,000 in 2015). Iraq, on the other hand, was a war of choice on trumped-up evidence and its supposed “liberation” from a dictator has become an unmitigated disaster. Occupation produced insurgency, which gave birth to the fanatical “Islamic State” (IS) that still controls considerable territory including the second-largest city, Mosul. The country’s survival is in doubt. Western intervention helped remove another dictator in Libya. But that too has backfired badly as Libya’s civil turmoil is exploited by IS-affiliated extremists. Osama bin Laden, Saddam Hussein, and Muammar Gaddafi were all hunted down and killed. Yet the region is aflame with terrorism on an unprecedented scale and the threat — including of radicalization via Internet — is being exported to the West where each atrocity claimed by IS instils fears easily manipulated by populist demagogues.
Here we are, 15 years since the twin towers fell, and the world seems more dangerous and security-obsessed than ever. Has anything been learned?
Not in Hollywood apparently, still making the odd movie about these ill-conceived Middle East wars, unfortunately adding more farce than enlightenment to the folly. In January there was Michael Bay’s typically bombastic 13 Hours subtitled “The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi” which purported to tell the story behind the Sept. 11, 2012, siege of American compounds in this key Libyan city, a terrorist assault that killed four including the American ambassador Christopher Stevens. The focus is on a group of hired ex-army commandos (the “secret soldiers”) who come to the rescue while naive diplomats and bureaucrats prevaricate. (The movie doesn’t have to explicitly say that heading the latter would be then Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, much bashed by Republicans as being responsible for the Benghazi “scandal.”) Although there are a few “good” Libyans on screen, we’re meant to cheer for the heroic armed Americans, as tough as they are devoted family men. They’re led by a character (played by John Krasinski) whose truest words are about not wanting to be “in a battle I don’t understand in a country that means nothing to me.” Message to Libyans from these good guys: you really don’t matter.
March saw the release of war pornography of another kind, Whiskey Tango Foxtrot (the “wtf” initials serving a similarly unprintable purpose to “fubar”). It’s supposedly based on journalist Kim Barker’s book The Taliban Shuffle: Strange Days in Afghanistan and Pakistan. The Barker character, called Kim Baker in the movie, is played by comic actress Tina Fey. As a klutzy television reporter, Baker is comically ill-prepared for an assignment in the Afghan capital, or more specifically the “Kabubble,” a sexist circus inhabited by cynics, combat junkies, carpetbaggers, conniving contractors and corrupt Afghans. This is the Afghan war played for cheap laughs. It’s as though what 15 years of war has meant for Afghans doesn’t really matter either.
Arriving last month was War Dogs, ostensibly based on the true story of how two Miami dudes, Efraim Diveroli (Jonah Hill) and David Packouz (Miles Teller), found a way to profit from U.S. government Iraq-war contracts to small business. A ludicrous episode, running guns to Baghdad, vaults them into the big time, raking it in and living large. But after landing a $300 million Afghan arms deal, trouble comes calling. Helmed by Todd Phillips (The Hangover trilogy), the movie wallows in the absurdity of its shady dealings. Dripping with cynicism, the outrageously bad behaviour by Americans in Middle East war zones makes a joke of the obscene arms business. It’s more sendup than satire. And, once again, the people actually living there get the butt end.
Fortunately there are movies that convey deeper understanding of these wars and their consequences. Director and co-writer Laurent Bécue-Renard’s Of Men and War (http://www.ofmenandwar.com/) is a powerful documentary that has aired on television as well as being available on video. Filmed over six years (2008-2013), primarily at Pathway House, a “transition home for combat veterans” in California, it’s an intimate portrait of the struggles of returning American Afghan and Iraq servicemen, many haunted by terrible memories and suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), with symptoms that include insomnia, addiction, aggressive and self-destructive behaviours.
In group therapy sessions that emotional baggage, and the language used to express it, are extremely raw. Contrary to the strong macho military stereotype, these men feel damaged and afraid of their own male rage. One says “I feel defective.” Another admits “I’m scared of myself,” worried that he has become a danger to himself and others. Losing friends, some to suicide, moves them to uncontrollable sorrow and anger. They know they have to open up and overcome their demons if they are to save their relationships with loved ones and their ability to function in society.
The movie is a sobering observation of how the use of America’s unrivalled military power can make victims of its own soldiers; of how the aftermath of war’s collective violence can be a violence that is internalized individually and manifested in a range of negative feelings. These can be repressed but are like ticking time bombs ready to explode. As one participant in a treatment program puts it: “I learned to shut down, to not give a ___ about anything. Rage carried me through everything.” The sessions can be extremely intense as these men open up while the camera is discreetly recording. Hatred, guilt, impotence, it’s all there as they recall experiences of war. Like an open wound the pain is brought to the surface. A veteran who was hit by a mortar and left for dead remembers “. . . at that point I hated God . . . like I was an ant and he was burning me with a magnifying glass and watching me squirm.”
What is hopeful is how this emotional honesty becomes integral to a process of healing and recovery for the men and their families. No one watching that can help but be moved. With a presidential candidate promising to use America’s might to annihilate all enemies, it’s good to be reminded that war does terrible things to people, including superpower good guys.
Denmark is certainly no great power, but its significant military commitments to the 9/11 wars have also had an impact on screen. Among the best documentaries made about western soldiers in Afghanistan is Janus Pederson’s Armadillo, which won the Cannes festival critics week grand prize in 2010. It exposed a war crime that caused deep national misgivings. Among dramatic treatments there is none better than writer-director Tobias Lindholm’s A War, Oscar-nominated in the 2016 foreign-language category. The narrative also includes an incident of deadly force by Danish soldiers that leads to grave consequences.
The central character, Claus Michael Pederson (Pilou Asbæk), is the commander of a Danish battle group deployed to a remote Afghan province where they are vulnerable to Taliban attacks. Meanwhile back home in Copenhagen his wife Maria (Tuva Novotny) must endure his absence as she copes with raising their three children. It’s a strain that will be familiar to many military families. Pederson is the opposite of the macho bully. He’s a sensitive, caring and decent man with a strong attachment to his band of brothers. But in the fog of war and under fire, fateful choices are made. Believing it necessary to protect the lives of his soldiers Pederson makes a call that results in the bombing death of 11 Afghan non-combatants. Subsequently he’s called home to face charges in a military court for ordering an airstrike on what turned out to be a civilian target. It’s all filmed with documentary-like realism. The trial proceedings are almost as tense, riveting and compelling as the earlier scenes from the Afghan conflict zone. The scales of what can be morally justified under conditions of war weigh heavily on both. Asbæk is outstanding as the commander bearing a great burden. (He’s best known for his role as media adviser to a female prime minister in the great Danish television series “Borgen.”)
Hopefully the Oscar attention will result in wider North American release. Because we need more movies like these that probe the toll of war instead of exploiting it as entertainment.