Sunday, 24 February 2013

Zero Dark Thirty: the collateral damage of torture

This Friday I saw Zero Dark Thirty, the movie about the assassination of Osama bin Laden. Actually I had wanted to see Lincoln, but Diederick had already been to that and since this was also on the nominations for and Oscar and an interesting subject we diverted.

A victory for the Free World and Capitalism!

I don't understand the Oscar talk about this one. Apparently much of the praise for this movie comes for its realism. This says more about the sorry standards of Hollywood. Yes, the explosions and fighting are not glorified or messed up with silly explosions (although the images of the blowing up of the crashed heli at the end of the movie are traditionally melodramatic). The atmosphere is gritty, but hard to discern from other gritty fiction.

As a wargamer I have of course watched the break in to the Abottabad compound with great interest. It was much slower and more methodical than we get the impression from action movies and therefore very useful. I would have been interested in the planning of the raid, which maybe isn't great material for a movie, but would help understand the approach and tactics chosen. Maybe some day this will turn up in a director's of cut scenes edition.

There is no great acting in the movie and the nomination for Jessica Chastain I don't understand. Her depiction of the main character stays close to the archetypal American whodunnit inspector, totally dedicated and single minded to find Bin Laden. Her confrontation with the station manager over resources for her quest is typical of the genre. I really expected somebody to come up with the classic 'I'm getting you off the case' to finish it off.

You might want to ask whether Bin Laden did have a more than symbolic function in the Al Qaeda networks by early 2012, but of course even that is enough reason to take him out. I have no problem with that decision, but you have to argue how this operation justified its great costs.

As somebody who did a bit of reading around the attack at the time, maybe the details weren't as new and surprising to me. And of course, like in Titanic, we already know how the story ends. So it wasn't a gripping whodunnit to me. Also, not being an American, the death of Bin Laden wasn't as much of a personal reckoning. When I received the news I didn't run into the street waving the star sprangled banner. So the movie didn't touch me that much personally.

Reincarnated Carthaginian / buffoon

In all I get the feeling that had this movie been exactly the same, but just not about a real raid on Osama bin Laden it would not have been considered for any prizes. Maybe it's similar to the Patton movie, as laughable as any 1960s 1970s war movies with silly battle scenes, which also scored Oscars for Best Picture.

George Scott´s performance puts Patton on like some buffoon from a Western, but maybe this looks more credible to contemporary movie audiences than the opinionated intellectual that I get the impression Patton was. I just can´t see how this is a great movie, but it obviously touched a nerve in the American psyche (I wouldn't be surprised they needed a bit of encouragement after Tet).

Much of the talk about this movie revolves around the depiction of torture (you know they know it is torture when they have to come up with managementspeak like 'enhanced interrogation'.

The movie offers some read between the lines explanations for the desperate resort to torture. Maybe the CIA really was stuck in the Cold War frame of mind, and was unable to understand the jihadis, and the pressure was on the CIA to come up with information on the terrorists and possible new attacks, and  fast. So that the only alternative to handing out cash in this high pressure environment was physical and emotional abuse. But at best, this only a part of the explanation of how torture came to feature so prominently in the 'War on Terror'. Political and high administrative condoning played its part.

As always, reality is stranger than fiction

But at best the evidence is that apart from some useful information, the tortured detainees also told a load of rubbish in desperate attempts to let it stop. Matt Taibbi has shown some good examples of this on his blog at Rolling Stone.
"So while torture might have found us bin Laden, maybe, it also very well might have sent us on one of history's all-time pointlessly bloody wild goose chases, invading Iraq in search of WMDs."
Even the movie admits the ineffectiveness of the torture methods although it was probably not intended as such, when the Washington chief comes to Pakistan chastising the workers that they have caught only four out of twenty known Al Qaeda leaders.

In the end, the exact position of bin Laden is not revealed through torture but through old fashioned research, employing hard and soft intel, that is satellite search and telecom scanning as well as observation and informers. The invention of a inocculation programme to get blood samples from the people living in the compound was a classic, even if it failed in its objective.

Critics of the movie have rightly noted that the effectives of torture has been accepted without context in the movie. But even if it had been more effective in getting information from suspects (ie faster and more accurate than by tried and tested, but non-violent methods), there are two points that should have provided better judgement.

First of all, the use of torture degrades you to the level of the terrorists and is a moral defeat of the highest order. I can understand the need for revenge after the attacks, but fear is a bad councilor. After all 'we', the West, the United States of America, the beacon of liberty, were supposed to better than that. And this war against terror was supposedly in name of defending these freedoms.

But even if you think revenge makes it okay to throw your moral standards overboard, you can see that it will affect your standing among your peers and among a large mass of people who try to stay out of this conflict. I am afraid many Americans have no idea what damage the invasion in Iraq and torture have done to their efforts.

While the spirit all across Europe in September 2001 was that we were all New Yorkers now, and there was massive support for military intervention in Afghanistan and cooperation with the Americans in the struggle against terrorism, this had all gone by 2004. The sympathy and trust had been repaid with deception and constructive criticism had been met with 'if you're not with us, you're against us'. It made me and many others reluctant to be seen as on the side of the US.

This meant that the US was finding it increasingly hard to find military and political support in Iraq and Afghanistan just when it became clear that it had fucked up there. It now had to negotiate hard for troops and money that would have been supplied eagerly if the US had kept the moral high ground. It must count as one of the biggest wastes of political capital in history.

But more so, on September 12th 2001 the mass of muslims in the world was not part to the conflict. They didn't like US presence in the Middle East, or it's support for Israel against the Palestinians and they may even have deplored the effects of consumerism, liberalism (rights for women, gays and religious and ethnic minorities) and corporations (oil). But that didn't make them supporters of terrorism.

Showing who has the moral high ground
But Osama's attack on the US elicited just the response he would have wished. A text book example for Mao's and Che Guevarra's theories of popular insurrection. Retribution has come to anyone, whether member of the tiny minority of terrorists, illicit supporters or innocent bystanders. And it was out there for anyone to see. That must have been very easy recruiting for jihadis.

The only saving grace for the US is that the jihadi are even worse than them when they get in power. I can't see how the US could have turned around the situation in Iraq if the tribes hadn't experienced the rule of the religious nutters first hand. I'm also afraid that when first hand knowledge of Taliban rule in Afghanistan disappears, the US will face an impossible task of keeping the present regime in the saddle.

Think of it in this way. We Europeans have gone through this before in colonialism. We were full of the Mission Civilisatrice of the White Race and the need to help raise the poor darkies from their economic and moral depravitity. But if you have seen the great French movie The Battle of Algiers, you can see how the very effective methods of the French army against the insurrection just proved to Algerians that the French weren't morally fit to rule them and decide on their destiny. Add in the slaughters at Amritsar and Lombok, or anywhere else.

So the costs of the torture programme have been much higher than any results, even if it had been as effective as some assume. That question is not answered, not even posed in this movie. Timothy Egan in the New York Times probably has expressed it best:

"It’s not just the torture and its inherent message that young, attractive Americans got the ultimate payoff in part by doing what German bad guys used to do in the movies.
It’s the omissions. In “Zero Dark Thirty,” several larger truths — the many intelligence mistakes, the loss of focus and diversion of resources, and the fallout from the folly of the Iraq war — are missing." 

In that sense, Django Unchained, not a movie that gets cheered for its realism, posed more uneasy questions. Or take Three Kings and Jarhead about the first Iraqi War, which force those questions on us by being surreal and overtly fictional.

ps In case you're wondering why I'm breaking my mind at all over the Oscars, you're right. It's silly. I've never watched the ceremony, and more often let a nomination deter me from wachting a movie than actively seek it out. Why bother about it now? Dunno.


  1. Quite thought provoking, though I doubt reason will have it's way


  2. Coming late to this post, which I thought was well argued and thoughtful. As a Canadian I share your puzzlement about the US fixation on Bin Laden. I don't think it's something that we as non-Americans can understand, but I think your post a while back on the experiences of Dutch soldiers in prison camps can help us understand a bit. The USA has never been conquered or attacked in what, after 9/11, it began to call, in a rather sinister fashion, it's "homeland". This was a sense of vulnerability and outreach that other countries in the modern area have trouble comprehending. Bin Laden, as the architect of that outrage, simply had to be punished.
    As for torture, I haven't seen ZD30 but will likely try to see it at some point. I will suspend judgement on it until then. However, there is no doubt that America sullied its values with torture after 9/11, and I don't think the Abu Ghraib pictures were the work of a few bad apple reservist military police. I think those actions were licensed by a systemic culture of abuse and revenge, and I a lot of people who saw the US war in Iraq have said the same thing (see Tom Ricks' book Fiasco).

    1. hi Michael

      Don't get me wrong, taking out Bin Laden has my full approval. Even if it is was probably largely symbolic, some sort of justice has been served. But a good movie would have questioned that point, I think. The answer could be that it was worth it despite being largely symbolic.


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