THE INTENSE HUMMING OF EVIL
War is on everyone's minds these days. Supposedly people support what is going on in Iraq, but I don't really know many--meaning that either this support isn't really there and we're just told it is, or I travel in an isolated circle. Right now, of course, there is a big controversy surrounding how a certain amount of our soldiers treated Iraqi prisoners, engaging in torture and humiliation that is appalling to anyone who has a heart in their chest (or, at the least, took high school gym). To be honest, though, the acts themselves are less shocking to me than people being shocked that stuff like this happens. It's a war. We are sending thousands of people to go kill thousands of others. Human beings cross the lines of what is right and just when they aren't in extreme conditions; when we put them in extreme conditions, can we expect every single one to restrain themselves from going over that line in equally extreme ways? Yes, it's wrong, it's contemptible, I think the soldiers and their commanding officers should be tried as war criminals, and I think Rumsfeld shouldn't have to resign, because he should be fired (and for those who agree, sign this petition John Kerry has going). I'm just not shocked that people can stoop to some pretty fucked up lows.
I think history tends to support me. I am guessing just about every war has similar atrocities. I watched two films on war today, and they suggest so. In Errol Morris' Fog of War, a documentary on Robert S. McNamara, the Secretary of Defense through the first chunk of the Vietnam War, we see archival footage of a soldier in Vietnam loading a bomb with the words "Only The Beginning" scrawled on the side. Certainly not electricity to the testicles, but isn't this how that sort of thinking starts?
And for that kind of torture, Gillo Pontecorvo's 1965 film, The Battle of Algiers, alleges that the French used similar tactics to get Algerian rebels to inform on their compatriots. In one montage, Col. Mathieu (played by Jean Martin) escalates what he calls Operation Champagne to ferret out the leaders of the revolutionary movement and we see the sorts of things that his soldiers engage in under the banner of "interrogation"--heads under water, men trussed up, electrodes attached to ears. I imagine in 1965 the scene of Mathieu lying in a press conference when asked directly if torture is used was scandalous; today, it feels like your normal everyday occurrence.
Pontecorvo's movie is heralded for its historical accuracy, and Rialto's re-release couldn't be better timed. The Battle of Algiers is extremely relevant to today, as we see a people tired of having a foreign army occupying their streets resort to the only measures available to them. At one point, a terrorist is asked why he feels it is morally acceptable to smuggle weapons in the baskets of the Algerian women. He states rather plainly that he wonders if it is more acceptable to napalm villages from an airplane. If so, then if the French would like to give them some planes, they would gladly start using them rather than leave bombs in cafes. (And, of course, we see what people at the time did not: the violence escalated when some pumped-up French officers left a bomb on the doorstep of an Arab apartment building in the middle of the night, killing everyone inside. The soldiers on the winning side have never been the bullies, eh? Supposedly "civilized" nations have never resorted to terrorism, either.)
The genius stroke of The Battle of Algiers is that Pontecorvo doesn't editorialize. Sure, it's clear whose side he is on, but he never has a character proselytize on his behalf to make sure we get that. The action of the rebels is enough. The closest he gets to commentary is with Mathieu. Naming the operation off a billboard points to the opulence of the imposing power, and there is the irony of his defending his actions by tossing out the fact that he fought in the resistance against the Nazis, never once seeing he is now the one to be resisted. (Overall, you wonder if the French government ever noted that it wasn't that long ago that they, too, ousted rulers they no longer wanted to serve in their own Revolution. Does the U.S. government ever consider that when they take over another country?)
In the end, it's hard not to watch The Battle of Algiers and think about how long the Arab world has been fighting to maintain its independence, been dealing with outside racism and forces that don't understand how they live. Their world and the Western world are totally at odds, and it's going to be a rough road bringing the two together. The April 2004 Vanity Fair has a heart-wrenching article about the Muslim population of Paris, and the women who want to break out of the ghettos and have a secular life full of choices and freedom, and how the French government and media are ignoring these problems. I read it and wondered how there could be anyone who could not see how wrong all of this was. But those people do exist, and the fundamental difference in thinking is not a gap we can traverse through war.
A belief I am confident in saying Robert S. McNamara would easily back me up on. In Fog of War, he states clearly that he believes the U.S. to be the most powerful nation in the world, and as a result, we should never impose our views through violence. If we can't deal with any problem with any foreign government rationally and through negotiation, if we have to resort to fighting and economic sanctions, then we, as a power, have failed.
Keep in mind that this is a man who helped establish a program to train WWII officers at Harvard, who helped devise the strike plan for firebombing Japan, who aided Kennedy in averting the Cuban Missile Crisis, and tried to assist two Presidents in Vietnam, all the time advocating that we needed to get the hell out of the conflict. I remember seeing a trailer for this film and someone hissed when McNamara came on, but all were silent when the trailer ended with him saying flat out, "We were wrong." This is a man who was against killing, and has pondered questions that we can only imagine in the abstract and put them into action, such as "How much evil must you do in order to do some good?"
Perhaps the most chilling thing he says, in addition to saying a power such as ours should never instigate foreign conflict, is that none of our allies felt we should be in Vietnam (including the French, who knew what it was like, having been a former colonial power there), and for that reason alone we should not have entered the War. Sound remotely familiar?
Morris breaks McNamara's philosophy down into 11 lessons. The final one is that you can't change human nature. I think that's clear in how we're seeing history repeat. Our leaders, the segment of soldiers abusing their power, the people who are fighting back--all exhibiting a human nature we have seen over and over again.
I wish hey would run these two movies repeatedly on TV every night until everyone gets it. Barring that, Fog of War is out on DVD this week. The Battle of Algiers is doing the art-house rounds right now, and will be out on a 3-disc Criterion DVD in the fall.
Interesting aside: a woman came into the video store to rent the VHS of The Battle of Algiers. She said we were the only store in Portland that had. The other two stores like ours had reported they had it at one time, but that the tapes had all been stolen. No one knew why. And now it's three or so weeks later and last I saw she hadn't returned it. Is it some kind of conspiracy?
Current Soundtrack: JJ72, I To Sky