Tag: war films

Watching Hunger

I finally took the time (and found the courage) to watch Steve McQueen’s “Hunger” (2008). It is the story of the events that led to the 1981 Irish hunger strike at Maze Prison in which Bobby Sands and nine other men died. The film is hauntingly beautiful from an aesthetic standpoint and horrifying intellectually. There are very few films which actually merit the adjective “powerful,” this is one of them.

(I am still processing this film in my mind, but I thought I would share a few thoughts in case others have seen it and thought it through…)

Critics will undoubtedly take issue with the film for its failure to contextualize the crimes (and therefore the punishment) of the IRA “terrorists,” but the film is not a history of the “Troubles” per se. Even if one absolutely condemns the violence of the Irish Republican Army (IRA), the film forces the viewer to confront the relationship between the state and the body.

There are brutal scenes in which the bodies of the condemned appear Christ like after they have been abused by the prison guards. The state itself appears bodily in the mode of discipline, and the various trials of strength, dignity, and will inflicted upon the prisoners in spirals of barbarism inside the prison. Outside the prison, the bodies of the state are the target of ruthless assassinations by the IRA. The state also appears dis-embodied as the merciless voice of Margaret Thatcher:

“Faced with the failure of their discredited cause, the men of violence have chosen in recent months to play what may well be their last card. They have turned their violence against themselves through the prison hunger strike to death. They seek to work on the most basic of human emotions — pity — as a means of creating tension and stoking the fires of bitterness and hatred.”

The aim is obviously preemptive propaganda, but Thatcher’s rhetoric is fascinating. Hunger, the weapon of the weakest of the weak, is described as a continuation of terrorist violence. The slow, silent, lonely, and intensely painful drama of suicide through starvation is characterized as a mere sleight of hand, a cheap trick designed to stoke hatred by eliciting pity. While Sands and his colleagues did undoubtedly seek to elicit pity and revive the republican cause, their protest was more than a mere final trick.

From the vantage point of the film, the disembodied voice of Thatcher sounds un-human, desperate, and powerless to all but the most gullible and close-minded. It is clear that the hunger strike returns the state to a Foucauldian situation in which it must risk a trial of strength in public with the body of the condemned.

As an American, one cannot help but think of and note the contrasts with the treatment of detainees in the prisons at Guantanamo Bay, Abu Ghraib, Baghram, Kandahar, Diego Garcia, etc. There is no doubt that the treatment of prisoners held in these some of these facilities (e.g. Abu Ghraib) was as de-humanizing as the treatment inflicted on the Irish in Maze Prison. In Mullah Zaeef’s recent memoir, My Life with the Taliban, he writes bitterly of his experience in Guantanamo Bay:

“We were not given toilet paper or water to clean ourselves after using the toilet; only our hands could be used, but could not be washed afterwards. This is how those who claim to defend human rights made us live,” (Zaeef 2010, 196).

From what I understand the UK abandoned the practice of force feeding in 1917 after it led to the death of an Irish prisoner, Tom Ashe.  The US government, however, still seeks to deny prisoners that it labels as terrorists the right to play even this “last card.” Some of the hunger strikers in American facilities like Guantanamo were reportedly force fed and prevented from vomiting nutrients. Mullah Zaeef’s recounts that eventually the doctor-in-charge at Guantanamo refused to continue force feeding the prisoners during the 2005-06 hunger strike.

One has to wonder what the practice of force feeding says about the US and its understanding of the body of the suspected terrorist. One could argue that the act of force feeding a mentally sound, political prisoner foreshadows a totalitarian impulse which we as Americans would prefer to associate with other regime types.  Even the publicly released images of those prisoners in orange jumpsuits, kneeling in stress positions with heads covered and ears muffled, conjures a body completely turned over to the power of the state.  The prisoner is in a limbo where they cannot be human and have absolutely no rights.  That we as Americans tolerated such tyrannical behavior from our own government perhaps speaks to the autistic hysteria under which we have lived for nearly a decade.  Either that or it speaks to the utter indifference we hold for those who are merely accused of being enemies of the state.

Language and Humanity

In the docu-drama “The Road to Guantanamo” (2006), there is an odd scene where an American prison guard (in real life his name is Brandon Neeley) asks one of the Tipton Three to rap for him. The guard becomes uncomfortable when he realizes that these kids being held in Guantanamo not only speak English but are products of an Americanized global culture. It is as if the body of the prisoner comes to have a soul, at least in the eyes of one guard for one brief moment. (Although it is not depicted in the film, the guard resigned from the US military in 2005. He has contributed to the Guantanamo Testimonial Project and has apologized to Shafiq Rasul for the treatment that was inflicted on him. The apology has been accepted).

If a common language can create a minimal sense of shared humanity even amongst sworn enemies, then it is stunning to realize what the Britons did to the Irish in Maze prison. In “Hunger,” the prisoners use Gaelic to organize their resistance, although not all of the prisoners speak the “national” language. And while all of the prisoners understand and speak English, there is almost no dialog between the prisoners and their keepers.

Perhaps the point of the film is that language itself dies as the body is subject to increasing pain.  And it is the death of language that permits such depravity.

Share

The Hurt Locker, again

Duck of Minerva bloggers have already written quite a bit about “The Hurt Locker,” which won the Best Picture prize at this week’s Academy Awards ceremony. I saw the movie on DVD a few weeks ago and have been digesting some of the reactions to the film.

Like many critics of this film, Michael Kamber of the NY Times offers a list of serious errors in “The Hurt Locker.” Viewers see the bomb disposal team leave on missions without much other military support. The team members clear buildings by themselves, become skilled snipers and spotters when they stumble upon some British mercenaries, and operate alone in the desert for no apparent reason. He concludes that these are much more than minor technical mistakes:

The film is a collection of scenes that are completely implausible — wrong in almost every respect…it’s not just minor details that are wrong.

Perhaps most inexplicably and implausibly, Staff Sgt. William James, the lead character portrayed as a reckless showboat, has supposedly managed to disarm hundreds of bombs without killing himself! In one key scene, he runs around Baghdad alone at night without suffering injury. His unbelievable exploits are emphasized and reemphasized throughout the film.

So, why did I like “The Hurt Locker” and find it a viable candidate for the canon of IR-related films?

As I read the film, the story of Sgt. James is a metaphor for the story of post-cold war U.S. military intervention — primarily in Iraq, but elsewhere as well.

For James, the war in Iraq is a narcotic. He thrives on the adrenaline-inducing experience, even though he cannot talk to his wife on the telephone, nor really endure his ordinary post-war experience at home with wife and child. His bomb disposal techniques are so disturbing that his fellow team members talk of killing him. He returns to Iraq because his participation in that war has become an integral part of his identity. Sure, he’s been incredibly lucky in the past, but his personal image is embedded in his wartime experience.

As some critics point out, this film has been lauded because domestic audiences appreciate its apparent wartime “realism,” even though the storyline and characters seem completely unrealistic to experts who give them serious thought.

The U.S. too has a long and mostly successful military record — and it too has been incredibly lucky. Like James, the U.S. returned to Iraq after a successful first effort in 1990-91, though many of its friends decided to sit this war out — and some worked actively to try to stop it. Most IR experts found the rationale for U.S. participation in Iraq fairly implausible back in 2003, though I suppose the mass public supported a certain rationale at the time it was originally offered.

To its critics, the U.S. too is a reckless showboat, willing to take incredible risks with other peoples’ lives, even as it claims to be “saving” them. As Vikash has argued at the Duck, the film makes very little effort to explore the perspective of the Iraqis in the film. “The Hurt Locker” is a narrow portrayal of one small unit’s experiences with death and destruction.

This too could be read as an important element of the film. In political debates, Americans focus on U.S. forces, casualties, and experiences. Foreign policy experts debate the meaning of the Iraq war for preventive war doctrines, counterinsurgency tactics, present and future budgeting, etc. Few consider the implications for Iraqis and the wider Middle East.

At times, their technology and ability make the bomb disposal team members seem like Supermen, saviors of the world. However, the film makes no effort to argue that these super-human efforts are actually doing any greater good — or even improving the security of the United States. The film was set in 2004, which means that the U.S. had not yet officially given up on the search for WMDs, the Downing Street Memos had not been disclosed, the Samarra mosque had not been bombed, etc. “Shock and awe” had not prevailed, however, proving that America’s technological prowess didn’t lead to the type of victory many war proponents predicted in advance of the conflict.

In other words, the bad news was bad…but it got worse.

In sum, while the storyline of “The Hurt Locker” often seems detached from realistic war-time experience, that FUBAR narrative works pretty well to explain the actual U.S. experience in Iraq. The lead character’s addiction to war, recklessness, luck, inexplicable behavior, and need to “save the day” reflect an unsavory, but nonetheless viable, portrayal of American identity.

Share

The Hurt Locker

When I heard that the “Hurt Locker,” a drama set in the midst of the Iraq War, was nominated for several Oscars, I was intrigued. Americans have not shown much interest as a people in either of the current official wars and even less interest in documentaries about and dramas set in these conflicts. My initial hunch was that this film, was selected to balance out “Avatar”, the narrative of which clearly questions militarism and imperialism (while also reveling in astounding levels of mindless violence). So I assumed that “The Hurt Locker” would make a conservative counter-argument which justified the necessity of this war of choice. After finally seeing it, I was stunned that this film was nominated for any awards.

I would argue that the film is certainly racist/orientalist in the way in which the Iraqi population is portrayed. Iraqis are depicted as either villainous or as an undifferentiated mass of passive spectators and victims. There are no images of Iraqi women which do not depict them either wailing or otherwise “hysterical”. The English speaking Iraqi men, all of whom have bit parts, are completely emasculated. The American soldiers are generally depicted as brave (if insanely reckless in a cowboy fashion) and highly competent.

The one chance that the writer and director had to stage a dialog between the protagonist and an Iraqi professor is completely squandered as the professor’s “hysterical” wife throws the protagonist-intruder out of her home. Perhaps I should be thankful that the writer and director did not choose to try to speak for “the other.”

There is the requisite paternal engagement with an Iraqi child. However, the child apparently is indistinguishable to the protagonist from all of the other masses of poor Iraqi children who chase and throw rocks at military vehicles.

The film may not be quite as aggressively racist as “Blackhawk Down,” “300,” or “Zulu,” the defining films in terms of racist war genre, but it is certainly a contender. There are thankfully no scenes in which a brown or black horde attacks an outnumbered group of mainly white heroes. In terms of the anti-Arab content, the film is not as bad as “True Lies” or any of the worst Hollywood films in the anti-semitic/anti-Arab genre, mainly because it does not really engage “the other” at all… so none of the more complex racist tropes are brought forth. Nevertheless, the film does continue the long tradition documented in Reel Bad Arabs.

It will be argued that the film is true to the perspective of the main characters. The film shows how narrowly focused the life of the average soldier is. Of course, we do not get a portrayal of the level of boredom that often accompanies military duty. War is depicted as an exciting adventure, particularly in contrast to the bland challenges of raising a child and maintaining a household. So I question its realism. In showing us how soldiers view Iraqis and the Iraq War, it also gives the audience permission to see Iraqis (and by extension the Middle East) in the same uncritical way.

Does any of this matter, particularly in a forum where we discuss international relations? I think it does. War films become a part of a nation’s memory and they have the potential to spark debate and dialog about the causes of war which shapes policy. Moreover, war films are often central to the cult of militarism. The “Hurt Locker” does nothing to interrogate the causes, meaning, or consequences of war, it dehumanizes the people living under occupation. As such it merely serves as propaganda for the war machine. Perhaps there should be a separate Oscar for this genre.

Share

© 2021 Duck of Minerva

Theme by Anders NorenUp ↑