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Monday, May 2, 2011

May 2, 2011: Exhibit A

There are lots of reasons why many 1980s films are difficult for a contemporary audience to watch and take seriously, but for two late 80s action films, there’s one very shared (and today very salient) element that would produce a great deal of discomfort in a 2011 American audience. Timothy Dalton’s first James Bond film, 1987’s The Living Daylights (a personal favorite of mine, for lots of reasons not germane to this blog post), and Sylvester Stallone’s third Rambo film, the aptly titled (and much less effective, at least for anyone not a 10 year-old boy) Rambo III, both feature extended sequences set in Afghanistan, plotlines in which our heroic protagonists join forces with the Mujahideen, the Afghan resistance to the invading Soviet forces. The logic of these alliances is obvious enough—not only are the Mujahideen opposing the Evil Empire, the superpower against which both Rambo’s US and Bond’s British are thoroughly allied, but they’re also the plucky underdogs, freedom fighters taking out tanks and helicopters with rocks and cleverness, the Minutemen and the Redcoats all over again.
Thanks in significant measure to the Mujahideen’s efforts—and in these filmic universes to Bond’s and Rambo’s contributions as well, of course—the Soviets were indeed repulsed, withdrawing all troops from the country in 1989 (a debacle that contributed without question, in both financial and public relations terms, to the Soviet bloc’s collapse over the following couple of years). The problem for a contemporary American audience is what happened next: the Mujahideen morphed very directly into the Taliban and al-Qaeda, extremely conservative Muslim radicals and terrorists with CIA training and funding, American and Western European weaponry, and a healthy grudge against all foreign invaders (a category that would almost immediately be redefined to include American troops stationed in Arabic nations, such as Saudi Arabia, during and after the 1991 Gulf War). That the US helped create or at least refine and weaponize Osama Bin Laden and his cohort does not, of course, absolve those individuals of the responsibility for their decades of brutal attacks, mostly on innocent civilians and much of the time within the Muslim world; neither, to cite an explicit parallel, does the Reagan and Bush Sr. Administrations’ decade of support of Saddam Hussein in his conflicts with Iran and the Kurds (there’s a particularly telling picture of Reagan envoy Donald Rumsfeld shaking Hussein’s hand in 1983, during a time in which US intelligence knew Hussein was using chemical weapons on the Kurds) make Hussein any less of a brutal and evil dictator.
And yet, can we tell the stories of Bin Laden and 9/11, of Hussein and the two Iraq Wars, stories that each have ended in at least partial US triumph with the captures and deaths of both men, without including these significantly more complicated earlier histories? Or, more exactly and to echo my post of a few days ago, in telling the stories without the histories, as we have most certainly largely done over the last decade, what kind of harm are we doing not only to the complexities of our historical and international role and presence, but also to our understanding of the far from static nature of good and evil in the world, of for whose victories we’re cheering as opposed to in whose deaths we find justice and how much those categories can change over time and with other shifts? These questions are quite literally exhibit A in the thinking I’m continuing to do about these American issues, not only because they’re so salient and present but also precisely because they’re so controversial –by far the easier kind of patriotism today is just a celebratory one, the chants of “USA” on the White House lawn and at Ground Zero; and yet the harder and more meaningful kind of patriotism remains one that celebrates justice while recognizing the interconnected injustices to which we have contributed.
Again, this isn’t an either-or; admitting and engaging with the injustices does not in any way excuse or mitigate Bin Laden’s horrific and evil deeds, nor minimize the importance of bringing him to justice for them. But at the end of the day, Bin Laden himself is entirely insignificant compared to the questions of how we understand and engage with our own identities and histories; and on that score, we’ve got lots more work to do. More tomorrow,
PS. Three links to start with:
1)      Rambo and some Mujahideen fighters share a touching moment before the explosions resume:
2)      Very thorough account of the Reagan-Hussein relationship in the early 1980s, including tons of now-declassified material:
3)      OPEN: What do you think?


  1. The enemy of my enemy is my friend... it's truly thought-provoking to look back at the time when bin Laden and the U.S. were vaguely allied (against Communism, as the NYT obit quoted bin Laden as framing it). The history will always be more complicated than the simple narrative. Remember your friend who said "complicate" was an academic word? Doesn't mean it's wrong.

  2. Nicely said, Ben. I read yesterday how one of the Phillies players was up to bat and started hearing the fans chant USA and thought they were just "being superpatriotic or something." I had been watching the game and heard some of this. Although the sentiment was real for the fans, it was more like the Roman Coliseum than a sporting event. Interesting.