Friday, March 1, 2013

Ron Smith: Cinema and the secret world

I am not intending to expand into the arcane realm of the film critic but I am recommending, for those who have not yet seen them, two recent films that deal with the clandestine world of secret warfare.  The first of these is
Argo, which was a great success at the Oscars, a few days ago, and the second is Zero Dark Thirty, which deeply offended the sensibilities of the politically correct, and rapidly disappeared from critical view.  Both of these were made with the officially approved cooperation of the relevant intelligence agencies.  Indeed, Zero Dark Thirty (ZDT) was intended to be part of the Barak Obama re-election campaign, depicting him as a fearless fighter against terrorism, until that project tripped over in Benghazi in September.  This was when al Qaeda turned out to be very much alive and well-capable of killing an American ambassador in his consulate.

There is a question about whether either of these movies ought to have been made, especially the latter.  There are plenty of examples of where an overwhelming desire to get the ‘good news’ story out has resulted in an ‘own-goal’, as when, shortly after 9-11, we were made aware of the vulnerability of terrorism organisers speaking on a cell-phone, even in the vastnesses of central Asia, to missiles from far away, homing in on their signal.  Terrorists don’t do that now, as ZDT illustrates but the risk that this sort of ‘docudrama’ does give something away remains.  On the other hand, for those of us who are interested in the methods of intelligence agencies (and the extraordinary imagination and effort that are often entailed), films like this are absolutely fascinating.
Argo was criticised in New Zealand for an almost ‘throw-away’ line very early in the film, to the effect that New Zealand diplomatic staff in Tehran in 1980 had refused to help in the rescue of US Embassy personnel, who had taken refuge in the Canadian Embassy at the time of the occupation of the US Embassy by ‘revolutionary guards’.  (In an elaborate CIA scheme they are rescued in the guise of a Canadian film crew.)  In fact, second-secretary at the New Zealand Embassy, Richard Sewell, actually drove the fugitives to the airport and, with the knowledge of the NZ Ambassador, contributed in other ways to the plan.  So why did director Ben Afleck do this.  Simplifying the number of characters in a drama is a common and understandable practice but why would he have made a point of explicitly disavowing New Zealand’s participation?  Well, perhaps he thought he was doing us a kindness.
After all, no one in Tehran, then, or in more recent times, would wish to get on the wrong side of the administration there.  We have interests to defend, quite apart from the actual security of our representatives.  Prime Minister, David Lange, made the point plain a few years later.  This was in March of 1989, just after Ayatollah Ruhollah issued a fatwa calling for the assassination of Salman Rushdie, over the publication of his ‘Satanic Verses’.  The United Kingdom broke diplomatic relations with Iran over the issue, and invited others to join them.  Lange announced that we were not going to ‘risk the lamb trade for a scribbler’ (as well as a nuclear ‘expert’, he was also a literary critic).  In the event, he did change his mind but the general point remains.  As an earlier Prime Minister (Muldoon) once observed, our foreign policy is trade.

Zero Dark Thirty offers something very different.  As I noted earlier, it offers a tense drama on the assassination of Osama bin Laden by US Navy Seals and a detailed account of how the US intelligence services found out where he was.  This included a substantial and quite protracted depiction of the interrogation technique of ‘waterboarding’, although for this viewer it was not entirely clear to what extent, if at all, intelligence gleaned was directly relevant to the bin Laden case.  Whatever may be the truth of this, ZDT has made a substantial contribution to the continuing debate about whether it could ever be justified (and, perhaps, whether it is strictly ‘torture’.

On this last point, at the material time President Bush had a memorandum from his Justice Department  to the effect that waterboarding (‘enhanced interrogation’) was ‘tough but did no lasting harm’, and , as such, lay outside the definition of torture in the United Nations Convention Against Torture, since it did not produce severe pain equivalent to organ failure or death.  This advice was subsequently rescinded.  On the other hand, the noted essayist Christopher Hitchens had a different opinion.  He took the extraordinary step of persuading the Green Beret practitioners of this kind of interrogation to water-board him.  His report is entitled, “Believe me, it’s torture”.  (Arguably, Random House, 2012, 448-454)  We might take his word for it.  It is an extremely disagreeable and frightening experience.

But this still leaves us with the possibility that this kind of ‘interrogation’ may, on occasion, be the lesser of evils.  This is what the Dean of Deakin University Law School (Professor Mirko Bagaric) thinks, “If we can kill (in war) to protect others, it is nonsense to suggest that we can’t inflict lesser forms of harm, including torture, to achieve the same result.”

Not for the first time, art serves morality. 


Kiwiwit said...

I agree that there is no moral difference between, say, drone attacks on Pakistani villages and water-boarding suspected Pakistani terrorists. However, while I am happy for the state to use violence to stop a clear and present threat to the lives of its citizens, there are very few circumstances where water-boarding (or remote drone attacks) would meet this criterion. Obtaining information which may or may not be useful to track down Osama Bin Laden does not.

Brian said...

Not for the first time I fear, Hollywood and reality are miles apart.
Personally I have always avoided films about actual conflicts ever since seeing Errol Flynn conquer Burma!. But at least he looked washed and shaved, which is a deal more than one can say about modern actors.
Costume war dramas are good for business but death on history. In view of that fact, perhaps it would be in all our interests to encourage more War films about New Zealand....."Poor indigenous Maori against savage British Colonial troops and grasping settlers".
We could ever get Warner Bros to dig up Flynn for the main part (with an appropriate Government subsidy for Peter Jackson).
It might make water boarding more acceptable.

Dave said...

This discussion about water boarding illustrates just how far Western nations are apart from the reality of 3rd world and the radical fundamentalists who often reside with their protection. These same radicals would not hesitate to torture or slit the throat of the evil westerner. We in the Western world pussy foot around and play by the PC rules to a degree that it costs the lives of our service men and women. If we toughened up and play by the same rules as the terrorist or for that matter any bad guys in our society conflict and crime could be resolved much quicker.

Anonymous said...

Totally agree that is is strange that killing in war is OK but torture is not. My issue with torture is whether or not it elicits truth. If someone was torturing me I'd tell him what I thought he wanted to hear to make it stop. The truthfulness of those statements would be irrelevant.

Ray S said...

Right on Dave.
Nothing more to say really !