Let me begin with some background not covered in the film. Dirty War derives from “La Salle Guerre”, the term the French applied to their counter-terror campaign in Algeria, circa 1954-1961. Algeria wanted independence, and France resisted.
Like subject people everywhere, the Algerians were badly outgunned and resorted to guerrilla tactics including “selective terrorism,” a hallmark of the Viet Minh, who fought the French until 1954, when America claimed Vietnam as its rightful property. Viet Minh tactics were derived largely from Mao’s precepts for fighting a People’s War.
Selective terrorism meant the murder of low-ranking officials – collaborators – who worked closely with the people; policemen, mailmen, teachers, etc. The murders were gruesome – a bullet in the belly or a grenade lobbed into a café – designed to achieve maximum publicity and demonstrate to the people the power of the nationalists to strike crippling blows against their oppressors.
Whether the Great White Fathers are French or American or English, they agree that putting down a People’s War means torturing and slaughtering the people – despite the fact that most people are not engaged in terrorism or guerrilla action and have no blood on their hands.
As John Stockwell taught us years ago, Dirty War means destabilizing a targeted nation through covert methods, the type the CIA has practiced around the world for 66 years. Destabilizing means “hiring agents to tear apart the social and economic fabric of the country.
“What we’re talking about is going in and deliberately creating conditions where the farmer can’t get his produce to market; where children can’t go to school; where women are terrified inside their homes as well as outside; where government administered programs grind to a complete halt; where the hospitals are treating wounded people instead of sick people; where international capital is scared away and the country goes bankrupt.”
Economic warfare – strangling nations like Cuba, Iraq and Iran in Medieval fashion – is a type of Dirty Warfare beloved by the Great White Fathers who control the world’s finances. Though no less deadly than atomic bombs, or firebombing Dresden, it is easier to sell to the bourgeoisie.
You’ll hear no mention of this in Scahill’s film, nor will you hear any references to Phil Agee, or the countless others who have explained Dirty War to each generation of Americans since World War Two.
You will not hear about psychological warfare, the essence of Dirty War.
America’s first was terror guru was Ed Lansdale, the advertising executive who made Levi’s blue jeans a national craze in the 1930’s. He applied his sales skills to propaganda in the OSS and after WW II, concocted a new generation of psywar tactics as an agent of the Office of Policy Coordination assigned to the Philippines under military cover. Lansdale’s bottomless black bag of dirty tricks included a “skull squadron” death squad that roamed the countryside, torturing and murdering Communist terrorists.
One of Lansdale’s counter-terror “psywar” tactics was to string a captured Communist guerrilla upside down from a tree, stab him in the neck with a stiletto, and drain his blood. The terrorized Commies fled the area and the terrified villagers, who believed in vampires, begged the government for protection.
Lansdale referred to his sadism as “low humor,” an excuse borrowed liberally by American officialdom during the Abu Ghraib prison scandal.
Lansdale formalized “black propaganda” practices to vilify the Communists: one of his Filipino commando units would dress as rebels and commit atrocities, and then another unit would arrive with cameras to record the staged scenes and chase the “terrorists” away.
Lansdale brought his black propaganda and passion for atrocity to Saigon in 1954, along with a goon squad of Filipino mercenaries packaged as “Freedom Company.”
Under Lansdale’s guidance, Freedom Company sent Vietnamese commandoes into North Vietnam, under cover as relief workers, to activate stay-behind agent nets and conduct all manner of sabotage and subversion. Disinformation was a Lansdale specialty, and his agents spread lurid tales of Vietminh soldiers’ disemboweling pregnant Catholic women, castrating priests, and sticking bamboo slivers in the ears of children so they could not hear the Word of God.
In the South, with the help of the American media, Lansdale re-branded the heroic Vietminh as the beastly Viet Cong.
Lansdale’s greatest innovation, still used today, was to conduct all manner of espionage and terror under cover of “civic action.” As a way of attacking Viet Minh agents in the South, Lansdale launched “Operation Brotherhood,” a Filipino paramedical team patterned on the typical Special Forces A team. With CIA money, Operation Brotherhood built medical dispensaries that the CIA used as cover for terror operations, as depicted in the book and movie The Quiet American.
Levis never went out of fashion, nor did Lansdale’s dirty tricks. Think Saddam Hussein killing babies in their incubators. Such disinformation invariably works on an American public looking for any excuse to rationalize its urge for racist genocide.
Think Argo and Zero Dark Thirty and every Rambo and Bruce Willis films.
Only Americans were fooled by the propaganda, and the Vietnamese quickly caught on. So the CIA in 1956 launched the Denunciation of Communists campaign, which compelled the Vietnamese people to inform on Commies or get tortured and murdered. The campaign was managed by CIA agents who could arrest, confiscate land from, and execute Communists and their sympathizers on the CIA’s master list. In determining who was a Communist, the CIA used a three-part classification system: A for dangerous party members, B for less dangerous party members, and C for loyal citizens.
As happened later in the Phoenix program, the threat of an A or B classification was used to extort innocent civilians, while category A and B offenders were put to work building houses and offices for CIA officers and their lackeys. And, of course, the puppet Vietnamese President used his CIA created, funded and trained security forces to eliminate his political rivals.
As Lansdale confessed, “it became a repressive tool to liquidate any opponent.”
“This development was political,” Lansdale observes. “My first inkling came when several families appeared at my house one morning to tell me about the arrest at midnight of their men-folk, all of whom were political figures. The arrests had a strange aspect to them, having come when the city was asleep and being made by heavily armed men who were identified as ‘special police’.”
Lansdale complained, but he was told that a “U.S. policy decision had been made. We Americans were to give what assistance we could to the building of a strong nationalistic party that would support Diem. Since Diem was now the elected president, he needed to have his own party.”
How We Got To Scahill’s Dirty War
By 1962, as the US expanded its Dirty Wars in the Far East and South America, the military replaced its Office of Special Operations with an up-dated Special Assistant for Counter-insurgency and Special Activities (SACSA). SACSA assigned unconventional warfare forces to the CIA and regular army commanders, who initially resisted.
In 1965 Lansdale went back to Vietnam to run the Revolutionary Development Cadre Program as the CIA’s “second station” with a staff of CIA officers, Green Beanies, and Daniel Ellsberg. Vietnam was a laboratory and the CIA was experimenting with Pacification, aka “the Other War.”
In 1967, the CIA created the Phoenix program to coordinate everyone in its Dirty War. Phoenix combined existing counterinsurgency programs in a concerted effort to neutralize the civilians running the shadow government. Neutralize means to kill, capture, or make to defect. Central to Phoenix was that it targeted civilians. “By analogy,” said Ogden Reid, a member of a congressional committee investigating Phoenix in 1971, “if the Union had had a Phoenix program during the Civil War, its targets would have been civilians like Jefferson Davis or the mayor of Macon, Georgia.”
Under Phoenix, due process was nonexistent. South Vietnamese civilians whose names appeared on CIA blacklists were kidnapped, tortured, detained without trial, or murdered on the word of an informer. Phoenix managers imposed a quota of 1,800 neutralizations per month on the saps running the program in the field, opening it up to abuses by corrupt security officers, policemen, politicians, and racketeers. One CIA officer described Phoenix as, “A very good blackmail scheme for the central government. `If you don’t do what I want, you’re VC.”‘
Because Phoenix assassinations (totaling 25,000+) were often conducted at night while its victims were home sleeping, Phoenix proponents describe the program as a “scalpel” designed to replace the “bludgeon” of My Lai-style search and destroy operations, air strikes, and artillery barrages that indiscriminately wiped out entire villages and did little to “win the hearts and minds” of the people. But that was just propaganda and Phoenix was, among other things, an instrument of counter-terror – the psywar tactic in which enemy agents were brutally murdered along with their families and neighbors as a means of terrorizing the people into a state of submission. Such horrendous acts were, for propaganda purposes, often made to look as if they had been committed by the enemy.
This practice is at the heart of the film I will be reviewing.
As noted, conventional soldiers hated Phoenix. General Bruce Palmer, commander of the U.S. Ninth Infantry Division in 1968, objected to the “involuntary assignment of U.S. Army officers to the program. I don’t believe that people in uniform,” he said, “who are pledged to abide by the Geneva Conventions, should be put in the position of having to break those laws of warfare.”
Palmer’s was such a charming sentiment. By 2004, Obama advisor Lt. Col. David Kilcullen, in an article for Small Wars Journal, was calling for a “global Phoenix Program.” Tom Hayden wrote an article for The Nation about Kilcullen in 2008 titled “Reviving Vietnam War Tactics”.
Fact is, Phoenix never went out of fashion. As McClintock notes, “Counterinsurgency and indeed all aspects of special warfare doctrine had developed a reasonable level of political sophistication by the mid-1970s, acknowledging the necessity of combining military and civil initiatives.”
By 1975 SACSA had expired, the nation had internalized its humiliating defeat in Vietnam, and the CIA, wounded by the Church Committee hearings, went underground. The age of counter-terror began. Central and South America were the new laboratories. The CIA forged secret alliances with proxy nations like Israel and Taiwan, whose agents taught Latin American landowners how to organize criminals into death squads which murdered and terrorized labor leaders, Human Rights activists, and all other enemies of the Great White Fathers.
To compensate for the reduction in size of its paramilitary Special Operations Division, the CIA formed its Office of Terrorism. Meanwhile, the military branches beefed up their terror capabilities, all of which glommed together in December 1980 in the Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC). Steve Emerson chronicles this development in detail in Secret Warriors (1988).
JSOC’s mission, conducted on the Phoenix model with the CIA, is identifying and destroying terrorists and terror cells worldwide. Paramilitary personnel are often exchanged between JSOC and CIA.
By the early 1980s, CIA and military veterans of the Phoenix program were running counter-insurgency and counter-terror ops worldwide.
General Paul Gorman, who commanded U.S. forces in Central America in the mid-1980′s, defined this advanced form of Dirty War as “a form of warfare repugnant to Americans, a conflict which involves innocents, in which non-combatant casualties may be an explicit object.” (Toledo Blade 1 Jan 1987)
All of which brings me to my review.
Dirty Wars is a post-modern film by Jeremy Scahill, about himself, starring himself in many poses.
The film owes more to Sergio Leone and Kathryn Bigelow than Constantinos Gavras. Scahill certainly is no Leslie Cockburn: there is no Tony Poe telling how the CIA facilitates heroin shipments; no Richard Secord suing him for unraveling the financial intrigues of the CIA’s secret operators. The CIA is rarely mentioned.
There is no reference to the Guerra Sucia in Argentina.
Scahill is no Franz Fallon documenting the devastating psychological effects of racism on society. There are no cameos by Jean-Paul Sartre advocating violent retribution on Hollywood, no mingling with the Taliban in their caves as they conspire against their Yankee oppressors at the Sundance Film Festival.
We get the first taste of his self-indulgent idiocy when he says it is “hard to tell” when the Dirty War began. He does tell us, however, that he is on the “front lines” of the war on terror.
Scahill (hereafter JS) brags that he wasn’t going to find the front lines in Kabul, although he could have, if he knew where to look. Instead he just looks around furtively on his way to the scene of a war crime. We see a close-up of his face.
The endless close-ups artfully convey the feeling that our hero is utterly alone, on some mythic journey of self-discovery, without a film crew or interpreters. There is no evidence that anyone went to Gardez to make sure everyone was waiting and not toiling in the fields or tending the flocks, or whatever they do. And we’ll never find out what the victims do. The stage isn’t big enough for JS and anyone else.
This is a major theme throughout the story – JS is doing all this alone and the isolation preys on him. He bears this heavy burden alone, with many soulless looks.
Initially, there is no mention that journalist Jerome Starkey reported what happened in Gardez. JS is too busy establishing himself as the courageous super-sleuth. As we drive along the road, he reminds us how much danger he is in. Two journalists were kidnapped here, he says. This area is “beyond” NATO control. He must get in and out before nightfall or the Taliban will surely kill him like the Capitalist dog he is.
In my drinking days, we referred to this type of behavior as grandiosity. Telling everyone how you defied death, so the guys would talk about your exploits in the bars, and the girls would fall at your feet. For JS, this formula is working – a visit to his Facebook page reveals scores of “Millennial girls” wringing their hands and fretting for his safety as he strides across America’s secret battlefields in search of the truth. His carefully crafted Wiki bio furthers the legend.
Using the material gathered by Starkey (whom he eventually acknowledges), JS shows that in February 2010, American soldiers murdered five people in Gardez, including two pregnant women, and tried to cover it up by digging the bullets out of the targeted man’s body. He interviews the surviving family members. They weep. Violin music plays. They seem more like props than human beings.
JS ingenuously asks various Afghan and American officials, why the cover-up? The officials suggest that the targeted man was working for the Taliban – and if you play that double-game, you risk your family and friends. The Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff tells JS they were in the wrong place at the wrong time. He says there will be no investigation.
Cut to Capitol Hill where, by his own account, JS has greatness thrust upon him. “It is imperative,” he tells Chairman John Conyers, “that Congress investigates this shadow war to examine its legality.”
What, one wonders, was Conyers thinking? Forty-two years earlier, after hearing testimony from Bart Osborn and Michael Uhl about the Phoenix program, Conyers and three other U.S. representatives stated their belief that “The people of these United States … have deliberately imposed on the Vietnamese people a system of justice which admittedly denies due process of law …. In so doing, we appear to have violated the 1949 Geneva Convention for the protection of civilian peoples.”
His testimony, JS tells us, “throws him into the public arena,” ever so reluctantly. He revisits his Blackwater testimony and shows pictures of himself with numerous celebrities on TV.
B-takes of Scahill walking among the common folk in Brooklyn, plotting his next move. Haunted by the horror of Gardez, he files FOIA requests and discovers that William McRaven is head of the Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC). He’s stunned. He’s been a national security reporter for over a decade, and he’s never heard of JSOC before. It’s covert. The story has been hidden in the shadows, he says.
This was the turning point of the film for me. For a National Security correspondent, this is an admission akin to a botanist saying he’d never heard of flowers. It’s an admission that fairly sums up the sorry state of reporting in America today. Has JS ever read a book?
JS discovers that Gardez is not an isolated incident, and that JSOC rampages across Afghanistan with “unprecedented authority.” He talks to a former JSOC soldier about its activities in Iraq, where it had hit lists and conducted night raids. This revelation, and the fact that McRaven took responsibility for Gardez, leads JS to conclude that JSOC is responsible for Gardez. It certainly wasn’t Congress, which according to JS, has no control over JSOC. JSOC money comes from rich donors.
JS learns that JSOC is not only in Afghanistan, but that it operates worldwide, and that its hit lists get bigger all the time. And we hear, for the first time, the catchy phrase, “the world is a battlefield.”
At this point JS decides, with the help of The Nation brain trust, to investigate JSOC in Yemen where CIA drones are wiping out people by the score.
B-take of JS sipping tea thoughtfully. He’s going to talk to the most powerful man in South Yemen. We view the scene of a drone strike: 46 killed, including five pregnant women. A woman in a black veil says her entire family, save one daughter, were wiped out. Violin music. But there’s no cover-up here. In fact, Obama personally kept the journalist in prison who reported the strike.
What will Obama do to JS?
Once again, we fear for JS. Luckily he lives to talk to Rachel Maddow and Morning Joe. The greatness thrust upon him forces him onto TV shows everywhere. There he is with Amy Goodman!
More close-ups. We count the pores on his nose, the hairs in his eyebrows. We feel the fear. He gets a strange call. Someone tells him JSOC tortures people without telling the CIA or regular army, which are too busy torturing people to care.
As he studies the hit lists, he comes across radical America Muslim, Anwar al-Awlaki. After talking to Tony Schaffer, he realizes JSOC targets Muslims and that is why, along with the US invasion of Iraq, Awlaki is pissed off. Awlaki is an American but is inciting people to revolution in Yemen, so Yemen allows the CIA to kill him.
Note – the CIA is mentioned maybe twice in the film. Apparently it is so covert it escaped his notice.
We see JS in an exotic location. An airplane lands. JS is back in the USA. He’s been traumatized by what he’s seen. He tells anyone who will listen that the US cannot kill its way to peace, as if peace is the objective. The war on terror, he concludes, is creating enemies, which of course is the objective.
Before the American people can rally to JS’s clarion call, Obama sends some guys to kill Osama bin Laden. This is too much of a coincidence to ignore. Was it done to subvert his investigation? In any event, McRaven and JSOC are now heroes. He meets a knowledgeable person who tells him the Dirty War will go on forever. He tells us about signature strikes that kill people randomly (but not that the CIA conducts them) and that the war on terror is out of control.
Pictures of JS pointing to countries on a map where JSOC operates. He decides to visit Somalia, where JSOC is snatching bodies and taking them to ships in the Arabian Sea, and outsourcing its Dirty War to mercenaries. He visits mercenaries wearing camo fatigues. There are no other journalists here, it is too dangerous. Someone hands JS a flak jacket. Someone tells him they bury traitors alive. The tension soars. He’s surrounded by armed men. There’s a gunshot. He ducks behind sandbags.
We wonder who arranged for JS to meet these guys? Where did he get an interpreter? What’s the quid pro quo?
JS goes to a hospital morgue and look at a mutilated body. After which he wants to go home. But he learns that Awlaki’s son has been killed and reluctantly he returns to Yemen.
I liked this part of the film. It seemed genuine. We see home videos of Awlaki’s son doing youthful happy things. JS tries to understand why the US would deliberately kill a 16 year old kid? Which is a good question. Perhaps America is ruled by a murderous Cult of Death.
We see pictures of young girls smiling, and we revert back to the contrived scenes and monologue that drag the documentary down into gratuitous self-promotion. JS says he never had any idea where the story would lead, as if all this happened magically, like a rabbit pulled out of a hat.
The film ends and I wonder what he could have produced if he hadn’t melodramatized and spent so much time and film on close-ups. I wonder what he could have done if he’d read a few history books.
Ultimately, the film is so devoid of historical context, and so contrived, as to render it a work of art, rather than political commentary. And as art, it is pure self-indulgence.
And in this sense, it is a perfect slice of modern American life.
Douglas Valentine can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
One year ago, after his breathtakingly beautiful Iranian drama, “A Separation,” won the Academy Award for Best Foreign Film, writer/director Asghar Farhadi delivered the best acceptance speech of the night.
“[A]t the time when talk of war, intimidation, and aggression is exchanged between politicians,” he said, Iran was finally being honored for “her glorious culture, a rich and ancient culture that has been hidden under the heavy dust of politics.” Farhadi dedicated the Oscar “to the people of my country, a people who respect all cultures and civilizations and despise hostility and resentment.”
Such grace and eloquence will surely not be on display this Sunday, when Ben Affleck, flanked by his co-producers George Clooney and Grant Heslov, takes home the evening’s top prize, the Best Picture Oscar, for his critically-acclaimed and heavily decorated paean to the CIA and American innocence, “Argo.”
Over the past 12 months, rarely a week – let alone month – went by without new predictions of an ever-imminent Iranian nuclear weapon and ever-looming threats of an American or Israeli military attack. Come October 2012, into the fray marched “Argo,” a decontextualized, ahistorical “true story” of Orientalist proportion, subjecting audiences to two hours of American victimization and bearded barbarians, culminating in popped champagne corks and rippling stars-and-stripes celebrating our heroism and triumph and their frustration and defeat. Salon‘s Andrew O’Hehir aptly described the film as “a propaganda fable,” explaining as others have that essentially none of its edge-of-your-seat thrills or most memorable moments ever happened. O’Hehir sums up:
The Americans never resisted the idea of playing a film crew, which is the source of much agitation in the movie. (In fact, the “house guests” chose that cover story themselves, from a group of three options the CIA had prepared.) They were not almost lynched by a mob of crazy Iranians in Tehran’s Grand Bazaar, because they never went there. There was no last-minute cancellation, and then un-cancellation, of the group’s tickets by the Carter administration. (The wife of Canadian ambassador Ken Taylor had personally gone to the airport and purchased tickets ahead of time, for three different outbound flights.) The group underwent no interrogation at the airport about their imaginary movie, nor were they detained at the gate while a member of Iran’s Revolutionary Guard telephoned their phony office back in Burbank. There was no last-second chase on the runway of Mehrabad Airport, with wild-eyed, bearded militants with Kalashnikovs trying to shoot out the tires of a Swissair jet.
One of the actual diplomats, Mark Lijek, noted that the CIA’s fake movie “cover story was never tested and in some ways proved irrelevant to the escape.” The departure of the six Americans from Tehran was actually mundane and uneventful. “If asked, we were going to say we were leaving Iran to return when it was safer,” Lijek recalled, “But no one ever asked!…The truth is the immigration officers barely looked at us and we were processed out in the regular way. We got on the flight to Zurich and then we were taken to the US ambassador’s residence in Berne. It was that straightforward.”
Furthermore, Jimmy Carter has even acknowledged that “90% of the contributions to the ideas and the consummation of the plan was Canadian [while] the movie gives almost full credit to the American CIA… Ben Affleck’s character in the film was only in Tehran a day and a half and the real hero in my opinion was Ken Taylor, who was the Canadian ambassador who orchestrated the entire process.”
O’Hehir perfectly articulates the film’s true crime, its deliberate exploitation of “its basis in history and its mode of detailed realism to create something that is entirely mythological.” Not only is it “a trite cavalcade of action-movie clichés and expository dialogue,” but “[i]t’s also a propaganda movie in the truest sense, one that claims to be innocent of all ideology.”
Such an assessment is confirmed by Ben Affleck’s own comments about the film. In describing “Argo” to Bill O’Reilly, Affleck boasted, “You know, it was such a great story. For one thing, it’s a thriller. It’s actually comedy with the Hollywood satire. It’s a complicated CIA movie, it’s a political movie. And it’s all true.” He told Rolling Stone that, when conceiving his directorial approach, he knew he “absolutely had to preserve the central integrity and truth of the story.”
“It’s OK to embellish, it’s OK to compress, as long as you don’t fundamentally change the nature of the story and of what happened,” Affleck has remarked, even going so far as to tell reporters at Argo’s BFI London Film Festival premier, “This movie is about this story that took place, and it’s true, and I go to pains to contextualize it and to try to be even-handed in a way that just means we’re taking a cold, hard look at the facts.”
In an interview with The Huffington Post, Affleck went so far as to say, “I tried to make a movie that is absolutely just factual. And that’s another reason why I tried to be as true to the story as possible — because I didn’t want it to be used by either side. I didn’t want it to be politicized internationally or domestically in a partisan way. I just wanted to tell a story that was about the facts as I understood them.”
For Affleck, these facts apparently don’t include understanding why the American Embassy in Tehran was overrun and occupied on November 4, 1979. “There was no rhyme or reason to this action,” Affleck has insisted, claiming that the takeover “wasn’t about us,” that is, the American government (despite the fact that his own film is introduced by a fleeting – though frequently inaccurate1 – review of American complicity in the Shah’s dictatorship).
Wrong, Ben. One reason was the fear of another CIA-engineered coup d’etat like the one perpetrated in 1953 from the very same Embassy. Another reason was the admission of the deposed Shah into the United States for medical treatment and asylum rather than extradition to Iran to face charge and trial for his quarter century of crimes against the Iranian people, bankrolled and supported by the U.S. government. One doesn’t have to agree with the reasons, of course, but they certainly existed.
Just as George H.W. Bush once bellowed after a U.S. Navy warship blew an Iranian passenger airliner out of the sky over the Persian Gulf, killing 290 Iranian civilians, “I’ll never apologize for the United States of America. Ever. I don’t care what the facts are.” Affleck appears inclined to agree.
If nothing else, “Argo” is an exercise in American exceptionalism – perhaps the most dangerous fiction that permeates our entire society and sense of identity. It reinvents history in order to mine a tale of triumph from an unmitigated defeat. The hostage crisis, which lasted 444 days and destroyed an American presidency, was a failure and an embarrassment for Americans. The United States government and media has spent the last three decades tirelessly exacting revenge on Iran for what happened.
“Argo” recasts revolutionary Iranians as the hapless victims of American cunning and deception. White Americans are hunted, harried and, ultimately courageous and free. Iranians are maniacal, menacing and, in the end, infantile and foolish. The fanatical fundamentalists fail while America wins. USA -1, Iran – 0. Yet, “Argo” obscures the unfortunate truth that, as those six diplomats were boarding a plane bound for Switzerland on January 28, 1980, their 52 compatriots would have to wait an entire year before making it home, not as the result of a daring rescue attempt, but after a diplomatic agreement was reached.
Reflecting on the most troubled episodes in American history is a time-honored cinematic tradition. There’s a reason why the best Vietnam movies are full of pain, anger, anguish and war crimes. By contrast, “Argo” is American catharsis porn; pure Hollywood hubris. It is pro-American propaganda devoid of introspection, pathos or humility and meant to assuage our hurt feelings. In “Argo,” no lessons are learned by revisiting the consequences of America’s support for the Pahlavi monarchy or its creation and training of SAVAK, the Shah’s vicious secret police.
On June 11, 1979, months before the hostage crisis began, the New York Times published an article by writer and historian A.J. Langguth which recounted revelations relayed by a former American intelligence official regarding the CIA’s close relationship with SAVAK. The agency had “sent an operative to teach interrogation methods to SAVAK” including “instructions in torture, and the techniques were copied from the Nazis.” Langguth wrestled with the news, trying to figure out why this had not been widely reported. He came to the following conclusion:
We – and I mean we as Americans – don’t believe it. We can read the accusations, even examine the evidence and find it irrefutable. But, in our hearts, we cannot believe that Americans have gone abroad to spread the use of torture.
We can believe that public officials with reputations for brilliance can be arrogant, blind or stupid. Anything but evil. And when the cumulative proof becomes overwhelming that our representatives in the C.I.A. or the Agency for International Development police program did in fact teach torture, we excuse ourselves by vilifying the individual men.
Similarly, at a time when the CIA is waging an illegal, immoral, unregulated and always expanding drone execution program, the previous administration’s CIA kidnappers and torturers are protected from prosecution by the current administration, and leaked State Department cables reveal orders for U.S. diplomats to spy on United Nations officials, it is surreal that such homage is being paid to that very same organization by the so-called liberals of the Tinsel Town elite.
Upon winning his Best Director Golden Globe last month, Ben Affleck obsequiously praised the “clandestine service as well as the foreign service that is making sacrifices on behalf of the American people everyday [and] our troops serving over seas, I want to thank them very much,” a statement echoed almost identically by co-producer Grant Heslov when “Argo” later won Best Drama.
This comes as no surprise, considering Affleck had previously described “Argo” as “a tribute” to the “extraordinary, honorable people at the CIA” during an interview on Fox News.
The relationship between Hollywood and the military and intelligence arms of the U.S. government have long been cozy. “When the CIA or the Pentagon says, ‘We’ll help you, if you play ball with us,’ that’s favoring one form of speech over another. It becomes propaganda,” David Robb, author of “Operation Hollywood: How the Pentagon Shapes and Censors the Movies” told The Los Angeles Times. “The danger for filmmakers is that their product — entertainment and information — ends up being government spin.”
Awarding “Argo” the Best Picture Oscar is like Barack Obama winning a Nobel Peace Prize: an undeserved accolade fawningly bestowed upon a dubious recipient based on a transparent fiction; an award for what never was and never would be and a decision so willfully naïve and grotesque it discredits whatever relevance and prestige the proceedings might still have had.*
So this Sunday night, when “Argo” has won that coveted golden statuette, it will be clear that we have yet again been blinded by the heavy dust of politics and our American mantra of hostility and resentment will continue to inform our decisions, dragging us closer and closer to the abyss.
***** ***** *****
* Yes, in this analogy, the equivalent of Henry Kissinger is obviously 2004′s dismal “Crash.”
1 The introduction of “Argo” is a dazzingly sloppy few minutes of caricatured history of Iran, full of Orientalist images of violent ancient Persians (harems and all), which gets many basic facts wrong. In fact, it is shocking this intro made it to release as written and recorded.
Here are some of the problems:
1. The voiceover narration says, “In 1950, the people of Iran elected Mohammad Mossadegh, the secular democrat, Prime Minister. He nationalized British and U.S. petroleum holdings, returning Iran’s oil to its people.”
Mossadegh was elected to the Majlis (Iranian Parliament) in 1944. He did not become Prime Minister until April 1951 and was not “elected by the people of Iran.” Rather, he was appointed to the position by the representatives of the Majlis.
Also, the United States did not have petroleum interests in Iran at the time.
2. After briefly describing the 1953 coup, the narrator says Britain and the United States “installed Reza Pahlavi as Shah.”
Wow. First, the Shah’s name was not Reza Pahlavi. That is his father’s (and son’s) name. Furthermore, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi was not installed as Shah since he had already been Shah of Iran since September 1941, after Britain and the Soviet Union invaded and occupied Iran and forced the abdication of his father, Reza Shah Pahlavi.
During the coup in 1953, the Shah fled to Baghdad, then Rome. After Mossadegh had been forced out, the Shah returned to the Peacock Throne.
This is not difficult information to come by, and yet the screenwriter and director of “Argo” didn’t bother looking it up. And guess what? Ben Affleck actually majored in Middle East Studies in college. Unsurprisingly, he didn’t graduate.
The rest of the brief intro, while mentioning the torture of SAVAK, glosses over the causes of the revolution, but lingers on the violence that followed. As it ends, the words “Based on a True Story” appear on the screen. The first live action moment we see in “Argo” is of an American flag being burned.
Such is Affleck’s insistence that “Argo” is “not a political movie.”
Still, as Kevin B. Lee wrote in Slate last month, “This opening may very well be the reason why critics have given the film credit for being insightful and progressive—because nothing that follows comes close, and the rest of the movie actually undoes what this opening achieves.”
Instead of keeping its eye on the big picture of revolutionary Iran, the film settles into a retrograde “white Americans in peril” storyline. It recasts those oppressed Iranians as a raging, zombie-like horde, the same dark-faced demons from countless other movies— still a surefire dramatic device for instilling fear in an American audience. After the opening makes a big fuss about how Iranians were victimized for decades, the film marginalizes them from their own story, shunting them into the role of villains. Yet this irony is overshadowed by a larger one: The heroes of the film, the CIA, helped create this mess in the first place. And their triumph is executed through one more ruse at the expense of the ever-dupable Iranians to cap off three decades of deception and manipulation.
And brilliantly concludes,
Looking at the runaway success of this film, it seems as if critics and audiences alike lack the historical knowledge to recognize a self-serving perversion of an unflattering past, or the cultural acumen to see the utterly ersatz nature of the enterprise: A cast of stock characters and situations, and a series of increasingly contrived narrow escapes from third world mobs who, predictably, are never quite smart enough to catch up with the Americans. We can delight all we like in this cinematic recycling act, but the fact remains that we are no longer living in a world where we can get away with films like this—not if we want to be in a position to deal with a world that is rising to meet us. The movies we endorse need to rise to the occasion of reflecting a new global reality, using a newer set of storytelling tools than this reheated excuse for a historical geopolitical thriller.
It is a rather curious time for Hollywood to launch a blockbuster movie based on the worst US-Iranian diplomatic fallout in history. Currently Iran is threatened with attack from the West almost on a daily basis, and sanctions have devastated the rial, plunging millions into poverty for the crime of (allegedly) developing the same weapons that Iran’s agitators enjoy without reprisal. Meanwhile, in the fantasy emporiums of high street cinemas, millions of moviegoers across the world are invited to imagine the opposite scenario, a tale in which the innocent Western subject is faced with extinction at the whim of an Iranian aggressor.
Ben Affleck’s Argo is a nail-biting thriller based on the incredible true story of the CIA operation that rescued 6 American diplomats from the turmoil of a revolutionary Iran. Conspicuously, the film barely touches on the central humiliating debacle of the Iranian hostage crisis in which 52 Americans were held for 15 months and 8 American servicemen were killed during a fiasco of a ‘rescue mission’, commonly blamed for costing Carter the 1980 election. Instead, the narrative depicts a parallel, minor side-story of an America that duped the Persians with lashings of moral superiority and Machiavellian cunning. Indeed, an uninitiated Western audience would almost certainly leave the cinema with the firm impression that the Iranian hostage crisis was one of the most triumphant episodes of US history – instead of one of the most embarrassing.
Ben Affleck’s film goes out of its way to deflect the kind of criticism I offer here. He begins the movie with a quick narrated round-up of Iran’s pre-revolutionary history, including a confession of the CIA-MI5 coup that replaced the democratically elected Mosaddegh with the universally despised Shar. In one scene, an Iranian mocks our heroic CIA protagonist with dialogue straight out of Edward Said’s Orientalism, accusing the American of seeking “snake charmers and flying carpets”.
Affleck is clearly well-versed in standard post-colonial discourse. His film delivers its main points with a disingenuous candour that enables the audience to feel superior without feeling like a supremacist. But the pseudo Western self-criticism is undercut by the fact that, aside from one traitor, there is not one single Iranian who is remotely likeable in the entire film. The Iranians in Argo are essentially a screaming, braying mass of hysterical mobs. They bang on cars, smash buildings, exploit children, torch flags and torment innocent people. They are scary, suspicious, and innately violent.
Most harrowing of all, their streets are peppered with cranes hung with the corpses of collaborators. For the audience, it is almost impossible to root for any character that acquiesces in such a harrowing spectacle. And yet, for some reason, the fact that the American Ronnie Lee Gardner was executed by firing squad in the state of Utah in 2010 never made it into a Hollywood movie. Gardner’s death wouldn’t seem too pretty in HD surround-sound either. In short, Argo ultimately reinforces the binary opposition of a civilized West and a savage Iran. We hear a lot of Farsi in the movie, but only when Farsi is spoken by a Western character is the dialogue given subtitles. Farsi spoken by Iranian characters in the film is merely incomprehensible noise. Here the film accurately mirrors our contemporary reality, in which we inflict our discourse on Iranians, but are incapable of listening to theirs.
We all know that in Hollywood, narratives are applauded for their appeal, not their accuracy. Fictional reconstructions of past events do not claim to ask questions about history. What they do provide are parables loaded with collective wishes, hopes, fears and unarticulated anxieties. In this movie (and in real life) the Americans escape Iran by pretending to be a Canadian film crew with a real, bona fide Jewish Hollywood producer, LA studio backing, reviews in the Californian press, posters, merchandise and a genuine commissioned script about alien invaders taking over the planet. It is this movie within a movie that makes Argo a complex example of the power of fiction, to not only tell a story, but also to shape reality. Both espionage and film making rely on telling complicated lies that people need, not necessary to believe in, but to suspend our disbelief. As such, Argo provides a respite from America’s encroaching anxiety surrounding its own impotence at a time when it was locked in conflict with an enemy it failed to conquer in the past. It retells the tale of the worst fiasco in US/Iranian history as if the West had triumphed. But the West didn’t triumph then, and it may not triumph now. The film implores us to differentiate between what we know and what we believe. It tells us that if we all invest in the myth of Western omnipotence the West might prevail. Let’s see if it works.
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The empire requires a nice juicy enemy to keep people’s minds off its own sins. During the Cold War, Hollywood responded admirably to the challenge, churning out anti-communist thrillers with Russian bad guys, most memorably during Reagan’s surreal presidency, when “Red Dawn” and “Rocky IV” reduced international politics to a comic book parody.
Given who the official enemy is these days, it is no surprise that the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF), which boasts of 72 participating countries, did not include a ‘Spotlight on Iranian cinema’ this year. On the contrary, it showcased the latest serving of propaganda against Iran with the premiere of “Argo”, a docudrama depicting the escape of six US diplomats from Iran following the November 1979 seizure of the US embassy in Tehran, when 52 Americans were held hostage, and Iranian student protesters dumped US diplomatic correspondence on the street in a spectacular premodern WikiLeak.
“Argo” is based on then-Canadian ambassador Kenneth Taylor, who indeed hid the six Americans who showed up at the Canadian embassy during the 1979 hostage crisis and issued them fake Canadian passports. Taylor was made an Officer of the Order of Canada and awarded the Congressional Gold Medal in 1981 for his help.
As if scripted in Hollywood, the Friday evening TIFF premier began just hours after the announcement that Canada was closing its embassy in Tehran, adding extra spice.
“Argo” was produced by George Clooney and directed by Ben Affleck, who also plays the lead role of the CIA agent Tony Mendez, posing as director of a fake Canadian science-fiction film (appropriately entitled “Argo”). Mendez convinces Iranian officials that Iran’s stark desert panoramas would make a convincing extraterrestrial terrain (the Hollywood subtext being that Islamic Iran is loony and Iranian officials are easily duped).
Clooney and Affleck are not Zionist zealots. They are even criticized for being ‘pro-Palestinian’ (though that means very little in the case of Hollywood), and both are identified with opposition to US neocon wars. So their production of this blatant propaganda potboiler is a sad commentary on just how obsessed America is with the one country to successfully stand up to it and Israel today. It’s as if a muted critique of US government crimes must be balanced by fawning displays of patriotism. Affleck even entertained US troops aboard the USS Enterprise on a USO-sponsored tour of the Persian Gulf in December 2003, despite his reservations about US warmongering (no doubt mock-firing a missile at Iran from the US naval base in Bahrain).
The CIA-cum-Hollywood producer of the movie-within-the-movie is another icon of anti-war liberals, Alan Arkin, who starred in “The Russians Are Coming, the Russians Are Coming” (1966), directed by Norman Jewison, and the screen version of the satirical anti-war Catch-22 (1970). However, he also did an HBO TV movie “Doomsday Gun” (1994) about a Canadian weapons builder whom helped Israel ‘defend’ the Golan Heights, but then cynically decides to sell his talents to the highest bidder — Saddam Hussein, who wants to build the eponymous weapon-of-mass-deception (excuse me, ‘destruction’). Arkin plays an Israeli intelligence officer who politely changes the misguided Canadian’s mind. No doubt Bush junior saw this nuanced bit of hasbara, prompting him to invade Iraq in search of WMDs.
“Argo” was received with raves and calls for an Oscar for Arkin. His past displays of anti-war liberalism should not be a problem, given his devotion to Israel as shown in “Doomsday Gun” and now this latest sop to America’s Israel-firsters.
The timing of this screening of the fantasy Canadian embassy intrigue must have been coordinated with the real-life Canadian embassy closing. There’s no other explanation. Worthy of an Oscar in itself. In sharp contrast to the scandal at the 2009 Toronto festival. Despite Israel’s invasion of Gaza just months earlier, it featured a ‘City to city Spotlight on Tel Aviv’, funded by the Israeli Embassy and the Canada-Israel Cultural Foundation, the centre-piece of Israeli Consul Amir Gissin’s “Brand Israel” campaign. At the time, Gissin unashamedly was calling Toronto “an arena for Israel from a PR, cultural and commercial point of view”. The idea was “to promote Tel Aviv as a city of peace”, even after killing more than a thousand Gazans in Operation Cast Lead a few short months earlier.
TIFF’s cozying up to the Israeli propaganda machine blew up into a global scandal, as a spontaneous movement of protest among a few filmmakers turned into an international incident, bringing 1,500 signatures from prominent Israeli public figures and the likes of Jane Fonda, Julie Christie, Alice Walker, Naomi Klein, Guy Maddin, and Harry Belafonte to the “Toronto Declaration” criticizing Israel and TIFF. It was a huge embarrassment, a sign that Israel propaganda is becoming harder to swallow, even by devotees of Hollywood.
Since then, no more tributes to Tel Aviv. Now, to show how open-minded it is, TIFF even shows Arab films tsk-tsking Israel’s mistreatment of Palestinians, but all safely within the bounds of North American discourse on Palestine, Syria etc. This year’s include:
*”After the Battle”, by Egyptian Yousry Nasrallah, about Mahmoud, who makes a paltry living taking tourists on horseback rides at the pyramids but was conned into participating in the “battle of the camels” during the Egyptian revolution last year. He is now unemployed and ostracized, and has a fateful encounter with a liberal rich divorcee from Zamalek.
*”As if We Were Catching a Cobra”, by Hala Alabdalla, about the tradition of caricature drawing in Egypt and Syria, filmed before, during and after the uprisings of 2011–12.
*Inescapable”, by Arab-Canadian director Ruba Nadda, about a former officer in the Syrian military police who is forced to return to Damascus when his globe-trotting daughter goes missing.
*”Fidai” and “Zabana!”, celebrating the 50th anniversary of Algeria’s independence, the former reminiscences of a combatant, the latter a biopic about the legendary freedom fighter guillotined by the French in 1956 who inspired the Battle of Algiers.
*”The Attack”, by Lebanese director Ziad Doueiri, about a Palestinian doctor in Israel who faces discrimination and whose wife is involved in a suicide bombing.
“”When I Saw You”, by Palestinian Annemarie Jacir, produced by Ossama Bawardi, who produced “Paradise Now”.
*”A World Not Ours”, by Mahdi Fleifel, about life in the Ain al-Helweh Palestinian refugee camp in Lebanon.
*”State 194″, a documentary by Dan Setton, on Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad’s plans for a Palestinian state, with Fayyad in attendance.
*”Inch’ Allah”, by Anaïs Barbeau-Lavalette, about a Quebec doctor who works in a women’s health clinic on the Palestinian side of the barrier but resides in an apartment on the Israeli side.
Uprisings against Arab dictators, celebration of Algerian independence, Palestinian angst balanced by a paean to the chief Palestinian sellout.
As another sign of the times, there is now an annual Toronto Palestine Film Festival (TPFF) following TIFF at the beginning of October, where more probing films are shown and where Palestinian filmmakers invited to TIFF (this year — Jacir, Bawardi and Fleifel) can meet with local activists fighting Israeli apartheid.
This year’s line-up includes some hard-hitting documentaries:
*”The War Around Us”, by Abdallah Omeish, about the Israeli invasion of Gaza in 2008.
*”Road Map to Apartheid”, by Ana Nogueira.
*”This Is My Land…Hebron”, by Giulia Amati and Stephen Natanson, about Hebron, where 160,000 Palestinians are confronted by an Israeli settlement of 600 settlers, guarded by 2,000 Israeli soldiers, intent on expelling the indigenous population and occupying their homes.
If patrons of TPFF have their way, Toronto may not be Gissin’s “arena for Israeli PR” much longer.
- Canada’s Diplomatic Disaster (alethonews.wordpress.com)
Earlier this year, I was in Tehran for a conference on Hollywood’s power and impact. It was called “Hollywoodism,” featuring many scholars and critics of the values and political ideologies featured in many major movies with a focus on the way Israel (a.k.a., “the Zionists”) are continually portrayed as if they do no wrong.
What we didn’t know then while we were debating these issues was that some of Hollywood’s biggest stars were at that very moment making a movie that will certainly be perceived as hostile to Iran, if not part of the undeclared war that Israel and the United States are waging with crippling economic sanctions and malicious cyber viruses.
The movie is “Argo,” and the hype for it has already begun. In a business driven by formula, a “hostage thriller” must have been irresistible to an industry always more consumed by itself and its own frames of reference than anything happening in the real world.
An NBC entertainment site explains:
“Superstar Ben Affleck directed ‘Argo,’ a film being produced by George Clooney, about former CIA Master of Disguise Tony Mendez and his most daring operation. … Mendez smuggled six American’s out of Tehran in 1979 by concocting a fake movie production, called ‘Argo.’”
Predictably, the background and context of these events is conspicuous by its absence, as are the reasons for the Iranian revolution and the role played by the United States in working with the British in the overthrow of the Mossadegh government and support for the despotic Shah.
“It’s not political,” a movie industry insider told me. A film set in the Iranian revolution, that most political of events of an era, “not political?” That’s Hollywood for you!
Hollywood movies want to be seen only as exercises in dramatic storytelling, so their focus is always on characters and action. As Wired Magazine described what happened in a 2007 story based on the book that led to the film:
“November 4, 1979, began like any other day at the US embassy in Tehran. The staff filtered in under gray skies, the marines manned their posts, and the daily crush of anti-American protestors massed outside the gate chanting, ‘Allahu akbar! Marg bar Amrika!’
“Mark and Cora Lijek, a young couple serving in their first foreign service post, knew the slogans — ‘God is great! Death to America!’ — and had learned to ignore the din as they went about their duties. But today, the protest sounded louder than usual. And when some of the local employees came in and said there was ‘a problem at the gate,’ they knew this morning would be different… ”
The larger confrontation also served as the basis for a long-running TV news series, ABC’s “America Held Hostage,” treating those Americans as victims of a crime, but never Iran as the scene of a larger crime, a country held hostage for years by a U.S.-backed secret police and military that crushed freedom of expression, repressed religion, and enabled the CIA to manipulate Iran’s politics while U.S. companies plundered Iran’s resources [the Shah, though an oil price hawk within OPEC, recycled petrodollars for U.S. weapons].
One-sided news programming was far more effective than Hollywood movie making as a tool for mobilizing Americans against Iran. The coverage was always unbalanced. I called it “A.A.U.” — All About Us!
Now, this new movie will likely add to the propaganda even as many Americans are speaking out against a war on Iran while Washington is clearly planning one. It will bring back all the old anti-Iranian feelings and stereotypes while progressive U.S. actors glamorize a CIA agent, even though the actual movie makes the events seem absurd and at times reportedly even makes fun of the U.S. government in 1970s’ movie-making style.
I haven’t seen the film but judging from the slick trailer I saw in my neighborhood theater, it’s about clever Americans outsmarting Iranians who look robotic.
Here’s the context as Wired reports:
“The Iran hostage crisis, which would go on for 444 days, shaking America’s confidence and sinking President Jimmy Carter’s reelection campaign, had begun. … Everyone remembers the 52 Americans trapped at the embassy and the failed rescue attempt a few months later that ended with a disastrous Army helicopter crash in the Iranian desert. But not many know the long- classified details of the CIA’s involvement in the escape of the other group — thrust into a hostile city in the throes of revolution.”
In the “not many know” department, there is no reference here either about how the Reagan campaign secretly negotiated to hold back the hostages until Carter was out of office, or the illegal Iran-Contra arms deals that followed.
This tale of escape also is not a “new” story – it was told years ago in books and magazines – but “Argo” is retelling as if it is new. It is, as you would expect, all about our brilliance and their stupidity, our good guys against their bad guys – all classic “Made in the USA” commercial movie formula.
Will this thriller contribute to a deeper understanding between our two countries? Will it help us find a way of resolving our differences? I doubt it.
As it happens, when I was in Tehran, I visited the former U.S. Embassy and wrote about my impressions in a new book, Blogothon (Cosimo). The embassy is now a museum with a well-preserved group of offices, safeguarding the equipment used by the CIA for surveillance and espionage.
The Iranians had denounced the building as a “spy nest” well before the students took it over but even they didn’t know how right they were or its real covert action focus until they saw it for themselves.
U.S. Embassy security tried to destroy all its secret documents by shredding them, but the students, over months, patiently sewed the bits and pieces together and published them, exposing their nefarious tactics in books that U.S. Customs would not allow Americans to see. (Friends of mine had their copies seized when they returned from a reporting trip to Iran in that period.)
There is a reference to the recovery of some of this information in “Argo,” but not much about what was in those documents. … Full article
* Dr. Danny Schechter is listed on the 8,000 ’Self-Hating, Israel-Threatening Jews’ – S.H.I.T. list.
- Senators urge Obama to stop talks with Iran, reveal Zionist influence (alethonews.wordpress.com)