"If it wasn't for the people, it was very pretty. The people over there are very backward and very primitive and they just make a mess out of everything."—Lt. George Coker, regarding the Vietnam War, Hearts and Minds
Toward the end of Operation Enduring Freedom, an American voice-over actress reads a poem written from the perspective of an Afghani woman, pleading for help like a mythic princess in a wasted land awaiting her virile male hero. She talks about being silenced by those who oppress her. If so, then why does this documentary not allow her to speak, substituting her real voice with a sentimental and processed illusion?
Operation Enduring Freedom is not really about Afghanistan, but about America's holy mission to defeat an infidel who has strayed from God. The hints are there at the outset, as New York City is shown guarded by stone angels in the moments before the "cataclysm" of September 11. Or even before that, when we realize that the entire documentary is bookended by a cover version of "God Bless the USA" that sounds more pinched than Donald Rumsfeld's sneer. The narrator tells us that this is a war between us and Islam, triggered by our support of Israel. "Theocrats" and "radical Islamists" came to power in Afghanistan after we helped the Mujahideen (now known as the "Northern Alliance"—note the substitution of an English name instead of a "foreign" one) drive out the "atheistic" Soviets. This is all about religion, after all, and not about colonialism.
And just in case you missed it, yes, that was a shot of Bill Clinton mixed in with footage of "militant extremists" preparing for the litany of attacks against us in Kenya, Yemen, and elsewhere. These bad guys, this Taliban, blow up Buddha statues and commit acts of religious intolerance and prove themselves, as George W. Bush puts it, "traitors to their own faith."
Yes, they are. But there is something else going on here. Notice how often the narrator mispronounces Arab names (never mind his tortured grammar: "The neutralization of the Taliban was brought about?") or the flashy military footage is accompanied by recruiting video music. Notice how after the narrator mentions how the Taliban dispensed propaganda and money to gain support, he is conspicuously silent when we are shown a tactical map with U.S. leaflet drop zones. And every time we see an Arab corpse? We are told that this is like "one of the many tribal conflicts in Afghan history," as if this is entirely unlike a foreign invasion.
But aren't they the foreigners? After all, the documentary never translates what they are saying or lets them get a word in edgewise. It all seems reminiscent of what Edward Said calls "orientalism": the rendering of non-Europeans as mysterious and insidious. Remember during the Gulf War, when government officials (and most newscasters in the beginning) kept mispronouncing Saddam Hussein's name as "Sodom" or "Sa-damn" to make him seem, well, unholy?
There is no question that the attacks on September 11 were stupid, misguided, and monstrous. There is no question that the Taliban was a repressive tyranny that should have been fought by anyone who cares about freedom. But there is something—many things—disturbing about Operation Enduring Freedom. Perhaps it is the speed with which this has been dropped on the public, while the conflict is still in progress and there is no closure, suggesting that this is meant more as cheerleading than documentation. Perhaps it is the cheapness of the production, assembled from a variety of stock footage and declassified (and government approved) combat video of varying quality, strung together with graphics more suited to a local television news broadcast than a serious history documentary. The sound is not much better, and even displays noticeable hiss during Rumsfeld's introduction, during which he (and you saw this coming) compares the whole business to Churchill's "finest hour." Perhaps it is the overwhelming sense of manipulation, the religious rhetoric and gung-ho colonialism. And the troubling silences: the lack of Afghani voices, the passing mention of a few protests to Northern Alliance tribunals of prisoners (the only unkind word in the whole program), the glaring absence of any comment at all during the "Homeland Security" segment.
Having just watched Peter Davis' emotionally draining Hearts and Minds prior to screening this documentary, I was struck by the three key questions Davis was trying to ask: Why did we go to Vietnam? What did we do there? And what did the doing in turn do to us? The same questions can be asked of Operation Enduring Freedom. There are certainly answers possible, but this documentary presents them all too simplistically. Why did we go? A holy crusade. What did we do? Kick ass, all glory and few spilled guts.
And the question Operation Enduring Freedom is most silent about: what is the doing, doing to us?
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