Repaying the servants of Empire
Mistah Kurtz – he dead
I was greatly heartened lately to hear that the neo-cons at the Pentagon had arranged a showing of Pontecorvo’s the Battle of Algiers, before launching their current "war on terror". (The latter phrase is a classical piece of Orwellian New Speak and can be roughly translated to mean "Bombing and Brutalising the Bejaysuss out of the Third World"). Still one should be generous and admit that it is good to see the Bush team extending their range, beyond John Wayne Westerns. But self improvement should be not for the elites alone. I would like to suggest a range of texts for the betterment of the troops the "grunts" in Iraq and above all for the 20, 000 or so corporate warriors who are working so hard for their dollars over there.
I think they should start with the Aussie classic Bruce Beresford’s Breaker Morant (1980). Then they could detour through Joseph’s Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, but if that proves a little daunting they might try and sit through Francis Ford Coppola’s, admittedly botched classic, Apocalypse Now (1979).
That might seem a rather eccentric list, but there is a common theme. There are three heroes involved, Morant, Kurtz (Conrad) and Kurtz (Brando), and they have a common approach to a fundamental problem. They work on behalf of three imperialisms Belgian, British and American. All three have taken up the white man’s burden. But unlike with Kipling’s poem, which enjoins its white readers to believe that empires are about working for the gain of others, there is a conscious knowledge among our heroes that imperialism involves dirty work. Morant and Kurtz and Kurtz know they are there to rip off the people. They are moreover determined to do whatever it takes. Slaughter, terror, torture, voodoo – you name it they will go there.
There is another aspect to this viewing list. Our heroes are all betrayed. They are terminated with ‘extreme prejudice’ by the various masters they laboured for. Why? Well war is politics by other means and what military tactics can be applied in any given context is subject to the whim of politicians, who in turn are responding to movements within the whole arena that the war is part of.
So suddenly Morant found that it was not acceptable to assassinate German missionaries. He was rightly puzzled and complained that ‘nobody told me’. Morant of course fought in the Boer War, but as the movie proudly tells us this was a war for another age. Indeed there were to be other soldiers who would tread paths similar to Morant’s and find all of a sudden that it was no longer acceptable to rape and chop off ears and perform the thousand other delightful practices that they had been engaging in. The name of Lieutenant Calley rings something of a bell here.
Having watched these two films and attempted to read the book (It is pretty short after all.), the US army and the corporate warriors would be, I am confident, in a better position to understand what rather than who is going down in Iraq at the moment. Little Lynndie England, who was photographed in Abu Ghraib prison, proudly smirking at Arab penises, should probably at least see the films too. She might not then have been surprised to hear Donald Rumsfeld say that what happened at Abu Ghraib prison was ‘Un-American’. If she were of an historical frame of mind she might be tempted to say something like, ‘Tell that to the victims of the Contra wars in Nicaragua, or to those processed by the Phoenix Program in Vietnam’. But I doubt if Lynddie’s education has taken her far in an understanding of how historical and indeed how American her role in Iraq was.
Alas I fear she and her colleagues are about to suffer the fate of Morant and Kurtz. Sodomising Arab prisoners is, it would seem, no longer in fashion. Hard to believe that I know, but them’s the breaks. But Lynndie should not despair. What goes round comes round, as they say. And as the reach of the American Empire extends to ever more parts of the globe there will be plenty of dirty work in the future for her and her likes.