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A Challenge to American Exceptionalism

Building Bridges Instead Of Imperial Wars

by JOHN GRANT

For years, I’ve been working either in the journalism realm or as an antiwar veteran activist expressing the core idea that the United States of America is an “empire,” that its militarist foreign policy is “imperialistic” and that many of our perennial and current problems are rooted in the reality that, as an imperial nation, like many empires in history, we’re overextending ourselves and destroying something that is dear to all American citizens who love this country.

When I wrote guest opinion pieces to the Philadelphia Daily News, a good-natured debate developed between me and the paper’s regular columnist, Stu Bykofsky. Stu’s position was classic. He would say, since US troops didn’t look like Roman legions and he felt Americans were good and interested in helping the benighted peoples of the world — not like the Brits, exploiting the wogs while they played cricket and drank gin and tonics on the verandah. Of course, he was right that the nature of empire has evolved with the times. But for me this was all semantics and not a valid refutation of my point, that the United States had become an empire — and that it is now facing overextension to the detriment of citizens at home.

The other night, I stumbled on the 1981 film epic Omar Mukhtar, Lion of the Desert. Mukhtar was a simple village teacher of the Koran in Libyan who turned out to be a natural military genius who brilliantly fought an occupying Italian army from 1911 to 1931. Italy had taken Libya from the declining Turkish empire. Once Benito Mussolini rose to power in 1922, the occupation became a powerful drive to establish “the fourth shore,” the name given to Italy’s ambitions to re-create a new Roman Empire in North Africa.

Anthony Quinn plays Mukhtar in the three-hour film, which to my surprise is a magnificently written, acted and filmed cinematic gem. Like The Battle Of Algiers, the film offers serious insights for a western audience. When the film was released, following the 1979 Iranian Revolution and the Iranian hostage crisis, it bombed. It only recouped $1 million in box office receipts on the $35 million it cost to make. The fact the $35 million was put up by Muammar Gaddafi also contributed to the film’s doom. As one commentator noted, this was only five years after the demoralizing end of the Vietnam War, and most Americans would tend to identify with the fascist Italian imperialists, not with the insurgent heroes.

The unquestioned standing in cinematic history of the blatantly racist epic Birth Of A Nation makes it clear a film’s quality and importance is separate from its message or the identity of its producers. As Birth Of A Nation tells us how post Civil War Reconstruction was seen from a racist, white perspective, Omar Mukhtar, Lion of the Desert (in the west the film simply goes by the title Lion of the Desert) has a lot to tell us about two things: first, the raw imperial impulse as seen through the actions of Mussolini, his ruthless general, Rodolfo Graziani and the Italian army; and second, the determination of a people to identify with their land and to place opposition to an invading imperial army over even life itself.

Myth is often a strong component in film, and in this case, it’s the mythic association with homeland and tradition that simmers below the surface. Myth also works on the imperial side. At work below the strutting Italian fascist arrogance and expansionism, there’s a powerful sense of superiority that draws from historic memories of Imperial Rome and a desire to regain that glory.

In the US case, there’s the notion of American Exceptionalism that at times of economic stress and foreign policy confusion many politicians like to dredge up in speeches. Even MSNBC’s liberal Chris Matthews regularly taps this theme of American greatness. It harks back to the days of Manifest Destiny and Rudyard Kipling’s poem passing the torch from British Imperialism to the United States — to “take up the white man’s burden.”

It’s the clash of these deep mythic and psychological forces that manifest in the creation of al Qaeda as our favorite boogieman. You can see it playing out now with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and others with little evidence suggesting a link in the Benghazi attack that killed Ambassador Stevens to the boogieman al Qaeda. Instead of addressing insurgent motivations for the attack, the focus is turned to the “al Qaeda franchise” — as if those attacking us were an evil fast-food chain.

My favorite absurdity is the current problem of Afghan soldiers and policemen killing US soldiers in Afghanistan to train the Afghans to take the US role vis-à-vis the Taliban and other insurgencies when the US decides to pull out.

This is how Sgt. Abdul Karim Haq, a candid Afghan soldier not afraid to give his name, put it to a New York Times reporter:

“They are always talking down to us like we are little children.”

Here’s another, Abdul Hanan, age 20, who says, “We would have killed many of them already, but our commanders are cowards and don’t let us.” He adds that Americans curse, treat them roughly and bully them. Then, he seems to reveal the crux of the matter: “We like the Americans’ heavy weapons, but we don’t like their soldiers.”

The question about Afghan “allies” killing US soldiers is often couched in intentionally evasive or distracting terms. We are assured the killers’ motives are “personal” — ie. friction between two men — when it should be clear the issue at hand is really one of loyalty to US foreign policy, in this case, imperial intervention, versus loyalty to one’s homeland. The lure of western affluence and our very lethal weaponry certainly makes the relationship complicated; but it doesn’t alter the deep calling of the homeland and the offense of an arrogant occupying army.

The film Omar Mukhtar, Lion of the Desert addresses these ideas with great dramatic insight that would be beneficial for westerners to grapple with as they, themselves, are plagued with the mythic and historic drive for empire in the world.

“We win or we die.”

Lion of the Desert was produced and directed by Moustapha Akkad, a Syrian-born Muslim who became a US citizen, studied film at UCLA and ended up working with film director Sam Peckinpah on films likeRide The High Country. In 1976, with Quinn starring as the prophet Muhammed’s uncle Hamza, he madeMuhammed: The Messenger of God, a film also funded by Gaddafi that dealt with the life of the Muhammed while, respectful of religious prohibitions, it never actually showed the prophet. The opening was ruined by violence when a Nation of Islam faction, mistakenly believing Quinn played Muhammed, took over the offices of B’nai B’rith. Two people were killed. The film sank into oblivion.

The story, then, gets quite strange as producer/director Akkad goes on to create the famous slasher film Halloween. The commentator Juan Cole puts an interesting Muslim spin on the gory Halloween franchise about a killer of females disturbed by seeing his sister having sex.

“The anxieties around the Halloween films are, whether it is by coincidence or deliberate, very Middle Eastern,” Cole writes. “Michael Myers’s killing of his sister echoed the problem of honor killings in the Arab world, where lack of chastity in teenaged girls so dishonors the men of the family that they are sometimes driven to restore their honor by doing away with the girl.”

The series was so successful it generated seven sequels, at which point a frustrated Akkad told an interviewer, “I cannot understand the continuing success of Halloween. Do you realize they want to makeHalloween Nine?”

At this point, Akkad turns to the making of Omar Mukhtar, Lion of the Desert, which was filmed in Libya from an excellent script by the Irish screenwriter H.A.L. Craig.

The film opens in an ornate palace with a shaved-headed and strutting Rod Steiger as Mussolini giving marching orders to General Graziani, played with suave cold-bloodedness by Oliver Reed. Five previous generals have failed and been made fools by Omar Mukhtar. Mussolini is determined that a simple desert peasant will not “thwart the destiny of 40 million Italians.” Graciani is sent to finally crush Mukhtar’s insurgent movement.

Cut to a graceful, wise Quinn in a white robe teaching young Libyan kids the Koran. He talks to them about what the Koran teaches about balance, holding his wire-rimmed glasses balanced on his finger. Later, a little boy whose father has been killed in battle playfully snatches the great Mukhtar’s glasses and puts them on to warm laughter. Running from an Italian gas attack, Mukhtar drops the glasses.

At the end, when he’s captured and is in a dramatic meeting with General Graziani, the general gracefully returns the glasses. But Mukhtar refuses Graziani’s appeal that they “both work together to make peace,” something that would have saved his life. Graciani orders him to be hung.

On the gallows, with his people forcibly gathered to witness his hanging, he puts on the glasses to read a verse from the Koran. As the noose it put around his neck, he grasps the glasses in his hands, now tied be hind his back. As he falls, the glasses fall to the gallows floor. As the people move in menacingly, soldiers quickly remove his body and flee. The little boy walks up and picks up the glasses.

The film shows Italian soldiers and tanks pouring into Libya to thwart the insurgency. Garciani slaughters villagers and incarcerates thousands in concentration camps to beat down the impulse to throw out an invader. As a Vietnam veteran, it reminded of the time I was attached to a Fourth Division unit that was tasked to remove and repopulate several villages into a large “strategic village” where people could be controlled by US forces. I watched young US soldiers in armored personnel carriers herding the Vietnamese and their water buffalo like a cattle drive.

When he is unable to beat Mukhtar’s forces, General Graziani begins to attack the civilian population — as in “draining the sea.” Insurgents are fish and the population is the sea. If you attack the population, the fish will have nothing to swim in and they will die.

The Italian actor Raf Vallone plays Colonel Diodiece, a more diplomatic soldier who respects Mukhtar for his spirituality and his humanity. Graciani sees him as a fool, useful in co-opting Mukhtar. As far as Omar Mukhtar is concerned, both men are the enemy, equally identified with the drive for empire. He will have nothing of a “peace” imposed by Italian violence. Pax Italiana is the same as Pax Britannica and Pax Americana.

A boyhood friend of Mukhtar sees the Italians as inevitable victors. Played by John Gielgud, he travels under a white flag into Mukhtar’s mountain stronghold. He reasons with his old friend: You can’t win; Graciani is too powerful. “It’s your last chance for an honorable peace.

Mukhtar’s reply is unambiguous:

“They steal our land; they destroy our homes; they kill innocent people. And you call it ‘peace?’ I will not be corrupted by that man’s ‘peace.’

Later, in a final dramatic meeting with Graciani before he is hung, the insurgent leader tells the fascist general: “No nation has the right to occupy another. We will never surrender. We win or we die.”

US imperial overreach in 2012

Despite the conservative US strain of nostalgia for the good ol’ days when men were men and the brown people of the world respected the sting of our imperial might, the so-called Arab Spring is a harbinger of change for the Middle East and for the United States. The confidence of US imperialism rooted in the bully days of Teddy Roosevelt can only be regained in the minds of Americans through the fantastical fever dreams of bullies like Bill O’Reilly and Rush Limbaugh and political hacks like John McCain and his trusty sidekick Lindsey Graham.

The glory days are over. From now on out, it’s fantasy and firepower or it’s being able to honestly recognize reality. The point is to pragmatically transition an arrogant, imperial nation to accepting itself as just a powerful and responsible nation among other nations in the world. A City On The Hill populated by Exceptional People may make for great poetic speeches, but it’s a lousy symbol to guide the nation anywhere but over a cliff.

I think most Americas, no matter what party, would agree that the future requires hard work and the hard, unromantic thinking that goes with it. The recent embassy attack in Libya is a case in point. While we have done the obligatory beating of the chest about bringing the culprits for the attack to justice, the fact is the attack was so successful it caused a rush for the exits. Reportedly, CIA agents tripped over themselves getting to the airport to flee the country like rats leaving a sinking ship. Right now, the FBI agents can’t even get to Benghazi to investigate the attack due to fears for their own safety.

This is not a good omen for future influence in the land of Omar Mukhtar. No doubt, like the Afghan soldier quoted earlier, many elements in Libya covet our weaponry; but whether they desire our presence, our advice and our oversight is another question. It is predicaments like this that raise the stock of drone R&D and manufacturers. We can still muster significant imperial sting from young men and women in air-conditioned rooms 12,000 miles away by. Ms Clinton gave the imperial mindset away in a New York Times story when she bemoaned the fact, “Now with a larger safe haven and increased freedom to maneuver, terrorists are seeking to extend their reach and their networks in multiple directions.”

Translation: They’re growing like cancer and we can’t reach them in their “larger safe haven,” which means areas of the world we western imperial heroes cannot control. The world as a great mess crying out for the US to save it from chaos.

Syria is in full civil war, while a more and more cornered Israel is seeking war with Iran in a crazy effort to make sense of its predicament. Prime Minister Netanyahu wants war before the November US election because after that he will lose his power to intimidation the US into doing its bidding. Meanwhile, the mullahs in Iran are, from all evidence, quite rational — as they spew hatred for Israel and the US. Of course, their hatred is understandably rooted in real abuses of European and American imperialism beginning with the 1953 overthrow of a decent democratically elected government and the ushering in of the brutal shah. Imperial victims don’t forget this stuff like we imperialists do.

One of the more interesting turns of events in the Middle East is the relationship between the US and Egyptian Presidents, both in their own ways declared “bridge builders.” Back in 2009, Obama told Al Arabya TV, “My job to the Muslim world is to communicate that the Americans are not your enemy.” At the UN the other day, he seemed to re-emphasize that approach versus dishing out belligerence and threats.

On his part, Mohamed Morsi — the popularly elected Muslim Brotherhood president of Egypt — recently outlined a formula for future relations between Egypt and the US that suggests a transcendence of the imperial relationship of old — the type of relationship so effectively dramatized in Omar Mukhtar, Lion of the Desert. While differing in details, this relationship has characterized US relations from Vietnam to Iraq and Afghanistan to Mubarak’s Egypt.

By supporting dictators over popular government, Morsi told The New York Times, “Successive American administrations essentially purchased with American taxpayer money the dislike, if not the hatred, of the peoples of the region.” Was the Egypt he now ruled an “ally” of the United States, he was asked? “That depends on your definition of ally,” the US educated engineer responded.

Morsi made it clear, as the popularly elected voice for Egyptians, he had reined in the powerful Egyptian military that rose to power under Mubarak. “The president of the Arab Republic of Egypt is the commander of the armed forces, full stop,” he said. “Egypt now is a real civil state. It is not theocratic, it is not military. It is democratic, free, constitutional, lawful and modern.”

This, of course, scares the living bejesus out of traditional American imperialists. Mitt Romney has criticized Obama for going easy on the Arab Spring in Egypt, although he hasn’t shared what he would have done as President. Would he have recommended gunning down demonstrators in the square like in the days of General Graciani in Libya? Would he have sent in F-16s?

Morsi ended The Times interview by raising the issue of Palestine. He said by signing the Camp David accord, the US had obligated itself to Israeli withdrawal of troops from the West Bank as a precursor to Palestinian sovereignty. For this reason, he said he considered the treaty “unfulfilled.” Arguably, Mubarak had been bought off to effectively sell out the Palestinians.

Deep, mythic connections with a homeland remain vital for all people in the Middle East. Vincent Canby’s 1981 movie review of Lion of the Desert emphasized this by pointing out, “The film is the biggest piece of movie partisanship to come out of the Middle East or North Africa since Otto Preminger’s ‘Exodus.’”

Omar Mukhtar, Lion of the Desert is a film that has entered into the realm of international politics.

In 2009, its chief funder Muammar Gaddafi made a very public visit to Rome to sign an oil deal with Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi. He brought Mukhtar’s elderly son with him, and as he met Berlusconi he wore on the chest of his uniform the photo of Omar Mukhtar taken just before his hanging in 1931. The film that had been banned in Italy as an offense to the Italian military was given a gala public showing. Berlusconi publicly apologized for Italian abuses in Libya.

But then, the détente between Gaddafi and the west went south and Mukhtar’s image was taken up by those opposed to him. The Omar Mukhtar Brigade was formed. Gaddafi may have once shared something of the spirit of the simple and honorable Mukhtar, but he had now become just another megalomaniacal tyrant. His legacy ended badly.

The saddest irony of all was the 2005 death of director Akkad and his daughter in a suicide bombing in an Amman hotel, where they were attending a Palestinian wedding. The bombing was undertaken by people associated with the Jordanian-born insurgent Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, who was either a “terrorist” or a “freedom fighter” opposed to the US invasion and occupation of Iraq, a cruel imperial adventure if there ever was one.

Akkad, a man whose passion was to make art as a bridge between his religion and the region of his birth on one side and his adopted home in the United States on the other, was not a target of the bombing. He was collateral damage.

JOHN GRANT is a founding member of ThisCantBeHappening!, the new independent Project Censored Award-winning online alternative newspaper.