Today Wikileaks, an exceptional organization dedicated to (according to Wikipedia) “submissions and leaks of sensitive governmental, corporate, organizational, or religious documents”, released a graphically violent video of an incident in Baghdad.
It shows gun camera footage from a US Air Force helicopter as it circles the city. As the video progresses, the Americans fire on a group of civilians, killing two Reuters reporters among them. Subsequently they fire on a minivan that arrives to collect the wounded, seriously injuring two children.
It’s grim, but it needs all the attention it can get. As the saying goes, sunshine is the best disinfectant:
Of course, the killing of innocents happens in every conflict. However, it’s this sort of footage that can sway public opinion back home.
There’s the political aspect of this video, but there’s also the clinical weirdness of it all. We first experienced this kind of displaced violence during the first Gulf War. We were treated to all of those ‘smart bomb’ videos on CNN (despite the fact that they were a small minority of all bombs dropped, and not that smart after all), but this video peels another layer off of that eerie remoteness. The casual conversation of the combatants, the shockingly clear footage of the carnage–it’s so much more like a video game than ever before.
After arriving in Chicago, we spent a quiet evening in at the swish and oddly-gothic Hotel Sax (“Monsieurs Lestat and Impaler, your table is ready in the Crimson Lounge”). We watched a movie in our room (reasonably priced at $10): “Rendition”. I’m going to borrow a plot summary from Roger Ebert’s very positive (and highly politicized) review:
Director Gavin Hood’s terrifying, intelligent thriller “Rendition” puts a human face on the practice. We meet Anwar El-Ibrahimi (Omar Metwally), an Egyptian-born American chemical engineer who lives in Chicago. He and his wife, Isabella (Reese Witherspoon), have a young son, and she is in advanced pregnancy with another child. After boarding a flight home from a conference in Cape Town, South Africa, Anwar disappears from the airplane, his name disappears from the passenger list and Isabella hears nothing more from him…
The movie sets into motion a chain of events caused by the illegal kidnapping. Isabella, played by Witherspoon with single-minded determination and love, contacts an old boyfriend (Peter Sarsgaard) who is now an aide to a powerful senator (Alan Arkin). Convinced the missing man is innocent, the senator intervenes with the head of U.S. intelligence (Meryl Streep). She responds in flawless neocon-speak, simultaneously using terrorism as an excuse for terrorism and threatening the senator with political suicide. Arkin backs off.
Meanwhile, in the unnamed foreign country [where El-Ibrahimi is held], we meet a CIA pencil-pusher named Douglas Freeman (Jake Gyllenhaal), who has little experience in field work but has taken over the post after the assassination of his boss. His job is to work with and “supervise” the torturer Abasi.
Canadians will, of course, be reminded of the unfortunate Maher Arar. Coincidentally, I misspelled his name when I searched for him, and the first result is entitled “Extraordinary rendition”.
The film has a lot in common with Syriana–multiple plot lines featuring government cover-ups, a large and impressive cast and plenty of violence and torture. It isn’t as accomplished as Syriana, mostly because of a hokey third-act plot trick, and a far less ambiguous attitude toward its subject matter.
Still, I enjoyed it as an exotic thriller, and appreciated the very relevant theme of the fluidity of individual morality. I also liked seeing Morocco again. Much of the film was shot in Marrakech, and, remarkably, one scene was shot in Essaouira, the small town where we lived for three months.
This month’s Esquire features the finest example of magazine writing that I’ve seen in years. It is Chris Jones’s “The Things That Carried Him”, and it is extraordinary journalism. Jones tells the story of how the body of Sergeant Joe Montgomery makes its way from a Baghdad suburb to its final resting place in a grave in Indiana.
I think it’s a masterpiece. It’s extremely moving without being saccharine or twee. It’s a military story, but utterly without jingoism or indictment. It’s wonderfully observed. I love the parenthetical sentence in these two paragraphs:
The Reverend Doug Wallace offered a brief prayer, and then a band of kilted bagpipers played “Amazing Grace.” (A freight train passed nearby, but the engineer left his finger off the horn at the crossing.) Three recorded songs were played over loudspeakers, including “Hurt,” by Nine Inch Nails, before Reverend Wallace said a few more words, and then Dawson gave his men the signal.
The seven soldiers stood in a stiff line and fired three volleys each. This is a part of the ritual they practice again and again. The seven weapons should sound like one. When the shots are scattered — “popcorn,” the soldiers call it — they’ve failed, and they will be mad at themselves for a long time after. On this day, with news cameras and hundreds of sets of sad eyes trained on them, they were perfect. After the final volley, Huber bent down and picked up his three polished shells from the grass.
Jones tells the story in reverse, starting with the man digging Montgomery’s grave, and ending with his squad in a Baghdad suburb. He documents each step of Montgomery’s journey home. We meet pilots, coroners, family members–everyone the sergeant’s death touches.
If I taught a non-fiction creative writing course, I’d make this required reading. I often criticize journalists on this site, but it’s pieces like this that remind me of the heights to which they can ascend.