Sunday, November 9, 2008

Queue It Up: The Road To Guantanamo

[In contribution to Politics & Movies Blog-a-thon, The Cooler offers the following review, written upon the film’s release in the author’s pre-blog era.]

"Son, we live in a world that has walls, and those walls have to be guarded by men with guns. Who’s gonna do it? You? You, Lt. Weinburg? I have a greater responsibility than you could possibly fathom. You weep for Santiago, and you curse the Marines. You have that luxury. You have the luxury of not knowing what I know – that Santiago's death, while tragic, probably saved lives. And my existence, while grotesque and incomprehensible to you, saves lives. You don't want the truth because deep down in places you don't talk about at parties, you want me on that wall, you need me on that wall." – Col. Jessep, A Few Good Men

The thing I’ve always appreciated about Aaron Sorkin’s A Few Good Men is that it refuses to pretend we live in a world where every problem has an easy answer. After watching the movie, all of us would hopefully agree that the killing of Pvt. William Santiago in a hazing ritual gone wrong is indefensible by any interpretation. But that doesn’t change the fact that, in a wider view, the crazed Col. Jessep has it right. Our world has walls. And until peace, love and understanding sweep the globe, those walls need to be guarded. By people (men or women) with guns. By unflinching people. By people willing to do the grotesque and incomprehensible. To save lives.

I kept that in mind as I watched Michael Winterbottom’s docu-drama The Road To Guantanamo, which tells the true story of three British Muslims who were imprisoned, harassed and – depending on your definition – tortured for more than two years for a crime that amounts to being in the wrong place at the wrong time. Not all of the trio’s mistreatment came at the hands of our military. Nor was it entirely unjustified. But the story of Ruhal Ahmed, Asif Iqbal and Shafiq Rasul, often called the Tipton Three in reference to the area of England from which they hailed, is eye-opening. And upon hearing their tale in this measured and unsettling film, the luxury of ignorance is lost.

Told through dramatic reenactments and authentic interviews with the Tipton Three – a style reminiscent of the mountain-climbing film Touching The VoidGuantanamo begins with the three friends gathering in Pakistan to celebrate Iqbal’s forthcoming arranged marriage. It is October 2001, in the aftermath of the terrorist attacks of September 11, and tensions are mounting in neighboring Afghanistan, where American retaliatory strikes are looming. Knowing this, the Tipton Three, and a fourth man who wouldn’t live to tell his version of the events, decide to cross the border into Afghanistan.

Their motivation is unclear. Implications are made that they want to capitalize on the favorable exchange rate to provide aid to innocent Afghans. More than anything, thogh, these four men – ranging at the time from 20 to 24 – seem hungry for adventure, like frat boys on spring break. Yet their decision to go into Afghanistan is as short-sighted as it is ill-advised. By walking into a war zone, the men not only put themselves in harm’s way, but in the aftermath provide an angle of attack for anyone intent on incriminating them in a not-entirely-wild conspiracy theory.

If you believe the trio’s story, you sense their ignorance. The men go from Kandahar to Kabul and wind up by mistake in Kunduz, where Allied Forces capture them with fleeing Taliban fighters. By that point, the group of four vigorous friends has been reduced to three shattered souls lucky to have survived a long night of shelling that introduced them to the wail of pain and the stench of blood. The worst is still to come, starting with a heinous journey in a tractor-trailer that causes dozens to die from suffocation, heat exhaustion or, when the conscientious soldiers create air holes in the metal container, machinegun fire.

After making it through that ordeal, the men are relieved to be turned over to U.S. Marines, and they presume their release is imminent. But the story is still beginning. First at a detention camp in Kandahar and then at Camps Delta and X-Ray in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, the men are imprisoned for 26 months despite a lack of official charges. In that span they are shaved, cavity searched, forced to squat in uncomfortable positions, woken every hour for headcounts, held in solitary confinement, blindfolded, demeaned and beaten. Oh, and questioned. Over and over again, for hours at a time, they are questioned.

Is anyone surprised? Or, perhaps more importantly, are we offended? Keep in mind the time and place this unfolds. Keep in mind the absurdity of the idea that a group of friends would travel into a war zone in essence for the fun of it. Keep in mind that these are just three possible links to al Qaeda that must be investigated. Is it still too unconscionable for you? Would it help to imagine the year as 1944 and these men as Nazi POWs? Might you then be willing to agree that not everyone deserves a mint on their pillow, or even a pillow?

Point is, there is a degree to which we must give a nod to Col. Jessep. We might find it grotesque and beneath the lowest level of human decency to force men to defecate on themselves while squatting for the entire length of a 22-hour flight. But can’t we agree that what happened at the World Trade Center was worse? Can’t we agree that our very freedom to be repulsed by the actions of our military is protected by those willing to do the repugnant?

I make all those arguments in defense of the unsettling, to prove that I recognize at least its potential purpose, and to try and convince you that I’ve considered all the angles when saying the following: There are things that happen to the Tipton Three at the hands of their U.S. captors that are entirely indefensible. I’m thinking specifically of instances well into the men’s detention when interrogators insist that they have documents proving the men’s allegiance to the Taliban, even though they don’t; or when they insist that they have video showing the men at an al Qaeda rally, even though they don’t; or when they insist that they are positive the men are allied with the Taliban, even though by that point the opposite is obvious.

Why do the interrogators do this? It can’t be to protect Americans, because once it becomes clear that the men aren't a threat, it’s a waste of time and thus a disservice to citizens in need of protection to continue to berate the innocent. Thus the only possible motivation for bullying men into knowingly false confessions is to avoid admitting a mistake, to save face, to validate questionable behavior. How spineless! How unforgivable! How immoral!

The movie doesn’t mention this, but then-Secretary of State Colin Powell said of Guantanamo Bay and the issue of the Geneva Conventions, “Because we are Americans, we do not abuse people who are in our care.” Interesting. So what does it mean then when Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld says, in news footage replayed in the movie, that Guantanamo Bay follows the Geneva Conventions “for the most part”? Am I to assume there are multiple acceptable interpretations? Am I to assume that our government would be content with other nations treating American POWs according to the rules only “for the most part”?

All of these issues have nothing and everything to do with the film itself. Nothing in the sense that Road To Guantanamo brings forth no wild theories about the Tipton Three or Guantanamo Bay (to my knowledge, no part of the Tipton Three’s story has been refuted, and much of it has been substantiated by authoritative sources). Everything in the sense that Winterbottom’s film isn’t something one could or should casually dismiss. Working with Mat Whitecross, Winterbottom constructs a spellbinding re-creation of the Tipton Three’s grueling journey from Pakistan through Afghanistan to Cuba. But by incorporating the talking-heads approach, the filmmakers demonstrate that while they want you to feel the experience of the subjects, above all they want you to acknowledge the story’s reality.

Part of that reality is this: No matter how unpleasant or unreasonable their treatment, the Tipton Three are lucky. At least they got out. As of the film’s release in July 2006, there are approximately 480 detainees at Guantanamo Bay, only 10 of which have been charged before military commissions. The rest sit and wait, presumably answering the same old questions, as U.S. interrogators look not for admissions of guilt but confessions of despair. Days before the Tipton Three were released in March 2004, the FBI, in utter desperation, tried one last time to coerce the men into signing documents falsely proclaiming their allegiance to al Qaeda.

What does that do for your patriotism? Like the fictional A Few Good Men, Winterbottom’s film doesn’t suggest there’s an easy answer to Guantanamo Bay, but the picture makes a point: When it comes to the protection of this country there are some truths we avoid because it’s easier that way and there are others kept hidden from us because they have no justification. In times like these, it would be easy to foist the blame on the military. But we shouldn’t do that until we’ve looked at the situation honestly and figured out exactly where we stand and where the line should be drawn. Guantanamo gets that conversation started.

[“Queue It Up” is a series of sporadic recommendations of often overlooked movies for your Netflix queue.]


Joel Bocko said...

The problem is not so much with the military, as with the government. It was their job to set the rules and restrictions, and they didn't do it. Rumsfeld was a smug, oblivious asshole, not just in regards to Guantanamo, but Iraq as well. His ignorance was only exceeded by his arrogance. The ratio of bureaucratic control he sought was only matched by his inability to make an effective change whatsoever to difficult situations.

I have heard that Obama plans to close Guantanamo, and move the prisoners into the United States to conduct both criminal trials and - where necessary - more secretive trilas which exist somewhere between a conventional criminal trial (unacceptable because of the role classified info plays in some of these case) and military tribunals (which have been dismissed as kangaroo courts).

In the Illinois Senate, Obama passed a compromise crime bill which allowed videotaped interrogation by bringing together skeptical and mutually hostile representatives of law enforcement and civil liberties. Perhaps he can do the same thing, writ large, in regards to the War on Terror. I certainly hope so.

Jason Bellamy said...

Good point. I wasn't trying to pin the blame solely on the military and/or interrogators. As other reports ("Standard Operating Procedure" included) have demonstrated, there was pressure from up top to produce results. The accuracy of those results didn't matter. (See: Confession by torture that helped build case for Iraq invasion.)

If Obama closes Gitmo, it won't be easy. No simple solutions there. But it's pretty obvious that the current system isn't working (never mind that it's illegal and immoral). We've got to try something different.

Thanks for the thoughtful comments.

Joel Bocko said...

There's a great article on The New Republic website right now:

Covers some of what we're talking about, plus more, in that some prisoners are more akin to POWs (in a never-ending war) than criminal suspects, and that others have been cleared but now have no place to go as their home countries may be too dangerous to return to. It's definitely a complex situation. As the article points out, kudos to Obama for at least trying to sort it out, in contrast to Bush.