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Keeping Wounds Green

(Wakil Kohsar/AFP/Getty)

“In the aftermath of the fiasco that was the Fall of Kabul, it was predictable that American commentators would detect a mirroring effect of the Afghan loss on political crises in the United States.”

Revenge is a dish best served cold, or so the banality has it. It is a facile cliché, applicable nowadays mainly to the efficient choreography of American action movies. Think: Tom Cruise’s tersely determined announcements to the villains in both Jack Reacher films of exactly what he will do to them (the script following the books of Lee Child), or countless cold dispatchings of big baddies who have it coming to them in lesser fare, or the shocking denouement of Benicio del Toro’s character Alejandro’s mission of getting even with the cartel kingpin in the first Sicario. Revenge may well be bred in the film storyline bone. If movie characters are short-lived, movie vengeance itself, alas, is not.

Even those artsier violent films with aspirations to subvert revenge (or socially editorialize on it) fight an uphill battle to win over the ratiocinative soul. As Oliver Stone has put it

“But truly, I’m not sure movies make a difference [b]ecause there have been so many great movies with violence, done so effectively for over a hundred years now, yet it hasn’t seemed to deter people from acting violently and stupidly.”

Beyond pop-cinematic concoctions and good intentions, though, revenge’s culinary conceit loses its flavor against most real-world tragedies giving rise to, or carrying out, the vengeance emotion. Material events’ velocity, ambiguity, and unintended consequences exceed the brooding induration and motive of redress of grievance—no matter how collectively shared and frigidly “justice” is delivered.

This was brought home to me recently when re-reading a Guardian review of American director Todd Field’s unsurpassed 2001 film In the Bedroom. The review’s thesis is that Field’s unconventional “revenge” indie—as cerebrally as possible removed from pop action thrills—hits home and did well at the 74th Academy Awards because “you see it as a kind of allegory of America’s response to September 11 and its aftermath.”

The reviewer was novelist David Lodge, and he noted how Field had altered details of the late Andre Debus’ source short story set in Maine (e.g., making the murdered boy’s father a doctor instead of a shopkeeper) to humanize further the parent couple and, thereby, up the dramatic irony of a mild-mannered caregiver administering such rough justice to the remorseless murderer of their only son. “I wonder if it would have worked so well,” Lodge asks, “without the subliminal influence on the audience’s consciousness of the war against the Taliban and al-Qaeda: a war of questionable legality but undoubted effectiveness, motivated and supported by a collective desire to avenge an outrage committed against ordinary, decent American citizens.”

Lodge is only ascribing reasons why a fictional film story compelled its viewers. But an assumption needs qualification: namely, that revenge at an interpersonal scale somehow translates to unforeseen, unintended actions and consequences of foreign military intervention. (To his credit, Lodge does write simply that the attack on Afghanistan was “motivated and suggested” by revenge.) The belief that individual affect in the revenge business can carry over, intact and expiable, into a huge military campaign launched against the country that harbored the mass murderer Bin Laden (and that refused to take real measures to locate and extradite him) now belongs with all the other crowded illusions buried in the graveyard of empires. 

David Faris, interestingly enough, argued in The Week this August that the United States “could have accepted the Taliban’s offer to turn Bin Laden and his associates over to a neutral country for trial” and refers to “multiple attempts the organization made to surrender to the United States after the war began.” This is a faintly ridiculous revision of a situation in which the man’s protectors could hardly be trusted and time could not be wasted in apprehending him—not to mention the fact that the Twin Towers massacre was taken as an act of war carried out by Bin Laden’s organization. It should not be forgotten that only two days before, on September 9, 2001, suicide bombers posing as journalists had assassinated the pro-Western, anti-Taliban leader Ahmad Shah Massoud. It made little sense to rely on such people to bring Bin Laden to justice.

Catharsis only achieves aesthetic meaning in outcomes of implausible popular shoot ’em ups and thrillers. Significantly, at the level of resolution of Field’s realistic film’s deflated, benumbed ending, there is none.

The closest collective, pollable public sentiment came at the time of Bin Laden’s assassination by Seal Team Six in the walled compound in Abbottabad on May 2, 2011. And it is worth revisiting how, even then, the tone struck by a decidedly interested journalist—namely the late Christopher Hitchens—transformed the icy desert of vengeance into infuriation not with Afghanistan but, rather, with its historical intervener and extremist Islamism exporter (and enabler) Pakistan, within whose borders and safe house, lest we forget, the Saudi terrorist mastermind had taken up residence. “There’s an old cliché in client-state relations,” fumed Hitchens:

“about the tail wagging the dog, but have we really considered what it means when we actually are the tail, and the dog is our goddam lapdog? The lapdog’s surreptitious revenge has consisted in the provision of kennels for attack dogs…Everybody knew that al-Qaeda forces were being sheltered in the Pakistani frontier town of Quetta, and that Khalid Sheikh Muhammed [sic] was found hiding in Rawalpindi, the headquarters of the Pakistani Army…But not even I was cynical enough to believe that Osama bin Laden himself would be given a villa in a Pakistani garrison town on Islamabad’s periphery.” [Emphasis original]

The Pakistani Inter-Services Intelligence (which helped to establish the Taliban) and military both denied giving any support to the Taliban after the September 11th attacks, but an ethnic Pashtun and theocratic Jihadi culture of collusion persisted through tribal commonalities and affiliations, especially in the border towns between the two countries. Pakistan is a country whose Supreme Court recently ordered the release of a man convicted then later acquitted in the brutal murder of American journalist Daniel Pearl. Further, the July, 2021 torturing and beheading of the daughter of a former Pakistani diplomat, Noor Mukadam, allegedly by an acquaintance, typifies the kind of violence committed and condoned by a portion of society in its “Islamic Republic.” And Hitchens’ derision reached its pitch in this screed: 

“If Pakistan were a person, he (and it would have to be a he) would have to be completely humorless, paranoid, insecure, eager to take offense, and suffering from self-righteous self-pity, and self-hatred. That last triptych of vices is intimately connected. The self-righteousness comes from the claim to represent a religion: the very name ‘Pakistan’ is an acronym of Punjab, Afghanistan, Kashmir, and so forth, the resulting word in the Urdu language meaning ‘Land of the Pure.’”

From the vantage point of mid-August 2021’s American pullout debacle, the lamentable, incommensurable difference between mongering national revenge (no matter how understandable) and carrying out its deeply complex practicalities in the face of a region’s utter contempt for Western civic institutions became tragically plain for all to see. An unstable state of mind has never written a playbook.

Perhaps, viewing in hindsight the whole American mission creep, nation-building, civil war-perpetuating misadventure, one lesson is that a society that learns to channel revenge fantasies or sword theocracy into critical reflections (on the havoc and non-closure that it is sure to wreak on human life) had best pay heed to storytellers’ insights and foresight, such as Field’s. “Tragedy” and “heroism” (which are ideas) emerge from and elude their fictitious-generic configurations far more ably than vengeance morality plays (which are enthrallments of spectatorship) can serve as templates overlaid onto retaliatory interventions in real-time events and poorly understood cultures, while mouthing the fix-alls and operational lingo of the military-industrial complex. The poster mentality of “Wanted: Dead or Alive” leapt to the callow, Texas-tough mind of the American Yalie, neophyte, de facto presidential avenger of the Twin Towers mass murder. This led to misfitting that slogan to an indigenous complexity where fanatical grudges, patriarchal shame culture, malignant misogyny, and a tribal blood feud ethic acted out retribution more devilishly than an over-equipped, myopic military ever could. 

If there is one thing a fanatic is good at, it is identifying his enemy. But, as Laura Rozen concludes in her review of Spencer Ackerman’s Reign of Terror: How the 9/11 Era Destabilized America and Produced Trump, for two decades, Americans in Afghanistan and Iraq never succeeded in answering a fundamental question: “Who is the enemy?” True, and one must also acknowledge the cruel disparity of scale between a few non-state actors who hijacked the planes and a country that “harbored” them. Revenge is attenuated whenever not directed against one or a few individuals.

All of this returns us now to Lodge’s thesis. If, indeed, it needed the strident circumstances and popularly-shared impassioning by the episode of the September 11th attacks, subliminally reverberant, to put the domestic antagonists of In the Bedroom on the radar artistically, then the necessary belief that art can be complex enough on its own to evoke reality as a critically reflective microcosm (rather than as a mere replica of headlines) gets lost. In the back-and-forth between art and life, art and critical imagination cannot compete with breaking news—with its sensation. We can no longer, then, even recognize Ezra Pound’s claim for its continuing relevance: namely, that “[art] is news that stays news.”

The greater the ascendancy of this simplistic reflex in popular experience of cinematic art, the more the chances go up that our own scapegoat-avid, Christian-Right, country-bred theocrats could further mirror those of Jihad’s Pashtun models. This is notwithstanding the contrastive, asymmetrical co-occurrence of a Governor of New York forcefully retired for groping women with a victory of hirsute partisans of God who enshroud women (and worse).

By the same token, a mirroring in the other direction could very well come about in the short term. Western habits of mass communication such as the press conference and social network self-imaging may have made inroads into Afghan popular presentation. Taliban representatives are giving interviews (at least in an early phase). The Taliban has its “political bureau” for public announcements, and its thick-bearded spokesperson, Zabihullah Mujahid, has pledged not to take revenge on either their one-time pro-Western nemeses or women behaving outside the strictures of Sharia—as if Sharia did not already enshrine reprisal among its founding principles or practices. One could be lulled into assuming that the Taliban’s ease and rapidity of success seem—for now—to have instilled a live-and-let-live tone for international consumption. What else could they appear to intend, considering thousands of Afghans who know better are still trying to get out?

Inversely, defiant January Sixers in the United States covet media attention to dramatize intransigence and impenitence. And right-wingers, who could not give a rip about decent Afghans, are avenging former President Donald Trump’s marginalization by scorning President Joe Biden’s botch of his predecessor’s withdrawal objective. 

The retributive set will learn the hard way that vengeance is almost never owned, domestically or in foreign affairs; it is, instead, an animus dissipated and scattered by the world, by time, by desperate people, by configurations of tragic and unintended events. $2.3 trillion (including $233 billion spent on American veterans) and the deaths of 2,324 American service members and 454 British soldiers (plus 70,418 Afghan and Pakistani civilians and 85,731 opposition fighters) later, the psychological impetus of an emotion (whatever the rage over the approximately 3,000 September 11th deaths) is disproportionate. It could not have outlasted the ravages of 20 years, let alone the enactment of Operation Neptune Spear, almost ten years after the first air bombardments of the Taliban and Al Qaeda, which occurred on October 7, 2001.

Francis Bacon wrote, “A man that studieth revenge keeps his own wounds green.” Revenge is, among all the flaring human passions, the one that has the least business becoming perennial, the least power to sustain itself, least of all in limited world conflicts. Remembering Pearl Harbor, the Alamo, or the Maine is not the same as maintaining blame at a fever pitch. And an eye for an eye is an economic cycle of reprisal different from the more absolute existential variety of revenge. At least this built-in evanescence in the long term bodes well for undermining the Taliban’s resurgent theocratic Manichaeism. In a radically different, domestic setting, In the Bedroom’s final scene may remain among the most brilliant understated iterations of revenge turning sour.

In the aftermath of the fiasco that was the Fall of Kabul, it was predictable that American commentators would detect a mirroring effect of the Afghan loss on political crises in the United States. 

In a noteworthy critique, conservative critic Victor Davis Hanson opines in his American Greatness piece “The Afghanistization of America”: “The inexplicable in Afghanistan—surrendering Bagram Air Base in the middle of the night, abandoning tens of billions of dollars of military equipment to the Taliban, and forsaking both trapped Americans and loyalist Afghans—has now become the new Biden model of inattention and incompetence.” And then, “Or to put it another way, when we seek to implant our culture abroad, do we instead come to emulate what we are trying to change?” It all depends on where exactly, in the media circus of American domestic political recrimination, one locates the delineation of imitation. I argued above that, more than any militantly partisan group, the surly and resentful band of January Sixers (and vocal red-state, pro-gun, evangelical Christian Right-wingers) qualify as our wannabe American Taliban. They surely seem susceptible to what Walter Benjamin scholar James Martel would call violent “mythic groupthink.” But, just as in erstwhile academic literary criticism from the 1980s, one used to say, “You (the critical reader) can choose your own inter-texts,” Hanson asserts his prerogative to overlook these guys and singles out, instead, the high-profile American military establishment that has, definitively and on the record, broken with the ex-Commander-in-Chief, President Donald J. Trump.

For Hanson, it is not rebellious cultists who support former President Trump or the religious right that bring to mind Afghanistan’s self-righteous bearded zealots. Rather, it is the treacherous General Mark A. Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, who (per Bob Woodward and Robert Costa’s recently published Peril), took it upon himself both before and during President Trump’s escalating denialism and conspiracy-mongering after the 2020 presidential election to assure his People’s Liberation Army counterpart, General Li Zuocheng, that the United States military would not strike any Chinese target—or that, if intending to do so, he, Milley, would alert Li by phone in advance.

Legal governmental safeguards against arrogating such undelegated authority are numerous: the uniform military code that clarifies the chain of command directly from the president; “the law as established and strengthened in 1947, 1953, and 1986 that clearly states the Joint Chiefs are advisors to the president and are not in the chain of command and are to be by-passed, at least operationally, by the president”; the constitutional reservation of war-related powers to the commander-in-chief; and the law and precedents of civilian control over military officers as exemplified by President Harry Truman’s relieving General Douglas MacArthur of command of American forces in Korea on April 11, 1951. This was due to MacArthur’s threatened independent policy-making of bombing Communist China and marshaling Taiwanese forces after hundreds of thousands of Chinese troops had crossed into the North in an offensive against American lines there in November and December of the previous year.

Milley’s actions and communication certainly did overstep these guardrails. Whether fit for the office or not, President Trump was still commander-in-chief. At first, I believed it likely and fitting Milley would, sooner or later, resign over it under multiple pressures. Predictably, however, his testimony before Congress simply split the party lines of support (Democrats and anti-Trump Republicans) from condemnation (pro-Trump Republicans). But consider the separate issue of Hanson’s ascribing this episode to the Talibanized Afghan analogy. He adds:

“Two retired army officers, colonels John Nagl and Paul Yingling, on the eve of the 2020 election, urged Milley to order American forces to remove President Trump from office if in their opinion he obstructed the results of the election—superseding in effect a president’s elected powers as well as those constitutional checks and balances of the legislative and judicial branches upon him.”

“In short,” Hanson concludes, “our new freelancing and partisan military [is] also in the process of becoming Afghanized—too many of its leadership electively appealing to pseudo-higher principles [such as Trump’s being non compos mentis] to contextualize violating the Constitution of the United States and, sadly, too many trying to reflect the general woke landscape of the corporate board to which so many have retired? Like tribal warlords, our top brass simply do as they please, and then message to us ‘so what are you going to do about it?’”

Hanson also likens current vituperative partisan confrontation to the loss of American institutions and the nation’s past, writing, “It is as if the centuries of our history, the Constitution, and the logic of the founders were analogous to a shouting match among a squabbling Taliban tribal council of elders.”

However, President Trump’s deep deficit of historical knowledge has likely helped deprive his followers and ex-followers, and perhaps his opponents as well, of the very historical sense Hanson (a historian) eulogizes. Is there not an inflection point at which ignorance of the past in any illustrative detail is so widely diffused that anyone invoking the past publicly incurs the accusation of being a cultural elitist? In the introduction to his 2019 book The Case for Trump, Hanson references American history only to impute ignorance and dismissal of it: “Both as candidate and president, President Trump also was judged by his critics in the media in an ahistorical vacuum, without much appreciation that prior presidents had on occasion adopted his brand of invective without commensurate criticism, given the pre-internet age and a media that was often seen in the past as an extension of the Oval Office.” 

Wearing his historian’s hat, Hanson is loosely having recourse to the very erudition about precedents (Trump as Jacksonian? Or Nixonian—it might help to identify the forebears more specifically) that he, elsewhere as “critic” versus historian, knows full well President Trump and core Trumpists despise. For Hanson, to cite historical precedents even while cheering on the (Henry Fordian) boutade that all history is bunk reintroduces the very kind of intellectual nuance and self-contradiction his anti-establishment allies would be first to call out.

And Hanson is not much of an anthropologist: “We in America apparently have decided the warring badlands of the Pashtuns, Tajiks, Hazaras, and Uzbeks have their advantages over a racially blind, consensual republic. They are the model to us, not us as the now-discredited melting pot to them,” he writes. It is well-turned, and I can even understand the temptation of assimilating fiercely pro- versus fiercely anti-immigration spokespeople, or “white rage” condemners (he singles out Milley “blathering [about ’white rage’] before Congress”) or pc/wokeness fanatics (with their “fixations of skin color and first loyalties to those who share superficial racial affinities”) to contumacious Afghan tribalists. But to swallow this comparison whole is to de-historicize and distort deep differences between the American and the Afghan contexts. Is Milley really like a fractious ethnic-tribal leader for professing loyalty to a national or race-blind (and even Constitutional) military ideal or competing sensitivities toward issues of racial discrimination or police abuses of minorities comparable to the naked, centuries-old loyalties and customs that might disharmonize and break up a loya jirga assembly—or a palace brawl of competing Taliban Commanders of the Faithful?

If Hanson really believes the Woke now play the part of seditious theocrats, mustn’t he be prepared to reconnoiter any like kind among conservatives or “Patriots” in the opposing camps?

The reason why he is not prepared to do so is that the polemical Hanson utterly disdains the scrupulous historical Hanson when it comes to reconstructing contexts. Note how he understands the very word “contextualize” in the aforecited sentence (“…to many of its leadership electively appealing to higher principles to contextualize violating the Constitution…”). Hanson clearly means by his tendentious use of the word here, the same as to “casuistically interpret and justify” rather than to “neutrally situate amid the factual record of circumstances of a case.”

But Hanson’s most egregious unintended irony has him leveling the slur of “these…outspoken ‘Seven Days in May’ generals.” That 1964 Hollywood film, directed by John Frankenheimer, was based on the eponymous novel by Fletcher Knebel and Charles W. Bailey, Jr., in which Pentagon generals conspire to overthrow a president who seeks to defuse tensions with the Soviets. Its immediate real-world context was Knebel’s shocking interview with United States Air Force General Curtis LeMay. LeMay had, off the record, excoriated President Kennedy’s “cowardice” in his incurring the disastrous crisis of responsibility for the failure of the Bay of Pigs invasion on Castro’s Cuba. Kennedy had favored the making of Seven Days in May as a cautionary tale of his dealings with rabid military commanders such as Army General Edwin Walker, whom President Kennedy relieved of his duties in Europe. Not only had Walker been indoctrinating soldiers in John Birch Society anti-communism; he had also appeared at an anti-Civil Rights rally of bigoted opposition to James Meredith’s enrollment at Ole Miss.

Hanson’s opportunistic, tendentious use of both cinematic examples in the quite opposite case of Milley et al.’s panic about President Trump’s unpredictability would seem to be exactly the kind of decontextualizing, unlayered reference an educator-historian might deplore for suppressing richer history.

I come back, therefore, to my contention about In the Bedroom. When a complex work of art skillfully and realistically creates its own circumstances and situations, inviting contemporary meanings and pertinence, we can layer into them the critical appraisals it helps bring up about emotions and behaviors in the real, unresolved world. Note how, in the introduction to The Case for Trump, Hanson credits President Trump’s anti-campaign and anti-presidency with satisfying emotions that might also more properly be triggered and worked through—in a formal, self-distanced way—by a work of art:

“Trump challenged more than the agendas and assumptions of the political establishment. His method of campaigning and governing, indeed his very manner of speech and appearance, was an affront to the Washington political classes and media—and to the norms of political discourse and behavior. His supporters saw the hysterical outrage that Trump instilled instead as a catharsis. His uncouthness, even if it was at times antithetical to their own code of conduct [I’ll say!], was greeted by them as a long-needed comeuppance to the doublespeak and hedging that characterized modern politics.” [Emphasis is mine]

Catharsis and comeuppance are better savored indeed through their simpler, purer stylizations in the movies. (And when a film such as Field’s problematizes their closure, so much the better.) Why a presumably rationalist historian should be so drawn to them is troublesome. Events in which these emotional releases and forces take center stage say and mean even less than bad art. They surely make for violent politics by other means.

Eric Rauth is a writer in Washington, D.C. He holds a Ph.D. in comparative literature from Princeton University and an undergraduate degree from the University of Virginia.

Endnotes

  1. It is as if the irrationalist Hanson echoes Nietzsche, who re-defined “history” in his 1889 work Twilight of the Idols to suit his voluntarism of the body and senses and proto-fascism. Philosophically, this meant committing himself to vital becoming rather than static, bloodless being. Hanson cheering on Trumpian antagonism toward complacent “woke elitism” would line up, in this view, with Nietzsche’s toward stodgy German historicism and philosophical rationalism—or maybe even Hitler’s toward Weimar social liberalism. And if that typifies today’s right-wing American Taliban, it is more than troubling.

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