"12 Years A Slave," the powerful new movie that portrays better than any film before it the horrific reality of slavery, holds lessons for Americans—and not just about the evils of the antebellum South. It's also instructive about the world we have helped create today, in places like Afghanistan and Iraq.
On the most simplistic level the film is the ultimate antidote to "Gone with the Wind" and the persistent pretensions of an American South that, despite 150 years of fitful racial progress, still tends to glorify its irredeemably shameful past in culture, word, and song. But the real meaning of the film transcends the problem of slavery and the undercurrent of racism that continues to afflict our country today, even invading the political debate about the nation's first African-American president. The larger theme, rendered with great artistry, is what happens when a helpless people is subjugated by a greater force with no accountability. It is, in other words, not just about what it's like to be a slave but also what it's like to be part of an often brutal occupation by a superpower.
Certainly I don't mean to equate the social system of chattel slavery with what were intended to be temporary American occupations with ultimately liberal goals. But lacking in all these cases was any kind of due process—the most basic respect for the human rights of subjected peoples. It's no coincidence that as recently as this week, Afghan President Hamid Karzai continued to insist on what his spokesman called "an absolute end to the military operations on Afghan homes" as a condition for signing the bilateral security agreement with Washington.
If you are one of those Americans who can't understand why the Iraqis or the Afghans aren't more grateful for all the blood and treasure we have poured into their countries over the last 12 years, go see this movie. Put yourself in the shoes of its protagonist, the kidnapped Solomon Northup (based on a real person), or the tragically mistreated slave Patsey, and feel the sense of utter helplessness when a half-crazed overseer or a power-besotted master decides to knife or shoot or whip you on a whim, knowing there will be no consequence, that he might as well be swatting a fly for all the opprobrium or penalty he will face (this was also powerfully conveyed at the beginning of another fine recent film, "The Butler"). Because to a large extent that is the reality locals there have been living with. It is why the United States and Iraq could not come to an agreement in 2011 over the issue of immunity for U.S. troops, and America withdrew precipitously. It is why the temperamental Karzai, in defiance of his own advisors, is holding fast to his demands.
Americans caught a distant glimpse of this reality when the photographs came out during the Abu Ghraib scandal, and American GIs were seen doing whatever they pleased to captured Iraqis who often had done nothing worse than be in the wrong place at the wrong time. But that was the typical reality for Iraqis during the entire eight-year occupation. And one has to have been to Iraq and Afghanistan (I've been to each country three times) during the worst of the American occupation to have seen this devastating system at work, as their dignity and pride were stripped from them on a day-to-day basis.
I saw it on the ground when, as a reporter, I went out on raids in the Sunni Triangle in January 2004 with the 4th Infantry Division, which was commanded by Ray Odierno, currently the Army chief of staff. On the flimsiest of intelligence, American soldiers who had been trained only for traditional war and not for counterinsurgency would invade Iraqi homes, shoving all the males to the floor, flexi-cuffing them and duct-taping their mouths shut, overturn beds, dump out drawers, and confiscate whatever they pleased. Most suspects would later be released for lack of evidence, but that didn't matter much to the soldiers, whose form of address to detainees often began, "Shut the fuck up" and who were rarely disciplined for their actions. The unspoken rule at the time was that all Iraqis, at least the males, were guilty until proven innocent. "I usually just round up all the military-age men," one platoon leader, Army Lt. Ben Tomlinson, told me casually as I followed him into an Iraqi house at 3 a.m. I remember riding back to base with one of those flexi-cuffed Iraqis sitting next to me in a Bradley. His nose was bleeding profusely and he was crying. Many of them later ended up in Abu Ghraib, or dead.
Privately contracted firms like Blackwater were even worse, as evidenced by the notorious incident in 2006 when Blackwater guards killed between 10 and 20 Iraqis at a traffic stop, including a woman and a child. As with most such cases—including the horrific one in Afghanistan in 2012 when Sgt. Robert Bales slaughtered 16 Afghan children, women and men—the suspect was whisked out of the country and faced often mild justice in the U.S.
For a decade now, citizens of those countries have felt no sense of satisfaction, as an Afghan attending Bales' trial in Washington state last summer, Haji Mohammed Wazir, told The New York Times after Bales was sentenced to life in prison. "We came all the way to the U.S. to get justice," said Wazir, who lost 11 members of his family in the massacre. "We didn't get that." The Afghans, like the Iraqis, were never part of the legal process.
And you still wonder why the Iraqi insurgents and Afghan Taliban have an endless supply of recruits?
I don't want to overstate the comparison between a sometimes brutal but still largely justified counterinsurgency campaign today and a system of slavery 150 years ago that had no redeeming qualities at all. But Americans ought to at least understand what we have done abroad. In Iraq especially, what many Americans were told was an effort at building a "model" democracy was in fact, to Iraqis, a place that was every bit as bad as the Saddam era. Names like Blackwater and Dyncorp became, to Iraqis, synonyms for a lack of any accountability in their own country. Iraq and Afghanistan both became places where initial hopefulness after the American invasions turned into something far more nightmarish, places imagined hitherto only by George Orwell and Arthur Koestler. And something like the antebellum South portrayed in "12 Years A Slave."
When will we learn?