How ‘12 Years A Slave’ Explains America’s Wars

The movie helps explain the enmity the people of Iraq and Afghanistan feel toward the United States.

National Journal
Michael Hirsh
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Michael Hirsh
Dec. 4, 2013, 10:27 a.m.

“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?

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