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
See more stories about...
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?

What We're Following See More »
70,000 Have Missed American Airlines Flights This Year
8 minutes ago

"Airport screening delays have caused more than 70,000 American Airlines customers and 40,000 checked bags to miss their flights this year, an executive for the airline told a U.S. congressional subcommittee on Thursday. A shortage of staff and a surge in air travelers have created a nightmare scenario for the U.S. Transportation Security Administration (TSA), with airport wait times in places like Chicago stretching beyond two hours."

Trump Clinches Enough Delegates for the Nomination
1 hours ago

"Donald Trump on Thursday reached the number of delegates needed to clinch the Republican nomination for president, completing an unlikely rise that has upended the political landscape and sets the stage for a bitter fall campaign. Trump was put over the top in the Associated Press delegate count by a small number of the party's unbound delegates who told the AP they would support him at the convention."

What Did Sen. Cotton Say About Harry Reid?
2 hours ago

That the minority leader curses the Senate with his "cancerous leadership." After Reid tried to halt a defense bill, Cotton took to the floor and blasted Reid, adding, "As a junior senator, I preside over the Senate. I usually do in the morning, which means I'm forced to listen to the bitter, vulgar, incoherent ramblings of the Minority Leader. Normally, like other Americans, I ignore them."

Trump/Sanders Debate Before California Primary?
2 hours ago
California: It’s Not Over Yet
3 hours ago

"Clinton and Bernie Sanders "are now devoting additional money to television advertising. A day after Sanders announced a new ad buy of less than $2 million in the state, Clinton announced her own television campaign. Ads featuring actor Morgan Freeman as well as labor leader and civil rights activist Dolores Huerta will air beginning on Fridayin Fresno, Sacramento, and Los Angeles media markets. Some ads will also target Latino voters and Asian American voters. The total value of the buy is about six figures according to the Clinton campaign." Meanwhile, a new poll shows Sanders within the margin of error, trailing Clinton 44%-46%.