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Rethink Afghanistan

Director: Robert Greenwald

(US DVD: 10 Nov 2009)

Made on a low budget – the cheeseball titles are evidence enough for that – and designed to be distributed free of charge via the internet, Robert Greenwald’s (Outfoxed, Wal-Mart: The High Cost of Low Price) latest documentary is unlikely to vie for an Oscar nod. It may, however, go down as one of the least useful bits of agit-prop I have ever seen.


Maybe it’s my academic background, but I like to be offered at least a bit of analysis along with my “facts”. Greenwald’s approach here (as it has been with his other filmed critiques of liberal-capitalist ideology and practice) is to lay a bunch of horrific details on the viewer in a one-sided appeal to shift their common sense view of these things / issues / debates. Problem is, when one is bombarded with a barrage of uninterrupted evidence that what they might have thought was right was wrong, one is likely to turn from interest to indignance pretty fast.


Why not, if you are right, and if your evidence is sound and reasonable, interview the people who believe that the US-led War in Afghanistan is the right thing to do? Why only interview people who say the same thing in different ways – the invasion was a mistake, the troop increases are resented by Afghans, there is no terrorist threat in Afghanistan, the cost of keeping boots on the ground is crippling, the Taliban are at best a benign foreign policy concern, bombing for peace is like fucking for virginity, etc – when there are myriad other highly respected and reasonable people out there who hold contrary positions on this stuff?


In short: how can you ask me to “rethink Afghanistan” when you offer nothing complicated enough to earn my thoughtfulness?


I am a pretty easy sell on the idea that the US-led War in Afghanistan was and remains an astoundingly terrible idea. I have seen very little evidence over the past eight years to persuade me otherwise. Since I have always tended toward the John Donne every-man’s-death-diminishes-me-since-I-am-part-of-mankind school of thought, a school of thought which makes it impossible to support blowing up children and non-combatants in the name of “whoops, we were trying to kill other people”, the idea of supporting a non-defensive war is anathema to my beliefs.


So,you’d think Greenwald’s film would have been a love-in for a reviewer such as myself. But while I agree with the evidence he presents – or, I should say, the evidence his interview subjects present, for there is no narration and very few graphics – that doesn’t mean I want to see it offered in such a ham-fisted way. No historical context to speak of beyond a lazy suggestion that the US backed the men who became the Taliban and then decided to fight them (which is like saying that Chamberlain gave Hitler Europe and then the US won the ensuing war, all true but deeply over-simplified), and little discussion of actual US priorities in the nation, and basically no mention at all of other allies (Canada, for example, has been disproportionately committed to the cause) all conspire to promote a sense that this is all just reductionist propaganda.


Why not consider the Obama administration’s recent declarations that Afghanistan represents the true frontline of the War on Terror? Why not engage with the Pakistan problem beyond suggesting that if the US really wanted to fight terrorism they should be fighting in Pakistan (yet another unhelpful oversimplification)? Why not look at the complex foreign policy climate that has arisen in the wake of Bhutto’s assassination, the accelerating corruption of the Karzai regime, the flood of allies who are turning away from the war, the widening gulf between what the war claims to want for the Afghans and what the regional powers are willing to accept as the outcome of the war? Why not consider the massive and unswerving support many millions of Americans have for the war effort, and the way that this often blind allegiance to the hegemony of military supremacists in the political superstructure (“Prussians”, in the language of Peter Dale Scott, a worthy commentator on such matters) puts even Obama in a terrific bind with respect to the Afghan mission?


Ultimately, I hope that this film does what it was designed to do. I hope people watch it and go from supporters to vociferous opponents of the war. But I also hope they leave their computer terminal (or wherever, since this is now available on DVD) and head straight out to the library or a lecture hall and learn something about the actually existing complexities that frustrate the endeavor to end this war. Otherwise, the anti-war movement will remain a shadow on the wall of American imperialism; visible but mutable and sadly insubstantial.

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Stuart Henderson is a culture critic and historian. He is the author of Making the Scene: Yorkville and Hip Toronto in the 1960s (University of Toronto Press, 2011). All of this is fun, but he'd rather be camping. Twitter: @henderstu


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