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Movie Review: 13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi

Paramount Pictures’ war movie about the September 11 Islamic attack on America at Benghazi, Libya, is both visceral and powerful. Coincidentally, and I say this because I’m not a fan of the director’s work, it’s the best movie directed by Michael Bay (Transformers: Age of Extinction).

In fact, this gripping account of what exactly happened in those 13 hours does not depict exactly what happened, not in a comprehensive sense, but the character-driven movie is one of the better pictures about the long, unnamed, undeclared, unending military conflict between Islamic jihadists and the West. I can’t speak to the film’s fidelity to what did or did not happen. 13 Hours is based upon a book by the men who were there, the only Americans to defend the U.S. assets and Americans attacked (read what I posted about the 2012 attack here).

13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi begins as most of these types of movies do with titles and setup scenes to establish what many already may know about the Libya crisis. During the days of the so-called Arab spring, when American intellectuals became convinced that the West’s meddling in Middle East, Arab and regional affairs would lead to liberalization of Arab and other area dictatorships (it didn’t, hasn’t and won’t), Libya’s longtime dictator was ousted—so was Egypt’s—with tacit or explicit U.S. military support. All of this U.S. military meddling instead destabilized Africa and the Middle East and put Islamists in power. Today, for instance, Libya is in serious peril of falling completely to the Islamic state. But a few years ago no one could convince Washington, DC—from Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton on the left to Ambassador John Bolton, who supported Obama’s attack on Libya, on the right—that removing dictators in countries vulnerable to Islamic jihadist insurgency was a terrible idea.

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Michael Bay’s movie version of the military mens’ book does not delve into that background or context, though it’s surprisingly thoughtful and layered in depicting the film’s unseen villain: the state. Yes, this abstraction is at the plot’s center of what really threatens and endangers the characters, heroes and American interests in 13 Hours; both the unseen, unnamed states that sponsor Islamic acts of war and the elusive American state that enables, appeases and essentially supports states that sponsor Islamic acts of war. While 13 Hours breaks no new ground in storytelling, and needs improvements and edits, this villainy is carefully embedded, probably thanks to the book’s writers and screenwriter Chuck Hogan (The Town).

The world at large is at stake from the start, as Bay offers a view of the globe from space, then a drone’s lens’ view common to this genre before the main character (The Office‘s John Krasinski, excellent in Aloha and also here) sits on a passenger jet bound for post-U.S. intervention Libya. Clearly, his character values life. He is fully facial-haired, too, a common choice among American contractors in Libya, so he’s trying to blend into today’s increasingly unstable world, in this case a society where beards show that one has faith and is not an infidel. After he looks at a fellow passenger—a head-scarved woman of indeterminate designs—the camera cuts to the exterior of the descending plane as it lowers, drifts and blends into Libya’s beige, desolate landscape.

This sets an ominous tone. Tension builds as soon as Krasinski’s soldier meets his fellow soldiers at a secret CIA facility and they’re assigned to accompany an undercover couple in Benghazi. The head honcho (David Costabile, Lincoln) embodying the worst bureaucratic stereotype, represents the left’s mindlessness in practice, spewing forth that the band of bodyguards, because they are strong, military contractors not intellectuals who went to Harvard or Yale, are “not so good at following orders”. Of course, he means this as an insult, even though it affirms that Ivy League schools turn out followers.

Not following orders is precisely what makes the difference in the battle of Benghazi.

It happens on 9/11. The year is 2012. Someone at the CIA compound watches a news clip of the hijacked passenger jet as it veers into the World Trade Center on 9/11 of 2001. Someone says something about an Islamic attack in Cairo. Any but the most daft could have predicted that Benghazi would require serious security precautions and defense.

Enter U.S. Ambassador Chris Stevens, an altruist and “true believer” in the Obama administration’s policy of sacrificing for the sake of others, an explicit rejection of selfishness as an ethical virtue which Stevens practices to a tee. The ambassador, the men of the security detail are informed, insists, in accordance with the left’s multiculturalist fantasies, upon his own reckless procedures. He chooses to stay at a posh, unsecured open compound. He makes other bad choices, too, some of which are overturned. But he is willful and explicit in his altruism: “America is here for you,” he tells a local Libyan gathering. He means it. America is not there to advance its interest, not even to foster mutual understanding and peace. America—the new America outlined in Obama’s inaugural worldwide apology tour—is there to serve others, period.

It’s the Obama (and Bush, McCain, etc.) way: put others above self.

Time and again in 13 Hours, a heart-pounding tale which comes in waves, altruism and its particular execution through an effete left-wing lunacy is vilified by dramatization. Not as sculpted as the brilliant portrayal of a sacrificed soldier in Clint Eastwood’s American Sniper, Krasinski’s posted soldier, too, misses his life at home, strives to be his best, and learns from the devastating attack in Benghazi. While he bonds, leads and pivots around the ambushes, schemes and nuances of these deadly days and hours, his wife and kids gain admittance at Disneyland. It’s the perfectly secular, American contrast to the mindless, faith-based wails in Arabic that “God is great!” And if thoughts of his family at the happiest place on earth bolster his fighting spirit, the reality of his brethren at the most miserable place on earth—where “we got nothin’ and no one”—weighs heavily on his conscience.

“What a shit show”, one of his fellow secret soldiers concludes after the blood spills and Americans are murdered—yet again—with no support from the U.S. military, which never does show up. The brutal 13 Hours, with piercing battle scenes as  Islamists lay siege upon the Americans, shows what happens when those with delusions reign over those with knowledge. One officious character offers a stinging lesson in earned guilt. Others among the soldiers talk and trade stories of life and love on the downtime and this is their story foremost. The cast is suited to the material.

But 13 Hours does not stop at depicting the men who are engaged in today’s constant state of American military altruism. The State Department and Obama administration officials are an unseen, offscreen presence, represented on screen by the intelligence types that buy into Obama’s diplomacy and surveillance state as the total solution to all foreign problems. Decent, pro-Western Arabs are also on screen, fighting for their country and their lives, though they are tiny in number and have a minimal impact.

The most exciting scene involves a Mercedes-Benz that makes a wrong turn. It’s the toughest movie motor car since Patriot Games and it’s a symbol for the audience; a reminder that toughness has limits and can be breached. It is impossible while watching 13 Hours, which I think every American ought to see, to escape thoughts of Islamic terrorist attacks on Americans in Paris, San Bernardino, Boston, Fort Hood, Garland, Beirut, Berlin and countless passenger planes, cruise ships and hotels. It’s been 15 years since the Twin Towers, Pentagon and thousands of lives were breached and destroyed and the enemy looms. The horror of being abandoned to insurgents in an Islamic siege with no hope for U.S. military intervention—in Obama’s America, you’re on your own—is forecast in the faces of the men murdered in the inferno at the U.S. consulate and those slaughtered and maimed in the assault that followed.

Compounding the effect: the men you’re watching are trained for battle. You, the audience, probably are not.

“Watch for different tactics,” one secret soldier says during another siege. But how can the U.S. government—whose primary purpose is to defend America and Americans—watch when they refuse to see? In the end, it’s an oil businessman’s jet—running on the energy source the Obama administration does everything to oppose—that offers safe passage for what’s left of the living. Watch the movie’s sole female operative for a complete arc from mindless automaton to fully functional human and try to appreciate that making this movie is itself a courageous act of defiance against the United States government. Or don’t. But take 13 Hours for what it is—an intense and powerful account of one small battle in the Islamic barbarians’ war against the West—with its cautionary theme and warning that, in the words of one brave soldier, “this isn’t over…’til they’re all dead or we are.”

Civil War Stories

Photo by Matthew Brady, National Archives

Photo by Matthew Brady, National Archives

Part of this year’s American Civil War exhibit, “Empire & Liberty: Civil War and the West”, at the Autry National Center of the American West includes an occasional academic affair and I recently attended such a panel discussion, titled “Invisible Injuries: Civil War Veterans and the Legacies of Violence.” The event was informative and sobering.

Two scholars, Dora Costa, a UCLA professor of economics and author of Heroes and Cowards: The Social Face of War and Roxane Cohen, a University of California, Irvine psychology and social behavior professor, and moderator William Deverell, director of the Huntington-USC Institute on California and the West, examined several aspects of recent studies about Civil War soldiers, including certain demographic and relational breakdowns, injuries and deaths.

They addressed their research into war-related trauma among Civil War veterans and their communities and the long-term psychological consequences of the war. Among their findings, which readers can explore here, are that 19 percent of enlisted soldiers in the study were between the ages of nine and 17 years old. I had known from my education and studies with John David Lewis that those who fought in the war were especially young. I had not known, however, that 95 percent of those enlisted were volunteers, more than any other war since the American Revolution. The presentation gave me a sense of life the United States at the time of the Civil War while demonstrating that the long-term effects of war on communities, states, countries and the culture are serious, devastating and transformative, if realized decades later.

Their resarch shows that unit cohesion, such as how many in the company were related by blood, similar age, community, ethnicity, etc. and/or how closely soldiers related to one another as friends and comrades, enhanced a soldier’s ability to heal and survive. Another positive impact apparently came from strong social network support, such as moral support through picnics and parades, which had measurable improvement on mens’ ability to survive and sustain injury after the war. Even celebrations around Christmastime and Thanksgiving correlate to mens’ higher survival rates and longer lives. Scholars also explained that companies were constructed differently; the Union companies were kept largely intact, while the Confederacy constantly replenished its company troops on the idea that new recruits would motivate the men to learn to fight.

Additionally, Costa attributes the rise of trench warfare to the huge proliferation following the Napoleonic Wars of small arms. When I asked her about survivability rates among abolitionists that enlisted—survivability rates were highest among deserters and free black men in the Union Army who were not assigned to fight in battle as often—Costa said they died in greater numbers because abolitionists were more motivated to fight to win and end the war to abolish slavery, which the Civil War did, in fact, accomplish. This was a fascinating program, part of the Autry’s “Empire & Liberty: Civil War and the West”, which I plan to review in a future post.

September 11 and Saudi Arabia

salargeLast night’s discussion at LA’s Hammer Museum, a Hammer Forum program titled “9/11: the Saudi Connection”, brought an invigorating exchange of ideas and projections and a powerful call to action.

The program, moderated by local public radio’s Ian Masters, who rightly pointed out in his introduction that Islam is not the exclusive source of religious fundamentalism, featured former CIA operative and CNN security analyst Robert Baer and former U.S. Senator and former Senate Intelligence Committee Chairman Bob Graham. Baer and Graham have written books about Islamic terrorism, the September 11, 2001 attack and Saudi Arabia’s sponsorship of acts of war against the West.

Baer, who has been to Saudi Arabia, called the dictatorship—which everyone kept calling a “kingdom”—”a country in peril.” As he does on cable news shows, Baer sees Saudi Arabia’s demise as imminent due to a “herd mentality” which has become embedded in the country, which, he added and emphasized, “cannot stand for long”. In a short speech, Baer made reference to the fact that, for all practical purposes, Syria and Iraq no longer exist as functional states run by governments (as I recognized about Iraq earlier this year). For the same reasons, he explained, Saudi Arabia’s origins as an artificial country formed in tribes in 1932 preclude its continued existence.

Baer contends that the Middle East is driven by tribalism, not ideology. He sees tribalism as the larger threat to the West. In the contest between Shiite and Sunni Moslems, Baer counts four Sunni-dominated Mideast capitals which have recently been lost to Shiite Moslems: Baghdad, Beirut, Sunna and Damascus, which he sees as fueling discord and war in the region, leading to the fall of Saudi Arabia and displacement of as many as 120 million Arabs fleeing into the West.

Baer’s assessment is sobering. But Baer adds that he thinks Islamic terrorists are neither evil—he thinks modern Middle East problems are caused by Western “imperialism”—nor moved by ideology, i.e., fundamentalist, radical or jihadist Islam, terms he declined to use throughout the evening. In fact, he kept insisting that he’s not an apologist for Islamic jihad but, by denying the role of ideas and rationalizing Islamic terrorism, he is.

Despite this moral error, Baer’s practical and historical observations, forecasts and accounts should be taken seriously. He argues that, because Saudi Arabia depends on subsidies and being the West’s sole, main supplier of oil, the dictatorship wants the oil industry’s fracking to stop. His comments on how fracking has hurt Saudi Arabia did not go over well with the left-wing, west Los Angeles audience, but he explained why fracking—and America’s decreased dependency on Saudi oil—is relevant to the region’s stability. Additionally, during Q & A, Baer added when asked that he regards Edward Snowden as an annoyance, though he admits that indiscriminate mass surveillance does not protect the United States. In short, Baer’s projection that Saudi Arabia’s days are numbered is cogent where his causal connection is not.

On the other hand, Florida’s former Sen. Bob Graham displayed full moral clarity.

Sen. Graham, acting in this capacity as an American statesman in the best sense, called upon his memory of the 9/11 Commission’s first witness, a woman named Kristen Breitweiser, who had lost her husband Bob in the attack. He reminded the audience that Americans have an obligation to answer why? And: Did the hijackers act alone? He told the Los Angeles audience that the first two hijackers entered the United States through Los Angeles International Airport and detailed specific meetings implicating Saudi Arabia (as does my own research, first posted here). He spoke about the San Diego connection and how $50,000 for the hijackers was dispatched from the Saudi embassy in Washington, DC to a woman. He mentioned the prominent Sarasota, Florida, family and their connection to three Florida-based 9/11 hijackers and explained how the family returned to Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. Graham spoke of discrepancies in the FBI investigation and, once again, urged the audience to press the U.S. government to declassify and release the 9/11 report’s 28 classified pages (which he has read) detailing the attack’s financing by Saudi Arabia.

Sen. Graham named President Lincoln as a great president for insisting upon transparency in government during the Civil War, knowing it would make U.S. allies look bad and he praised Lincoln for putting the enlightenment of the American people above sparing an ally’s embarrassment. The Democrat singled out the Obama administration for criticism. He denounced American “passivity” about this 14-year-old Islamic act of war. When asked to name the best presidential candidate in terms of disclosure about the attack on September 11, 2001, Graham answered succinctly and without pause: “Rand Paul”, who supports releasing the 28 classified pages.

In a moment of rare, bipartisan unity around an intelligent idea to advance national defense, Baer agreed with Rand Paul and Bob Graham about declassifying the 28 pages and said that he, too, thinks the pages should be released. Judging by audience response, by the program’s end, most in the audience seemed to agree. Finally, Baer, whatever his flaws, expressed the perfect afterthought to Sen. Graham’s crusade to illuminate the facts of the September 11, 2001 mass murder: “Rational people must [be free to] make up their minds.”

With Saudi Arabia proposing to build 200 mosques in Germany as a “response” to the exodus from Arab states to Western Europe (reported here during the presentation), let me add: rational people haven’t much time.

Colin Powell, Anti-American

ColinPowellThe ideals, life and career of Colin Powell came to a climax today on NBC’s Meet the Press. The former secretary of state under George W. Bush, a Harlem-born Republican who endorsed Barack Obama for president—twice—after serving as Ronald Reagan’s national security adviser, a four-star military general and chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, announced his support for Obama’s death pact known as the Iran deal.

This is the ultimate betrayal of the United States’ defense by one of its greatest pretenders. While Powell, whom I called upon to resign as secretary of state in a May, 2001 newspaper op-ed, has a reputation of being a competent, reasonable government official, the opposite is true. He has a long and undistinguished record in American government. In fact, his career is marked by blunder, failure and defeat.

This is because his philosophy is worse than his undeservedly decent reputation; Colin Powell is fundamentally anti-American.

The career military figure has always projected a measured, careful demeanor. In his early days as a military adviser in South Vietnam, where he was part of the unit involved in the My Lai massacre, Powell’s record is mixed and partly heroic; he was wounded and rescued comrades after he survived a helicopter crash. But from his service under President Nixon to Presidents Reagan, Bush and Clinton, advising or commanding short U.S. military interventions in Grenada (1983), Libya (1986), Panama (1989) and the Gulf War (1990), his record is defined by short missions that accomplish little or nothing at all. He tends by his own admission to favor diplomacy over the use of military force that advances the nation’s defense and interest.

Powell’s limited, get-in-and-get-out incursions have shaped and defined U.S. military policy for decades with disastrous results; in Grenada, the U.S. rescued the medical school students but failed to dissuade Communist Cuba from militarily opposing the U.S., including supporting states that sponsor terrorism. In Libya, the limited bombing failed to accomplish anything and actually bolstered the dictatorship, which was unshaken by the strike. In Panama, the country was invaded by the U.S. for the sake of protecting Americans, helping others and stopping illegal drug trafficking and the dictator was removed, all to little effect. The Gulf War infamously liberated Kuwait at the expense of leaving an anti-American dictator in power in Iraq and abetting the rise of Islamic terrorism, which spread and led to the worst attack on America in history in 2001.

Powell’s half-measures leave enemy combatants essentially unopposed to do real harm and inflict major, lasting damage.

This is because Colin Powell’s ethics embrace selflessness, as against selfishness, as a virtue. He consistently and emphatically holds that the highest morality is helping others. He is mixed, as evidenced in his opposition to Clinton’s policy to help others in Bosnia on the grounds that it did not also benefit the United States. What drives Colin Powell, however, is the antithesis of self-interest. Powell opposes any act which explicitly advances U.S. interest, such as advancing toward Baghdad during the Gulf War to take out Saddam Hussein or get oil or annihilate Islamic terrorist state sponsors—and he does so exactly because the proposed act advances U.S. interest.

Powell opposed any unilateral U.S. military action following the September 11, 2001 attack on America, for instance, insisting that the U.S. must plead for permission from the United Nations instead. When, as secretary of state, Powell got his way and pleaded to the U.N. for an invasion of Iraq, he did so not on the grounds that the U.S. retains the moral right to eradicate state sponsors of terrorism but on the argument that Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction—which Powell was also wrong about—posed some vague, general threat to the world. The invasion proceeded, accomplished nothing, sacrificed thousands of innocent American servicemen and women and failed, all but delivering today’s Iraq into the control of America’s arch-enemy, Iran.

Now, Colin Powell supports Obama’s deal with Iran.

From castigating Israel for acting in its self-defense, offering praise and support for Communist dictator Fidel Castro and trying to schedule a meeting with Arab terrorist and Munich Olympics massacre chieftain Yasser Arafat while he was secretary of state, Powell’s anti-Americanism is fully, alarmingly steady and consistent. That he wants this death pact with Iran, too, is part of Powell’s doctrine of self-sacrifice.

I do not doubt that this is his sincerely held philosophy. Colin Powell, who opposed neoconservatives in the Bush White House and defends a woman’s right to an abortion, expresses sincerity in all of his convictions. But he is mixed and the mixture is bad for America with deadly implications for U.S. national defense. For this reason, he is the worst type of American leader: one who claims that America is good and ought to be defended but only because America helps others at the expense of American interest and strictly on the condition that America seeks and obtains the approval of the others whom it’s morally obliged to help.

From the beginning of his military career, when he served as an adviser in South Vietnam, to today’s deplorable sanction of a deal to engage nuclear advancement for America’s foremost enemy, Powell consistently acts against America. Powell’s selflessness goes back decades, to his earliest experiences when he says he “found himself” in what he sees as service to the state. It was never more explicit than when he asserted in 1997—spearheading the Bush-Clinton initiative to impose “national service” under the Orwellian term volunteerism—that each individual has a moral duty to serve others, the opposite of the founding American ideals of the right to life, liberty and the pursuit of one’s own happiness for one’s own sake. This selfless statesman’s dogged anti-Americanism is never more wicked and dangerous than it is now in defense of those who seek death to America.

The Great American Hero

Courtesy Reuters

Courtesy Reuters

Fourteen years ago on September 11, before the United States entered its longest war, before George W. Bush squandered an opportunity to rally Americans around a moral defense of the nation based on individual rights and Americans instead elected and re-elected Barack Obama and chose to sacrifice liberty for faith in government control predicated on a false sense of national security, one of the passengers on a plane hijacked by Islamic terrorists on 9/11 called an end to plans for self-defense and said: “Let’s roll.”

What the phrase means, then and now, is an Americanism: it’s a combination of the moral commitment to a united act of self-defense imbued with “can-do” optimism. That the men on United Flight 93 who acted on this call to action were the only Americans to succeed in self-defense on that black Tuesday, and that they were civilians as against the government and military personnel whose proper role is to defend the nation, should have made an enormous impact on the American public in terms of discerning military defense as the highest and most proper role of government.

It didn’t. Instead, most Americans chose to have faith in the state and support the omnipotent state, though some, such as Edward Snowden, choose to question the role of government. There are others, including activists, intellectuals and freethinkers across the political spectrum, who fight to varying degrees for individual rights. Last week, the world witnessed in one brave act of self-defense against another Islamic terrorist attack, the return of the American hero.

His name is Spencer Stone, Anthony Sadler and Alek Skarlatos (pictured here from left to right). There are others, including an American whose struggle against the Moslem terrorist alerted the three young American heroes, and a British businessman. But it was these three who took the religious barbarian, who came charging down an aisle on a train bound for Paris intent on mass murder, down. They hogtied the Islamic radical, who had watched a YouTube video calling for jihad before boarding the train, according to officials in France. What prompted the men—three friends from suburban California—to act was when one of them, upon hearing gunfire, said: “Let’s go.” They charged toward the jihadist and took him down.

The story of this great American act of heroism reminds me of the heroic passengers on United 93. Their call to roll, as historian John David Lewis said while evoking phrases such as “Remember the Alamo!” in my 2011 interview, should have but never caught on. Even more obscure is the fact that, according to reporter Jere Longman, after United 93’s passengers broke into the cockpit and stood facing the enemy, in what may be the last recorded words of the final flight used in the worst attack against America, one lone passenger called out: “Let’s get them!” Then, there was a union of self-defense against the siege and the plane went down.

Last Friday, thanks to an act of self-interest, it was the siege that went down. In the American history of men fighting for life against a barbaric siege, the Alamo’s Davy Crockett once advised: “Be sure you’re right, then go ahead.” These three Americans, Stone, Sadler and Skarlatos, heading for Paris, acted on the call to go by reason. Come this year’s 9/11, instead of the meaningless, usual displays of grief, weakness and submission to faith, despair and statism, Americans ought to think of the American hero—Davy Crockett, United 93’s passengers, and the Paris-bound train’s defenders—and pledge to go by reason, get the enemy before it’s too late and roll over any and every threat to our lives and freedom.