Enemies don’t have cultures. They have leaders, usually tyrants. They have armies, usually large and menacing. They have propaganda, usually dull and artless. Enemies are not civilized enough to have culture. Culture humanizes, and humanity is the last thing you want in an enemy. It might mess up your aim.
One of the most popular movies this year drives home this point with shock-and-awe violence. The film 300, about the battle of the Greeks and the Persians at Thermopylae in 480 BC, is very clear about the barbarism of the enemy. Billed as “the deadliest fighting force in all of Asia,” the Persians appear in the film as the archetypal Asian horde bent on destroying Western civilization. With its chained monsters as a secret weapon, the army of Xerxes comes across as subhuman and dangerously multicultural. The film depicts the Greeks, who owned slaves, as free men while the Persians, who didn’t, as the slave society. Not surprisingly, the Iranians were up in arms about this cartoonish depiction of their Achaemenid ancestors. A couple years ago, the British Museum put on an exhibit, The Forgotten Empire, that showcased the architecture of Persepolis, the magnificent decorative arts and sculpture of ancient Persia, which was a cosmopolitan, religiously tolerant society. Such rewritings of the historical narrative are to no avail: the Persians remain the ur-enemy.
Although they won the battle of Thermopylae, the Persians lost the overall war to the Greeks. The victorious Greeks went on to write the history and create the art to celebrate that victory. As for the art of the Ancient Persians, it made a brief appearance, Daniel Mendelsohn speculates in his powerful review of 300 in The New York Review of Books, in the form of Xerxes’s opulent tent, seized as a trophy and then used as a backdrop for those first tragic dramas of the Greeks. After that, the Persians were reduced in history to a mere horde: the vast army whose failure precipitated Western civilization.
Fast forward 2,500 years and American attitudes toward the Persians haven’t changed much. Iranian leader Ahmadinejad is the modern Xerxes. He has a modern army and is reputedly working on a secret weapon of his own. And the Iranians have no culture.
But hold on, it turns out that the Iranians do have culture. Iranian cinema packs in the art houses. Iranian contemporary painting is a provocative exploration of East and West.
And then there’s Iranian poetry. “Our great poets like Hafez, Rumi, Saadi, and Ferdousi have the largest circulation in book fairs of Iran, after our sacred book, the Quran,” explains Iranian poet Farideh Hassanzadeh in an interview with FPIF contributor Melissa Tuckey. “This means poets after prophets rule the heart and mind of my people. To inspire confidence, politicians recite poems by classic or modern poets in their speeches. During the imposed war between Iran and Iraq, one journalist reported about the poetry he found in the trenches and foxholes that survived after the dead soldiers, poems like this from Forough Farrokhzad: ‘Remember the flight/the bird is mortal.’”
In Farideh Hassanzadeh’s poem Isn’t It Enough? the poet laments how the “rain of bombs” has robbed her of poetic voice. It is a powerful reminder of what war does to our putative enemies, that “surgical strikes” target poets and art and not just soldiers and WMD.
Screening North Korea
The other remaining member of the Axis of Evil, North Korea, has a more complicated relationship to culture. The government in Pyongyang has nearly complete control over the arts. Because of its desire for absolute control, the North Korean state has gravitated toward film as a mode of propaganda. With film, Pyongyang has been able to control the form and content from beginning to end.
But North Korean movies, obligatory references to the Great Leader and the Dear Leader aside, often reveal very important and interesting information about the relatively closed society. In Screening North Korea, I discuss the new North Korean movie A Schoolgirl’s Diary. “In this 2006 release, a teenager complains that her scientist father is too busy to pay attention to her. It is, according to reviews, a ‘humorous drama about a rebellious teenage girl.’ It offers a pictureof the North Korean elite that, in the film, uses computers, carries Mickey Mouse schoolbags, and eats good food. It even shows a few flaws in the system, such as deteriorating housing stock.”
Particularly because it is so difficult to travel to North Korea or to meet North Koreans, these movies are valuable windows into the culture. True, we are seeing what the North Korean government wants us to see. But even that distorted glimpse is better than no glimpse at all.
The Good War?
The theme of the “good war” is strong in American culture. When confronted with the moral ambiguities of the Vietnam War, Americans often took refuge in memories of World War II, when we fought the original axis of evil. Now, bogged down in Iraq, the Afghan conflict stands out as the war we did right. Or is it?
In their piece Ending the ‘Good War,’ FPIF contributors James Ingalls and Sonali Kolhatkar systematically break down the illusion that the U.S. military campaign in Afghanistan is somehow more noble than what we are doing in Iraq. “In fact,” they write, “U.S. and NATO troops are doing the same things in both countries: bombing civilian areas, invading villages, rounding up people without evidence, torturing detainees, causing deaths in custody, and shooting into crowds.”
Their recommendation? “As a first step, Americans of conscience ought to join activists in other NATO countries to call for an immediate end to Operation Enduring Freedom and a withdrawal of combat troops,” Ingalls and Kolhatkar write. “Unfortunately a withdrawal of troops, while necessary, will not solve all the problems of the Afghan people. The immediate result will be a military power vacuum. Recall the late 1980s and early 1990s, when Soviet troops ended their occupation of Afghanistan. The power vacuum allowed U.S.-sponsored warlords to plunge the country into the worst violence in its recent history. If the power vacuum is filled by a UN-sponsored peacekeeping force to help the country transition toward stability, a repeat of that violence might be avoided.”
Meanwhile, the “bad war” only gets worse, as FPIF contributor Conn Hallinan writes in Northern Iraq’s Tangled Web. ” There are few areas in the world more entangled in historical deceit and betrayal than northern Iraq, where the British, the Ottomans, and the Americans have played a deadly game of political chess at the expense of the local Kurds,” writes Hallinan. “And now, because of a volatile brew of internal Iraqi and Turkish politics, coupled with the Bush administration’s clandestine war to destabilize and overthrow the Iranian government, the region threatens to explode into a full-scale regional war.”
Missile Defense and Guantanamo
Nor are things going well in U.S.-Russian relations. At the G8, President George W. Bush and Russian president Vladimir Putin went head to head. At issue, writes FPIF columnist Frida Berrigan in The Elephants of Missile Defense, has been “the Bush administration’s plan to put nuclear missile interceptors in Poland and a radar system in the Czech Republic. President Putin had repeatedly expressed his dissatisfaction with encroachment into his territory. At one point he accused the United States of ‘filling eastern Europe with new weapons.’”
At the G8, Putin made a surprising proposal to link up with this nascent missile defense system. But Berrigan doesn’t expect the Bush administration to take Putin up on the offer. Her forecast: more money wasted on the “techno-dream” of missile defense, more allies alienated, and the beginnings of a new cold war with the Russians.
For a bit of good news, however, FPIF Middle East editor Stephen Zunes writes of the peace movement’s belated decision to oppose Israel’s occupation policies in Palestine. Major peace organizations, including Peace Action and United For Peace and Justice endorsed the June 10 anti-occupation rally in Washington, DC. As Zunes explains in The Peace Movement Addresses Israel-Palestine (Finally), “Peace Action and other peace groups have finally acknowledged that U.S. support for the Israeli occupation and other Israeli policies that violate human rights and international law is a peace issue, every bit as much as U.S. support for repressive governments in Central America, Southern Africa, or Southeast Asia was a peace issue in previous years.”
And finally, more and more influential people including former secretary of state Colin Powell have been urging the Bush administration to close the detention facility at Guantanamo. Rep. Jim Moran (D-VA) is trying to turn that call into legislation. In an interview with FPIF contributor Michael Shank, Moran argues, “If we were to shut it down it might signal that there are new decision-makers in charge, that there’s a new attitude. This is one of the most egregious examples of un-American actions taken by this administration. Closing down Guantanamo in and of itself is not going to convince the world that we’ve gotten our bearings again as a nation. But I think it sends a very positive signal. And every day that we leave it open we lose ground in the global war on terrorism.”
Guantanamo—as well as Abu Ghraib, torture, rendition, and so on—has triggered an important change in consciousness in the U.S. public. Suddenly, more Americans see that we have a rights-abusing leadership, a menacing army, and plodding propaganda of our own. But wait, that would mean that we are … that we have become …
In the immortal words of Walt Kelly, “We have met the enemy, and he is us.”
FPIF, June 18, 2007