Building Bridges Instead of Imperial Wars

“Blows that don’t break your back make it stronger.”
– Anthony Quinn in Omar Mukhtar, Lion of the Desert

For years, I’ve been working either in the journalism realm or as an antiwar veteran activist expressing the core idea that the United States of America is an “empire,” that its militarist foreign policy is “imperialistic” and that many of our perennial and current problems are rooted in the reality that, as an imperial nation, like many empires in history, we’re overextending ourselves and destroying something that is dear to all American citizens who love this country.

When I wrote guest opinion pieces for the Philadelphia Daily News, a good-natured debate developed between me and the paper’s regular columnist, Stu Bykofsky. I don’t mean to pick on Stu, but his position was classic empire denial. He would argue we weren’t an empire because US troops didn’t look or act like Roman legions. He seemed to feel that Americans were always good and always intervened around the world to slay monsters or help the benighted peoples of the world. Unlike the Brits, we did not exploit the wogs while we played cricket and drank gin and tonics on the verandah. Of course, he’s right that the nature of empire has evolved with the times. But for me the argument was all semantics. It seems hard to claim that the United States is not an empire or that its imperial drive — with some 700 military bases around the world — has not led to a problem of overextension that plays to the detriment of US citizens at home.

The other night, I stumbled on the 1981 film epic Omar Mukhtar, Lion of the Desert. Mukhtar was a simple village teacher of the Koran in Libya who turned out to be a natural military genius; he brilliantly fought an occupying Italian army from 1911 to 1931. Italy had taken Libya from the declining Turkish empire. Once Benito Mussolini rose to power in 1922, the occupation became a powerful drive to establish “the fourth shore,” the name given to Italy’s ambitions to re-create a new Roman Empire in North Africa.


Above, General Graziani (Oliver Reed) readies his troops to brutally attack a Libyan village. The real Graziani in the inset photo. Below, Quinn as Mukhtar with the boy who ends up with his glasses; the real Mukhtar before he is hung, and his hanged body.


Anthony Quinn plays Mukhtar in the three-hour film, which to my surprise is a well written, acted and filmed cinematic gem. Like The Battle of Algiers, the film offers serious insights for a western audience. When the film was released, following the 1979 Iranian Revolution and the Iranian hostage crisis, it bombed. It only recouped $1 million in box office receipts on the $35 million it cost to make; the fact the $35 million was put up by Muammar Gaddafi also contributed to the film’s doom. As one commentator noted, this was only five years after the demoralizing end of the Vietnam War, and most Americans tended to identify with the fascist Italian imperialists in the film, not with the Libyan insurgent heroes.

The unquestioned standing in cinematic history of the blatantly racist epic Birth of a Nation makes it clear a film’s quality and importance is separate from its message or the identity of its producers. As Birth of a Nation tells us how post Civil War Reconstruction was seen from a racist, white perspective, Omar Mukhtar, Lion of the Desert (in the west the film simply goes by the title Lion of the Desert) has a lot to tell us about two things: first, the raw imperial impulse as seen through the actions of Mussolini, his ruthless general, Rodolfo Graziani and the Italian army; and second, the determination of a people to identify with their land and to place opposition to an invading imperial army over even life itself.

The film poster, Mukhtar on the Libyan ten dinar note and a current billboard of Mukhtar in BenghaziThe film poster, Mukhtar on the Libyan ten dinar note and a current billboard of Mukhtar in Benghazi

Myth is often a strong component in film, and in this case, it’s the mythic association with homeland and tradition that simmers below the surface. Myth also works on the imperial side. At work below the strutting Italian fascist arrogance and expansionism, there’s a powerful sense of superiority that draws from historic memories of Imperial Rome and a desire to regain that glory.

In the US case, there’s the notion of American Exceptionalism that at times of economic stress and foreign policy confusion many politicians like to dredge up in speeches. Even MSNBC’s liberal Chris Matthews regularly taps this theme of American Exceptionalism. It’s what fueled the drive of Manifest Destiny and western expansion and it’s what Rudyard Kipling meant in his poem passing the torch of British Imperialism to the United States; the mission was to “take up the white man’s burden.”

It’s the clash of such deep-seated psychological forces that manifest in the creation of al Qaeda as our favorite boogieman. You can see it playing out now with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and others who, with little evidence, are suggesting an al Qaeda link in the Benghazi attack that killed Ambassador Stevens. Instead of addressing insurgent motivations for the attack, the need is to link it to the “al Qaeda franchise” — as if those attacking us were an evil, competitive fast-food chain rather than people upset with US intervention. Confusion and imprecision are deadly in the retribution game, so there’s a strong imperial impulse to establish a quick link with a known and favored demon. Of course, the public relations savvy global insurgents in the al Qaeda franchise are delighted.

My favorite absurdity of the moment is the sticky problem of Afghan soldiers and policemen killing US soldiers in Afghanistan there to train their own replacements. This is how Sgt. Abdul Karim Haq, a candid Afghan soldier not afraid to give his name, put it to a New York Times reporter:

“They are always talking down to us like we are little children.”

Here’s another, Abdul Hanan, age 20, who says, “We would have killed many of them already, but our commanders are cowards and don’t let us.” He adds that Americans curse, treat them roughly and bully them. Then, he seems to reveal the crux of the matter: “We like the Americans’ heavy weapons, but we don’t like their soldiers.”

The question about Afghan “allies” killing US soldiers is often couched in intentionally evasive or distracting terms. We are assured the killers’ motives are “personal” — ie. friction between two men — when it should be clear the issue at hand is really one of loyalty to US foreign policy, in this case, imperial intervention, versus loyalty to one’s homeland. The lure of western affluence and our very lethal weaponry certainly makes the relationship complicated; but it doesn’t alter the deep calling of the homeland and the offensive nature of an arrogant occupying army.

The film Omar Mukhtar, Lion of the Desert addresses these ideas with a clear-headed dramatic insight beneficial for westerners to grapple with.

“We win or we die.”

Lion of the Desert was produced and directed by Moustapha Akkad, a Syrian-born Muslim who became a US citizen, studied film at UCLA and ended up working with film director Sam Peckinpah on films like Ride The High Country. In 1976, with Quinn starring as the prophet Muhammed’s uncle Hamza, he made Muhammed: The Messenger of God, a film also funded by Gaddafi that dealt with the life of Muhammed while, respectful of religious prohibitions, it never actually showed the prophet. The opening was ruined by violence when a Nation of Islam faction, mistakenly believing Quinn played Muhammed, took over the offices of B’nai B’rith. Two people were killed. The film sank into oblivion.

The story, then, gets quite strange. Producer/director Akkad shifts gears and creates the slasher film Halloween. The commentator
Juan Cole
puts an interesting Muslim spin on these horror films that are about a killer of females set off by seeing his sister having sex.

“The anxieties around the Halloween films are, whether it is by coincidence or deliberate, very Middle Eastern,” Cole writes. “Michael Myers’s killing of his sister echoed the problem of honor killings in the Arab world, where lack of chastity in teenaged girls so dishonors the men of the family that they are sometimes driven to restore their honor by doing away with the girl.”

The series was so successful it generated seven sequels. A frustrated Akkad told an interviewer, “I cannot understand the continuing success of Halloween. Do you realize they want to make Halloween Nine!?”

At this point, Akkad turns to the making of Omar Mukhtar, Lion of the Desert, which was filmed in Libya from an excellent script by the Irish screenwriter H.A.L. Craig.

The film opens in an ornate palace with a shaved-headed and strutting Rod Steiger as Mussolini giving marching orders to General Graziani, played with suave cold-bloodedness by Oliver Reed. Five previous generals have failed and been made fools by Omar Mukhtar. Mussolini is determined that a simple desert peasant will not “thwart the destiny of 40 million Italians.”

Cut to a graceful, wise Quinn in a white robe teaching young Libyan kids the Koran. Holding his wire-rimmed glasses balanced on his finger, he talks to them about how the Koran teaches the value of balance. The glasses become a nice symbolic thread. A little boy whose father has just been killed in battle playfully snatches the teacher’s glasses and puts them on to warm laughter from the surrounding men.

Running from an Italian gas attack, Mukhtar drops the glasses, which are returned to him after he’s captured at the end in a dramatic meeting with General Graziani. Mukhtar refuses Graziani’s offer that they “both work together to make peace,” something that would have saved his life. Graziani orders him to be hung.

Standing on the gallows, with his people forcibly gathered to witness his hanging, he puts on the glasses to read a verse from the Koran. As the noose is put around his neck and his hands are tied behind his back, he is shown grasping the glasses. The glasses fall to the gallows floor. The disturbed crowd begins to move in menacingly, and the soldiers quickly remove the body and flee. The little boy walks up onto the gallows and picks up the glasses.

The film shows Italian soldiers and tanks pouring into Libya to thwart the insurgency. Graziani slaughters villagers and incarcerates thousands in concentration camps. Real aerial documentary footage is shown of vast encampments. As a Vietnam veteran, it reminded me of a time when I was attached to a Fourth Division unit tasked to remove and repopulate several villages into a large “strategic village” where people could be controlled by US forces. I watched young US soldiers in armored personnel carriers herding the Vietnamese and their water buffalo like it was a cattle drive.

The Italian actor Raf Vallone plays Colonel Diodiece, a more diplomatic soldier who respects Mukhtar for his spirituality and his humanity. Graziani uses him in an attempt to co-opt Mukhtar, but he sees Diodiece as a fool. As far as Omar Mukhtar is concerned, both men are the enemy, equally linked to the drive for empire at his expense. He will have nothing of a “peace” imposed by Italian violence. In this respect, Pax Italiana is the same as Pax Britannica and Pax Americana.

A boyhood friend of Mukhtar played by John Gielgud travels under a white flag into the guerrilla’s mountain stronghold. He reasons with his old friend: You can’t win; Graziani is too powerful. “It’s your last chance for an honorable peace.”

Mukhtar’s reply is unambiguous:

“They steal our land; they destroy our homes; they kill innocent people. And you call it ‘peace?’ I will not be corrupted by that man’s ‘peace.’ ”

Later, in the final dramatic meeting with Graziani, the insurgent leader tells the fascist general: “No nation has the right to occupy another. We will never surrender. We win or we die.”

US imperial overreach in 2012

Despite the conservative US strain of nostalgia for the good ol’ days when men were men and the brown people of the world respected the sting of our imperial might, the so-called Arab Spring is a harbinger of change for the Middle East and for the United States. The confidence of US imperialism rooted in the bully days of Teddy Roosevelt can only be regained in the minds of Americans through the fantastical fever dreams of bullies like Bill O’Reilly and Rush Limbaugh and political hacks like the hero John McCain and his trusty sidekick Lindsey Graham.

The glory days are over. From now on out, it’s fantasy and firepower or it’s being able to humbly recognize reality. The challenge for our leaders is to pragmatically transition an arrogant, imperial nation to accepting itself as just a powerful and responsible nation among other nations in the world. A City On The Hill populated by Exceptional People may make for great poetic speeches, but it’s a lousy symbol to guide the nation anywhere but over a cliff.

I think most Americas, no matter what party, would agree that the future requires hard work and the hard, unromantic thinking that goes with it. The recent embassy attack in Libya is a case in point. While we have done the obligatory beating of the chest about bringing the culprits to justice, the fact is the attack was so successful it caused an American rush for the exits. Reportedly, CIA agents tripped over themselves getting to the airport to flee the country like rats leaving a sinking ship. Right now, the FBI can’t get to Benghazi to investigate the attack due to fears for their own safety.

This is not a good omen for future influence in the land of Omar Mukhtar. No doubt, like the Afghan soldier quoted earlier, many elements in Libya covet our weaponry. They’re glad to see Gaddafi gone. But whether they desire our presence, our advice and our oversight is another question. It’s imperial predicaments like this that raise the stock of drone R&D and manufacturing. We can still muster significant imperial sting with young men and women in air-conditioned rooms 12,000 miles away from the action. Ms Clinton gave the imperial mindset away in the New York Times story when she bemoaned the fact, “Now with a larger safe haven and increased freedom to maneuver, terrorists are seeking to extend their reach and their networks in multiple directions.”

A translation of a “larger safe haven and increased freedom to maneuver” might be there’s a perceived growth of areas of the world US imperial might cannot control. This sense of urgency has roots in the imperialist’s core assumption that everywhere around the world people are crying out for the US to save them from chaos. Pax Americana to the rescue.

Syria is in full civil war. Israel, facing a partially self-inflicted sense of being cornered among enemies, seems to want war with Iran as a way out of its nightmare. Meanwhile, the mullahs in Iran — from all evidence, quite rational — aren’t playing the game and are spewing hatred at Israel and the US. They’re threatening to join Israel and make a bomb of their own. The fact Israel and the US are killing their scientists in broad daylight and Iran has a real historic beef with European and American imperialism is never recognized in the west. I’m referring to the 1953 overthrow of a democratically-elected, moderate Iranian government and the ushering in of the brutal shah. Imperial perpetrators always forget this stuff; imperial victims don’t.

One of the more interesting turns of events in the Middle East — I’d call it a bright spot — is a potentially constructive relationship between the US and Egyptian Presidents, both of whom in their own ways have declared themselves to be bridge builders. Back in 2009, Obama told Al Arabya TV, “My job to the Muslim world is to communicate that the Americans are not your enemy.” At the UN the other day, he seemed to re-emphasize that approach. The trouble is, he has to manifest those sentiments in actions beyond the rhetoric.

On his part, Mohamed Morsi — the popularly elected Muslim Brotherhood president of Egypt — recently outlined a formula for future relations between Egypt and the US that seems to provide a way to move beyond the imperial relationship of old. (The new president of Tunisia, Moncef Marzouki, a former human rights activist, is also a very interesting new leader.)

By supporting dictators over popular government, Morsi told The New York Times, “Successive American administrations essentially purchased with American taxpayer money the dislike, if not the hatred, of the peoples of the region.” Was the Egypt he now ruled an “ally” of the United States, he was asked? “That depends on your definition of ally,” the US educated engineer responded.

Morsi emphasized that as the popularly elected leader of all Egyptians he had reined in the powerful Egyptian military that rose to power under Mubarak and was a clear ally of an imperial United States. “The president of the Arab Republic of Egypt is the commander of the armed forces, full stop,” he said. “Egypt now is a real civil state. It is not theocratic, it is not military. It is democratic, free, constitutional, lawful and modern.”

This, of course, scares the living bejesus out of traditional American imperialists. Mitt Romney criticized Obama for going easy on the Arab Spring in Egypt, although he hasn’t shared what he would have done as President. Would he have recommended gunning down demonstrators in Tahrir square like a General Graziani would have done in Libya? Would he have sent in F-16s?

Morsi ended The Times interview by raising the issue of Palestine. By signing the Camp David accord, he said, the US had obligated itself to Israeli withdrawal of troops from the West Bank as a precursor to Palestinian sovereignty. For this reason he considered the treaty “unfulfilled.”

The powerful connection with a homeland is a vital force throughout the Middle East. Vincent Canby’s 1981 movie review of Lion of the Desert emphasized this by pointing out, “The film is the biggest piece of movie partisanship to come out of the Middle East or North Africa since Otto Preminger’s Exodus.“ In this spirit, maybe the two films should be run as a double feature overseen by the United Nations.

Muammar Gaddafi -- with the Italian trophy photo of Omar Mukhtar headed to the gallows on his chest -- is welcomed to Italy by Prime Minister Silvio BerlusconiMuammar Gaddafi — with the Italian trophy photo of Omar Mukhtar headed to the gallows on his chest — is welcomed to Italy by Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi

Omar Mukhtar, Lion of the Desert is a film that has, indeed, found its way into the realm of international politics. In 2009, its chief funder Muammar Gaddafi made a very public visit to Rome to sign an oil deal with Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi. He brought Mukhtar’s elderly son with him, and as he met Berlusconi he wore on the chest of his uniform the photo of Omar Mukhtar taken just before his hanging in 1931. The film that had been banned in Italy as an offense to the Italian military was given a gala public showing, and the oil-hungry Berlusconi publicly apologized for Italian abuses in Libya.

But détente between Gaddafi and the west was short-lived. Mukhtar’s name and image were taken up by Gaddafi’s bitter enemies in Libya. An Omar Mukhtar Brigade was formed. Gaddafi may have once shared something of the spirit of the simple and honorable Mukhtar, but he had now become just another megalomaniacal tyrant — an international clown whose legacy ended badly.

The saddest part of the film’s story was the 2005 death of director Akkad and his daughter from a suicide bombing in an Amman hotel, where they were attending a Palestinian wedding. The bombing was undertaken by people associated with the Jordanian-born insurgent Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, who was either a “terrorist” or a “freedom fighter” opposed to the US invasion and occupation of Iraq, a cruel and disastrous imperial adventure if there ever was one.

Akkad, a man whose passion was to make art as a bridge between his religion and the region of his birth on one side and his adopted home in the United States on the other, was not a target of the bombing. He was collateral damage.