- 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 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."
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