I love movies which keep me thinking long after I watch them. Zero Dark Thirty is one of those movies. I’ve watched Zero Dark Thirty twice since I purchased the DVD this year. It now has a place on the shelf I reserve for movies I will watch over and over in the coming years.
I find the issues Zero Dark Thirty raises complex on many levels. When I look at it from the angle of “We always get our man,” it seems pretty straightforward. One woman went after Osama Bin Laden and never gave up against monumental odds. Through her determination Bin Laden was brought down, never to do harm again. In this respect, Zero Dark Thirty is well done and entertaining, as movies should be.
But the information which ultimately led to Bin Laden’s assassination was obtained through some pretty classic torture techniques. Torture which is designed to wear down and humiliate someone until they understand that they are nothing and no one is coming to rescue them, at which point they will, in theory, spill the beans, tell us stuff we want to know. I have an old brainwashing manual which was part of the training given to certain members of our military in the 1950s. Methods may have changed somewhat, but the concept is the same.
Zero Dark Thirty presents torture techniques without a moral discussion. And it attributes those techniques with the successful gathering of information which ultimately leads to the assassination of Bin Laden. By not exploring the morality of what was done, the thing that runs through my mind as I watch this movie is pretty much only the morality of the torture used to obtain the information, and the morality of assassinating someone when there were other options during the raid on his compound.
Great movies should explore tough issues. Oddly though, what makes this one so powerful is its failure to explore any moral implications in the assassination of Bin Laden. Much like the current drone programs. Someone is a high value target on some list (a list that few of us understand the how and why of someone being on it), and we kill them. No debate. No public trial. No attempt to resolve the underlying problems that set up the conflict between us and these individuals.
Zero Dark Thirty reflects the Bush and Obama era thinking. But it’s interesting to compare Zero Dark Thirty with the movie The Emperor where Hirohito was spared. Without a doubt, as political, military, religious, and royal head of the Japanese during World War II, the acts committed under Hirohito were far more egregious than under Bin Laden. Compare the thousands of deaths that can in some way be attributed to Bin Laden, to the horrendous atrocities under Hirohito, including over thirty million tortured and murdered non-combat related deaths. Masses of people were executed with large caliber machine guns or burned to death by the Japanese. Some were used as forced labor till they died. Others were infected with deadly diseases to see what would happen.
I suspect one could argue that Bin Laden was the mastermind and we had to get rid of him to stop the current Islamic terrorist movement. And Hirohito was a mere figure head. But killing Bin Laden hasn’t resolved anything. Sparing Hirohito most likely saved the United States years of insurgency type warfare, an unstable Japan as well as other parts of the South Pacific region, and many thousands more deaths.
And certainly what Zero Dark Thirty does not explore, is who really has continued the Islamic threat? Was it Bin Laden? Or was it the failure of the US to win the peace after we won the military battles in the first years of fighting in Afghanistan and Iraq? Would there have been a difference if the US would have incorporated the defeated Iraqi and Afghanistan fighters into the mainstream of their country? And instead of wasting trillions of dollars on a decade of conflict, what would have happened if we would have used those same resources to rebuild the countries?
I’m not arguing for a right or wrong to our current assassination policy or the killing of Bin Laden. But there should be a discussion. And for me Zero Dark Thirty is a voice on one side of that discussion. I’m hoping there will sometime very soon be many more voices on the other sides of the issue.
Written by Waine Riches