January 14, 2016
Would you give the story of Benghazi to the producer of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles? Someone did. The result is the new film directed by Michael Bay, 13 Hours, which makes Rambo look like War and Peace.
In 13 Hours, Bay displays a fetish for fake blood and heads that explode like watermelons when waves of bad guys are given the tap-tap of eternal sleep from the hot barrels of American assault rifles. Are the repetitive scenes of mowed-down attackers a job-creation program for the hundreds of dark-haired extras dressed as ready-for-paradise militiamen? Was Bay suffering from the delusion that every attacker killed on screen would translate into a vote for an Oscar? The true story of 13 Hours, in Bay-worthy broad strokes, is this: Six private military contractors who work for the CIA try to stave off attacks by Libyan militants on two U.S. compounds in Benghazi in 2012. Yet Bay’s movie feels like a hybrid war/zombie film, The Green Berets meets Night of the Living Dead.
I went into the screening with the distinct premonition that I would emerge in anger after seeing another maddeningly effective piece of Hollywood war propaganda. That’s how I felt last year after seeing American Sniper, a surprise blockbuster directed by Clint Eastwood and starring Bradley Cooper in the role of Navy sniper Chris Kyle. In American Sniper, no one asked why Iraqis were shooting at Kyle and the rest of the U.S. military in the first place (hint: we invaded and occupied their country and tortured some of them at prisons like Abu Ghraib). Despite such errors of context, American Sniper was a formidable movie. It was really human and stuck with the audience. Much credit goes to Eastwood, a skilled director, and Cooper, a charismatic actor. His thespian counterpart in 13 Hours is John Krasinski, the nice guy from The Office. As it turns out, Krasinski wields a stapler and a pun far more convincingly than an M-4.
As far as propaganda goes, 13 Hours is mercifully thin. If we are lucky, it will fade away as quickly as the fake smoke from one of its many explosions. But the film is getting a big publicity push and might accidentally be taken seriously. Bay’s team is trying to work the behind-the-scenes alchemy that makes reviews by recovering war correspondents like me utterly irrelevant, not to mention film critics who don’t know an IED from LAX. 13 Hours is lining up endorsements from the taste-makers who really count, celebrities like Carmelo Anthony and Tiger Woods, who are among the sports figures who have attended advance screenings and tweeted about it. (Take that, Pauline Kael.)
13 Hours has a number of political problems that go beyond the one most people are likely to notice — the question of whether Hillary Clinton, secretary of state at the time, should be blamed for what happened in Benghazi. The film doesn’t actually mention Clinton by name. The short answer to the Clinton question is that everyone in the government should be blamed for what happened, including the Republicans who for years have bled the State Department of the funds it needs to provide proper security for its overseas facilities.
13 Hours, like American Sniper, is allergic to context. American Sniper presented Iraqis as sub-human, and that’s pretty much the same treatment Libyans get in 13 Hours, which includes the now-obligatory shot of Muslim fighters praying next to their AK-47s. Yet Bay’s film makes an additional error — it depicts private military contractors as heroes. In the very particular case of what happened in Benghazi in 2012 on September 11 and 12, that’s correct — the men who fought to save Ambassador Christopher Stevens, who died in the attacks along with a mid-level State Department employee, were brave. Two of the military contractors died in combat that night.
The deeper truth — which doesn’t diminish the real-life efforts of the men portrayed in the film — is that private military contractors have been a pox on America’s post-9/11 warfare. Particularly in Iraq, mercenaries hired by the U.S. government operated with near impunity, shooting and killing civilians, and engendered hatred on all sides. Even U.S. troops were fed up with them. A number of times, when I was embedded in Iraq, U.S. soldiers criticized the highly paid mercenaries as irresponsible troublemakers whose excesses further diminished the reputation of all U.S. forces. The most notorious example was the killings at Nisour Square in 2007, when gunmen working for Blackwater killed 17 civilians and injured 24.
Outsourcing warfare to mercenaries leads to all kinds of perverse outcomes. This was true in Benghazi too, though that story is not told in 13 Hours or the book it’s based on. For instance, one of the contractors killed in Libya, Glen Doherty, was working for the CIA on a short-term contract as a “direct independent contractor.” He had formed his own company for this purpose, called Icarus, Inc., and had been required by the CIA to buy an insurance policy. But according to a lawsuit filed by his mother and other relatives (settled last year in a confidential agreement), the policy, bought from an insurer recommended by the CIA, was nearly worthless and the insurer refused to pay death benefits because Doherty had no children or spouse. Even the contractors are cheated in the new American way of war.
13 Hours also fails to mention one of the strange reasons why the CIA contractors in Benghazi were called into combat. The defense of a State Department diplomatic compound in the city had been outsourced to a little-known military contractor, Blue Mountain Group, which had hired a small number of underpaid and ill-trained Libyans. When the attack began, the Libyan contractors mostly disappeared, along with the local militia that was supposed to provide another layer of protection. The bizarre upshot: A group of contractors hired by the CIA was called in to save the day partly because a group of contractors hired by the State Department had run away. It’s a strange twist. Maybe someone will make a movie about it one day.