When I read the crawl saying that in September 2012, Benghazi was one of the most dangerous places on earth, I knew 13 Hours, Michael Bay’s latest shoot-’em-up megaproduction, was going to be bad.
Of course 13 Hours doesn’t just make stuff up to try to tell a good story. It also hypes the danger of Benghazi because it’s allowing itself to be perceived as offering a rebuttal to what I and many others believe to be a Hillary Clinton lie: that the attack on the consulate was a spontaneous reaction to an anti-Muslim movie and that security for the Americans in Benghazi was just fine.
But you can believe that the late U.S. Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens ought to have been listened to when he asked for more security before the attack, and you can believe that the attack was thoroughly planned and had nothing to do with a movie, without purveying a different set of untruths, which are also dangerous for America—while also claiming on screen, in all caps, “THIS IS A TRUE STORY.”
And even if, like me, you think some people can’t be negotiated with and just need to be killed, and that the Obama Administration has been oblivious to the danger of political Islam in Libya—even then, you need a strategy to deal with terrorism, and you need a political solution.
Using air power only, not using air power; drawing our forces down, “surging” them; trying to win the hearts and minds of the locals, not trying to win the hearts and minds. There’s nothing inherently right or wrong with any of these tactics, but none of them will work if there’s no strategy for winning and keeping the peace.
But that’s all too effete for Bay. What makes this a dangerously stupid movie is his wielding his considerable technical powers to make it seem as though the issue on Sept. 11, 2012, was that the United States didn’t use enough hardware against the terrorists who attacked our diplomats.
I saw 13 Hours because I have a dog in this fight: I was in Benghazi for a few days in late July-early August 2012 in the course of a long trip.
It was a darkening city, sadly changed from its spring 2011 glory. The Makama or courthouse square where the Feb. 17 revolution began, renamed the Sahat al Hurrya or Freedom Square, had been the center of intellectual and cultural life in spring 2011. Now it was a place where vendors sold toilet seats.
It was clear that Islamists had shut down the explosion of cultural production in spring 2011—a utopian moment where dentists became filmmakers, lawyers became legislators, architects played rock ’n’ roll on the streets.
Now, everyone talked about how to get the weapons off the street, and they didn’t talk so much or so loud about the Islamists. But Benghazi wasn’t obviously a terror haven. In a late-July visit, I thought nothing of walking around by myself in the city center. Libyan women drove alone and went out to restaurants in groups.
Nor was it clear then what direction Libya as a whole was taking. On July 7, 2012, Libyans overwhelmingly rejected the Muslim Brotherhood candidates in free and fair elections for parliament. It was a free country.
Reality, as always in Libya, was city by city and confusing. Civil society was strong even in cities that would later become contested by ISIS like Sabratha and Derna. Tripoli was vibrant; Benghazi failing. The Amazigh city of Zwara flourished; it would later become a byword for human trafficking.
There was a sense in Libya that summer that the United States should be doing something—training a national army, helping with disarmament—but no Libyan wanted American boots on the ground. After 30 years of Fascist Italian occupation, and Ottoman rule before that, Libyans in general aren’t keen on foreign occupiers.
13 Hours is doing well—one of the top five grossing in theaters now, with $16.2 million in box office revenue—because many Americans are hungry for explanations of what went on that night in Benghazi. So, it’s a real shame that 13 Hours is also a dangerously stupid movie, made by someone who’s learned absolutely nothing from our last 15 years of war.
Bay’s gleeful anti-intellectualism is front and center. I groaned when non-Arabic speaking Special Ops guys were shown driving around Benghazi without a translator (and getting into a confrontation). How would you like it if non-English speaking, heavily armed agents of, say, China drove around your city like maniacs?
But perhaps the key bit of dialogue occurs while the CIA Annex in Benghazi is under assault. One of the commanders of a friendly, government-supported militia 17 February, has showed up to help the Americans. They are also Islamists, by the way, and members were implicated in the assassination of revolutionary Gen. Abdul Fatah Younis in July 2011, which was the beginning of the end for Benghazi’s civil society.
Bay has one of his special operators ask a question about the attackers. The Libyan answers that he will call someone in Ansar al Sharia and see what he can find out. The SO reacts with an incredulity we are supposed to identify with: “Talk to the enemy??” he says.
Yup. Talking is how everything is settled in Libya, including the sporadic civil war that has just sputtered to a halt, amidst significant internal displacement and destruction of infrastructure but a not very lofty casualty count. Libyans tend to talk rather than killing each other—and even while they are fighting a hot war.
And talking was what Amb. Stevens was in Libya to do, talking to Libyans in the Arabic he knew well—not that 13 Hours makes that clear. The film is inexcusably slighting to Stevens and his staff, apparently because they’re not muscle-bound he-men.
Amb. Stevens is shown as a corporate naïf, repeating platitudes to a Libyan crowd. Later, as militants set fire to his compound, he cowers in the bathroom. He’s never shown trying to reach Libyan officials, which he would undoubtedly have been trying to do.
The real Chris Stevens was more rumpled and more sure of himself, and he knew everyone who mattered in Benghazi. Stevens had experience in Libya dating back to the Qaddafi regime, had lived in Benghazi during the revolution and was beloved by many, and spoke fluent Arabic.
When I interviewed Stevens at the diplomatic compound in Benghazi in May 2011, I thought he was too sanguine about the Islamist element in the February 17 revolution. And here is where the American dog in the fight comes in.
13 Hours shows militants with black al-Qaida flags and black headbands, presumably to make the point that the elements who would later coalesce into ISIS were already gaining strength. This is true, but it was not that obvious. I did not see any black flags in late July. A Libyan friend living in Benghazi at the time, Luay ElMagri, says that the black flag was shown in public twice in 2012: when Ansar demonstrated against the July elections and around Sept. 11, 2012. He’s quick to point out that citizens demonstrated against Ansar’s anti-election demo.
This is the problem with Libya: Lines are slippery, signals are mixed, things could go either way. This is presumably why the White House seemed unable to decide which groups in Libya, if any, represented a vision for the country congruent with American values. This problem has continued. The ambassador who replaced Stevens, Deborah Jones, had a lot of time for former members of the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group and actually advocated for a Libyan Constitution based on Sharia law.
The Benghazi of 13 Hours is also dangerously misleading. The real Benghazi was founded as a Greek colony, but the city’s contemporary look represents an effort at state-socialist modernity by the Qaddafi regime, overlaid on the Italianate and Ottoman historical center; it’s as complicated as Libya itself. Bay’s Benghazi, however, is an Orientalist fantasy of an Arab city.
Because the movie was mainly shot in Malta, the most densely inhabited country in Europe, with 1,320 people per square kilometer, it gives the impression that Benghazi is a densely populated city of narrow, picturesque winding streets. (Malta is just a half hour flight from Libya but looks nothing like it.)
Bay’s Benghazi has church domes and hills in the background of many shots, and the American diplomatic compound lies amid ancient curving streets lined with businesses and cafés. Ragged children and suspicious looking men loiter nearby. The real Benghazi sprawls over a swampy coastal basin with a large lake. It’s devoid of churches and can seem almost devoid of people. Benghazi’s streets are almost never filled. Outside the very small historical center, distances are large, and highways, overpasses, and cloverleafs abound as in Los Angeles. Bay has a crowd run to attack the U.S. diplomatic compound—but from anywhere in the center city this would be a run of several miles. Fighters in Libya drive, like everyone else.
The U.S. diplomatic compound was in an exurban area of large estates interspersed with an upscale houses on smaller plots of ground. The neighborhood was known by its main road, Venezia Street. The streets are wide, more like highways than residential streets. The area is laid out on a grid plan, and to the best of my recollection, the only businesses for a couple of square miles were a pricey restaurant, a couple of supermarkets, and a gas station. People were no more loitering around the streets than they do along LA freeways.
And while Benghazi was slighted by Qaddafi compared with Tripoli, Libya is a middling rich oil state. Every Libyan has lots of state benefits. Libyan kids don’t run around in rags. Indeed, Libyans’ sense of wealth and entitlement, and the fact that they don’t really pay taxes, has been one of the obstacles to establishing a functioning society post-revolution.
This may be the place to raise the spectre of Orientalism, or maybe plain old racism. While the book 13 Hours, by Mitchel Zuckoff, seems a cut above the movie, I was taken aback by a casual mention of “the nauseating smell of baked-on body odor” among the Libyans at the baggage carousel at Benghazi’s Benina Airport in August 2012. Libyan airports including Benina are a disorganized nightmare, but I’ve never noticed that Libyans have any more or less body odor than Americans.
The skin tones of Libyans in 13 Hours seems to work in direct correlation to their goodness: Good guys are light-skinned, bad guys are dark. On average, the Libyans are shown as darker than they are in real life. Many Libyans look like southern Italians or Greeks, which is where many of their ancestors came from.
Bay shows Libyans as howling savages, for the most part. How many of the viewers of 13 Hours know that Libya sent senators to Rome in the Republic and that the Emperor Septimius Severus was born there? Libyans have just as much of a connection, genetic or cultural, with democracy and Western values as anyone in the Mediterranean basin. That’s part of why the revolution was so exhilarating and why what has happened in the last couple of years is so tragic.
The other piece in Libya’s tragedy is precisely the cultural emphasis on talking, on trying to come to a consensus. Libyans were demonstrating against Ansar al Sharia in Benghazi when they should have been killing them, they were talking to al-Qaida in Derna when they should have been killing them, and now they are negotiating endlessly with each other when they need to be killing IS. But the answer to too much tolerance and too much talk is not a bunch of musclebound guys who don’t speak Arabic coming in to shoot the place up. Libyans have to pull their country together themselves, and if 13 Hours ever does any good, it might be in infuriating Libyans so much that they do just that.
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