Shadow Government

Justice at Zero Dark Thirty

I was in Arizona on 9/11. I was in the Army at the time, doing a summer of training at Fort Huachuca. Someone told us as we milled about after morning class that there was some kind of attack in New York. By the time we got to lunch there were wild rumors about how many bombs had gone off and how many planes were in the air. They cancelled afternoon class and we watched news the rest of the day, forty or fifty soldiers crowded into a small common room. We turned the TV on just in time to see the second tower collapse on live TV. I will never forget the gasps, the anger, and the profanities that filled the room as we watched.


I have no idea if you will like Zero Dark Thirty (2012). The film is too close to home for me to watch like a regular movie. I served in Afghanistan with the Army in 2002. I served in the CIA as an analyst in the Office of South Asian Analysis from 2003 to 2007. I worked in the White House as Director for Afghanistan and Pakistan from 2007 to 2009. My entire career has been defined by 9/11 and the aftermath. I have such a deep personal stake in it that when I heard someone was making this movie, I felt, at first, violated.

Watching the movie was all the more personal and unsettling  because of one particular violent scene. I am not  normally squeamish about movie violence -- I love the Alien franchise -- but it took a few years after serving in Afghanistan before I could watch war movies again. It seemed weird and disrespectful to watch real-life horror as entertainment. That sense was magnified infinitely during one scene in Zero Dark Thirty in which a fictional suicide bomber pretends to blow himself up, we see a special-effects explosion, and we see a half-dozen actors pretend to die.

The scene is based on a true incident -- an attack on a CIA forward operating base in Khowst in December 2009. The incident was so devastating to the CIA that the President released a statement and CIA Director Leon Panetta wrote an oped in The Washington Post.

A friend of mine was there. I attended his funeral and met his widow.


Watching this movie made me both sad and angry. Not angry at Kathryn Bigelow or Columbia Pictures. I would have been if she had made a cheap and splashy film that exploited 9/11, my friend's death, and the bin Laden raid as blockbuster fare. This movie, if made by Michael Bay, would have been disgusting.

But Bigelow has made a sensitive and respectful film, one that honors the people who lived its story. I told my wife after seeing Bigelow's previous, Oscar-winning film, The Hurt Locker (2009), that it was the most faithful depiction of soldiers' lives in a modern combat zone I'd ever seen. I felt honored that someone took the time to tell our story, the story of a million veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan, and to tell it right.

Similarly, Zero Dark Thirty tells the stories of the countless  soldiers, sailors,  airmen, Marines, CIA officers, intelligence professionals, and special forces who have spent a decade hunting not just bin Laden, but all of al Qaeda and its murderous allies around the world. It is the most accurate depiction of intelligence work I've ever seen in a movie -- the painstaking detective work, the frustration, the dead-ends, the bureaucracy, the uncertainty, and the sudden life-or-death stakes. There isn't the slightest hint of James Bond or Jason Bourne here: even the SEAL Team Six raid is done slowly, methodically, with more professionalism than flare. If this were pure fiction, no one would see it because it would be too dull. Bigelow resists the urge to sensationalize, and in so doing she elevates the material and demands that we pay attention to, and think carefully about, what we are watching.

Good art tells stories, provides catharsis, shows how individual lives make up a broader story, teaches and educates, holds up a mirror for us and let us decide if we like what we see or not. That requires, of course, that we approach art with a sense of responsibility. We only hear what it is saying if we are listening for it and are willing to think carefully about it. Art demands an active viewer, listener, or reader; and it demands a response. Otherwise it is just images and sound --"sound and fury"-- that we pass before our senses to pass the time.  Watching Zero Dark Thirty that way would be disrespectful, and wrong.

The right response to this film is not anger at the filmmakers. It is, first, anger about 9/11, the wars, the death, and, for me, the casual ignorance among the vast majority of the population about the sacrifices borne by a tiny handful of heroes. I was angry most of all at al Qaeda, at Osama bin Laden and his hateful jihad, at Humam Khalil Abu-Mulal al-Balawi for murdering my friend. But the anger is muted by a pervading sadness: Zero Dark Thirty is a profoundly melancholy, grim film.


Another response is to think carefully about the nature of war. Some critics claim Zero Dark Thirty is pro-torture for showing American personnel getting valuable information from detainees after waterboarding them and treating them roughly. Another, more experienced ex-CIA officer has criticized the movie for its inaccurate portrayal of the "enhanced interrogation" techniques. Several United States Senators weighed in to say the movie is inaccurate, which is a compliment of sorts. They hadn't bothered to comment on the accuracy of depicting Congress as full of stupid, slavery-loving crooks in Lincoln, after all.

The critics and the Senate are missing the point of historical dramatization. In the ten-year hunt for bin Laden, the United States did stuff, hard stuff, controversial stuff that was maybe on (or over) the line between right and wrong. Waterboarding, for better or worse, has become the most recognizable symbol of all that stuff. Bigelow's decision to include a scene of waterboarding in the movie is an accurate dramatization that the U.S. did stuff like that. If waterboarding itself did not literally provide the crucial link in the hunt for bin Laden, I am absolutely certain that  some of the stuff the United States did after 9/11 has been instrumental in preventing another 9/11 and keeping al-Qaida on the run.

Let me say that again. With all the weight of ten years of work in the Army, the CIA, and the White House, I am absolutely certain that there would have been at least one, if not more, successful, large-scale terrorist attacks on the United States without the "gloves-off" measures used in the last decade.

Is that just? Leaving aside nuance, let's just ask it straight:  are torture and assassination permissible tools of self-defense? Ultimately, the movie does not provide an answer, and I won't presume to offer a definitive solution in a movie review. On the one hand, the moral foundation of government is to defend its citizens and uphold order. A government that fails in its first duty is not worthy of the name. Paul writes in Romans 13 that the ruler "does not bear the sword in vain. For he is the servant of God, an avenger who carries out God's wrath on the wrongdoer." If the death penalty is justified, and I believe it is, then so is hunting down and executing a war criminal. And if we can kill some, then we can certainly rough up others in the pursuit of good information about them.

On the other hand, Paul writes in Romans 12 "‘Vengeance is mine, I will repay,' says the Lord." And we know that every human being has inherent dignity and worth in the sight of God as a creature made in his image. Maybe there are some things -- acts of revenge or humiliation -- that governments should not do under any circumstances. Perhaps the very same act -- like using an  "enhanced interrogation" technique -- is an obligatory act of self-defense and a damnable act of revenge at the same time for different people, depending on the state of their hearts. I confess after more than ten years I am less sure about these issues than ever.

Bigelow's film, by refusing to editorialize or tell its audience what to think about these questions, compels us to ask and answer them ourselves. In this sense it is fundamentally different than the other great post-9/11 film about terrorism, Steven Spielberg's Munich (2005), which ends on a preachy note with one character telling another that "there is no peace at the end of this."


The bulk of Zero Dark Thirty is a very good spy thriller. It ends, as we all know, as a war movie. The final sequence (this is not a spoiler unless you've been living in a cave), showing SEAL Team Six's assault on Osama bin Laden's compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan, called to my mind the St. Crispin's Day speech in Shakespeare's Henry V:

And gentlemen in England now-a-bed / Shall think themselves accurs'd they were not here, / And hold their manhoods cheap whiles any speaks / That fought with us upon Saint Crispin's day.

Every soldier, sailor, airman, Marine, and spy -- and a good swath of the American population -- woke up on May 2, 2011, heard the news, and wished they had been there in Abbottabad. Zero Dark Thirty gives us the vicarious experience of having been there. Bigelow wisely underplays the climactic moment -- even refusing to show bin Laden on camera -- lest it degenerate into a Tarantino revenge fantasy. Even so, I confess it was gratifying. The finale offers a national catharsis  after a decade of frustration.

I recognize how bloodthirsty that sounds. But I don't think bloodlust is the only danger, or even the biggest danger, in relishing the climax of Zero Dark Thirty. Read the Psalms again and note how often David rejoices over his enemies' defeat. We spiritualize too much if we think these Psalms only apply to the "enemy" of temptation, or sin, or the devil. Sometimes we have actual human enemies who want to kill us, and defeating them is good. No man's death is occasion for a party -- the celebrations on the National Mall were unseemly -- but as I told my students the next morning, justice is good, and sobering.

No, a bigger danger, perhaps, is in cheapening the sacrifice, risk, and work of those who were actually, not vicariously, involved in the hunt. Some viewers will enjoy a fleeting and shallow sense of pride and pleasure before moving on with life. It may feel gratifying to watch it happen on screen, but take a moment to recognize that you didn't really do anything to make it happen. Watch and enjoy Zero Dark Thirty -- it is a very good movie -- but don't treat it like a cheap thrill.

In the closing months of the Civil War, Abraham Lincoln called on the nation in his Second Inaugural "to bind up the nation's wounds, to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan." Here's an idea for a responsible approach to Zero Dark Thirty. Watch the movie, then donate the equivalent of your movie ticket, if not more, to the CIA Officer's Memorial Foundation. The Foundation provides educational support to the children of CIA officers killed in the line of duty. My friend left behind three of them.

Note: this blog entry was originally posted at

Jonathan Olley – © 2012 - Columbia Pictures Industries, Inc.

Shadow Government

Whither Obama’s Afghanistan policy?

Late last week key officials within the Obama administration announced a potential new limit for troops that will remain in Afghanistan after 2014 (when the vast majority of the current 40,000 will have been removed). That number-- 2,500-6,000 total -- is far less than the 30,000 that the administration stated just two years ago was the minimum necessary to carry out counter-terrorism tasks in the country.

What has happened to justify this radical shift in policy? I would argue that three key conclusions about Afghanistan have coalesced in the thinking of policy makers since 2010 and have pushed the administration to reconsider its vision for the war.

1. Afghanistan as Vietnam

Perhaps most importantly, administration officials have concluded that Afghanistan is Vietnam:  an eternal, unwinnable war that will only drag them and the country down with it if they continue to invest in the conflict.

There are, however, significant differences between the two wars. First and foremost, unlike in Vietnam, there is a clear military and political way forward in Afghanistan. From its success in Iraq, the U.S. military learned how to fight and win these sorts of irregular conflicts. This comes as no surprise to historians, who know that the U.S. military has won every irregular war that it was fought except for Vietnam. This includes three guerrilla wars in the Philippines and a series of irregular fights in Latin America. Politically, the U.S. learned from President Kennedy's disastrous support for the overthrow of Diem and has supported (however reluctantly) a leader who is recognized as legitimate by most Afghans. And unlike Vietnam, Afghans generally do not want a strong, centralized government that will provide a multitude of services, but rather prefer one that provides general security and leaves local issues to local leaders. This makes a political solution to the conflict in Afghanistan far more likely than it ever could be in Vietnam after 1963.

The second way that these wars differ radically is the stakes, which are far higher in Afghanistan than in Vietnam. Kennedy and Johnson, unlike Eisenhower, were convinced that Vietnam was an existential issue that had to be fought and won for the safety and security of the free world. Subsequent events would show that Vietnamese leaders were just as much nationalists as they were communists, and that they had no intention of working to undermine the free world. The war in Afghanistan, however, began with a devastating attack on the American homeland and the group that carried out this strike will return to their safe-haven to plot and plan further attacks as soon as we leave. Winning the war in Afghanistan is precisely about our own safety and preventing the death of Americans.

Two historians of Vietnam have aided and abetted in this dangerous analogy-building:  Gordon Goldstein and Robert Caro. Goldstein's writing has pushed the President to conclude that LBJ's mistake in Vietnam was not withdrawing early -- regardless of the consequences in SE Asia and around the Cold War world -- and Robert Caro's work argues that LBJ's involvement in the war destroyed his domestic achievements. Both of these analogies have been accepted by at least some within this administration as object lessons for the current situation that can be, apparently, applied without critical thought about the dangers of analogies for decision making at the highest policy levels.

2.  The Military Is Untrustworthy

Perhaps due to a seminal event in 2009 -- the leaking of McChrystal's strategy for fighting the war -- administration officials have concluded that, as with the army in Vietnam, today's military cannot be trusted. To save face in an unwinnable war, the military will always request more troops and more money. Beginning with the "surge" that year, every request for troops by the commanders who know the most about the situation in Afghanistan has been treated with skepticism and cut considerably by this administration. This was done without taking into consideration conditions on the ground, but perhaps it seemed necessary to demonstrate to the military that civilian control had to be respected.

The result, however, has been disastrous for Afghanistan, where the lack of sufficient troops prevented a full counter-insurgency from being implemented and the withdrawal of forces will allow the Taliban and al Qaeda to return unimpeded to the East and South of the country. Without more troops, the U.S. will not even be able to carry out the minimal strategy that this administration has itself argued is necessary to prevent another attack on the U.S.

3.  A Shift in Objectives

Some part of this disregard for the advice of the military is due to vast changes in strategy. When President Obama was campaigning for office in 2008, he argued that the U.S. had to withdraw from Iraq and focus on winning the war in Afghanistan -- where the U.S. faced a real threat from al Qaeda. Once in office, he held two policy reviews to elaborate the right strategy for confronting al Qaeda and achieving success in Afghanistan. The path forward that he chose was a counterinsurgency that would defeat the Taliban and secure the population of the South and East of the country.

Not long afterward, a change in objectives for the war was announced: rather than defeating the Taliban, the administration supported a negotiated settlement with the group through a process called "reconciliation." In addition, the military objective later shifted from a full COIN to something called "CT Plus," which would focus solely on killing al Qaeda members and disrupting the ability of the group to plot and plan. CT Plus would require far fewer forces than a COIN (around 30,000 was seen as the minimum to stay after 2014).

What then has justified the proposed change from 30,000 to perhaps 2,500? Once again objectives have changed -- in this case from CT Plus to something even less: just holding one or two bases in the country. With so few troops, the U.S. will not be able to carry out CT missions, and if just two bases are held, much of the East and South will be out of reach for strikes on Taliban and al-Qa'ida leadership. This change in objectives in fact guarantees that Afghanistan will once again become a safe-haven for AQ and a base for the group to plot and plan and carry out attacks on the U.S.

Perhaps there is a Vietnam analogy that suits this situation, but one provided by the French and not the U.S. experience: Dien Bien Phu. Trapped in a mindset that believed only attrition could defeat the Viet Minh guerrilla army, the French chose to move several thousand troops to an isolated garrison with poor lines of communications at a place called Dien Bien Phu. The troops could not be easily reinforced or resupplied, and came under heavy artillery fire from the Viet Minh forces. Eventually the entire garrison was forced to surrender under humiliating circumstances and France withdrew from all of SE Asia.

Any force less than 15,000 risks precisely this outcome in the isolated battlefield of Afghanistan, which might explain why the administration has been talking about withdrawing completely and ceding the entire country -- as it has Syria, Mali, and Libya -- to al Qaeda.