As a schoolboy, I would travel to the Edinburgh Festival with my pal Julian Holt to watch movies. There were three reasons for this. As a trainspotter, I wanted to take photographs of steam locos at Waverley station.
I was fascinated by cinema film – I had ambitions then to be a film critic as well as a foreign correspondent – and I could escape from my over-protective parents. These were the days of Polanski's Knife in the Water and the French New Wave. Master Fisk, who stayed in a bleak lodging house in the crumby port of Leith – all drunks and old ships – could even be glimpsed occasionally in Crawford's tea house off Princes Street, ostentatiously reading Cahiers du Cinéma.
So this week, there I was back in Edinburgh, steam trains long gone, the Novotel instead of the digs in Leith, but square-eyed again for the world of movies. I loved the film on Afghan football, Out of the Ashes – which my mate Andrew Buncombe had already snatched for The Independent from his perch in Delhi – but was fascinated by Restrepo, a long documentary for which two brave journalists, Sebastian Junger and Tim Hetherington, spent 13 months with the US Second Platoon of Battle Company of the 173rd Airborne Brigade in the Korangal Valley, perhaps the deadliest piece of real estate in Afghanistan.
The platoon set up a post called OP Restrepo – named after a much-loved but very dead comrade – and endured a miniature version of Khe San amid the towering snow-fastness of Talibanland. During the movie, another soldier dies – he is shot on patrol and you briefly see his corpse – as bullets zip around the camera. After calling up an air strike on a village "terrorist" target, the platoon moves into the hamlet in which it finds horribly wounded children and civilian corpses.
All this was given added piquancy when General Stanley McChrystal fell on his own sword in front of Barack Obama this week. I don't like generals, but I had a smidgen of sympathy for this arrogant man. McChrystal's contempt for the inept Richard Holbrooke – the "Afpak" envoy (what a yuk title) who hourly awaits his own dismissal – at least bears the merit of truth.
What was more instructive, however, was Obama's behaviour. Every month, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu heaps humiliation and insult upon the impotent and frightened Obama, who responds by clucking his tongue and then swearing further lifelong fidelity to Israel. But the moment his top man in Afghanistan tells a few home truths about his boss, Obama throws a hissy fit and fires him. McChrystal would obviously have done much better in the Israeli army.
Ironically, one of McChrystal's last acts was to pull his men out of the Korangal Valley and close down OP Restrepo. Indeed, al-Jazeera's reporter managed to enter the abandoned outpost a few days ago with a bunch of leering Taliban – who joyfully discovered that the Americans had left them plenty of spare ammo. So much for the sacrifice of the Second Platoon and the far greater suffering of the Afghan villagers whom they blasted away in the interests of the "war on terror".
Yet Restrepo the film was impressive. Not just because of the fear of the soldiers – and the spectacular real-life battle scenes – but because of the graphic, terrible moments in the bombed village. One little, pain-filled girl stares with such incomprehension at her tormentors that you know that we have lost the war in Afghanistan.
Yet, old enough as I am to have covered the Soviet occupation of this same country 30 years ago, I have to say that no Russian camera crew ever filmed the innocent victims of Brezhnev's mad adventure in Afghanistan. If we as an audience are invited to sympathise with American soldiers, the film doesn't attempt to spare us the truth. No Russian cinemagoer ever saw their own country's Afghan victims, the children maimed by Russian landmines, the families murdered at Russian checkpoints, the villagers cut down in air strikes by the MIGs I used to watch lazily taking off from Jalalabad airport.
Something of the same sentiment goes for another Edinburgh movie, The Oath, an overlong but carefully researched film about Salim Hamdan, Osama bin Laden's former driver and a long-time resident of Guantanamo, and his jihadist "friend" Abu Jandal ("Father of Death"). Here again, we suddenly see another side of brutal America: Hamdan's US military defence council standing up in Sana'a before a sea of his client's Yemeni relatives, outlining his case to free their man from Bush's outrageous prison camp. The Arab questioners are polite and clearly respect the young American serviceman who has arrived in a dangerous city – for him, at least – to help one of bin Laden's men.
How many Arab countries would appoint a government lawyer to defend an American held in an Arab prison – or talk to the American's relatives in the United States? How many Arab countries would even debate the laws under which they imprison, torture and execute their prisoners? Did the Sana'a audience grasp this point? I think they did. Arabs know very well the corrupt and brutal nature of their dictators, just as they understand the folly of American power.
By the end of The Oath, we are also made cruelly aware that Salim Hamdan's Yemeni "friend", far from being a loyal jihadist himself, spent hours giving the FBI every detail of bin Laden's security apparatus, identifying his colleagues, his air-defence weapons, his solar-panelled radio system. Hamdan and Abu Jandal married sisters on the instructions of bin Laden. But Abu Jandal, it turns out, shopped his comrade Hamdan to the Americans. Freed at last from Guantanamo, Hamdan writes a sharp but remarkably restrained letter to his betrayer. "My beloved, stubborn brother-in-law: I heard you made radio and television interviews. Why all of that? A man should seek peace and safety from God. So mind your own business and don't interfere. I will keep this letter short and await yours. May God's blessing be upon you."
But Abu Jandal is now on an al-Qa'ida assassination list. And of the two retirees this week, I think I'd prefer to be McChrystal. After all, he'll soon turn up as a paid "expert" on Fox News.Reuse content