Sunday, January 31, 2016

On A Mission Far From Home

"We Stand Alone, Together." Motto of the 506th PIR, 101st Airborne Division, US Army.

The movie 13 Hours of Benghazi was both deeply disturbing, and heart wending. It has been heralded in some circles as an indictment of certain political figures. In others, it is largely ignored as "propaganda," an attempt to influence public opinion by dramatizing an unfortunate incident at a dangerous American outpost. It is probably neither.

The author, and the men upon whose experiences the book is based, (13 Hours). begin by saying that they express no opinions about things with which they have no firsthand knowledge.  The essential facts, which have tended to be obscured by overarching geopolitical realities: 

America had a consulate facility in the Libyan city of Benghazi. It, and the diplomatic staff (including the Ambassador) were protected by former military Diplomatic Security Service employees. In the film, the compound is elegantly beautiful, with a large pool and gleaming white walls. Interior touches - chandeliers, lavish furnishings and broad staircases, are Middle Eastern in flavor, upper GS rated American government posting.

About a mile away, a "secret" annex houses several dozen CIA operatives. Their murky mission involves arms of some kind, the ready availability of which is painfully evident throughout the movie. Their bodyguards are private contractors, Global Response Staff (GRS), all ex-military. A smattering of these burly, heavily armed men are former Tier One special operators, primarily SEALS.

The context of post-Gaddafi Libya is both confusing, and reminiscent. There are echos of the failed humanitarian mission to Somalia, (In The Company of Heroes) an attempt in the early 1990s to resurrect a country where casual murder, starvation and tribal fratricide survived the efforts of American intervention. The Libyan government and its associated operatives try to maintain order, and provide security for US personnel. Their efforts, and necessarily their results, are uneven.

The consulate is attacked and set ablaze by a hundred or more of heavily armed assholes. Embassy employee Sean Smith is killed. Ambassador Christopher Stevens, a popular figure in Libya, dies of injuries related to the fire. Remaining members of the diplomatic staff are evacuated by the CIA's GRS contractors to the annex.

The annex is assaulted repeatedly during the nighttime hours, resulting in sustained small-arms combat. Initial efforts on the part of the aggressors to move heavy weapons in place are stifled. A group from Tripoli arrives as reinforcements. One of them, former SEAL Glen Doherty, is killed in a mortar attack, as is GRS member Tyrone "Rone" Woods. As day breaks, Libyan forces friendly to America arrive in numbers sufficient to turn the tide, and evacuate the facility occupants to the Tripoli airport. An aircraft departs filled with the able and the injured, leaving behind several of the contractors, guarding the bodies of the four dead. A C-130 taxis up to exfil them. It is not a US aircraft.

"Still no Americans," one of the operators observes.

That is the power of this book, and this movie. It is a "bromance" of sorts, the story of rough men willing to do violence in the interests of peace and freedom. Most of them are married (to second and third wives) with small children at home. They are well paid, which explains in some ways why they are so far from home. But... In the book, one of the men ponders, as his plane approaches the gate at Tripoli airport, what sort of adventures await him. He has once again entered harm's way because that's what he does. In the end, when the bullets have temporarily stopped flying in that stricken land, they all wonder aloud if they haven't just accomplished something few men on Earth would even attempt. They, and dozens of others, are alive because the GRS members are fierce, accomplished, unspeakably brave warriors.

There is a scene, as the fighting reaches its crescendo, where a CIA agent begs for military help. A flyby of F-16s would rattle the attackers, and give the Americans some breathing room. The scene shifts to an airfield, six American fighters parked neatly in rows. A solitary individual stands guard at the otherwise deserted hardstand. The author, his contributors, and the movie makers offer a clear invitation throughout:

"This is what happened. Make up your own mind about what it means, and whether it matters."

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