Of Irish Alamos, UN interventions and imperialistic aestethics

On a lazy Saturday evening, I happened to watch on Netflix a 2016 war movie, The Siege of Jadotville. The movie focus on a true episode of the UN intervention in Congo in 1961, when a company of Irish soldiers managed to successfully defend for six days their outpost, with no causality, against the attack of mercenaries and Katanga gendarmes outnumbering them by a factor of 20, before being forced to surrender after having run out of ammunition and food. The plot is pretty simple, and the movie is very linear in its development, resembling an old western or a classical war movie: a group of young soldiers, led by a charismatic and brilliant commander, aided by a grizzled and no-nonsense senior NCO, facing hordes of enemies led by a charismatic, albeit mischievous and ruthless (white) commander. On top of that, a necessarily simplistic representation of the complex political play at work, with the part of the sorcerer’s apprentice left to Conor Cruise O’Brien (Mark Strong) (whose real historical figure fits quite nicely the bill for a despicable antihero, especially to an Irish audience), and the perhaps more nuanced and complex part of the movie left to a David Bowie-looking Dag Hammarskjold (Mikael Persbrandt).

All the aesthetic choices are quite conservative, reminding of other movies with similar plots, like We were soldiers, the second part of Saving Private Ryan, Zulu, all the way back to Stagecoach. The Irish commander Pat Quinlan, played by James Dornan, is a typical ruggedly handsome soldier in a perfectly-fit field uniform (and looks a good ten years younger than the real Quinlan at the time of the battle); the Irish soldiers are green and good looking; O’Brien looks constantly unsure about what is doing; the mercenary leader, Roger Faulques (Guillaume Canet), is grizzled, scarred and sinister (given the personal story and physical appearance of the real Falques, this portrait might be not that off the mark); the Katanga secessionist leader Moïse Tshombe (Danny Sapani) is the stereotypical African big man; while the other mercenaries and Katanga soldiers appear too shortly on the screen to leave an impression on the audience (more on this below).

In all, from a cinematic point of view, the film is quite enjoyable and well done, managing to build up some real suspense and without exceeding in gore, although whoever hopes for some political and historical in-depth analysis should look elsewhere.

My own knowledge of the UN intervention in Congo is quite superficial, being limited to a course on the history of the UN I attended some ten years ago. As said before, the political part of the film is necessarily simplistic, and mostly functional to another (not groundless) trope, “politicos and top brass leaving field soldiers on their own”, quite popular (and to a fair extent based on reality) also in Vietnam war literature and movies and to a certain extent in popular representations of UN interventions like this.

The film has been criticized in some circles for the use of an aesthetic that has been defined imperialistic, where all the focus is on the white Irish company, where the black soldiers are just represented as faceless enemy that ends up being dehumanized, perpetrating on one hand everyday racism and on the other hand some sort of nostalgia of the “white man last stand” against the barbarians, like in this post by Michael Paye, who seems to have. Despite the fact that the author seems to have quite a confused understanding of the history of the intervention itself, mistaking Hammarskjold with Faulques, there is some merit in this remark, and for sure there is no depiction of the complexity, if not impossibility, of the situation of the Katangese soldiers (by the way, not necessarily of the Luba ethnicity, as Paye believes they are).

It should born in mind that for a film like this it is understandable to “play it safe”, and that the film is first and foremost a sort retribution to the Irish soldiers, whose effort had been neglected at home at abroad for decades. As such, the director was probably not interested in portraying the complexity of the war, or giving a more nuanced portray of the complex post-colonial issues at stakes: nevertheless, it is still interesting to imagine which other aesthetic choices would have been available when portraying the siege from the Irishmen’s perspective. Perhaps paradoxically, an interesting alternative is offered by another very similar movie, Randall Wallace’s We were soldiers, portraying also a perimeter defence, the battle of Ia Drang in Vietnam in 1965, the first major clash between American forces and the Army of North Vietnam. Although the film doesn’t even come close to question the political legitimacy of the Vietnam war, or of war at large (if anything, it is openly apologetic of military values), it still manages to depict the Vietnamese soldiers with more consideration and sympathy than other movies more critical to the war itself (think about Oliver Stone’s Platoon), attempting to avoid a de-humanization of the enemy. Also remarkable is the fact that the movie is based on a book written by the then commander of the American forces, Harold Moore, who himself put an effort in re-constructing, at least partially, the point of view of the Vietnamese, meeting and interviewing some of the same former enemies he had faced some decades before (and did this at a time when Vietnam and the United States still didn’t have official ties).

Another example might be Clint Eastwood duology on the battle of Iwo Jima, although this might deserve some more lengthy consideration.

I am not aware about the status of studies on the experience of the Katangese soldiers (and the population of Katanga at large) during the Congo crisis, although I imagine that anyone who would a day attempt to make a movie focusing on them might have a harder time than Wallace of Eastwood in finding materials on which to base its work. The risk would then to replace a stereotype (the faceless horde) with just another, ending up using the people of Katanga as a placeholder for whatever wants to be seen. This would hardly represent an improvement, or an acknowledgement of the experience Katangese faced in the tragic early years of Congo independence.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s