Graveyard Empire

Adam Curtis’ “Bitter Lake”: A Review

During the American War of Independence Patrick Henry said “give me liberty or give me death.” Liberty in the West developed from something worth dying for into something which could even overcome death: the death of empires. If freedom is poured out among the people, the sovereign state need never be overthrown. Even the inexorable decline of culture can be avoided if the people are free. Freedom as guarantor of longevity. A golden elixir for perpetual sovereignty. 

A supposed link between the insularity of American foreign policy in the 1930s and the worldwide chaos of 1945 gave credence to the view that the elixir of liberty could not be contained within the borders of the country alone. It had to be given to others so America might be protected from the threat of external tyranny. The golden elixir needed to be decanted as a gift to other peoples. The rebuilding of Japan was premised on this conviction. General Douglas MacArthur oversaw targeted political and economic strategies designed to ensure Japan would never again threaten American liberty: downgrading the emperor to a figurehead of state, stopping military leaders from holding political office, land reform, and measures to stabilise the economy. The Japanese success story could be presented as America’s vindication within just a few years. 

Liberty could then be enthroned as an antidote to death. Death’s opposite, not limited even by the bounds of time (“the price of freedom is eternal vigilance” says Jefferson) or space (“where liberty dwells, there is my country” says Franklin). Liberty as guarantor of immortality interplayed with the hubris of human technology. When Ronald Reagan dedicated a space shuttle to the Afghan people in their war against the Soviets he said that just as the shuttle “represents man’s finest aspirations in the field of science and technology, so too the struggles of the Afghan people represent man’s highest aspirations for freedom.” 

So it was that the reaper would be disarmed of his tyrannous scythe if only people were free. The ferryman that takes souls down the River Styx to the underworld would find his vessel empty of souls. Death needs to no longer haunt people if they bequeath freedom to their progeny. No ghosts prowl the earth in free societies, but tyranny is forever haunted. Richard III’s sleep is relentlessly invaded by the spirits of all those he has slain to secure his power, each chanting “despair or die!” After 1989, surely America could forever be an Empire that never becomes a graveyard, having a decisive victory over time (‘the end of history’) and space (globalisation). Democracy, free markets, human rights – the lifeblood of the Pax America, the beating heart of the American dream which now promised never to expire.

While the Japanese project was beginning in 1945, another US-led world-formation project was taking shape. Adam Curtis’ 2015 documentary Bitter Lake focuses on this in its opening minutes. On the dusty airstrip of Lashkar Gar in Helmand province, engineers from the US conglomerate Morrison Knudsen arrived to start a major infrastructure project Curtis says was meant to replicate what Roosevelt had achieved with the New Deal. 

Bitter Lake is a sustained and damning critique of this pipedream. The overarching theme of the documentary is narrative oversimplification. Curtis shows the huge number of conflicting interests which intersect in contradictory ways throughout post-War Afghan history, saturating the viewer with an immense complexity which defies any attempts to arrive at an easily navigable story. His distinctive collageumentary-style interlaces disconnected occurrences of history with mind-blowingly weird close-range footage of the Western invasion from 2001 onwards. 

Curtis draws a conclusion without a narrative trajectory; he leaves multifarious discordant happenings to interplay with the two-decade cataclysm in the Afghanistan desert, with no meaningful narrative to mediate between the two. His opening words are that “nothing makes any sense” for “events come and go.” “People in power tell stories which have stopped making sense.”

The strands at play include things like Roosevelt’s world-making presumption, the American alliance with Saudi Arabia, the Helmand engineering project raising salt-levels which caused poppies to thrive, the spreading of Wahhabism across the Islamic world, the 1970s Oil Crisis, petrodollars, the credit booms under Reagan and Thatcher reinvigorating the banks like never before, Soviet intervention, wars with the Mujahideen, Reagan’s support for the Mujahideen, Bush Senior defending the Saudis in Kuwait and the alliance between Al-Qaida and the Taliban in the years that followed.

Curtis creates haunting disjunctures which don’t make sense. He is the master of cultural juxtaposition. We see British soldiers holding Afghani tribesmens’ eyes open for biometric recording, a clockwork plastic figurine with blond hair on a car bonnet shaking her booty to the agog eyes of rural Afghani boys. The juxtapositional method throws together seemingly variant images, narratives, and music to create the mood of destabilisation. In terms of Mark Fisher’s writing on horror, the modus operandi seems to be the “uncanny” – cultivating a sense of disjunction which awakens people to reveal some answer or truth buried within the material. But this is a truth Curtis deliberately does not provide. His closing words are “what is needed is a new story and one that we can believe in.” For “there is something else out there, something that we don’t have the apparatus to see.” 

Entering into a purely historical argument about any Curtis film is to miss the point. He offers experiences more aesthetic than argumentational. He doesn’t need to ground all his statements in careful siftings of the evidence – his skill as a filmmaker is in cultivating powerful moods, haunting atmospheres, which in Bitter Lake take shape around the troops traipsing around the Afghani villages. Their expectations, abilities, and training steadily dissolve into the dust of the desert. There are moments of humour, but they don’t last long before another blood-spattered Afghani corpse appears in shot, or a little girl with an eye blown out by mortar fire. 

Curtis’ film was an oasis in a cultural desert in 2015. There is also much in it that should be considered prophetic after recent events. But it is still a product of its era. Bitter Lake evinces certain presuppositions which are typical of Curtis’ generation. 

In the first place, at the core of his films is the idea that a “comic book morality” premised on a battle between good and evil has led to contemporary maladies. There’s much truth in this, but the viewer is left wondering if there is any ‘good’ for Curtis, and what that ‘good’ might be. An ethical aporia emerges, made more bewildering in that one is left in no doubt about the existence of evil (cue another close-up on the blood-splattered corpses). This point is particularly acute when it comes to religion. Curtis seems close to critiquing religion itself at times, by calling good and evil “comic-book” moralities. Yet, he always adopts the britpopper line about specific problematic examples of religion, namely Wahhabism or Bible-belt Christianity. That is, that they are “intolerant” and a perversion of authentic religion. There is truth in this, again, but the question of the ‘good’ now becomes acute. What is an authentic and good religion? Presumably a tolerant one, but unless this is tackled head-on the assumption remains that a good religion is one deemed to correlate with the norms of liberal democracy. In other words, liberalism is the surreptitious good. 

Secondly, there is also Curtis’ tendency to single-out Reagan as the point where it all goes seriously wrong. Reagan is held to be particularly emblematic of the simplification of reality into a Marvel Comic book battle between goodies and baddies: “He took all the world’s problems, even the most complex ones, and simplified them.” Reagan’s vision would then “rise up and possess all of us.” There is a recurring trope of an uneducated yank with a southern drawl who thinks everything is like an old spaghetti western. First Reagan, then both Bushes. But this stereotype imploded in Donald Trump, who – awkwardly for the britpoppers – actually presided over some of the most peaceful years in the history of US foreign policy.   

Curtis’ main thesis is built around insights from the Russian soldier and journalist Artyom Borovik’s The Hidden War. Borovik described the effect of the 1980s war with the Mujahideen as similar to events in the film Solaris (1972). There, a planetary ocean is bombarded with X-Rays by astronauts, but these reflect back and radiate the astronauts themselves. The astronauts are haunted by memories from the past, and lose all grip on reality. Borovik says:

“We thought that we were civilising a backwards country, by exposing it to television, to modern bombers, to schools, to the latest models of tanks, to books, to long-range artillery, to newspapers, to economic aid, to AK47s. But we rarely stopped to think Afghanistan would influence us.”

For Curtis, the graveyard of empires did this again to the Western powers between 2001 and 2015. Western hopes to civilise a “backwards country” didn’t make explicit the provision of weaponry in how it was presented, although there was an abundance of firepower greater than the wildest dreams of a Soviet with raging PTSD. But the Western effort certainly included television, schools, books, and economic aid. The official narrative, however, increasingly linked these with more recent benchmarks of cultural and societal progress. Gender studies departments in Afghani universities, telling a country where 99% want Sharia Law that it is in womens’ best interests if at least 10% of the military are female, murals of George Floyd on the streets of Kabul – as if the race-relations in 2020 America could offer insight to a country with some of the most complex and ferocious intersecting identities of any other in the world. 

For all its differences from Afghanistan, the Japanese project feels like an elephant in the room. The rebuilding of Japan was focused on political and economic change, mostly leaving the culture and sensibilities of the people relatively intact. No Japanese were expected to become aficionados of Marchel Duchamp, or lectured on the unalloyed good of declaring their pronouns. Yet, as Paul Embery points out in Despised, Japan stands out today as somewhere “no less happy, prosperous, or safe for its deep cultural homogeneity,” or what Curtis might consider “intolerance.” 

A key element to Borovik’s interpretation is understated in Bitter Lake. The astronauts in Solaris lose their grip on reality not just because the X-Rays reflect back to irradiate them, but because the irradiation haunts them with memories of their own past. Yes, Afghanistan has, for the West as for the Soviets, acted more as a mirror of self-(mis)understandings and hubris than anything else. But, in Solaris, this takes shape by haunting people with things they had forgotten.  

What haunts the West is the memory of liberty before it was redefined and then made an antidote to death. Indeed, the redefinition of this term led it to try and transcend the ultimate boundary on all life. Liberty thus construed becomes death, the destroyer of worlds. As Patrick Deneen has argued in Why Liberalism Failed, liberty in “ancient and Christian understandings” was “the condition of self-governance.” This required “an extensive habitation in virtue, particularly self-command and self-discipline,” and “culture” was the way of life that grew around “extensive social norms” to this end “in the form of custom.” These are memories of a time before cultures and customs were presented as the opposite to liberty, rather than its necessary precondition. 

Cultural imperialism has long since been exposed as illusory. As far back as 1991, John Tomlinson argues that what people relate to that term are often just superficial tokens (watching TV, having a McDonalds in Red Square). The fullness of culture cannot be changed by Big Macs and Bill Cosby. The global acculturation to Western norms which promised immortality never really materialised. 

Moreover, when liberty is construed as freedom from norms themselves, culture is inverted. What was once about cultivating people toward a common good becomes a way of de-cultivating them in the pursuit of base desire. For this reason, Deneen calls contemporary Western culture an “anticulture.” The problem with Afghanistan wasn’t just cultural engineering, then, but an experiment in the engineering of anticulture. Here the promise of immortality of American acculturation turns entirely sour. 

When it was predicted Achilles would die young, his mother Thetis took him to the shore of the River Styx, the boundary between Earth and the underworld. While the ferryman took newly dead souls over the river from Earth to the infernal valleys, those who bathe in the water are granted immortality and can never find themselves floating downstream on the ferryman’s vessel. Thetis held her infant Achilles over the water by one foot, and dunked him in, keeping his heel dry. The West is wounded because the part of itself which didn’t get submerged in the promise of liberty as an antidote to death was exposed by the Afghani project – the haunting memory of liberty as a classical virtue. The new story Curtis admonishes us to formulate isn’t that new after all. The West looks like a graveyard Empire that needs to return to the sources of its own history so things might make sense again.

Film reviewed: Adam Curtis’ “Bitter Lake”

Jacob Phillips is an academic living in London. His forthcoming book “Obedience is Freedom” will be published by Polity Press in 2022.


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