The War Story We Need Right Now

Guantanamo Diary

American media (and Western media in general) like their “bridge” characters; basically placing a (usually) white Westerner at the center of any narrative, especially of conflict, that happens somewhere else. It’s best illustrated in the journalism of Nicholas Kristof (read him apply it or watch him explain it; or check here a good critique of this method). It’s also Hollywood’s favorite method to tell us stories to make sense of America’s place in the world, especially about the “War on Terror.” In the latter case, the most recent exhibit is American Sniper, directed by Clint Eastwood.

The prevailing narrative of films like American Sniper is that of chest-thumping in jingoism and silence when it comes to the victims of American expansionism. And there are always other sources. For example, Laura Poitras’ My Country, My Country is a film about the American occupation as it affected ordinary Iraqis. Further, Kaizer Matsumunyane’s The Smiling Pirate is a necessary counter to the Tom Hanks-led Captain Phillips. Unsurprisingly, these films did not receive the same PR campaign as Eastwood’s film did, but it is on us as viewers to choose what we watch and what we praise in hopes that Hollywood will listen.

Which brings me to Guantanamo Diary by the Mauritanian Mohamedou Ould Slahi; the kind of war story we need right now. Weaving personal anecdotes with brief and cutting analyses of the ways in which war and crisis change human behavior, Slahi’s story is a chronicle of human struggle and will to survive in the face of terror and torture. More importantly, it is a story of those most affected by the so-called Global War on Terror. Stolen from his home of Mauritania, Slahi is representative of so many Muslims from the Middle East and North Africa who have been harassed, tortured, or killed just because of their religion and place of birth. Have we forgotten that GITMO still exists just because Obama tried and failed to close the prison?

Written in the summer of 2005, Slahi’s diary is a 372-page account of his first three years of detainment (most of it in isolation) in the American prison on the tip of Cuba. Slahi’s memoir begins with his initial return from Canada to Mauritania in early 2000. After short stints in Senegalese and Mauritanian prisons, he returns to his life in Nouakchott. In November 2001, however, after driving his own car to the police station for questioning, he is rendered to Jordan, Afghanistan, and, finally, Guantanamo Bay in August 2002. The diary also provides details (as much as possible, given the heavy redactions made) of his torture in prison. He was questioned repetitively about the 1999 Millennium Plot and his flimsy associations with certain Al Quaeda members. Starting in 2003 he was subjected to a Donald Rumsfeld-approved “special interrogation plan” that included a wide array of torture methods, including sleep and sensory deprivation along with physical and sexual abuse.

With time, torture broke Slahi, but not in the way that his interrogators had hoped: he tells them exactly what they want to hear, even though he writes in his diary that it is false, in hopes that a confession will stop the inhumane treatment. However, a 2009 habeas corpus petition from the ACLU and Slahi’s own legal team resulted in a judge ruling in 2010 that Slahi should be released, due to lack of evidence. An appeal by the Obama administration has delayed his release, however. While his legal battle continues, we are left with his words. Since the diary’s release in January 2015, it has become a New York Times bestseller, received numerous mostly positive and passionate reviews, and been the source of events like this one in London. It is no surprise Hollywood hasn’t turned Slahi’s story into a film.

It is encouraging that a book as honest as Guantanamo Diary has achieved so much recognition and acclaim. Now, it is time for mainstream America to reject the Kristof-style bridge stories and focus its sights on stories that tell real, full truths.

Further Reading