One of my favorite little films is a satirical documentary titled Babakiueria. Only about thirty minutes long, it was made by the Australian Aboriginal community to commemorate the bicentennial of British rule. It’s hard to find these days, so you’ll have to trust my best recollection, but it opens with a long shot of a happy family of contemporary white Australians having a nice relaxing barbecue on the beach. Into the frame chugs a boatload of Aborigines, dressed in army khakis, “discovery” in their eyes. Their haughty leader steps off the boat and asks in the slow, hyperarticulated way some people reserve for speaking to the retarded or the hard of hearing “What… do…you…call…this…place?”
“Why, it’s a barbecue area,” the father of the family replies, with surprise and a welcoming innocence in his voice. “Nice native name,” murmurs the Aboriginal leader. He nods to his men. “I like it.” Then he assumes the stentorian intonation of one inaugurating a new regime: “I call this place: Babakiu-eria!”–and plants a flag.
The rest of the film follows the white family as they fall into more and more desperate circumstances because of the well-intentioned but misinformed policies imposed by the Aboriginal occupiers. They block a veterans’ day parade because they think it a barbaric glorification of war. The Minister of White People’s Affairs, an Aborigine with a perpetual smile of gentle condescension, displays actual footage of real-life Australian soccer riots to prove white people’s love of ritual violence. Polluted cities are shown as proof of white primitivism. Over white complaints about disruption of their “ancient trade routes,” highways are torn up and strips of “lovely” green grass and trees planted in their stead. White people are “taught” the ways of Aboriginal civilization by forcibly removing them from their homes, breaking up extended families and ultimately dropping them off in the middle of the outback to fend for themselves. “I wish I’d had such an opportunity,” sighs the avuncular Minister of White People’s Affairs.
The film ends with the sound of broken glass–as the teenage son in the white family, growing angrier and more dangerous, throws a rock to protest what has happened to his family and to their way of life. He is a doomed soul, warring against forces he cannot control, uneducated, without resources of any kind. He seems destined for a life of crime or drink or destitution.
Babakiueria is premised on a crude reversal, but it’s an illuminating one. It is a polemic against the hubris of colonialism and the sad toll inflicted by those who presume to improve the lot of others without consent, participation or cultural understanding of those others. The film works as an object lesson not merely about Australia, of course–it sketches the core emotional dynamic of the English invading Ireland; or the overzealous policing tactics that have led to race riots in American urban centers; or the French colonial administration of Vietnam; or the brutality of South African apartheid-era laws; or the Chinese occupation of Tibet; or the US and Canadian governments’ botched oversight of Native American affairs.
Recently, the American-led administration in Iraq planted a new flag for the Iraqi people. It was designed without widespread input and displaces the old flag–which predated Saddam Hussein. Iraqi citizens were surprised, disgruntled. We Americans like new brands, fresh labels. Not so in every corner of the world. Nor can we be impervious to the tragic back-and-forth of mirrored images: I think of the famous photos of the “highway of death” during the 1991 Gulf War–that long line of burned Iraqi vehicles, their occupants incinerated by our bombs during that first Iraqi war; my mind pairs it with the recent photos of burned American vehicles, their occupants incinerated and strung from bridges. A year ago, our leaders styled their invasion as “Saddam’s choice” rather than our own. As I write, the same leaders are threatening to attack the city of Falluja because residents there “have a choice,” to be made “within days, not weeks.” To negotiate with civic leaders would be a sign of “weakness,” and this Administration does not want to be “bullied.” And so they stand firm behind this impatient, foot-tapping, clock-watching demand for total surrender or else…
Barely a year ago, our troops watched looters and rioters destroy Iraqi cultural artifacts. Donald Rumsfeld rationalized it as a kind of freedom. Coalition forces were pictured amid the smashed ruins of Saddam’s palace, smoking his cigars, their feet on the tables, carrying off “souvenirs.” Fast-forward to now: teenage boys rejoicing as an American Humvee is blown apart and dividing up the possessions of dead US soldiers for “souvenirs.”
These are crude pairings; indeed, I offer the comparisons not as a direct line of cause and effect or of right and wrong but rather to study the ungovernable yet wholly predictable “blowback” of war, of repression, of trauma. There is nothing “collateral” about the disruption of daily life and the untold deaths of civilians. We must re-evaluate the “liberation” we are wreaking, the “assistance” we are waging, the “pounding” we are delivering for failure to cooperate. We need to know how many mercenaries we have “outsourced” this war to; we need to know how many Iraqis have died–soldiers, insurgents, terrorists, civilians, whatever you want to call them. We cannot shield ourselves from the respectful regard of our own dead, even in “the interests of privacy.” There can be no unconsidered dead in the publicly sponsored violence we call war. We need to know the real size of this enterprise, for the blowback of grief will be thusly proportioned. I desperately hope I am wrong, but I think our current policies are heightening the risk of global explosion. Perhaps some see this as a welcome fulfillment of biblical prophecy, of Armageddon, or holy war; but others of us must come to terms with the escalating human disaster. This course is wrong. We may indeed win the test of “will” or “resolve.” But if we have to “flatten” Falluja or Baghdad or Najaf in the process, we will fail the real test: of credibility, of moral high ground, of humanity and of history.