Munich.

In 1967 Israel lashed out against a gathering flock of vultures (Egypt, Syria, Jordan). In an astonishing triumph, this “Six Day War” put Israel in possession of the Sinai peninsula, the West Bank of the Jordan River, and the Golan Heights. It also put them in possession of a large population of Arabs and Palestinian refugees cast up by the agony of Israel’s initial creation in 1948. The problem became what to do with the conquered lands and people. Israel offered to “trade land for peace” with its neighbors. The neighbors showed little interest. Meanwhile, the Palestinians launched their own war on Israel through terrorism. In 1972, members of the “Black September” group kidnapped eleven Israeli athletes at the Munich Summer Olympics. Most of the captors and all of their captives died in a botched rescue operation by the Germans.

In revenge, Israel launched “Operation Wrath of God.” In theory, the objective was to kill eleven of the “Black September” leaders who were responsible for Munich. The operation went on for years. It killed many more than eleven men. Eventually, the operation wound down.

In 1984, Yuval Aviv, one of the assassination team leaders who then was living in New York and no longer working for Israel’s intelligence agency, became the source for a book about the operation.[1] Soon afterward, HBO brought out a movie based on the book.[2] Then the story languished for almost twenty years.

Then, early in the 21st Century, Steven Spielberg bought the rights to the book and made his own version, “Munich.” Why did Spielberg want to re-make somebody else’s movie? There are a couple of possible answers.

On the one hand, Spielberg has made a bunch of historical movies that can be thought of as grouped in pairs. The pairs deliver different perspectives on the large historical subjects. Thus “The Empire of the Sun” (1987) and “Saving Private Ryan” (1998) consider the legacy of surviving traumatic events in the Second World War; “Amistad” (1997) and “Lincoln” (2012) deal with the fight against slavery, a problem which continues to haunt America; and “Schindler’s List” (1993) and “Munich” (2005) turn on the struggle for survival by Jews in a hostile world. In the case of the latter two movies, “Schindler’s List” made an argument for Israel as a Jewish refuge; “Munich” asked how Israel differed from other states.

On the other hand, maybe the movie isn’t about Israel at all. Maybe it’s about America. At the end of “Munich” the World Trade Center’s “Twin Towers” are visible in the backdrop. On 9/1101 Al Qaeda terrorists attacked sites in Washington and New York, most famously the WTC. The United States responded by invading Afghanistan in an effort to get Al Qaeda’s leader, Osama bin Laden. Missing their punch, the Americans became bogged down in a long struggle that hasn’t yet ended.[3] Then, in 2003, the Americans invaded Iraq on the grounds that the country possessed a program for weapons of mass destruction (WMD) and that contact had been alleged between al Qaeda and Iraq’s dictator, Saddam Hussein. Here the Americans became embroiled in an even worse conflict than in Afghanistan.[4]

Where does vengeance lead? Does it lead to “justice” and “closure”? Does it lead to an open-ended conflict with an ever-rising death toll? Are we captives of our past experiences? Are we even conscious of how our views of the past shape our present actions and our future?

[1] George Jonas, Vengeance: The True Story of an Israeli Counter-Terrorist Team.

[2] “Sword of Gideon” (1986, dir. Michael Anderson). See: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rvemVhD_M3k

[3] See: “Zero Dark Thirty” (2012, dir. Kathryn Bigelow); “Lone Survivor” (2013, dir. Peter Berg).

[4] See: “Generation Kill” (2008, HBO); “The Hurt Locker” (2008, dir. Kathryn Bigelow); “Green Zone” (2010, dir. Paul Greengrass); “American Sniper” (2014, dir. Clint Eastwood).

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