I feel an unusual but very strong caution as I write this to tread lightly. Usually, I jump right into how a movie parallels some aspect of spiritual life but this time I feel that I would be wrong to turn this into a metaphor before pausing to recognize what it IS first. I don’t want to trivialize this story in any way. Not that I feel the spiritual life is less in any way that the physical reality, but because I want to become one of those people that is “too heavenly minded to be of any earthly good”—or some such variation of that. It’s a true story, about real lives, real loss, real struggle… (Not only is it a true story, but it’s representative of so many other true experiences our soldiers have had in the middle East.) It’s gritty. It’s hard. It’s ugly and it’s beautiful. And we need to feel that. All of it. Before we move on to some cliché type metaphorical application to our lives (no matter how valid that application might be). I think of Jesus, when he came to Lazarus’ tomb. He knew he could and would raise Lazarus, but before he did that, he spoke with Mary and Martha. He listened to them and dialogued with them about their doubts and struggles and hurt and trust and frustration and pain. Not only that, but Jesus himself wept. He didn’t bypass the pain of loss in order to move on to the celebration of resurrection that was coming. He could have, but he didn’t. He grieved. He mourned. He wept. He felt the reality of the pain of the situation first. And I am feeling strongly that I need to do the same in regards to the way I respond to this movie and write my “review.”
That being said, maybe I should simply start with: Thank you.
The movie shows the contrast between the “civilians” (in this case, the CIA desk-job-type-staff stationed in Benghazi) and the military men there to protect them. The civilians, despite living there, despite being very well informed (far more so than the average American would be), still had no real concept of the danger they were in. In fact, they were resistant and even resentful of the protection they were given, because they felt it was hindering their work.
Now, the movie doesn’t focus on what it was they were really doing, so I admit, my perspective is biased negatively towards them. All I saw as a viewer was the ridiculous risks they took, the snobbery they had about the importance of their jobs and the way they devalued the jobs of the men risking their lives to protect them (which makes some sense, since they were ignorant to the danger they were in). I saw how their actions caused problems while the military guys solved problems (with some heavy losses). BUT—I do recognized that this is a one-sided and biased opinion because I really don’t know what they were doing. Maybe, if I really understood their job, I would agree that it was valuable enough to merit some of the risk. But I don’t, so I am going to stick with an admittedly biased response here, but also, unashamedly say that I think those CIA men and women are largely representative of our own attitudes and ignorance as American civilians. There are two in particular who I would like to discuss for a minute.
Bob, the chief of that outpost, the head CIA staff, was the most hostile and insolent towards the guards. Maybe it was because he was the boss, or because he was a brilliant man and therefore a bit of an intellectual snob, or maybe it was his own masculine insecurity as a nerd in the face of these very physical, manly-men types. Or, maybe he was just frustrated because he was feeling that they were always getting in the way of him doing his job—a job that was zealous and fanatical about. I don’t know what precipitated his attitude, and I don’t know that it’s really important. What I am more fascinated by is how he ended, not how he began. By the end of the movie, those very men he had so belittled had humbled themselves and risked their lives (some had even given their lives) to protect his. (Can we just pause a moment to let THAT sink in? Because THAT is huge in itself. “Greater love hath no man that this, that he lay down his life for another,” John 15:13—much less another than has insulted and harassed you.)
All the CIA staff were anxious to leave, except for Bob. He wanted to stay. Which is either testimony to how passionate he was about what he was doing and how important he felt it was, or it’s testimony to his asinine stubbornness and stupidity and pride. Either way, he declared he would stay. This is when Jack (one of the military men) got angry. “So what? So more guys like [lists the men who died] … can come and save your… a**? You’re done here. Go get in the car.” To his credit, he did.
This is what strikes me about this: sometimes our good intentions and meaningful causes do more harm than good…often because we are IGNORANT. We think we can come in and save the world (how prideful that can be, even masked by a caring heart). I’m not saying we can’t make a difference. I’m not saying we shouldn’t try. But sometimes we are ignorant and naïve and we don’t listen to the people around us because sometimes those people sound like wet-blankets and nay-sayers. Sometimes they are. Sometimes they’re just warriors who have seen more than we have, people who know things we don’t yet understand.
The sad thing about this scene was that Bob didn’t seem to get it. He didn’t seem to understand how much damage HIS actions and decisions caused. Not that he wasn’t trying to do the right thing, maybe he was, but because of his orders (and refusal to listen to the expertise of his military men) two men died in the first compound that was attacked. He wouldn’t let his military men go help. (Until, they went against his orders, because, as Jack said, “You can’t put a price on being able to live with yourself.”) After those men died, and after two more died (miraculously there were not more deaths) defending their own compound, after they all barely made it out alive, he was determined to stay. He didn’t seem to understand (or maybe he didn’t care) that he would be putting more men’s lives at risk because if he stayed, he would be in danger again and he would need rescuing. And, because those men are the men they are, they would come to rescue him again.
Either Bob still didn’t realize the ramifications of his actions, or he felt their lives were worth the sacrifice. I don’t know—but in either case, it doesn’t sit well. Perhaps because of his lack of any demonstration of gratitude. Maybe it would have sat better if he’d shown his gratitude, and apologetically said he would stay because his mission was worth his life… and then released the men from needing to rescue him. I can appreciate someone who is willing to lay down his life for a cause. But I don’t appreciate a man who thinks others should lay down their lives for his cause.
There was another CIA staff who also started out a bit critical and resentful and ungrateful of the protection she was being given. Sona didn’t feel she needed it any more than Bob did. They were cutting her meetings short, interrupting her business because they felt she was in danger, but she hadn’t seen the danger. She felt they were being overly vigilant and paranoid, which is understandable. (How many of us hasn’t been in a similar situation, at least in our youth, where a wise, experienced parent was worried about some danger we, in our ignorance, felt was ridiculous?!) She told Jack, “This is my second war zone. I know what I’m doing.” She had some experience, so she felt qualified to know when she was in danger. Jack’s reply silenced her. “Yeah, well, this is my twelfth.”
Where Bob was a bit of a prideful a** (I’m sorry, but better vocabulary failed me in this moment and I simply couldn’t think of a better word for it), Sona was more on the ignorant side of things. And she quickly changed her tune. As soon as she began to see the danger the military men had been seeing, she became supportive. “How can I help you? What can I do?” She quit fighting them and began respecting and helping them, ministering to them as they served her. She fought for them politically, trying to get air support. She brought them refreshments when the battle lulled. She encouraged them. And at the end, when things were over, she so graciously told them, “I don’t know how you guys survived all that, but I know how the rest of us did.” (Implying that they all survived because of them—in case that’s not obvious without the context of the movie.)
So again, I want to say Thank You, because I realize I am Sona. I am ignorant and naive about the dangers in our world and the things that you, our military men and women, do to serve and protect us from it. Not only that, but I am ignorant of the effects of my actions. I don’t realize the ripple effects of how my actions and selfishness may even add to the danger you are in. And I am so grateful for movies like this that open my eyes and help me see YOU more clearly. Like Sona, I want to say, “I don’t know how you guys survived all that, but I know how the rest of us did.”
That being said, I want to open this thing up a bit and point out that the lessons in this are bigger and more universal and more applicable to our lives than simply pointing out the differences between civilian and military awareness. Not to belittle that, but to make more of it by pointing out how universal it is.
Here’s the thing, we can’t help but be ignorant at times. As civilians, we haven’t been trained to see what our military men and women see. Our experiences in life haven’t given us the insight and understanding that they have. But the same is true of almost any area in our lives. We cannot know everything, so there will always be some angle of which we are ignorant, uninformed and naïve. The temptation (which grows the more expert we become in any aspect) is to be like Sona or worse, Bob, and to become frustrated at those who seem to be negative naysayers. Some people are simply negative, but others are cautious because they are experienced and wise. It takes discernment to know the difference and humility to recognize the latter.
The problem isn’t necessarily that we might be naïve, that’s just part of life and maturity. What we don’t want is for our ignorance to hurt other people. It happens all the time. It happens when people make bad decisions thinking that they will be fine, that somehow the rules don’t apply to them—people who think they can play with fire and not get burned. Those are the easy examples. But it also happens when good people with good intentions try to do good things. The couple who adopts a child but is unprepared for the psychological and emotional struggles they are taking on. The well-intentioned person on a mission trip who gives his favorite child something special, not knowing that he’s making that child a target of other jealous bullies around him who want to steal what was given to him. The organization that starts a mission of some sort in a third world country without being able to sustain it, not knowing that when they fold they’ll do more damage than the good they did. The group that comes over to build a building in another country, not realizing they are taking much needed jobs and income away from the locals who could do it cheaper and more efficiently anyway. People who give to those in need not knowing that their gift, rather than helping a person get on their feet, robs them of dignity and fosters a victim/user mentality. (Not to say that these are always the results, but that they can be.)
I’m afraid I sound really negative and defeated. I’m not trying to discourage anyone from doing good; quite the contrary. (I’m actually quite passionate about adoption and mission trips and helping the poor, the needy, the disenfranchised.) Good needs to be done and it can be done. The point isn’t to discourage anyone, but to help us do it BETTER. The point is to remind us all that sometimes our best intentions are uninformed and need some maturity. Take those good intentions and learn from others. When God gives us watchdogs and protectors, honor them and learn from their experience and perspective. When it’s your second time in a warzone and someone else’s twelfth, be willing to listen and learn, to trust their instincts. When someone tells you that your good intentions are going to put people at risk or cause some sort of damage, try to find a better way to go about those good works.
As I’ve said, we can’t help but be ignorant and naïve about some things. What we can help is our response to those who are better informed about the things which we don’t know. We can help being coachable, humble, willing to listen and to learn. If the CIA staff in Benghazi had had this approach to the military staff (rather than their dismissive arrogance), things would have likely played out very differently, for the better.
Questions for Discussion:
- What was your response to the movie?
- Did you gain a different sense of appreciation for our military personnel?
- How did you feel about Bob, the CIA chief? Why?
- How were Bob and Sona different in their growth and response to the trauma and the men who saved them?
- Do you feel like Bob’s (and the whole CIA team’s) work could have been worth the sacrifices made for it? (What makes it worthwhile to risk lives?)
- When have you ever seen someone with good intention try to do good, but their ignorance or naivety caused more harm than good?
- Have you ever done harm when you tried to do good? Could things have gone better if you’d been willing to listen to others?
If you want to learn more about how helping isn’t always helping, check out When Helping Hurts by Steve Corbett.