Archive article from The Socialist Issue 442
The socialist review
Directed by Monika Borgmann and Nina Menkes
Neil Cafferky reviews Massaker, a documentary shown at the Palestine Film Festival involving interviews with five of the participants in the destruction of Sabra and Chatila refugee camps during the Lebanese civil war.
Why would someone shoot a defenceless child? What goes through the mind of a person just before they lob a grenade into a house full of people pleading for mercy? Massaker, attempts to answer these questions.
The men involved were members of the Phalange, a Christian militia headed by Bashir Gemayal. It was one of the main armed groups in Lebanon's brutal, many-sided civil war.
Lebanon, then as now, is composed of a population with many ethnic and religious divisions, in the main a result of the Sykes-Picot Treaty between the UK and France after the First World War (when the imperialist countries carved up the Middle East). The treaty included just enough Muslims in the country so that the Christian ruling class would always need the support of French (and later US) imperialism to stay in power.
However, due to demographic changes and an influx of Palestinian refugees, by the mid-1970s Muslims had become the majority. Given the exploitative nature of capitalism, the struggle for political and economic power between the different groups meant a gain for one community was a loss for another.
This set the stage in 1975 for a conflict that was to last 15 years. In essence, the inability of capitalism to solve the national question in Lebanon was the underlying cause of the protracted and vicious nature of its civil war. The story of the men involved shows the viewer just what happens when society goes into freefall and reaction gains the upper hand.
What's most striking is their swaggering machismo - the men see themselves as an elite brotherhood. In fact they are utterly ordinary in their villainy - one could easily imagine them in peacetime as the local street thug or pushy middle-manager.
Instead, under the conditions of war, they are given a license to kill. Interestingly their particular unit, Forces Lebonaises, was a Special Forces unit trained by the Israeli army. Much of the hype their unit surrounds itself with has a chilling parallel with the mystique which surrounds other groups like the SAS, particularly in films.
In fact, the interviewees even say that their heroes are from Westerns and action movies. This is a stark reminder of one aspect of the role that the capitalist entertainment industry plays, promoting as it does a culture of violence. The consequences are gruesome. One man describes 'road block duty' where they would pull Muslims from their cars and execute them.
Unfortunately, the weaknesses of this ahistorical documentary are exposed. Why were the men ordered to do this at the start of the war? In order to stir up communal hatred, trigger a round of blood-letting by 'the other side' and thus consolidate the position of the sectarians who ordered the killings in the first place as 'defenders of the community'. The film fails to make this connection so these murders seem to happen within a void.
Sectarian hatred is very much on show. When the command is given to attack the camps, the orders are phrased in terms of 'cleansing' the area. Palestinians are viewed as little better than animals. One man says his shooting of a woman was self-defence - one day she will have Palestinian children who will try to kill him, so best to kill her first.
The extent of Israeli connivance is also quite clear. The men's commanders consulted with Israeli officers prior to ordering the assault on Sabra and Chatila. Some of the bulldozers that flattened the camps after the massacre were driven by Israelis. Although the film relates how the assassination of Bashir Gemayal triggered the attack two days later, it fails to explain that Gemayal's death also spelled the end of Israel's hopes of setting up a friendly puppet government in Lebanon.
The massacre is portrayed as simply lashing out by the Phalangists thirsting for revenge, whereas it was actually a premeditated act of political terror (as the Israeli Kahane commission investigation subsequently showed).
If the aim of Massaker is to provide an insight into why people commit atrocities then it comprehensively fails in this task. It does not give any sort of historical context which makes the actions of these men understandable. Instead, the participants are completely divorced from their historical circumstances. This is a great pity because in some ways Massaker is quite insightful.
As a socialist I found the men to be living proof of Marx's prediction that humanity is faced with the choice between socialism and barbarism. Their casual disregard for the sufferings of others is a vivid example of how many of the evils engendered by capitalism - imperialism, war, sectarianism and sexism - can twist humans into frightening creatures.