Americans are afraid of Benghazi. The name, just by itself, sounds out an organised assault on Western values. BEN, the comforting tonal balance of a just and ordered world; Ben Johnson, Ben Franklin, Ben Kenobi. The sudden jolt of GHA, a descent into chaos, its throaty foreign consonant, its vowel trailing away into nothingness like a scream in a raging sandstorm. Finally ZI, total madness. Interstellar incoherence, the scrapyard of broken lines at the distant tail-end of the alphabet, cuneiforms leaking a viscous significance from the fractures in their exoskeletons. BENGHAZI. A horror story in three acts.
The question is, who wrote it?
The Michael Bay film 13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi has not been a success, barely clawing back its $50 million budget. American audiences have no objection to cloying patriotism – but in an election year, with most of the country already shellshocked by the ruling class’s quadrennial civil war, only the elite corps of the reactionary voting bloc wanted to sit through a two-hour adaptation of a right-wing talking point. In Britain, there was no interest whatsoever.
I found only one screening, at the Westfield shopping centre in Shepherd’s Bush, shunted into the let’s-not-pretend-anyonewants-to-watch-this slot of ten minutes to midnight. Outside, wheels screamed and headlights swept across the A3220; in the background the mute and glowering slabs of the Edward Woods Estate turned their hoary faces, full of blank expectation. Inside, when I arrived, all the stores were closed. Fluorescent lights spilled out through iron mesh to clash in monstrous arabesques on the marble-effect flooring; the roof, a senseless patchwork of glass and plastic squares, undulated on branching columns like shivering, spindly winter trees.
The Vue cinema hangs under one bulge in the canopy, a pale and drooping sac. Popcorn bubbled. I was alone. I sat by myself in the warm dark screening room, an indeterminate infinity of blackness on three sides, the film flickering for nobody but me on the fourth. There’s something very unsettling about being the only person in a cinema – it seems impossible that the whole show would still go on if you weren’t present; you become a solipsist, and everything you see takes on the tremor of a private hallucination. The voices told me to turn off my phone, and I did. So I didn’t notice when it struck midnight, and the witching hour began.
On 11 September 2012, the US Consulate in Benghazi and a nearby CIA annexe were attacked by Libyan militants from the group Ansar al-Sharia. Four Americans died: Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens, Sean Smith, Tyrone S. Woods, and Glen Doherty. One hundred Libyans died as well, but nobody knows their names.
This was not the first time American diplomatic facilities had come under fire: there have been assaults on similar compounds in India, Pakistan, Indonesia, Saudi Arabia, Yemen, and Turkey. Even Greece: in 2008, a left-wing faction called Revolutionary Struggle fired a rocket-propelled grenade at the embassy in Athens. Usually this is treated as what it is: one of the perils of doing imperialism. Benghazi was different.
Almost immediately after the attack, the clamour from the American right was that politicians had abandoned the dead to their fates, that they knew the attack was coming, and refused to do anything to help. Politicians in general, the State Department in particular, Hillary Clinton most of all.
Hillary Clinton did Benghazi. Her chants and candles in the basement of the Harry S Truman building, channelled through the Masonic leylines of Foggy Bottom, coursing through sewers and avenues and metro lines and pneumatic tubes all whorled into the sign of the Eye of Moloch, pulled black-clad djinn out of the desert half a world away. Burning oil wells gave her armies their smoky shrouds, shrapnel fused into guns and mortars, the parched Saharan sun scorched out their fear of death. But black magic always comes back to punish the magician, and what happened in Benghazi is following her in wisps of Cyrenaican smoke that dance around her campaign bus as she plumbs deep through the ruins of the small-town homeland, trying to become the next President of the United States.
Benghazi and the Michael Bay film are just fronts in a larger war: not the war in Libya, but the one that America actually cares about, the eternal struggle between jocks and nerds. Call it a subsumed class conflict if you like, but it’s the real fissure that runs across the country, a deep trench to nowhere, from which strange tentacles occasionally emerge.
Something Hegelian here: the complaint of each side is that it has gone unrecognised, that it is insufficiently loved. You bullied us in high school, say the nerds, you made us feel small, you didn’t care about our feelings. You run the economy, the government, and the world, reply the jocks. And you left our people to die in Benghazi, because you didn’t care either. They might not be wrong. Remember Kissinger, Clinton’s confidante and the arch-nerd of American statecraft: military men, he said, are ‘dumb, stupid animals to be used as pawns for foreign policy.’
Critics have praised 13 Hours for being relatively apolitical, which is true to the extent that it never mentions Hillary Clinton by name, but in the nerd-jock wars it’s unashamedly partisan on the side of the jocks. The real villains in the film are not the Libyans, who are presented as being barely more than animal: speechless, thoughtless, violent and massacred. Or actually, more geological or seismic than anything alive; all they embody is an instability, a threat level; they have no more reason for doing what they do than an asteroid.
For our gang of brave, bearded, all-American mercenaries, the baddies are the nerds in civilian command. The most loathsome antagonist is David Costabile’s ‘Bob,’ a whiny, fussy CIA bureaucrat, glaring with barely concealed disgust at the brutish bodies under his command. But when shit goes down, the brutes tire of his commands to stand down and stage their mutiny, a fascist coup in miniature. ‘You work for me now,’ one of the mercenaries tells him. In one scene, turgid with signification, a machine gun is smashed down onto a chessboard, knocking all the pieces over. So much for foreign policy.
But foreign policy still exists, even if it’s hard to integrate into an action spectacular. The film’s apoliticism is constituted by a refusal to engage in any kind of abstraction, a pedantic, neurotic insistence on the speeds and trajectories of bits of flying metal. Cinematography is tight and closely focused: the viewer hugs behind a mortar shell as it arcs through the air and into an American building; we make sickening swerves as our heroes drive manic and screaming through the streets of Benghazi. All figure, no ground. The contractors have no real idea what Libya is and why they’re there, and neither do we. Cinema as Geworfenheit: we have been thrown into something, and our thrown-ness obscures any understanding of what it is that surrounds us.
With a screen packed full of object, the mise en scène seemed to retreat outwards from the dark edges; a whole cast of dejected phantoms filed glumly into the empty seats around me. Muammar Gaddafi, tattered and scowling, I recognised. A few politicians, a host of bleeding soldiers, militiamen waving shredded stubs for arms. The children, limp and chalk-white. Other things were harder to place. Greek hoplites? Oil, dripping tacky from the ceiling? The demon-god Ba’al Qarnaim, stuffing his caprine snout into an extralarge box of popcorn?
But no Hillary Clinton. I didn’t see her until day rose over Benghazi and the film ended, and I walked outside to find that the sun had dawned over London too, gleaming like a fresh sore in the cadaver-grey sky. Had I fallen asleep in there without anyone noticing? Squinting upwards bleary from the mad growl of buses and lorries, I saw her for a moment, the flash of a shadow across the sun, her grin and eyes and the faintest instant of a malevolence that would burn the world.
The death of Sean Smith does not appear in the film 13 Hours: the Secret Soldiers of Benghazi.
Imperial armies, when they venture into strange and distant lands, tend to carry with them some of the mystical symbology of home. Crosses and banners are generally popular; the American military likes eagles, death’s heads, sharks, and sometimes the banners of the Nazi SS. Sean Smith was different. The symbol he took to the US consulate in Benghazi was a tattoo of a dragon on his right shoulder, electric blue, wings outstretched, squatting down as if it were about to take a shit down his arm.
Sean Smith was a nerd. When not providing IT services to the State Department, he was an avid and infamous player of the spacefaring game Eve Online, where he went by the name Vile Rat. (The dragon was, inevitably, known as the Vile Tat.) In Eve Online, players captain spaceships, collecting resources, trading, fighting enemies, and banding together into large warring alliances that control vast swathes of virtual territory. Smith’s faction, GoonSwarm, was one of the largest – and one of the most obnoxious – and Smith had gained a reputation as one of its most Machiavellian operatives, pretending to betray his allies to work deep-cover within an opposing team, sheltering small player groups, overthrowing large ones, and occasionally reacting violently to anyone poking fun at his tattoo.
Outside the consulate walls, Libya was slipping out of its last civil war and into a new one: salafists bulldozing mosques, generals dying in ambushes and car bombs, innumerable pale and crawling governments seething like larvae in the corpse of Gaddafi’s state. Within, Sean Smith was co-ordinating fleets of hundreds of spaceships from his seat on the Council of Stellar Management. He was in control.
His last recorded transmissions read:
[vile_rat 9/11/12 2:40 PM]: FUCK
[vile_rat 9/11/12 2:40 PM]: gunfire
Media theory has seen a rising insistence on what’s termed ‘the materiality of the digital’: an attention to the material substrates on which digital marks are inscribed – hard drives, computer chips, liquid-crystal screens. The Cloud is really a reinforcedconcrete server farm. Digital texts are not in a state of absolute deterritorialisation; they can’t reproduce endlessly in some notional virtual space; they’re as physical and as present as printed paper or stamped clay tablets. This is occasionally helpful; it’s particularly useful for dispelling the idea that in a digitally linked society things like commodity production and the extraction of surplus value have somehow become a thing of the past. But at the same time there’s the opposite phenomenon: the virtuality of the material.
A text is not the same thing as any instance of its inscription. Its textuality lies in its iterability, the way it can jump from one substrate to another, the same forms mapping and striating one or another physical object according to its strange and slippery immaterial laws. Greek theatre is a good example: inscribed on endless scraps of material, inscribed on bodies, the thing that is itself inscribed has its own free-floating existence, in which tangible things like books and tongues are instrumentalised. There was always an internet of ink and papyrus; digital media just does it better. Ignore this, and you’ll end up like 13 Hours, hemmed in by dead Newtonian physics.
The wars in Libya and the wars in the futuristic galaxies of Eve Online would mesh and overlap, and very often virtual wars were the ones overcoding actual ones. After all, the US military recruits heavily from gaming communities; killer drones are piloted with Xbox controllers. So much of life under capitialism is becoming gamified, so why should war be any different? And so much of what had led to the attack in Benghazi was floating, spectral, and unreal.
The initial cause for the consulate siege was for a while held to be the film Innocence of Muslims. This was a weird, disjointed artefact thrown together by Sam Bacile, a Coptic Christian living in suburban Los Angeles, who had previously tried his hand at running gas stations, cooking up crystal meth, and attempting bank fraud. In the film gormless actors dressed in pillowcases kneel, shadowless, on a stock-image backdrop of salt flats and palm trees; their mouths twist silently, while a flat overdubbed American drones: ‘Come here, Mohammed.’ The lead actor, playing the Prophet, looks suspiciously Christlike with his short Anglo beard and his nylon robes; the supporting cast are an array of Southern California stereotypes half-projected onto an imagined early medieval Arabia – stoner bros charging with ketchup-splattered tridents, lean probiotic drinking grandmothers being torn apart by two shuffling camels, schlubby failed comedians crucified in front of their wives.
The film caused outrage across the Muslim world, not because of its actual content, but because it seemed purpose-built to fill the role Laclau gives to the empty signifier, the thing that empties itself of all content to represent the totality of the signifying system and the unrepresentable unity of social repression. Innocence of Muslims, artifice layered and dubbed on top of artifice, had no content to begin with; all it ever stood for was an imperialism that tried to turn its excesses into entertainment.
The international war in Libya, which began eighteen months earlier as government forces approached Benghazi, was similarly saturated with ghosts; whatever the initial status of the uprising or the government’s response, what resulted was a barrage of metal flying after rumour. Gaddafi had committed terrible massacres in other recaptured towns, Gaddafi had fired anti-aircraft guns at massed protesters, Gaddafi was distributing Viagra to his soldiers as they drew near civilian areas. Afterwards, it turned out than none of these were true, but they’d already done their work. Within Libya, some of the myths took on a racial component: Gaddafi was bringing in thousands of black mercenaries from Chad and Niger to subdue his own population. The result was the mass imprisonment and lynching of African migrant workers in Libyan cities.
None of this might have happened without Hillary Clinton: while France, Italy and Britain pushed for war, she convinced a recalcitrant Obama to join, legitimising them. While the Pentagon and the Joint Chiefs of Staff were opening channels of communication with the Libyan government, Clinton insisted on bombing. ‘Everything I am getting from the State Department,’ one Pentagon official stated, ‘is that they do not care about being part of this.’
UN Resolution 1973, which had authorised Western intervention in the country, soon revealed itself as a flock of freefloating signifiers that would occasionally break formation to dive-bomb material reality. It demanded an immediate ceasefire and an end to all violence in Libya, with a no-fly zone to be set up by the NATO countries. What happened was mission creep, the abstract Mission stalking through the frozen sand. Under UN protection, NATO and its allies dropped tens of thousands of bombs on the country, destroyed not only the Libyan government but all functioning institutions of the State, closed it off, and left it to erupt into another deadly civil war. Tens – maybe hundreds – of thousands have died. This is what happens when virtuality bursts into the actual: entire countries are left ruined in its wake.
In the end, Gaddafi was lynched and sodomised with a bayonet. Clinton’s reaction was captured on camera.
‘We came, we saw, he died!’ And then she laughed.
That was the first Benghazi scandal. The next move was to revirtualise, to turn stable points, the permanently lodged bayonet, into circulating flows. Capitalism functions by flows, churning spirals, money cycling in and out of the commodity, images cycling through material substrates. Right-libertarians such as Rand Paul – later echoed by the journalist Seymour Hersh – claim the existence of a second, namely that the CIA set up a secret unit in the city, buying up weapons from the local militias and sending them on to the uprising in Syria. Other sources provide a different picture: one unnamed former US official told the New York Times that ‘the American government became involved in part because there was a sense that other states would arm the rebels anyhow,’ and mostly limited its role to preventing the export of anti-air weapons, actually functioning to limit the flow of weapons to the Syrian uprising, despite the US protestations of opposition to Assad. This is, in Deleuzian terms, a machine: a ‘system of interruptions’ that ‘functions like a ham-slicing machine, removing portions from a flow’ and thereby coding it; any machine sitting on any flow will produce it in the same way that the anus produces shit.
The only way to set free the blockage in the machinery is to virtualise once again, and turn the trauma into a piece of Fridaynight recreation directed by Michael Bay. And the curve dips again. At a screening of 13 Hours in Washington State, USA, one dropped his gun while drunk inside the cinema, and shot a fellow viewer in her stomach. Why would you bring your gun to the movies, you might ask. But haven’t you seen the film? The terrorists are out to get us.
We are in Benghazi, where nothing can pull free from anything else. Spaceships glittering through their virtual sky are in Benghazi. The bullet pulled out a woman’s body in a hospital in the Pacific Northwest is in Benghazi. That strange and fabulous world of peace and security, free enterprise, the dappled shade of sycamore trees on freshly cut grass, losing your virginity in a parked car on a hill overlooking a small town, barbeque ribs, and two-for-one tequila slammers – shovel the soil for a minute or two; it’s built on Benghazi. Libya was, after all, the scene for the United States’ first foreign war. If you want to see the real state of things, you have to look at the exceptions, the peripheries, the graveyards. A failed state will tell you more than a functioning state about what the state really is. The victims of imperialism understand its workings better than the beneficiaries. Benghazi explains America better than America explains itself.
‘The world is going very badly.’
Elected politicians are supposed to be representative. If we wanted to, we could take this very literally: the function of a politician is to act as a kind of giant signifier, something whose formal qualities are only important insofar as they allow it to refer to something else. A lot of the time this holds true: Donald Trump, for instance, is the walking distillation of all the petty frustrations of the revanchist lumpen-bourgeois jocks; it’s something he communicates not by what he says, since the signifier only really speaks itself, but simply by what he is. Which is why he’s always so vague when he talks: we’re going to have the best thing, the worldclass high-quality luxury good thing, nothing will be bad any more, it’s going to be great. Watching him debate with his Republican opponents is utterly terrifying, a row of despots-in-waiting shouting about the meaty thickness of their penises. Like watching a future atrocity unfolding in front of you, powerless to stop it. These men want to kill you. Democratic debates are different. Everyone – candidates, moderators, audiences – is coiled in an ouroboros of giddy self-congratulation: aren’t we good, aren’t we discussing the issues, talking about real things, like sane and rational people, and so unlike those nasty and stupid Republicans? Which is nonsense. It’s not a question of proximity or distance to the referent, but of two contrasting regimes of signs, ones that aren’t isotopic to political parties but in their interweaving form a fractured topology on which liquid narratives slide and pool.
Trump really does represent something; a sense or feeling, the nebulous notion that you’re being cheated, concretised into a form that could himself only be a con artist. He’s a fully functioning signifier, entirely non-heterogeneous to the grand tradition of bourgeois democracy. But what does Hillary Clinton represent? Or, to frame the question only slightly differently, why is it that while Republican debates might make you fear for your life, the Democrats will have you actively welcoming death?
It’s no great insight to say that Clinton’s policy positions are always volatile. She opposed equal marriage before supporting it; she supported the Trans-Pacific Partnership before opposing it; she’s been less flexible than vaporous on everything from immigration to gun control to the Keystone XL pipeline to mass incarceration and immigration reform. There’s a formlessness that extends to her public persona: Clinton is the creature of stability and experience, but at the same time she has spent much of her campaign pretending, bizarrely, to be a small and slightly dim child. Watch her nae nae on live TV. Check out her Instagram feed, as curated by Lena Dunham. Buy a ‘Yaaasss, Hillary’ hoodie on her online store. Ask her a substantive question, and she’ll respond by trying to take a selfie with you. Hillary Clinton is running for President because she thinks it’s something owed to her; she’ll talk about other things without ever fully representing them, because all she represents is herself.
Still, any politician needs their core constituency, and it’s again not a new observation to note that Clinton’s is money, that she’s the candidate of Wall Street and the big banks. A commitment to the rule and power of capital could be said to be her only really consistent ideological substrate. Most critiques tend to just leave it there, as if demonstrating a politician’s entanglement in the nasty web of finance says all that needs to be said. Push further. What is money? As good Marxologists know, its initial role is to function as a ‘universal equivalent,’ a commodity that is able to effortlessly stand for any other commodity, the symbolic expression of the fungibility of other objects. In Representing Capital, Fredric Jameson makes an important point. The money-form is not a solution to the problem of how two different objects with entirely different use-values can be drawn into an equivalence; it’s just an expression of that very impossibility, circulating endlessly, growing monstrously, and explaining nothing. Money is virtuality. A dollar bill is the promise to pay one dollar. One dollar of what? Since the abandonment of the gold standard, one dollar of itself, of pure formless equivalence.
To say that Hillary Clinton represents money is to say that ultimately she represents her own incapability to represent. This is capitalism, the decoding of all flows, or schizophrenia, the breakdown in the signifying chain. It’s form without content, the zombie god birthing demons, the same thing that swooped down on Benghazi in the second decade of the twenty-first century.
For Deleuze and Guattari, capitalism was always an immanent possibility for all historical societies – a nightmare prowling the edges of economic life, the potential for all flows to be fully decoded that ‘primitive’ societies were fully aware of and did everything they could to prevent. (In such a model, the proto-capitalist civilisations of Western Europe weren’t stronger than the others, but weaker; less equipped to prevent the nightmare bursting through into reality, resorting to violent expansion to supply the monster with a ready stream of sacrifices.) Similarly, we can posit Hillary Clinton as a structural null point, an eternal possibility of politics in general. If Clinton is nothing more than her own formless self-representation, and money is the same, does it really make sense to consider them as two distinct entities? Wikipedia tells us that Hillary Clinton was born on the 26th of October, 1947. Don’t believe it. She’s always been around, grimacing at humanity from across the invisible gap between the actual and the virtual, waiting to break through, waiting from the day the first tribe elected their chief until the day the Americans opened up the portal that let her through.
In Libya, the US election is fought street by street, with mortars and Kalashnikovs. This isn’t to say that the various factions struggling for control there can somehow be mapped onto the
American political spectrum – the Tripoli government as the GOP establishment, the Tobruk government as the Democrats, the Islamic State as Trump, the occasional continuing NATO attacks as Michael Bloomberg. But there is a single process, expressed in different modalities: a catastrophic incursion of the virtual, its chaos rippling in mile-high waves across the surface of the Earth. Power and money course in frantic streams overhead; on the ground, there’s only suffering. People are dying. Sometimes the rich fall to intrigue, but the poor are cut off in anonymous thousands. In recent weeks, the internationally recognised military government clinging to the east of the country has succeeded in expelling armed fanatics from their holdouts. Oregon or Cyrenaica? It’s the same thing.
Hillary Clinton did Benghazi. Something was opened up there, a long time ago, on that crest of land falling into the Gulf of Sidra. All those stamping feet, one invader after the next – the Greeks, the Persians, the Egyptians, the Carthaginians, the Romans, the Rashiduns, the Ottomans, the Italians, the Germans, the British, the Libyans, the Americans, the Islamic State, the gods, the ghosts, the drones, the spaceships – they wore away at reality, and something broke. I tunnelled through the ruins of the city as new ones were being built on its surface, the smash of every shell sending low muffled roars deep underground. Down there, lodged in the ancient clay, I found one fragment of a Euesperidean urn. The goddess, crudely etched in thick black lines, directing the first seafaring colonists to battle against the native Berber tribes. Her face, serene with deathless evil, the one I’d seen shining from a TV twenty-five centuries later. Hillary Clinton did Benghazi.