The ‘War On Terror’ was a failure
‘Turning Point: 9/11 and the War on Terror,” now streaming on Netflix, is a clear-eyed, morally unflinching, and staggeringly comprehensive view of modern history. The attacks of 9/11, the documentary series argues, were one of the most tragically consequential acts in the history of the world, the results of which will reverberate throughout our lifetimes and for generations to come. So, you know, it’s not easy to watch. But it’s essential viewing if you want to understand what our society is now, and how it got that way.
Political neutrality distinguishes ‘Turning Point’ from other treatments of this subject. It condemns the Taliban, who are clearly medieval fascists. But it also has nothing good to say about Dick Cheney and his warmongering ways. The series presents Osama bin Laden as one of history’s most sinister figures, on part with Adolf Hitler. But it also doesn’t let Barack Obama off the hook for his murderous drone strike program, which killed hundreds of innocent children. It’s about a series of decisions, many of of them made with good intentions, that led to an infinite number of tragic consequences.
‘Turning Point’, which runs more than five hours, starts off with a horrifying and deeply emotional recounting of the events of 9/11. It covers the radicalization of the 9/11 attackers, grippingly details the plot, and lingers on the the attack and the collapse of the World Trade Center for what seems like days. It brilliantly recreates the gut-wrenching horror and grief of that day, and captures the heroism of the first responders and ordinary survivors.
From there, it pivots to the Bush Administration’s War On Terror, from the early days when it looked like we were just going to take out the Taliban and root out Bin Laden in the Tora Bora cave complex, and failed to do so, to the thoroughly wrongheaded and evil decision to pivot the war to a theater in Iraq, a country that had nothing to do with 9/11.
Eventually, Iraq, as stupid as that war was, takes a back seat to the endless quagmire in Afghanistan, the “graveyard of empires.” The final two hours might as well be a documentary about Vietnam in the desert, for all the good we did there. Good American soldiers find themselves in a war against a population that despises them, and some American soldiers turn rogue and begin behaving like murderous animals.
‘Turning Point’ is very sharp about the poisonous way that the War on Terror eroded our democracy. The Patriot Act brought about a boom in domestic spying. We denied habeas corpus and other basic Constitutional writers to our “detainees” in Guantanamo Bay. The government and the media, especially Fox News and especially during the Bush Administration, repressed dissent through an organized program of intimidation and lying.
And yet this isn’t a left-wing documentary, not really. It doesn’t feel like something that Michael Moore directed. The filmmakers interview Alberto Gonzales, Bush’s attorney general who crafted that administration’s torture policy, and give him plenty of screen time to make his case. He’s obviously a weasel, but he comes off better than Bush’s former chief of staff Andrew Card, who cannot justify all the rights he abrogated in the name of the War on Terror. They talk to former and current U.S. military personnel, including General David Petraeus, who make it clear that we never really had any idea what we were doing in Afghanistan, and former and current Taliban representatives, who make it clear that they knew exactly what they were doing.
Turning Point lingers for long minutes on the survivors of 9/11, who keep coming back into view to remind us why the war started in the first place. And there’s an excellent recount of the thrilling and heroic raid that finally took out bin Laden in Pakistan. But it’s still largely a historical ledger of misdeeds and disaster.
The documentary finishes before the tragic footage of our final withdrawal from Afghanistan, but just before, and makes it clear that, while there was not an easy exit, the results are going to be tragic and terrifying. 9/11 traumatized a generation, and caused a war that left hundreds of thousands people dead worldwide, countless more wounded, and eroded civil liberties across the world. The filmmakers make it clear that in whatever hell Osama bin Laden currently resides, he’s got to be pleased. The War on Terror was a total failure. But at least we have this excellent documentary series. If you want to know your tragic modern history, it’s sitting right there on Netflix, alongside new episodes of ‘The Circle’ and ‘Clickbait’.