“The Little Drummer Girl” and War

My wife and I recently watched a six-episode, made-for-TV adaptation of The Little Drummer Girl, a novel by John Le Carré‘ that was published in 1983. The story

follows the manipulations of Martin Kurtz, an Israeli spymaster who intends to kill Khalil – a Palestinian terrorist who is bombing Jewish-related targets in Europe, particularly Germany – and Charlie, an English actress and double agent working on behalf of the Israelis….

Kurtz … recruits Charlie, a “21 or 22-year-old” radical left-wing English actress, as part of an elaborate scheme to discover the whereabouts of Khalil… Joseph is Charlie’s case officer. Khalil’s younger brother Salim is abducted, interrogated, and killed by Kurtz’s unit. Joseph impersonates Salim and travels through Europe with Charlie to make Khalil believe that Charlie and Salim are lovers. When Khalil discovers the affair and contacts Charlie, the Israelis are able to track him down.

Charlie is taken to Palestinian refugee camps to be trained as a bomber. She becomes more sympathetic to the Palestinian cause, and her divided loyalties bring her close to collapse. Charlie is sent on a mission to place a bomb at a lecture given by an Israeli moderate whose peace proposals are not to Khalil’s liking. She carries out the mission under the Israelis’ supervision. As a result, Joseph kills Khalil. Charlie subsequently has a mental breakdown caused by the strain of her mission and her own internal contradictions.

I recall that the 1984 feature-film version was widely thought to be pro-Palestinian and, therefore, anti-Israeli.

Neither my wife nor I have seen the 1984 film. She has read the novel, though she doesn’t remember much about it. I haven’t read the novel. I therefore came to the made-for-TV series with little baggage, though I feared that it might prove to be anti-Israeli propaganda. I will render a verdict later in this post, after considering some relevant evidence about the novel and feature film.

According to a piece in The New York Times, published soon after the release of the feature film, the novel and film were meant to be neutral:

The main problem in attempting to remain faithful to the book was dealing with what the filmmakers saw as its political balance – striving to be even-handed in the portrayal of Israelis and Palestinians engaged in a violent struggle for their respective causes and survival in the super- charged, highly sensitive arena of current history involving the ongoing agony of the Middle East.

”We weren’t making a political film,” said [director George Roy] Hill. ”We have no political ax to grind. We were making a suspense story that happened to have a political background. But we wanted to be true to the book, which we believe to be even-handed. The book shows the Palestinians for the first time in a human light. Up until then, they were seen as bloodthirsty monsters.”…

Like the book, the film does humanize the Palestinians and, perhaps because of the medium itself which makes them and their ultimate decimation visually and painfully real to the audience, it seems likely that the film will engender even more controversy than did the book.

Mr. Le Carre thinks controversy arose because the Palestinians never had a fair hearing in the United States. ”It is true,” he said, ”that some people think that it is heretical, anti-Semitic and probably even anti- American to suggest that there is even anything to be said for the Palestinian side.”

The novelist has continued to arouse passions by publishing some articles sympathetic to the Palestinians after the Shatila massacre in 1982. Nevertheless, he denies that this makes him anti-Israeli. ”It’s almost a vulgarity to confuse a balance of compassion with a want of sympathy for Israel,” he said. ”If I had written the book later, after the full extent of the Israeli operation was known, I would have made it angrier. But I begin and I end, believe it or not, as a tremendous supporter of a concept of Israel.”…

Indeed, the movie does not proclaim itself explicitly on one side or the other. A catalog of the ills shown suffered by each side would probably add up to a fairly even score….

But still, making the movie called for tremendous amounts of surgery and, in some cases, amputation….

The change in Charlie’s character is interesting because Mr. Le Carre had specified in his original contract that Charlie be played by an English actress. ”We were unable to find a suitable English actress,” Mr. Hill said. ”When I first spoke to Diane about the part we discussed the possibility of playing it with an English accent. But then I saw the advantage of making her American – to isolate her even more from the European community. This difference, and her more advanced age, makes the whole ending scene more moving, gives it more impact. By the end she can no longer act, she can’t pretend. She has been destroyed.”…

While the changes in Charlie’s personality added a dimension, the changes in Kurtz’s removed an aspect of his character – a moral one.

In the book, Kurtz, the master-spy, has many of the same doubts as Joseph, the agent Charlie loves. The two resolve their doubts in different ways. Kurtz pushes past them by working to stop the Palestinians even if in the process he has to act against his own conscience….

In the movie Mr. Kinski, who has previously played many fierce and even demonic characters, plays Kurtz as a hard-liner. He becomes a super-efficient agent with a touch of fanaticism, who resolutely brushes away all moral qualms. The effect is to make the Israelis seem like a ruthlessly moving machine pitted against the more vulnerable Palestinians.

Mr. Le Carre originally objected to the casting of Mr. Kinski because ”I thought he carried too much baggage with him.” He said he thinks his own Kurtz is probably ”more Israeli” and not as harsh. Mr. Hill said the casting choice was made for dramatic reasons. It would have been boring, he maintains, to have on screen two characters as similar as Joseph and Kurtz. But it’s one example of how a change made for dramatic impact can subtly change the film’s psychological effect.

It would seem that the crucial casting of Kinski as Kurtz gave the film an anti-Israeli tone — intended or not — even if the novel was meant to be neutral, as Le Carré‘ insists. The made-for-TV series struck me as truer to the spirit of the novel, as Le Carré‘ describes it.

The TV series can be viewed superficially, as just another story with some compelling characters, suspenseful sequences, and a conclusive climax. The series can also seem pro-Israeli or pro-Palestinian, depending on the stance you bring to your viewing.

I admit to having been staunchly pro-Israeli for a long time, but on reflection I conclude that the TV series conveys a pro-Israeli message — and more.

Charlie’s pangs of conscience after the killings of Khalil and his henchpersons are short-lived. She retreats to a seaside resort, recovers quickly, and reconciles with Joseph. I see these anti-climactic events as indicative of a pro-Israeli slant. Although the anti-climactic events might have been contrived merely to give the series a happy ending, they rather obviously (though subtly) endorse the rightness of the cause to which Charlie was recruited.

The series also conveys, even more subtly, this crucial message: One cannot win a war — or stave off defeat — by being less than ruthless. It’s probably true that most Palestinians, like most Israelis, are just “ordinary people” trying to get on with daily life. But that doesn’t negate the reality of the unrelenting Arab-Muslim effort to terrorize and kill Israelis and to undermine Israel as a sovereign state.

The need for ruthlessness is a lesson that American leaders seemed to have learned in World War II, but which their successors failed to apply in the Korean War, the Vietnam War, the 1990-91 Gulf War, and the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.


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