Adam Curtis uncovers the secrets of Helmand
Heroin, hippies and hero engineers
Documentary filmmaker Adam Curtis is trying something new on the web. It's unearthing a secret, patchwork history that reads like a novel. It's about Afghanistan, and what he calls "our dreams of Afghanistan, and their dreams of us".
As part of a mission to unearth lost gems from the BBC archive, it's full of extraordinary stories - how hippies created the heroin business, for example, or how American engineers tried to build a model democracy in the 1950s. It's old fashioned journalism, the kind that TV news seems reluctant to do. Adam kindly offered to explain it to us.
If you've missed it, here are Kabul, City Number One Kinshasha, City Number Two, and The Secret History of Helmand. Much of what we discussed follows on from the latter - which explores the grand, techno-utopian designs of US nation building in the 1950s.
Q. When people read it, people who know your work, they'll recognise a few familiar Adam Curtis themes. What was it that caught your eye?
I was completely shocked by the way it was being reported. Our relationship to Afghanistan the way it's reported now is not even two-dimensional, it's one-dimensional.
Documentaries, and a lot of television now, is possessed by the mantra that people will only watch your film, or listen to your program, if it "touches something in them". So the reporting has to find something in Afghanistan that's some terrible thing that has happened "to somebody like you, or just like your child".
It's done with the best intentions, and a certain kind of desperation to keep an audience. But it makes it more and more incomprehensible. Because it becomes a land full of victims and out there in the darkness, dark forces we don't understand.
I'm trying to build up a body of evidence of just how complicated our relationship to that country has been.
One thing that fits in to your canon is psychologists, and another is nation building, with both sets of people trying to form society to a model.
I did not know America had tried a kind of nation building before. The whole idea that you could use scientific ideas to substitute for what was essentially a political project. That instead of political fallabilities you have a series of certainties - scientific principles - on which you could build nations. They really did believe that. But they tried it on Afghanistan and it's one of the biggest they ever did. It shocked me.
Like everyone else I have watched the picture of Helmand, and had the impression that this is a dusty old landscape where we've disturbed something really complicated. To quote: "It has been there a long time, we're better out of it."
It's not, it's a bit more like Ancient Greece, we're fighting amongst the ruins of one of the giant American technocratic projects. In five years nobody's done a proper history.
Documentary strands have become very worthy - it's as if they're not addressing us as an audience, but policy makers. And they start with the basis that it's an intractable problem.
Next page: How evil is Dr Evil?
@ confused anon:
"so I would say that theory even without solid proof can still work"
Indeed. My own General Theory of Ectoplasm is a good example.
You want to play some more?
RE: Blissett & Anon
Well, "I see several metaphors, at least one hyperbole, and an oxymoronic cliche" < conformity, rules of language are all also completely relative.
real engineering is based on trial and error. so we're agreed then, furthermore, though we cannot actually prove why Quantum tunnelling etc happens, we can still measure the effects of it, even if we can't view the phenomena itself.
Finally, there is little evidence to fit the String Theory Model, hence there are no scientific laws and not experiments to prove it, we don't have the technology to measure that small yet. The circular climate model I would assume is the same, or that perhaps the outcomes of the research are not definitive on either side, hence the continued speculation.
Either way, your ability to do what your doing with your computers is based on a quantum world that we can't actually see or measure with much accuracy and yet here we are none the less, so I would say that theory even without solid proof can still work.
why nation-build in Afghanistan?
Because it's cheaper than doing it directly in Iran. It's a shame we're leaving much of Africa to rot under the discarded AK shells of guerrillas, particularly the places where Islamic terrorists are recruiting and training. But Iran is the real enemy here and there is at least a bit of geographic space between Iran and Africa, unlike the mere border between Iran and Afghanistan. That's why the US tried to install a friendly regime in Iraq. Who's to say Iran wouldn't have invaded Iraq had Saddam become even weaker or when he died? One reason Saddam boasted about WMD and kept out the inspectors was because he wanted Iran to at least think he had them. There could also have been a civil war after Saddam died that the West might have had to clean up anyway. That may be speculation, but you pays your money and you takes your chances.
On the drugs trade: I still can't get why NATO/ISAF doesn't buy the opium to sell to pharmaceutical companies, or would people start chanting 'Death to Obama' and 'No blood for poppies'. Maybe it's all a conspiracy by the Australian poppy farmers.
My final point is that sometimes the US misses the point of how it came to be. The framers of the US constitution made it the way it was because of a certain kind of British misrule. The reason the 13 colonies were able to rise up and defeat the British was because the people were relatively well off and could afford it. They didn't rebel because they were poor but because they knew they could be better off if they ran their own affairs. Probably that was why Britain lost the US, but kept the rest of its empire - the rest weren't rich enough to rebel and win. Maybe that's why the Taliban/Al Qaeda keep going, the leaders are rich on heroin. That's not to say the Afghan people need to be put in deeper poverty to keep them from rebelling, but that the Afghan people need to be made rich and the jihadis need to be made poor. And someday I need to read Alexis de Tocqueville's Democracy in America.