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James Foley on the Dehumanization of War: Acclaimed Filmmaker Haskell Wexler Shares 2012 Interview

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Image Credit: Haskell Wexler/fourdaysinchicago.com

In his address on Wednesday night, President Obama invoked the memory of two American journalists, James Foley and Steven Sotloff, who were recently beheaded by the Islamic State, as he outlined his case for expanded military actions in Iraq and U.S. airstrikes against the group inside Syria. We speak to Academy Award-winning filmmaker Haskell Wexler, who worked with James Foley in 2012 in Chicago while he was making a film about protests against the NATO Summit. “For the President to use Jim’s name and other journalists as reason to pursue the stated military policy to 'degrade and destroy the Islamic State so that it is no longer a threat' is an insult to the memory of James Foley and to the intelligence of the American people,” Wexler wrote this week. We speak to Wexler and hear James Foley in his own words, from a video interview he did with Wexler.

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StoryMay 21, 2012“No NATO, No War”: U.S. Veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan Return War Medals at NATO Summit
This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: In his address to the nation Wednesday night, President Obama invoked the memory of two American journalists, James Foley and Steven Sotloff, who were recently beheaded by the Islamic State, as he outlined his case for U.S. airstrikes against the group inside Syria.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: In a region that has known so much bloodshed, these terrorists are unique in their brutality. They execute captured prisoners. They kill children. They enslave, rape and force women into marriage. They threaten the religious minority with genocide. And in acts of barbarism, they took the lives of two American journalists, Jim Foley and Steven Sotloff. So ISIL poses a threat to the people of Iraq and Syria and the broader Middle East, including American citizens, personnel and facilities. If left unchecked, these terrorists could pose a growing threat beyond that region, including to the United States.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: President Obama’s reference to James Foley in his bid for U.S.-led military aggression offended a filmmaker who worked with Foley during anti-NATO protests in 2012, shortly before he returned to Syria. Both Foley and the legendary cinematographer and director Haskell Wexler were in Chicago when veterans of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars led protests against the NATO summit there and hurled their war medals toward its gates.

AMY GOODMAN: Haskell Wexler has won two Academy Awards for cinematography, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? and Bound for Glory. Over his six decades of filmmaking, he has also received five Oscar nominations and an Emmy. He is perhaps best known for his 1969 film, Medium Cool, which includes scenes of the '68 protests in Chicago during the Democratic National Convention. He returned to Chicago to make Four Days in Chicago, about the NATO protests, and interviewed James Foley, who was also there to report. After they talked, Foley offered to use his own camera to shoot footage for the Haskell Wexler's new film.

Well, shortly before Obama spoke Wednesday, Wexler wrote in a Facebook post, quote, “For the President to use Jim’s name and other journalists as reason to pursue the stated military policy to 'degrade and destroy the Islamic State so that it is no longer a threat' is an insult to the memory of James Foley and to the intelligence of the American people.” Wexler will join us in a moment, but first, this is a clip Wexler shared with Democracy Now! from his 2012 interview with James Foley.

HASKELL WEXLER: What countries recently have you been filming, taping?

JAMES FOLEY: Libya, Syria. I was in Afghanistan with U.S. troops in 2010. And I’m really interested in the young guys, the ones that are just coming back from Iraq and Afghanistan, those guys’ perspectives, you know, because that—that has a huge impact, you know. And if they’re giving their medals back, that’s—that harkens back, right, to the Winter Soldiers, right, essentially in Vietnam and Kerry and what those guys did, right? So, I’m really interested in that young mentality. I’ve seen young vets that are in Occupy in D.C. and New York, and kind of gravitated towards them a little bit, because I think, I mean, they are the most authentic—they have the most authentic voice to criticize, you know, NATO right now. They were inside the beast. So…


JAMES FOLEY: Of course, I was, too, but I was just a journalist. You know, I was a journalist.

HASKELL WEXLER: So, to a certain extent, you have to be embedded, and in order to get your credentials and when you travel, passports, [inaudible].

JAMES FOLEY: Yeah, you’re totally—when you’re embedded in this era, you’re totally dependent on the U.S. military, for logistics, food, security, of course, everything. And, you know, you develop a certain bond with these guys, that you have to wake up and remind yourself every day, “I’m a journalist.”


JAMES FOLEY: “I’m not one of the soldiers,” you know, just to maintain your sense of objectivity, I’d say.


JAMES FOLEY: And it becomes very difficult, because you’re out there in the sticks or whatever or mountains with them. And, you know, some of those guys would—you know, they would sacrifice for you, and your question is, well, what do you owe them? And ultimately, you owe them the truth, what you see. So, it’s tough. It’s tough, yeah. But it’s a good opportunity to be away from the embed, too, because you’re only seeing like the Afghans, for example, through that lens. You really can’t get any real knowledge of what the Afghan people really think, when you’re walking around with 15 guys and getting out of an armored vehicle and using an Army interpreter, you know? You’re not really getting an idea of what’s going to happen in the future of Afghanistan, you know, when we leave.

HASKELL WEXLER: The one thing that you mentioned, the feeling of brotherhood, in terms of valor, in terms of [inaudible] and so forth, is so bad, because that particular feeling, we all have and could be used for good things, you know?

JAMES FOLEY: Right, right.

HASKELL WEXLER: We should look out for one another and feel for one another.


HASKELL WEXLER: I mean, that’s—and the Army needs that, but so do human beings.

JAMES FOLEY: That is sad, because it’s some of the strongest bonds amongst young men, giving your life for your brother.


JAMES FOLEY: But to what end are we—


JAMES FOLEY: You know, to what end is the greater purpose? And that’s—I guess that’s the root question of NATO, right?


JAMES FOLEY: What end are fighting these wars against?


AMY GOODMAN: That’s journalist James Foley, who was beheaded last month by the Islamic State, speaking in 2012 with the legendary cinematographer, journalist, filmmaker, Haskell Wexler, in Chicago at the anti-NATO protests.

For more, we go directly to Haskell Wexler, who’s in Los Angeles right now. Haskell, thanks so much for sharing this incredible interview with us. We’re going to play more of James Foley. Talk about why you are bringing this out now.

HASKELL WEXLER: Amy, I’m pissed off. I am angry. I am—I see how the American public is being confused, lied to and given theater, to make us buy that war is the way to have peace, and to use a journalist like Jim Foley, who was truly a journalist—wants to search for the truth, actually was out amongst them, and volunteered to work with my film group in Chicago, which were there documenting an anti—anti-NATO demonstration. In fact, he himself took a camera, and I have 30 minutes of film of him talking to people in Chicago, so that he was not a person detached, objective journalist. He realized that our foreign policy is destructive, when you had a humanitarian crisis that hurt him deeply that he saw in Syria.

And a funny thing is, the government knew what his position is, with all the surveillance, was—and on just students in Chicago who were opposing NATO and the war, the taking of their computers, certainly the look into journalists and their points of view. If they didn’t know before, when James Foley took a camera to work with me and my fellow Chicago filmmakers in an anti-NATO film, there’s no question on what side of the fence he’s on. And the government functions on “you’re either 100 percent for us, or you’re the enemy.” And that’s why a lot of our discussions and other interviews was Jim talking about the other, how authorities can establish who the other is, and once they’re other, they’re less than human, they’re less than smart, and you can do anything to them, because you have to teach them a lesson. So, for them to use him as a poster boy for more violence is obscene, and I think that the country has to know it’s obscene.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Well, Haskell Wexler, let’s go to footage that you shared with us of Foley speaking with you in 2012 at the anti-NATO protests in Chicago. Here’s another clip.

HASKELL WEXLER: The other, that’s us. We’re the ones that make it insecure.

JAMES FOLEY: I’m interested in what you said about the other, the categorization of the other, because you see it in all conflicts and wars. And you see it in El Salvador, you see it here. And I saw it in Libya and Syria. And it’s like both sides attempting to, you know, paint a group as the enemy, as the other, and what happens, the dehumanization process of that. And that’s extremely dangerous. But I guess it has to happen; it happens in a war so that they can kill each other.



HASKELL WEXLER: But it seems like it’s slicker here—


HASKELL WEXLER: —in that they say, the policing authorities, they are Chicago.

JAMES FOLEY: Right, right.

HASKELL WEXLER: They are Chicago, and they are protecting Chicago. And then they call the word “security.” How do they separate—I think the media helps separate us from people. TV does it, you know, normally.

JAMES FOLEY: Right. Because what is this coverage—you know, what is this coverage going to focus on? You know, we’ll see some shots of police, you know, and we’ll see cutaways to protesters. Hopefully they’ll get some kind of action in there. And then that’s essentially the story. Doesn’t go much deeper than that on broadcast news, certainly, so…

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Well, Haskell Wexler, you were in Chicago at the NATO summit making a film, Four Days in Chicago. How did you—and that’s how you came across Foley. How did you end up deciding to make that film?

HASKELL WEXLER: I didn’t hear that question.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: I said, the film that you were making in Chicago, Four Days in Chicago, at the NATO summit, when you met Jim Foley, how did you decide to make that film?

HASKELL WEXLER: I decided to make that film because Chicago is my hometown. And in 1968, when another antiwar demonstration was there, the power of the police and the state went in there and suppressed them brutally, and later it was called a police riot. And then, when the Occupy was announced to be in Chicago, the Chicago Tribune had an article that the mayor—quoted the mayor saying that this is not going to be like '68. And actually he mentioned my film, Medium Cool, and he said they're going to deal with these people in a new way. And so, I decided I better go back to my hometown and find out what’s there. And I went there with two West Coast filmmakers who were ex-Chicago people, Andy Davis and Mike Gray, and with the help of a lot of young people in Chicago, we made a film called Four Days in Chicago.

AMY GOODMAN: Haskell Wexler, I wanted to get your reaction to Diane Foley, James Foley’s mother, who did an interview last night with CNN’s Anderson Cooper. She said officials told her she could face prosecution if she tried to raise a ransom to free her son. She said the U.S. had also refused to exchange prisoners or carry out a military rescue effort early on.

DIANE FOLEY: I think our efforts to get Jim freed were an annoyance, you know? And I—

ANDERSON COOPER: An annoyance to the government.

DIANE FOLEY: Yes. And they—yeah, and it wasn’t—didn’t seem to be in our strategic interest, if you will. I was appalled as an American. Jim would have been saddened. Jim believed 'til the end that his country would come to their aid. We're dealing with very difficult people when we talk about ISIS. Their hate for us is great. And yet, some of our response to them has only increased the hate. You know? So, I feel there’s a need for debate, discussion. I pray that our government will be willing to learn from the mistakes that were made and to acknowledge that there are better ways for American citizens to be treated.

AMY GOODMAN: So that was the exclusive interview that Anderson Cooper of CNN did with Diane Foley, James Foley’s mother. They have a full-page ad in The New York Times today on their new foundation. Haskell Wexler, your response, as Diane Foley says the U.S. government treated these parents, before James Foley was beheaded, as an annoyance?

HASKELL WEXLER: I’m trying to get over my anger, that I expressed early, about the theatrical utilization of the opposite of what James Foley, and try to concentrate on what lessons we have from this situation. And I thought—I saw James Foley’s mother, and I thought here’s a brave, good woman, sort of representing everything that America is all about, and she’s saying that our government is not telling the truth. And our media, in the main—maybe a few breakthroughs now, certainly with you, but otherwise—are saying that—what they call America being “war-weary.” It’s not we’re just tired of fighting war, but we’re tired of being deceived and having that deception taken from all the needs that we have in America today.

AMY GOODMAN: This is interesting also because the spokesperson for the family of the other beheaded journalist, Steven Sotloff, spoke to CNN on Wednesday, Barak Barfi, and said Sotloff was sold to ISIL by other so-called moderate Syrian rebels.

BARAK BARFI: For the first time, we can say Steven was sold at the border. Steven’s name was on a list that he had been responsible for the bombing of a hospital. This was false. Activists spread his name around.

ANDERSON COOPER: He was sold at the border?

BARAK BARFI: Yes. We believe that the so-called moderate rebels that people want our administration to support, one of them sold him probably for something between $25,000 and $50,000 to ISIS. And that was the reason that he was captured.

AMY GOODMAN: That is Barak Barfi, the spokesperson for Steven Sotloff, the family, the other journalist who was beheaded. I wanted to bring Medea Benjamin, leading peace activist, back into this conversation. As you listen to Haskell Wexler, Medea, and you hear the mothers, Diane Foley, and the spokesperson for Steven Sotloff, the two beheaded journalists whose names President Obama has invoked in justifying this military campaign, your thoughts?

MEDEA BENJAMIN: Well, first, my heart goes out to Diane Foley as a mother, but my heart goes out to the hundreds of people that we have killed in an equally barbaric fashion with our drone strikes, where we incinerate people alive, leaving pieces of their flesh lying in trees, doing this to mothers, to children, to teachers, to farmers. Every one of those drone strikes is a barbaric killing, a barbaric tragedy. So, we do not have the moral high ground in this, unfortunately.

AMY GOODMAN: And, Haskell Wexler, your final thoughts today, after you bring us the video of James Foley at this antiwar protest in 2012?

HASKELL WEXLER: Well, my final thought for today is that the government—that is, our military government— and I’m saying that it’s far more deeply militaristic than we even realize—that our government is going to do whatever it’s going to do. It’s certainly shown that about Syria. But they have to develop new theatrical events to make it seem like something good—you know, dropping bombs and then humanitarian aid, as the public thing is today of a new policy. So I think we have to know how the forces are, and to realize there is plenty in this country that will see through the sham before it’s too late.

AMY GOODMAN: Haskell Wexler, I thank you for being with us, legendary cinematographer, journalist, director, perhaps best known for his 1969 film, Medium Cool. Haskell Wexler has won two Academy Awards for cinematography in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? and Bound for Glory. Over his six decades of filmmaking, Haskell Wexler has also received five Oscar nominations and an Emmy. He worked with journalist James Foley in 2012 before Foley returned to Syria, where he was kidnapped and beheaded by ISIS. They met when Foley helped shoot video for Haskell Wexler’s film, Four Days in Chicago, about those anti-NATO protests led by veterans and soldiers opposed to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Haskell Wexler is 92 years old now. And thanks so much to Medea Benjamin, founder of CodePink, author of Drone Warfare: Killing by Remote Control. She joined us from Oklahoma City.

This is Democracy Now! When we come back, a former Israeli combat soldier speaks out. Stay with us.

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