There is something deeply unsettling about Paul Greengrass’ new film Captain Phillips. Despite being reviewed positively and tipped as an Oscar winner for Tom Hanks, it has also garnered negative attention. The men who crewed the Maersk Alabama when it was hijacked by Somali pirates in 2009 have brought a lawsuit against the Maersk Line, claiming that they were deliberately put in danger of hijacking by Captain Richard Phillips in the interests of the company. Greengrass denies their accusations but curious details from the court case do seem to lend them merit. Phillips received no less than seven emails advising container ships to exceed as far as possible the recommended 600-mile distance from the Somali coast because of piracy warnings. Despite this, official reports put the Alabama at 240 miles from the coast at the time of the hijacking – and even Phillips put the distance at only 300 miles. It should be noted that hugging the Somali coast saves freight time and, of course, company money.

But these are matters for the courts.

In any case, Captain Phillips should offend us for other reasons. Greengrass has put Hollywood’s spotlight on an isolated act of violence committed against Americans by Somalis, in the context of decades of violence in the opposite direction. He has worked hard to create a reluctant Western hero in the character of Phillips, juxtaposed against the savagery and brutality of the Africans. Such a trope runs throughout the Western literary canon, and Captain Phillips is all but Hollywood’s answer to Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. In each text, it is the horrors to which the white man is subjected that is our interest, and the demise of the Africans is just gunboats shelling the bush.

The reality of Somali piracy is a little less favourable to the Western hero narrative. Somalia has had no functioning government since its civil war in the early 1990s and foreign fishing interests have ruthlessly exploited the country’s vulnerable seas since then. Rampant and illegal overfishing by mostly European and Asian commercial interests has depleted Somalian fish stocks, with illegal trawlers estimated to have stolen more than $300 million in catch from Somali waters every year since the civil war.

In addition, the absence of functioning institutions has meant a more sinister horror for Somalis. Immediately after the civil war, mysterious foreign vessels began appearing off the Somali coast. Ahmedou Ould-Abdallah, UN envoy to Somalia, reports that ‘nuclear material … lead and heavy metals such as cadmium and mercury,’ much of it ‘traced back to European hospitals and factories,’ has been dumped in Somali waters. His claims were given weight in 2004, when the Indian Ocean tsunami washed barrels containing nuclear residue ashore along the Somalian coast. According to the UN Environment Programme, a wide range of medical problems indicating radiation poisoning such as ‘mouth bleeds, abdominal haemorrhages, unusual skin disorders and breathing difficulties,’ affect Somali villagers in coastal areas. Responses of Western governments towards allegations of illegal fishing and dumping in Somalia have been negligible.

It was in the context of depleted food reserves, starvation and toxic disease – all attributable to abuse of the Somalian sea by largely Western interests ­– that Somalis took to the water with guns. In the absence of any official means of policing their oceans, Somali fishermen, calling themselves the Volunteer Coastguard of Somalia, began hijacking foreign vessels and imposing an arbitrary levy. According to some reports, up to seventy percent of Somalis supported such action. This was the genesis of Somali piracy. With the wealth of the world sailing past Somalia through the Suez Canal each day, the line between civilian coastguard and pirate was too easily crossed.

This history does make a blip on Captain Phillips’ radar. At one point, the lead pirate Abduwalli Muse, tells Phillips that his kidnapping is ‘just a tax’.

‘Big ship come to our waters,’ says Muse. ‘Take all the fish, what’s left for us to fish?’ In one of the more shocking moments of the film, Phillips questions Muse’s claims, and audiences are left doubting them.

As the pirates threaten his life, Phillips sends Greengrass’ point home to audiences. ‘You’re not fishermen!’ Phillips screams. ‘You’re not fishermen.’ In the world of Western morality, the Somali pirates had a choice. Through their violence they lose any right to sympathy, and their killing by US Navy snipers is easier to bear. Historical truth is wrecked on the rocks of Greengrass’ good-guy-bad-guy dichotomy.

Audiences recoil at the sight of Somalis wielding AK-47s in Captain Phillips, and so they should, but we should not forget how Hollywood celebrates Western violence. Western countries deployed combat forces to Somalia under UN auspices in 1992, ostensibly to protect the delivery of aid. The film Black Hawk Down, based on fighting in Mogadishu between Somalis and US forces in 1993, is an overt celebration of American force. Perhaps thousands of Somali civilians died during the Battle of Mogadishu, as American elite soldiers turned the crowded Bakara marketplace into a free fire zone. Black Hawk Down even shows American attack helicopters strafing the Bakara markets at night, at unknown cost to Somali life, and American troops shooting freely into crowds of people. In the words of Alex de Waal writing for the New Left Review, US troops ‘shot everything that moved, took hostages, gunned their way through crowds of men and women … Many people died in their homes, their tin roofs ripped to shreds by high-velocity bullets and rockets. Accounts of the fighting frequently contain such statements as this: “One moment there was crowd, and the next instant it was just a bleeding heap of dead and injured.”’

To reiterate, such scenes actually appear in Black Hawk Down, where the slaughter is portrayed as heroic. The success of Black Hawk Down is its ability to normalise such scenes and encourage the right kind of sympathy – that is, for American soldiers, not Somalis. A line of text at the end of the film reflects this point. ‘Over 1000 Somalis died and 19 American soldiers lost their lives,’ it reads. Audiences are expected not to blink. Just gunships shelling the bush.

It is worth contextualising Black Hawk Down and Western military intervention in Somalia. By the time civil war reached its peak in 1991, the United States had been propping up a ruthless military dictatorship in Somalia for over a decade. Between 1978 and 1988, the United States government provided over $160 million in military technology and four times as much in economic aid to the regime of Mohammed Siad Barre. The total value of arms exported to Somalia by the West in the two decades of Barre’s rule would exceed two billion dollars.

What is more, the arms were supplied in the full knowledge that Barre was using them to massacre his own people. Perhaps fifty thousand Somalis were murdered by the regime, over half a million fled to Ethiopia and another half million were internally displaced by the 1980s. In one of the major incidents precipitating the civil war, Somali security forces completed destroyed the northern rebel-held town of Hargeisa using artillery supplied by America. Thousands of innocent people were killed. Barre also dismantled institutions of civic political administration in the process of consolidating his regime. This meant that Somalis had no institutional means of conflict resolution when fighting between disaffected ethnic clans and the army degenerated into civil war. Somalia had geopolitical significance for the United States government, and under the Barre dictatorship an American naval and military base was established at Berbera. From there, US forces could project power into the vitally important Persian Gulf and Indian Ocean throughout the latter years of the Cold War.

At the outbreak of the civil war, the staggering amounts of American aid that had been going to the Barre dictatorship evaporated. At this point, the country was facing the worst famine in its history, and in the year before American troops arrived, Somalia lost a quarter of its children to extreme starvation. According to regional expert Rakiya Omar, the civil war was then fought largely with the two billion dollars worth of Western arms floating around the country after the fall of the regime, including heavy artillery that destroyed much of residential Mogadishu. Ironically, the United States also shipped large numbers of AK-47 assault rifles to Somalia under Siad Barre, making it quite possible that the Maersk Alabama was hijacked with weapons supplied by America.

By 1992, the civil fighting had ended in all but one province in the south and 80 to 90 percent of food aid was getting into the country; the famine was in stages of alleviation. Summer rains promised abundant crops, and Mohamed Sahnoun, then UN envoy, was recommending a halt to massive food imports. It was in this context that American forces were deployed to Somalia. Operation Restore Hope, as it was called, like support for a murderous dictator and withholding of relief aid, was in anything but the interests of Somalis. In fact, the primary reason for deploying American troops was openly admitted at the time – a successful intervention in Somalia under humanitarian auspices would be a public relations boost for the military or, as the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Colin Powell put it, a ‘paid political advertisement’.

This situation did not escape the media. The Washington Post described US Marines deployed to Somalia as ‘suffused both with anxiety and the sense that a successful mission could yield a public relations bonanza at just the right time.’ Much to the amusement of the Guardian Weekly, US Army Rangers and Delta Force troops deployed to Somalia, fully adorned in combat gear and face paint, jumped off helicopters and amphibious assault vehicles on the Somali coast and were greeted ‘not by armed resistance but by the glare of TV lights and a swarming civilian press corps already arrived.’ It would have been comical if not for the devastating toll on Somalis.

Black Hawk Down was a further public relations campaign by the US military. The Pentagon not only supplied the helicopters, pilots, stuntpeople and other material, but also made changes to the script, according to Mark Bowden, author of the book on which the film was based. Military personnel were consulted to ensure the ‘accuracy’ of the film, and actors felt uncomfortable about the film’s bias towards American forces. Certain scenes were removed, including one in which an American soldier slaps a wounded prisoner, and the film’s producer, Ridley Scott, openly referred to it as ‘a recruitment film’ for the US military. It is little wonder that the California-based Somali Justice Advocacy Centre called for a boycott of Black Hawk Down. One wonders what they think of Captain Phillips.

Greengrass’ film comes at a cruel moment for the people of the Horn of Africa. The Cold War has long ended, but Somalia continues to have tremendous geostrategic importance, and the United States continues to meddle in its affairs at terrible cost to its people. Civil conflict continues to plague the country, and the CIA have been funding warlords who prosecute the violence. In 2006, the Union of Islamic Courts defeated warlords in Mogadishu and brought semi-functioning government to Somalia for the first time since 1991. The United States quickly supported an Ethiopian invasion of the country to remove it. In more recent years, the same conditions that produced Somali piracy have fomented Islamic fundamentalism. The Courts sought relatively moderate Islamic government in Somalia, and Somalis under its administration supported it in the majority. The removal of the Courts by foreign troops nonetheless radicalised Somalian Islamists. The legacy of al-Shabaab is summarised succinctly by the Centre for Strategic and International Studies: ‘Originally the small, youth militia arm of a relatively moderate Islamist organization that rose to power in Somalia in 2006, al-Shabaab was radicalized and brought to prominence as a popular Islamist guerilla movement by Ethiopia’s invasion in December of that year.’

Weeks before Captain Phillips was released, al-Shabaab massacred seventy innocent people in a Kenyan shopping mall in response to the occupation of Somalia by Kenyan and Ethiopian soldiers. As always, Western complicity in the rise of al-Shabaab has received little attention.

Given the history outlined here, Captain Phillips can at best be described as unfair. It may not be the overt political propaganda that is Black Hawk Dawn, but Greengrass has worked hard to make goodies and baddies out of Phillips and his Somali captors respectively. His film perpetuates negative stereotypes of Somalia and false ideas about the role of the West in the region generally.

Above all, we should consider the facts of the Maersk Alabama hijacking in proper context when we consider Captain Phillips. At this moment, four Somali mothers are without sons. Abduwalli Muse, the Somali teenager who turned himself over to America to negotiate, is rotting in an American jail where he will spend the rest of his life. The final scene of the film features Captain Phillips weeping with joy in the hands of American military physicians but we should not cry for Richard Phillips. Our thoughts should not be with him at all. They should be with the people who live in the most squalid conditions on earth, who are driven to commit terrible acts because of terrible acts committed against them. Western audiences of Captain Phillips need to remember that long before Somalis started hijacking container ships, our governments hijacked their country. Much of what is happening now is just the fallout.

Sam Oldham

Sam Oldham is a postgraduate student of history at Monash University. He lives in Melbourne.

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