13 Hours: The Secret Soldier of Benghazi


This film has an impact. Because the subject matter is fraught with political overtones, the viewer easily gets emotionally wrapped up in these tough mercenary characters who wind up being the heroes. Even though they're not supposed to be there, they dwell in the shadowy realm of plausible deniability, and they directly disobeyed orders in order to saddle up and bail out their fellow Americans. The trouble is, that instinct to come riding to the rescue was notably absent from people officially connected to the United States government who were in a position to do anything helpful. And realizing that makes the viewer share the indignant anger of all those who have been clamoring for accountability ever since. Trouble is, we're as unlikely to find out who really dropped the ball as we are to ascertain why this particular incursion happened in the first place. And all that unknowing feels very real-world, and very frustrating.
We are introduced to the mercenaries as clandestine “secret operatives” in the CIA compound that wasn't officially acknowledged, nearby the “semi-official” ambassador's residence, except it was an informal posting, because of the transient nature of Libya's government after the fall of Gaddafi. Nobody really knew who was in charge in the armed-milita melee that followed. There were plenty of weapons, and plenty of armed gangs, but not much political clarity. Ambassador Chris Stevens (Matt Letscher) was supposed to make a quiet, brief appearance to meet the mayor of Benghazi, but somebody leaked word to the press, so now the whole city knows that there is an American ambassador in residence. And on the anniversary of 9/11, that was just too tempting a target for the warmongering militia---though no one officially claimed responsibility for organizing the attack. There's just no question that it was indeed organized---not just the guys with machine guns invading from the fields, but especially the mortar bombardment.
The CIA station chief was already not kindly disposed toward the “special ops” guys, thinking them to be rogue cowboys who were big on macho and not so great on obeying orders. He was the one who told them to “stand down” when the attack began, because he wanted to get confirmation, and direction, from higher up. But that just wasn't forthcoming. Nor was any real help. They were on their own, at least at first. (Some soldiers eventually arrived from Tripoli to assist, but no air support, despite a base twenty minutes away in Italy, and no other military units were dispatched.)
In a way, it's astounding that the actual casualties were few: the ambassador himself (from smoke inhalation), and three others.  Everyone else was eventually rescued, the next day, by some element of Libyans who were friendly to the U.S. presence. (Part of the great difficulty was figuring out who was friendly and who wasn't.)
The combat scenes are extraordinarily realistic. But it's a grim tale told straight-faced. There's little to feel good about, other than the unexpected heroism of those who fought so valiantly in a firefight that wasn't officially theirs. We owe them all our gratitude.

Questions for Discussion:
  1. Why wasn't the compound better protected in the first place, and why wasn't help sent when the attack began?
  2. Should the attack have been interpreted as an act of war, and should the United States government have responded accordingly?
  3. Should we have “unofficial” CIA operatives in foreign countries? If they come under attack, should we then send “official” military troops to rescue them?

Dr. Ronald P. Salfen is the Interim Pastor, First Presbyterian Church, Athens, Texas