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The righteous war

As a source of stability in the region, Kurdish Peshmerga fighters can gain more support for their liberation struggle, believes controversial philosopher and documentary Bernard-Henri Lévy.


A soldier runs up a ridge in a golden desert landscape. The cameraman follows and shouts to make the soldier wait. "Hajar! Watch out! ”The soldier continues unaffected. He soon arrives at the top of the hill, which suddenly rises into the air with a bang. The soldier is covered in dust when he returns. "Its nothing. Forget it! Let me be! ”The cameraman follows him and asks him to sit down. "Man down!" He shouts. The soldier falls to his knees and we get close to his bloody face shouting "Long live Kurdistan!"

This is the estimate in Bernard-Henri Lévy's documentary Peshmerga (2016). It was the image of the bloody soldier that made it necessary to make the film, he says. "What is this Kurdistan, whose tragic and glorious name seems stronger than death?" This is how Lévy opens his film about the Kurdish military forces' war against IS, where he follows the troops in Kurdish Northern Iraq for six months, from July to November 2015. The film was shown during a comprehensive security program at the documentary film festival in Copenhagen 23. March.

Ever worship. Peshmerga, which is also the name of the Kurdish military forces we follow, depicts these forces moving west along the front toward Mosul. The documentary is packed with dramatic scenes: Three wounded men lie on a loading platform and sing. A white-haired officer asks his soldiers to aim well before firing at the enemy. He even loosens his shot after shot and notices every hit he gets. He himself is shot through the head and killed at the next moment.

The Peshmerga warriors are portrayed as brave soldiers who live up to the name, which loosely translated means "those who meet death" or "those who sacrifice first." Such an interpretation fits well with Lévy's narrative of the fearless peshmerga's fight against the evil enemy IS. They fight with courage and cunning against barbaric but cowardly IS fighters. "It's a scent of victory in the air," commented Lévy as a "voice of God" over the images of the Kurdish forces' march of victory following the liberation of Sinjar and its many Jesuit residents.

The heroism of Peshmerga and the portrayal of IS as evil itself results in a highly polarized documentary. This is commented on by Danish journalist Adam Holm during the conversation with Lévy after the screening in Copenhagen.

"The Kurds were our 'boots on this bloody ground'. They did an invaluable job of keeping the barbarian at bay, in solitude and with scarce resources. They only received occasional support from the coalition's airstrikes. It was the Kurds who were on the ground and who sacrificed their lives in this war. For their own, but also for us, ”Lévy said.

Lévy is slightly optimistic on behalf of the Kurds' own liberation struggle. Peshmerga's efforts in the war against IS have shown that the Kurds can secure stability in Northern Iraq. Such stability could increase the willingness to recognize the Kurds' independence desire, he believes.

"Had we left Libya, we might have had two Syria today."

Just war. Another thread that is being tried and tested by journalist Holm is what happened to the IS warriors who were captured. In the documentary, they are transported away in a truck, but the audience does not know what is happening to them. Lévy explained that he did not have full information about all the prisoners and that is why he does not say more about this in the film. He followed the traces of two of them, and learned that they were imprisoned in the Kurdish capital of Erbil.

"I believe, and have no reason to doubt, that they are being treated fairly," says Lévy.

“We, and other colleagues who have traveled to war zones, know that there is no just war and that prisoners are rarely treated well. You deliver a romantic presentation of Peshmerga, and we never get to know the more sinister sides of the war. I have seen reports that the Pesmherga warriors have committed crimes against humanity, ”Holm says.

"In this film, I have given my testimony of what I saw and I saw no crimes against humanity," Lévy parries. The meaningful filmmaker disagrees with Holm. He means the term fair war is legitimate in given contexts.

"When there is no other option, when you are fighting an enemy who just wants to spread evil, when you have broad, international support – then the war can be called fair. The wars against Hitler and Franco were righteous wars. This is also a fair war. What does not exist, on the other hand, is a 'pure' war, ”says Lévy.

"What is this Kurdistan, whose tragic and glorious name seems stronger than death?"

The documentary rejects that Peshmerga is a romantic movie, but tells that it is not balanced either. Lévy admits that it may be a limitation, but in that case it is a desired limitation. He would not tell the story nuanced by devoting five minutes to Peshmerga and five minutes to IS. That's not how you make movies, Lévy thinks; one must be honest, but not always balanced.

Influential. Lévy has previously been the driving force for international intervention in some countries' internal conflicts. He campaigned to wage war against Libya's former leader Muammar al-Gaddafi, and was among those who persuaded then-President Nicolas Sarkozy to provide France with support for a UN-led intervention in the country. The situation in Libya is still difficult, and many have been critical of the intervention as well as of Levy's intervention.

"Look at the result. We did not intervene in Syria. Had we left Libya, we might have had two Syria today, twice as many refugees and died. The story is never black and white. There is never a single solution. Sometimes you have something that is bad and something that is less bad. Then we have to promote what's less bad, "Lévy said.

As a well-known intellectual in France, Lévy has the influence of many powerful people. He has already shown several of the presidential candidates his latest film Battle of Mosul (2017), where he follows Iraqi military and militia groups, in addition to Peshmerga forces, in the fight against IS. Recordings took place from October 17 last year until January this year.

"I hope these candidates understand that the most important thing is what happens after the battle. What will Mosul be after IS? Will revenge be decisive, and will the distinction between Sunni and Shia Muslims be greater? Or can Mosul become a showcase for reconciliation and hope for the future? ” asks Lévy.

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