Exclusive to STR
December 26, 2006
Before the movie "The Good Shepherd" began, I was put into the right frame of mind by a commercial for the National Guard that gave the impression that all they did was rescue people from natural disasters (I suppose the guns they carried were only used to shoot college students protesting the Vietnam War). This was followed by a preview of a movie where the hero is an FBI agent who goes to Saudi Arabia to kill Moslems who don't want Americans staying in their country. By the time "Shepherd" began, I was ready for something different than jingoistic promos for the New World Order. I was not disappointed.
"Shepherd" is an impressionistic history lesson about the CIA that offers an alternative perspective on America's role in the world and its justification for intervening in the affairs of other nations. It is not "The FBI Story," Hollywood's glorified 1950s version of how J. Edgar Hoover saved America from godless communists and desperate bank robbers. It does convey a subtle message that all is not what it seems and there is more to America's mission to save the world for democracy than establishment propagandists would like us to believe.
The story begins and ends with the CIA's greatest blunder, the Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba in 1961. I know some will say invading Iraq in search of the Holy Grail (i.e., weapons of mass destruction) was a bigger disaster. However, in light of recent testimony and supporting documents, it seems the "deciders" in the Bush administration manipulated CIA intelligence reports the same way fundamentalist bible thumpers pick and choose passages to justify their political agenda. Most of the scenes in between consist of a series of flashbacks in chronological order, beginning in 1939 with the main fictional character Edward Wilson (portrayed by Matt Damon) being inducted into a secret society at Yale University called Skull & Bones. Though not mentioned in the movie, this ultra-exclusive club counts among its members George H. and George W. Bush, as well as John Kerry.
Throughout the movie, Wilson interacts with his fellow "bonesmen" as they dominate the established political order, regardless of party affiliation, and manipulate government in order to protect their interests.
Before war starts in Europe, an FBI agent recruits Wilson to spy on one of his own professors, who is suspected of Nazi sympathies. I thought it was refreshing for a change to see the FBI engaged in domestic surveillance of American citizens who were not communists. Nevertheless, Wilson gets his first taste of trust and betrayal when he steals pro-German documents from his professor's office and turns them over to the FBI. Shortly after, the professor is dismissed from his job.
As America enters the war, Wilson joins the Office of Strategic Services (OSS) and is sent to Europe to work with British intelligence officers. He learns that espionage and counterespionage is not a gentleman's game, but a ruthless occupation where the ends justify the means. Nothing is off limits, including lies, deception, betrayal, torture and murder. After the war, Wilson finds himself in competition with his Russian counterparts for the services of Nazi scientists and intelligence officers, many of whom were wanted for war crimes. He is willing to make deals with devils in order to gain advantage over the Russians.
When the CIA is organized in 1947, Wilson becomes involved in counterintelligence and covert operations in other countries. He justifies his role with the belief that it was necessary to wage small wars in order to prevent big wars. This culminates in the Bay of Pigs fiasco. My favorite scene in the movie is when Wilson approaches a Mafia boss and threatens to deport him unless he agrees to help the CIA assassinate Fidel Castro. The boss replies that he has lived in America since he was two months old, and talks about how various ethnic groups were motivated by their culture, religion, music, family and tradition. He then asks Wilson what motivates people like him to act the way they do and Wilson responds, "Our country, and the rest of you are just visiting." One could sense the influence of the Skull & Bones mentality that the state exists to preserve the position and power of the ruling elite, and that threats must be dealt with by any means necessary.
There are several scenes in the movie when the thesis is offered that elite groups like the "bonesmen" must invent or exaggerate their enemies in order to justify their power over the masses. In sociology, this concept is called "organizational maintenance." When an organization like the CIA is formed to combat a particular threat, and the threat no longer exists, a new threat has to be created to justify its further existence or else a lot of powerful people will be put out of their jobs. I can't help speculating on how much is coincidence that the war against "Islamo-fascism" began almost as soon as the Cold War ended. I believe part of the film's intent is to get us thinking in that direction.