White Helmets, Not White Collars
By Estella Carpi.
Last autumn, Max Blumenthal’s commentary on the White Helmets in Syria went viral in the international media. At the same time, the 2016 White Helmets movie and the “Hollywoodization” of civilian search and rescue operations became objects of discussion and even suspicion in the intellectual realm. Accused of being “hyper-partisan”, the Helmets are portrayed as the Trojan horses of American soldiers in Syria, as they are said to rescue lives while calling for military intervention.
Even though a few months have by now passed since last October, I think it is still worth it to address the couch-based counter-narrative which builds on Blumenthal’s argument. I will therefore highlight the ways in which ‘southern’ humanitarian action is chronically discredited, and how the intellectual critique of heroism in war practically leads to morally deny the White Helmets’ action and outcomes on the ground.
While the White Helmets movie, which was awarded with the Oscar for Best Film Documentary, is an invitation to focus on the factuality of straightforward results — the mere material act and hopeful result of rescuing lives — the armchaired white collars’ tendency to undercut or sneer at ‘southern’ humanitarian action is still hard to die. The act of rescuing, as funded by western powers and trained in Turkey, has been shrugged off as a machiavellic political strategy.
Commentators and large segments of the public audience have foregrounded geopolitical agendas rather than focusing on the abovementioned factuality. This is the unfortunate result of the southern humanitarian discourse that struggles to get morally acknowledged and legitimized on the grounds of unmet neutrality standards.
Whilst I have always struggled myself to believe that there ever is something like apolitical humanitarian action insofar as aid provision becomes part of the conflict itself, such global skepticism toward a humanitarianism meant as a simple “bed for the night” is problematically unilateral from ‘North’ to ‘South’.
Using the same standards to question how political the “bed for the night” is in Saudi Arabia, the UK, or in Syria today can’t be appraised as a post-orientalist discourse, which would surely be much welcomed. Indeed, double standards are rather needed when the White Helmets’ search and rescue operations are only one symptom of a long story of domestic civilian resilience. It comes as no surprise to me that western countries and Turkey have capitalized on the primarily inner phenomenon of the White Helmets. Relying on a large number of civilians who take on different relief and care roles, the NGO cannot be compared in any ways[i] to Saudi Arabia first bombing and then succoring Yemeni refugees; or, again, to the US government providing generous funding for the reconstruction of Lebanon in 2006 after having supported the Israeli systematic aerial shelling. In the debates concerning the White Helmets, some flawed thinking has enabled political agendas to discredit both the agency and the victimhood of war-affected people.
The story of symbolic instrumentalization of human and political causes is way older than me and than the Syrian conflict, and it hurts. I remember the horrified eyes of western acquaintances in Cairo’s Tahrir Square back in 2012 at the view of the Saudi flag in a gazebo of Syrian revolutionaries. The moral denial of a possible social revolution as a result of such unaccepted symbolic connotation came in a similar form at that time.
This approach has given birth to the ‘fence-sitters’ category, which remained politically disgusted and staunch to the ‘this-is-not-going-to-be-my-cause-because-I-don’t-like-my-allies’ tenet.
But let me broach up what remains a thorny issue among the White Helmets supporters, and discuss the ‘Hollywoodization’ of von Einsiedel’s movie. Against the backdrop of the Asadist rhetoric of “terrorists invading the country”, and the often discussed lack of a political and – above all – moral leadership in the Syrian revolution, I find some degree of Hollywoodization not only kind of necessary, but even collectively liberating for some revolution supporters.
In my personal experience, the hurting question “Who are the heroes of this revolution?” frequently knocked on the door of many Syrian friends, acquaintances and colleagues. Many were the emerging figures in the street protests. Nowadays some cultural production is eventually attempting to stigmatize a moral leadership of the revolutionary process – such as the ‘Little Gandhi’ film on the figure of Ghiyath Matar.
In the contemporary era, which seems to be particularly doomed to historical denialism and revisionism — quick and fashionable explanatory tools — we sadly ended up needing public heroes in order to finally believe in wars and facts. Plot and fabrication theories have marked the Syrian events to such an extent of making me hope for a return to compassionalism, despite all of its well-known problematic sides.
Nonetheless, there’s a story that the White Helmets movie doesn’t tell: that of the complex inner structure of the Helmets, which is not only limited to search and rescue operations. There are many jobs other than medical relief that people came to do within the Helmets, using the skills that they used to have prior to the war. Cooks and drivers are less ‘spectacularizable’ roles, yet they also constitute the functioning core of the White Helmets organization.
In a Syria at war chronically pictured as civilian-less, contrarily, civilian resistance has long pre-existed the Helmets: local committees and councils, street protests against the government as well as against the self-declared Islamic State (IS). Similarly, protests in Idlib that have been claiming civilian resilience with no need for military interventions. They’re all stories which have been barely told.
The spectators’ tout court rejection of the diabolic psychology of war has sterilely remained the only predominant approach to understand violence. Do you remember the Syrian “rebel” who ate a piece of heart of a Syrian army’s soldier back in 2013? An image, again, which managed to highly discredit the civilian efforts for social and political change.
As others have already argued months ago, I’m afraid Max Blumenthal, by conveying the image of “Qaedist Helmets” celebrating victory on the corpses of Syrian soldiers, has been watching war for too long from his couch — like myself and surely the most of you — but without having any clue of what war may imply.
So what I advocate for is a post-Hollywoodization approach to look at the White Helmets. In this sense, the movie is a public invite to acknowledge nude factuality, which we tend to miss as spectators enraptured in the megaphonic magnificence of our intellectual considerations.
What I rather see in the White Helmets movie is simply people rescuing other people, in whom the rescuers, in turn, often see their dead beloved ones. This way, the nude act of rescuing comes as palingenetic; an atrociously unacknowledged moral claim that, moreover, will not even be able to compensate for their losses.
The writer’s opinions do not necessarily reflect SyriaUntold’s views.
[Main Photo: A White Helmet rescues a child from a war-stricken area in Syria (www.whitehelmets.org/Fair use. All rights reserved to the author)].
[i] Unlike Saudi Arabia in Yemen and the US-Israel alliance in Lebanon, the White Helmets are neither the oppressive force in the territory of intervention, nor they are funded by forces that directly oppress the addressed areas (which, instead, are Syrian and Russian). Indeed, the western-led shelling has mostly targeted IS-held territories. The misconception that the White Helmets’ presence in the war-affected areas is ambivalent has stemmed from the grounded belief that most of them advocate for a no-fly zone.