Iron Man, the Syrian Refugee Crisis, and Noam Chomsky
By Matthew William Brake
I have the coolest girlfriend in the world. I set a goal that we would watch all of the movies in the Marvel Cinematic Universe all the way through, and she agreed!
So we were watching Iron Man the other night (which she enjoyed! Yay!) and we got to the part where Tony Stark is watching a news report about a refugee crisis developing in the small town of Gulmira, courtesy of the organization known as the Ten Rings. As Iron Man, Tony flies to Gulmira to put their reign of terror to an end.
Right before he arrives, we are treated to images of Ten Rings members killing various villagers. The Ten Rings are also gathering women and children into a truck (presumably to use them for various sorts of slave labor and human trafficking). The camera focuses on one particular family moving towards the truck, including a man who is shielding his wife and son and hoping not to be noticed.
Unfortunately for him, the Ten Rings members see him. They pull him aside and their squad leader starts kicking him in the stomach. He is pulled up to his knees and the leader orders one of his men to shoot the man. The gunner screams at the man, “Look away!” but the man refuses.
My girlfriend turned toward me at this point and said, “This might be a little too real.” We both were a bit triggered.
My girlfriend and I are highly sensitized to the plight of refugees because friends of ours have been trying to find ways to help with the refugee crisis stemming from ISIS’s reign of terror and the civil war in Syria with the Assad regime. These friends have taken multiple trips to the refugee camps in Greece to meet with people on the ground and network with organizations on the ground to see how we can help. We have heard many heartbreaking stories and learned about various needs people have that one can only learn about by going there and meeting people face to face in a place that lacks the resources for the individual care that each person needs. One such situation is that of Manni, which you can read about here.
Back to Tony…
Gulmira was brought to his attention when a reporter, Christine Everhart, showed him pictures indicating that the Ten Rings organization had acquired the powerful Jericho missile. Incidentally, it was the Ten Rings who, years before, kidnapped Tony and tried to force him to build the missile, which led to the creation of the Iron Man armor instead.
Confronted by the evidence from Everhart, Tony confronts his partner, Obadiah Stane, asking him if Stark Industries is “double-dealing under the table” with the U.S. military and the Ten Rings. Stane responds by telling Tony, “You can’t afford to be this naïve,” before informing Tony that Stane filed an injunction with the company board to lock him out.
In terms of the refugee crisis in Syria (and the Middle East more broadly), U.S. complicity may not be at the same level as Obadiah Stane’s “double-dealing,” but there is an underside to the conflict that reaches beyond the explanation that “ISIS is bad.” As Noam Chomsky states, “The U.S. invasion of Iraq was a major reason in the development, a primary reason in the incitement of sectarian conflicts, which have now exploded into these monstrosities” (May 17, 2016). One could also point out the role of the U.S. in destabilizing Libya “where the U.S. and NATO had a mandate to stop a potential massacre in Benghazi, but then went much further than a no-fly zone and helped topple Gaddafi. And now, four years later, we have ISIS in Libya” (March 03, 2015). All of this, in spite of the fact that Gaddafi had accepted “a call for ceasefire and negotiations,” but “the three traditional imperial powers—Britain, France and the United States—immediately violated the resolution. No diplomacy, no ceasefire. They immediately became the air force of the rebel forces” (March 03, 2015). The result has not only been an open door for ISIS, but the birth of multiple militias and a reign of terror. Chomsky wryly comments, “That’s what happens when you strike vulnerable systems, as I said, with a sledgehammer” (March 03, 2015).
To be clear, I am not saying that the U.S. intentionally created ISIS, but like Chomsky describes the situation, “We established the background from which ISIS developed as a terrible offshoot. And we can’t overlook that” (March 03, 2015).
What is Chomsky’s solution, specifically to the conflict in Syria? It’s actually quite akin to Tony Stark’s solution: “Get the weapons out.” He says:
It’s necessary to cut off the flow of arms, as much as possible, to everyone. That means to the vicious and brutal Assad regime, primarily Russia and Iran, to the monstrous ISIS, which has been getting support tacitly through Turkey, through—to the al-Nusra Front, which is hardly different, has just the—the al-Qaeda affiliate, technically broke from it, but actually the al-Qaeda affiliate, which is now planning its own—some sort of emirate, getting arms from our allies, Qatar and Saudi Arabia. Our own—the CIA is arming them. We don’t know at what level; it’s clandestine. As much as possible, cut back the flow of arms, the level of violence, try to save people from destruction (May 17, 2016).
Maybe, per Obadiah Stane, hoping a peaceful solution from the brokering powers ceasing to provide arms to the major players in the conflict is naïve. Maybe it’s not how the world “really works.”
Answering Two Objections
Some may argue that Tony’s motives for retrieving and destroying his weapons were selfish. Captain America initially believes this, as evidenced by the following dialogue from the Avengers movie:
Captain America: Yeah. Big man in a suit of armor. Take that off what are you.
Tony Stark: Genius. Billionaire. Playboy. Philanthropist.
Captain America: I know guys with none of that worth ten of you. And I’ve seen the footage. The only thing you really fight for is yourself. You’re not the guy to make the sacrifice play. To lay down on the wire and let the other guy crawl over you.
Tony Stark: I think I would just cut the wire.
Captain America: Always a way out. You know you may not be a threat but you better stop pretending to be a hero.
While I tend to fall on the side of Team Cap, in this case, Cap was wrong because at the end of the movie, it was Tony who made the sacrifice play carried the nuke through the wormhole above New York.
But was Tony merely fighting for himself in Iron Man? Or was he merely fighting to assuage his own guilty conscience? Chomsky offers helpful insight here. He writes concerning his protest of U.S. foreign policy that “even if the U.S. was responsible for 2 percent of the violence in the world instead of the majority of it, it would be that 2 percent I would be primarily responsible for” (Chomsky, 51). For Chomsky, this is “a simple ethical judgment” because “it is very easy to denounce the atrocities of someone else” (51). To engage in such an ethical critique would have “about as much ethical value as denouncing atrocities that took place in the 18th century” (51). Rather, the most “useful and significant political actions…. are overwhelmingly the actions which you have some way of influencing and controlling, which means for me, American actions” (51). Likewise, Tony’s actions to secure his company’s weapons from the Ten Rings can still be considered heroic since he acted over those things that were under his influence.
A second objection concerns Tony’s intervention against the Ten Rings, which brought him into conflict with the U.S. military. Was it ok for Tony to go outside of official government sanction to act on behalf of the people of Gulmira to destroy the Jericho missiles?
Chomsky disputes the idea that necessary and ethical social changes happen through the official channels of state governance; rather, they originate from social movements outside of those channels and are only later affirmed by the state. But even then, the state’s affirmation is no guarantee that it will not later attempt to chip away hard-won rights. Thus, our real heroes often arise from outside of the system of official state governance and corporate systems.
And we need heroes to stand up and confront the Realpolitik and war mongering by which the world operates. For our world. For Syria. For Manni.
“Noam Chomsky on Syria Conflict: Cut Off the Flow of Arms & Stop Bombing to Stem the Atrocities,” Democracy Now, https://www.democracynow.org/2016/5/17/noam_chomsky_on_syria_conflict_cut, May 17, 2016.
“Noam Chomsky: To Deal with ISIS, U.S. Should Own Up to Chaos of Iraq War & Other Radicalizing Acts,” Democracy Now, https://www.democracynow.org/2015/3/3/noam_chomsky_to_deal_with_isis, March 03, 2015.
Noam Chomsky, On Power and Ideology: The Managua Lectures. Cambridge: MA. South End Press. 1987.
Noam Chomsky, “Final Remarks, Istanbul Conference on Freedom of Speech,” https://chomsky.info/20101010/.
Matthew William Brake is a dual masters student in Interdisciplinary Studies and Philosophy at George Mason University. He also has a Master of Divinity from Regent University and is a teaching pastor at Hill City Church in Arlington, VA. He has published numerous articles in the series Kierkegaard Research: Sources, Reception, Resources. He is a contributor for Noetic (www.noetic-series.com). He has chapters in Deadpool and Philosophy and the upcoming Wonder Woman and Philosophy. You can follow him on Twitter @mattybrake.