C.S. Lewis wrote that a virtuous patriotism becomes “militant only to protect what it loves.” This theme animates 13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi, the story of heavily outnumbered CIA security contractors who in 2012 defended the USA facilities in Libya under attack by Islamist militants. Two of them were killed, along with the USA ambassador and one foreign service officer.
Libya then, as now, was anarchic and a metaphor for the brutal state of nature resulting from the absence of lawful government. The CIA contractors voluntarily and dutifully leave a more defensible CIA annex to rescue the lightly defended USA consulate besieged by swarms of al Qaeda aligned militia. Unable to save the ambassador or his colleague, whom the militants had tried to incinerate, the doughty security team retreats to its annex, which they defend against a night-long assault. Continuous pleas to Washington for military help elicit no substantive response. Instead, only a handful of additional security personnel, at their own initiative, fly in from Tripoli on a rented private jet.
The contractors perform courageously without respite against overwhelming numbers in fealty to their professional obligation, their mission, their patriotism, their esteem for colleagues and, in contact by Skype and phone with wives and children, to their families whose nation they defend. They illustrate Lewis’s classic “four loves” for family, friends, spouse and, although more indirectly portrayed, for God. One defender tells another he oddly doesn’t scare in combat because he assumes divine protection.
In dark contrast, the militia who assail the compound are nothing less than demonic and fueled by a perverted belief in deity that commands them to murder innocents and strangle their own country’s already receding opportunity for a just and lasting order. The ambassador they murder is a highminded humanitarian admirably if naively striving to bring democracy to Libya.
He and his attempted rescuers devotion to duty contrast with the mostly unseen USA authorities who fail to dispatch timely assistance across 13 hours. Fighter jets are shown sitting idle in the night, unsummoned. Why no response? The answer remains controversial of course. And the Benghazi disaster, as a symbol of weak USA statecraft, recalls another humiliating episode, from another era of American weakness 35 years ago, when half of eight USA helicopters dispatched to rescue American hostages in Iran failed mechanically or crashed into an American aircraft. Former President Nixon was said to have exclaimed at the time: “Eight helicopters?! Why not 800? It’s not like we don’t have them!
Yet the courage and devotion of the Benghazi defenders, as dramatized in 13 Hours, redeems the national humiliation. As C.S. Lewis also wrote: “Courage is not simply one of the virtues but the form of every virtue at the testing point.”