Clint Burnette, “Enemies Within: When Israel Declared War on the United States of America” (screenplay, published January 2019)
At last one of the most shameful episodes in recent US military history has become the subject of a screenplay. On 8 June 1967, the USS Liberty, a reconnaissance ship on patrol in international waters not far from the coast of Egypt (near El Arish), was bombed and then torpedoed by Israeli fighter jets and motor torpedo boats with the intent to sink the entire ship and its crew. The attack was sustained for at least an hour. Over 30 men were killed and 171 including the ship’s commander William L McGonagle were injured in the attack. Just as inexplicable as the attack by Israel – supposedly an ally of the US at the time – was the decision by the US government from the President, Lyndon B Johnson, down to smother and suppress the truth behind the attack and to concur with the Israeli government that the attack was a case of mistaken identity, even though the USS Liberty had been flying the US flag at the time and its markings identifying it as a US ship should have been obvious to the attackers. To this day, the attack on the USS Liberty by Israeli air and naval forces still remains a highly controversial topic.
Writer / script-writer Clint Burnette’s screenplay of the event, based on his interviews with USS Liberty survivors and other research, is a detailed and riveting dramatic narrative of what happened during the attack. The suspense starts building up towards the actual attack, with a fair few characters having misgivings about joining the ship’s crew on its fateful voyage in the eastern Mediterranean. The script alternates between scenes on the ship itself and scenes on a Soviet destroyer in the same area as the American ship, and in Israeli military headquarters where Israeli Defence Minister Moshe Dayan is ordering the attack; this jumping back and forth between the Americans, the Soviets and the Israelis heightens the tension. Readers will find themselves drawn into the thick of the action.
The description of the attack is very thorough in its details, which in themselves demonstrate the deliberate nature of the Israeli attack and the extent to which the US government was complicit in allowing the attack to continue even though other US warships not far away offered assistance to the stricken USS Liberty. However the most important aspect here is the courage and determination of the crew in rescuing their wounded, trying to keep them alive, and repairing whatever communications equipment they could to maintain open lines.
I did find the denouement not quite as strong as the events leading up to and including the attack: the action switches away from the USS Liberty crew to a Navy JAG lawyer, appointed to assist in investigating the incident, who is confronted by belligerent senior naval commanders who threaten to derail her career if she insists on following proper procedure and interview the survivors. The lawyer herself suffers personal and family crises in part as a result of her pursuit of justice. I am hoping that when the film is made, that this section can be fleshed out by a good cast of actors aided by consultants or historians who can verify the necessary details needed for accurate portrayals of courtroom testimonies.
What is most impressive about this screenplay is its portrayal of men whose character and loyalties are tested under the most incredible pressure in the most extreme circumstances, and how their loyalties to one another and their professionalism and patriotism are betrayed by their government whose interests in the Middle East usurp original American ideals. The film that is based on this screenplay, if done well and faithfully, will be a film about ordinary people demonstrating the most extraordinary qualities of bravery, sheer grit and compassion in surviving, rescuing others and living to see justice done.