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Who's got the spice? Dune and the never-ending white savior story

Unfortunately, the American fantasy of consensual occupation helped sustain our very real post-9/11 wars for 20 years.

Analysis | Middle East

Warning: The following contains spoilers for the movie Dune (2021). Despite the critique, the author did enjoy the movie and would hate to spoil the plot for anyone.

The latest film adaptation of “Dune,” by director Denis Villeneuve, opened in theaters and on HBO Max on October 21. Reviews of the film have been mixed to positive, while the film’s announcement inspired a fresh round of commentary on the original novel’s appropriation of Arabic and Islamic terms and concepts, celebration of eugenics, and promotion of a white savior narrative. Defenders have pointed out that Frank Herbert intended to criticize the messiah complex, as the sequels to Dune make clearer; this article will focus on the author’s reaction to Villeneuve’s film rather than Herbert’s larger oeuvre.

As an American watching Dune in 2021, the film evoked the delusions of what the U.S. hoped to accomplish in the Middle East. In the wake of the withdrawal from Afghanistan after 20 years of a brutal and failed occupation, it highlighted the discrepancy between Paul Atreides’ experience on Arrakis and the American military’s regional misadventures, especially after 9/11.

Paul Atreides (Timothée Chalamet) moves with his parents to Arrakis, or Dune, after the intergalactic emperor gives control of the planet to his father, Duke Leto (Oscar Isaac). Already, the colonizer/invader fantasy is at work: House Atreides did not seek dominion of Arrakis, but agreed to it at the request of an external authority. 

The U.S. did not have such a convenient excuse for invading the Middle East, but at least had a worthy villain in Saddam Hussein after his troops crossed into Kuwait in 1990, as well as in the Taliban, for their willingness to host Al Qaeda. The invasion of Iraq in 2003 required the U.S. to concoct an adequate threat, but far too few Americans questioned the Bush administration’s claims about the urgent need to disable Saddam’s alleged weapons of mass destruction. 

Yet in addition to the supposed dangers that necessitated military action, the post-9/11 wars quickly adopted a (white) savior narrative: rescuing Afghan women from the Taliban’s misogyny, overthrowing the Iraqis’ merciless dictator, and in both countries, helping to establish democracy in a thoroughly autocratic region. Americans were told that our troops were not occupiers, but liberators. Unfortunately, as veterans of these wars can attest, the local inhabitants did not welcome foreign invaders, especially when the outsiders relied on coercion to establish control.

In reality, the American presence more closely resembled that of the vicious Harkonnen, who ruled Arrakis through violence. By contrast, the rule of House Atreides portrays a fantastical alternative, where the occupier rules with the consent of the occupied.

For example, Duke Leto Atreides sends his sword master Duncan Idaho (Jason Momoa) ahead of his family’s arrival on-world to live with the Fremen, to learn about them and try to establish an alliance with them. After spending a few weeks in a sietch (Dune’s term for Fremen communities), Duncan has already learned more about the Fremen’s ways and the size of their population than the Harkonnen ever bothered to find out. Thus emerges another trope of the “good” colonizer: all it takes is a quick study abroad, and the grateful natives will open up to you.

This is certainly made easier by the lack of a language barrier. Although the Fremen occasionally use their own language in the film, they communicate seamlessly in the language spoken by Paul, Duncan, and the rest of House Atreides, even when speaking with each other. In contrast, the U.S. military had scant numbers of Arabic speakers and even fewer Dari or Pashto speakers after 9/11, which meant that service members had few options other than force when interacting with Iraqi and Afghan civilians.

The part of the film that recalls the American dream of being welcomed as a savior by a people who actually have little choice in the matter of their own occupation comes when Paul arrives on Arrakis. He hears shouts from the Fremen who have gathered to welcome their new overlords. We learn that the Harkonnen compelled such displays of obeisance, but Paul’s mother Jessica (Rebecca Ferguson) hears the words, “Lisan al-Ghaib,” the name of the prophesied messiah. (In Arabic, the words translate to “Tongue of the Unseen,” or as some Dune wikis have it, “Teller of Things Yet to Come.”) Jessica tells Paul that the Bene Gesserit, the secretive matriarchal order that trained her in combat and mind control, have been at work among the Fremen, spreading word that Paul is that messiah. 

Stilgar (Javier Bardem), a Fremen leader who hosted Duncan Idaho and comes to speak with Duke Leto, tells Paul, “I recognize you.” And when Paul intuitively knows how to put on a stillsuit, a Fremen invention to allow for desert survival, Dr. Kynes (Sharon Duncan-Brewster), a Fremen ecologist and judge, mutters part of the prophecy: “And he will know your ways as if born to them.” Paul is skeptical of the reception: aware that the Bene Gesserit disseminated rumors, he resists exploiting Fremen religious beliefs (few actual colonizers display such compunction).

Later, however, he earns the Fremen’s acceptance. After the Emperor betrays Duke Leto by assisting House Harkonnen’s invasion and recapture of Dune, Paul and his mother manage to escape into the desert. Armed with stillsuits and Paul’s knowledge of how to avoid Arrakis’s giant, deadly sandworms, they seek the Fremen for assistance. Upon finding Stilgar and others, Paul is forced to fight one of the Fremen to allow his mother to stay with the group. The audience can see that Paul would prefer not to fight. However, he quickly demonstrates superior skills and eventually kills the Fremen man, whereupon the rest accept him as one of their own. 

This moment also contrasted sharply with the experience of American soldiers in the Middle East. In general, advanced firepower and armor prevented American troops from experiencing Paul’s hand-to-hand combat with an equally well-armed adversary. The killing of militants as well as civilians was generally undertaken in a manner that did not give the Iraqis or Afghans much chance of surviving, let alone winning. There is little honor in slaughtering an opponent from afar or with a vastly superior weapon. Yet the American way of war has become one of increasing remove, as drones operated thousands of miles away replace troops on the ground.

Despite the vision Dune evokes of a foreign invader whom the population welcomes, House Atreides’ purpose for coming to Arrakis remains selfish. Duke Leto knows that by controlling spice, the planet’s natural resource, House Atreides will grow fabulously wealthy and powerful.

The parallels between spice, found only on Arrakis, and oil, are plentiful: in the 1960s when Herbert wrote Dune, most of the world’s oil supply came from the Middle East. Transportation in each context is wholly dependent on spice/oil. By establishing relations with the Fremen, Duke Leto demonstrates a colonizer’s knowledge that he can more easily exploit the planet’s resources if he is on good terms with the population. 

Whereas the U.S. military seems to have believed that Americans’ allegedly good intentions would be sufficient to overcome our troops’ lack of language skills, cultural knowledge or over-reliance on violence during the U.S. occupations of Iraq and Afghanistan. That our desire to be seen as emancipators would outweigh our actions as would-be conquerors. Yet as the past twenty years have demonstrated, as did hundreds of years of colonization before that, the idea of consensual occupation is a myth.

Timothy Chalamet as Paul Atreides in "Dune" (You Tube/trailer)
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