The flight of a British army ambulance, carrying medical personnel, in the face of the German advance on Tobruk, (20 degrees North, 0 degrees East) in World War 2, is wonderfully told in the film Ice Cold in Alex. It was shot on location in Libya in 1958. The flight is eastwards into Egypt. This week, members of the Gaddafi family reportedly took flight westwards into Algeria, as part of the end-game in the welcome fall of the Gaddafi regime.
Ice Cold in Alex illustrates the long involvement of foreign military powers in the deserts of northern Africa. The latest intervention, this time by NATO forces on a mission to save civilian lives using air cover and, openly exceeding their brief with troops on the ground, escalated the local uprising to all out war.
It is a short step from a liberal life-saving intervention to a surge for regime change and an asset grab.
Which is how the carve up is emerging as the fledgling National Transition Council administration seeks to get a grip on the ending of conflict, the legacy of Gaddafi's mis-rule and the very basics of water supply, sanitation, food distribution, healthcare, transport and productive economic activity.
These tasks require the sort of team work championed in Ice Cold in Alex when the crew of the ambulance push it up a vertiginous sand dune. They all push together, but it is the South African/German character, the enemy, who performs the heroics that save them.
Of course Western interventions are always heroic, including the current NATO one. But who evaluates such endeavours? Who performs the cost-benefit analysis, factoring in the human and longer-term costs? If the brief was to protect lives and if evidence is now mounting of revenge killings by both rebel and Gaddafi loyalist troops, can the NATO mission be said to have succeeded? The claim is made that more lives would have been lost. The assertion follows that NATO and the Western powers are simply trying to help as the locals get on with killing each other.
'Helping' is how the carve up will be characterised in coming months. What Arundhati Roy calls replacing 'the old despots with a more streamlined, less obvious form of despotism.' The new administration in Libya will not be keen to do business with China, Russia, Brazil and other allies of Gaddafi. They will favour France and Britain, who are currently trumpeting their roles in the war, in blatantly self-serving analyses of their efforts.
The Libyan people deserve a cooling draught, alcoholic or otherwise, as in the tremendous last scene in Ice Cold in Alex. The ambulance crew, enemies and allies, line along the bar. The barman pours frothy glasses of cold lager. Captain Anson fingers the condensation on the glass, then gulps the lager down in a single swig, uttering the telling line: 'Worth waiting for.'
Many challenges face the people of Libya and foreign business interests will exploit them as they do in Iraq. Rather than sectarian and civil turmoil, can Libyans hope that solidarity will infuse their future, valuing the contribution of the enemy close at hand as they push the ambulance of state, bearing the Libyan dead and wounded, through the treacherous sands of foreign 'benevolence'?
Ice Cold in Alex; Associated British Picture Corporation; 1958
Arundhati Roy; interview; New Internationalist; September 2011