Fifty years ago this Halloween night the French colony of Algeria was rocked by thirty simultaneous explosions. The scattered attacks by insurgents that began just after midnight on November 1, 1954 against police stations and military outposts were the beginning of the French-Algerian war, one of the bloodiest struggles for national independence of the 20th century, a conflict that would cost upwards of half a million lives, bring down a French government, tear apart two nations, and leave horrific global images of what witnesses called the “Cycle of Satan”, as the dynamics of insurgency and counter-insurgency, terrorism and torture, reached a fever pitch. It would be a war in which the French military would win the battles and lose the war, leaving a legacy of extremism and violence that continues to haunt Algeria to this day.
In his recent book Against All Enemies, Richard Clarke, former counter-terrorism chief for the Clinton and Bush administrations, says that when White House colleagues asked him what to read in order to understand the post-September 11 challenges facing the U.S., he told them to see an old black-and-white film from the mid-1960’s, Gillo Pontecorvo’s classic The Battle of Algiers. The film gives viewers a chillingly realistic experience of the horrors of an anti-colonial civil war, showing how easily tactical military victories can alienate the hearts ands minds of the masses, leading to a strategic political defeat. Think Falluja. Clarke argues perceptively that by invading Iraq, an oil-rich Arab country posing no significant threat to the U.S., while at the same time neglecting to pursue an equitable resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the Bush administration stepped into a quagmire of its own making and gave a recruitment bonanza to al-Qaeda.
I first arrived in Algeria thirty-three years ago, taught English there for two years, and later returned to do research for my doctoral dissertation on Algerian responses to French imperialism. As I observed the political and economic problems of this Third World country in 1971, my initial reaction was to assume that Algeria had not yet been touched by the benefits of Westernization and modernization. Living in Algeria confronted me with the truth that Algeria’s problems were in large measure the result of an intense relationship with the West that began with the French conquest of Algiers in 1830. As the brilliant Alexis de Tocqueville put it after visiting Algeria soon after the conquest, “We did not bring to Africa our liberal institutions; instead we dispossessed it of the only ones which resembled them,” adding “As I listened sadly to all these things, I asked myself what could be the future of a country given over to men of this type, and where would this torrent of violence and injustice end, if not in the revolt of the indigenous people and the ruin of the Europeans.” Tocqueville’s somber prediction was uncannily accurate, but it would take 120 years for it to be fulfilled. Replace the word “pirates” with “terrorists”, and the French justifications for the 1830 invasion of Algeria are eerily similar to the Bush Administration’s justifications for the 2003 invasion of Iraq. “Who knows what changes we are destined to bring about in these famous, but desolate regions? . . Who knows if, in a few years, under the protection of our kings, arts and sciences and commerce will not flourish where today barbarity and ignorance rule? . . The happy news of the capture of Algiers has stimulated the liveliest desire in the hearts of all missionaries to go and water with their sweat this wasteland.”
How ironic that France has been vilified for trying to keep its American ally and friend from jumping into the quicksand of Iraq. Friends don’t let friends recklessly sink into quagmires, especially when they know from the painful experiences of Algeria and Indochina the astronomical costs of imperial adventures. And don’t be fooled. This is a quagmire. Even before the toppling of Saddam, it had all the hallmarks of quagmire. Each month since, as the casualties and chaos have increased and those around me have commented on the deterioration of the situation in Iraq, my response has been the same, “If you think this is bad, just wait.” My response is the same today.
On this eve of a historic election, probably the most important of your lifetime whatever your age, think about the nature of a quagmire (it doesn’t matter much whether the image is one of quicksand or an oily tar pit, although in this case a combination of the two might be most appropriate). If you don’t get out you die. But you cannot get out by your own efforts, for your own exertions simply imbed you deeper. However, there is a potential solution, for you have a brain, you have a conscience, and you have a voice, and in this case you have a world that is ready to give you a helping hand. Outside help is the only way out of a quagmire.
This is why a Kerry victory is crucial. His electoral victory will offer America, Iraq, and the world a fresh start, both literally and symbolically, opening up the possibilities of meaningful involvement by the United Nations, by Europe, by the Arab League, and by the Muslim world. President Bush’s combination of messianic delusions, unwillingness to admit mistakes, and dangerous insulation from reality makes the prospect of a Bush victory an especially frightening one this Halloween. With Kerry as president, the way out of Iraq will be long, slow, frustrating, and enormously costly at best. But there will be hope, hope that tens of thousands of American and Iraqi families will be saved from grieving for lost loved ones four years from now on the eve of an election where John Kerry will be held accountable for his decisions as president.
Don Holsinger is professor of Middle East history at Seattle Pacific University, and can be contacted at email@example.com.