The Battle of Algiers and Its Lessons
I hadn't looked at The Battle of Algiers, that classic 1965 film about urban guerrilla warfare, for at least twenty years, but once seen it tends to linger undiminished in the mind's eye. Made by Italian director Gillo Pontecorvo, the film deals with the bitter struggle in the 1950s between French colonials and settlers and the Algerians they had colonized. The film has the grainy look of a documentary, but as the opening trailer proudly proclaims, not a foot of newsreel was actually used. Back in the 1960s, when it first came out, it was watched with romantic fascination by young American radicals, eager to absorb the experiences, a million miles distant from their own lives, of Third World revolutionaries. In the 1980s my husband used to show it in a political science class he taught about revolution. And now the Pentagon has recently shown it to its functionaries, even as our own troops are deeply mired in urban guerrilla warfare. I wondered what tips and instruction they were intended to glean from it, and so I slipped our copy into the VCR and watched it again.
The film opens with a scene in which "Paras" (French paratroopers) brutally torture an old Arab man. The information they get from him will lead them to the hide-out of Ali la Pointe, the last remaining leader (so they hope) of the FLN, the movement they are determined to crush. As they close in on the hide-out, the film retraces how the Algerian revolutionary movement began, showing us some of the routine indignities visited on Arabs by French colonials: a bunch of young French punks trip Ali just for the fun of seeing him take a fall. . . . As the Arabs begin to demand an independent Algerian state and terrorist cells begin to leave bombs in places frequented by the French (the race-track, bars, the Air France office) the colonists (many of them called pieds-noirs because they were born in Algeria) become more and more enraged, attacking even small Arab children trying to sell candy on the street.
The Arab revolutionaries include women as well as men. Veiled women hover in the background holding innocent-looking shopping baskets that contain guns to be used in hit-and-run assassinations of policemen and soldiers. Women even discard their long gowns and veils in order to look "Western" and so pass French checkpoints unnoticed and unsearched. Perhaps all of this will indeed prove useful new information to the men who, in the coming years, are likely to command the American soldiers now attempting to police Iraqi cities.
In 1957, just as the issue of an independent Algeria is to be discussed at the U.N., the revolutionaries call for a general strike to dramatize the strength of their movement. The seven-day strike is so successful that French soldiers are reduced to bashing in the shutters and doors of Moslem shops in an effort to get their owners to open them.
All of this Pontecorvo's film portrays in unsparing detail. The head '"Para," called Philippe Mathieu but intended to be the actual General Jacques Massu, who commanded the elite 10th Para Division, offers a strong defense of his tactics, including torture: "The FLN wants to throw us out of Algeria. We want to stay. . . . We are soldiers. Our duty is to win." And, finally, "If your answer is 'yes' [that France should remain in Algeria], you must accept the consequences." The viewer is then treated to a montage of the consequences: ordinary people tortured with electric shock, nearly drowned, hung upside-down -- acts so crude and brutal that in the end they undermined the morale of the French military itself. Is this what the Pentagon wants to convey to its men and women in Iraq or to those who will lead them? That the end justifies the means? If so, they should recall that the use of torture in Algeria became one of the things that destroyed the French case for remaining there and it so disgusted the French public they ultimately acquiesced in giving up their colony.
The name of Jean-Paul Sartre occurs only once in Pontecorvo's film, but he played a major role in changing French public opinion. In his introduction to Algerian newspaper editor Henri Alleg's The Question, Alleg's account of his own torture at the hands of the Paras, Sartre points to the real issue at stake:
"This rebellion is not merely challenging the power of the settlers, but their very being. For most Europeans in Algeria, there are two complementary and inseparable truths: the colonists are backed by divine right, the natives are sub-human. This is a mythical interpretation of reality, since the riches of the one are built on the poverty of the other. In this way exploitation puts the exploiter at the mercy of his victim, and the dependence itself begets racialism. It is a bitter and tragic fact that, for the Europeans in Algeria, being a man means first and foremost superiority to the Moslems. But what if the Moslem finds in his turn that his manhood depends on equality with the settler? It is then that the European begins to feel his very existence diminished and cheapened."
If one changes the words 'settlers' and 'colonists' to 'American occupiers' and 'Algeria' to 'Iraq,' this is not a bad assessment of where the U.S. now finds itself -- or may soon find itself. Watching current TV news footage coming out of Iraq -- say, of American soldiers patting down Iraqi men at check-points (and putting hoods and plastic handcuffs on some of them) or ransacking private homes -- one cannot help but wince at the racial and religious hatreds being sown right before our eyes.
Pontecorvo ends his film with the renewal of the FLN uprising in 1960, after two years of relative calm. "Go home," the French cops yell at crowds of Moslems thronging the streets. "What is it that you want?" And the voices shout back as one: "We want our freedom."
Of course, Americans believe that freedom is precisely why we went into Iraq and why we should be loved instead of hated there -- because we are bringing it to the poor, benighted Iraqis. The French felt similarly put out because the Algerians were rejecting not merely them but also their culture, which they believed to be vastly superior to anything the Algerians might have to offer. I am reminded of a conversation I had many years ago with my conservative Dutch father, who was convinced that the Dutch had governed Indonesia, their former colony, much better than it was subsequently being run.
"Perhaps," I answered, "but even if they misgovern it, it's still their country." And that is surely the ultimate message of Pontecorvo's film, whether it's the one that the Pentagon's viewers drew from it or not. And, by extension, it's the Iraqis (regardless of their political affiliations) who are entitled (and increasingly determined) to run Iraq. If one credits Donald Rumsfeld's latest pronouncements, that's also what he wants for Iraq . . . except, of course, that he wants the U.S. to choose who can join the Iraqi army, head their government, and operate their oil fields.
Meanwhile, let us remember that watching old films and learning from them is a pastime open to anyone. Perhaps Bravo or another movie channel will soon schedule The Battle of Algiers. The new anti-war movement, soldiers in Iraq, their families back in the U.S., and Iraqis should all see this film and ponder its implications.
A final personal note: in the summer of 1962, my husband and I were returning from a year in Japan via Southeast Asia and Europe on a French Messageries Maritimes ship. As we passed through the Red Sea and the Suez Canal, there were increasing rumors that our ship would be diverted to Algiers to pick up French refugees from newly independent Algeria. As it happened, the ship unloaded its passengers at Marseilles before proceeding on its rescue mission. But as we walked about that city we saw angry pieds noirs and colonials and signs scrawled on walls saying, "Algerie Francaise." Earlier in the voyage we had made port in Saigon, where the American motto at that time was "Sink or swim with Ngo Dinh Diem." I wonder what the scenario will be when the Americans get tossed out of Iraq.
© 2003 Sheila K. Johnson