Monday, February 05, 2007

"They made a movie about Iraq."

Forty years early.

There are 80,000 Arabs in the Kasbah. Are they all against us? We know they're not. In reality, it's only a small minority that dominates with terror and violence. This minority is our adversary and we must isolate and destroy it.
Watched "The Battle of Algiers" last night on TCM. Very interesting take on the French colony in Algeria. How accurate it was or wasn't is not for me to say. I can only say what I gleaned from the movie.

First, the French occupied Algeria for 130 years or so. I know, from reading a bit of Camus, that it was a complex issue, this occupation and colonization of another place, a place and people who, ultimately, did not want to be French. (The French establish a system of government where all regions under the control of Paris are essentially French. It's a very unitary system, as opposed to, say, an American one, where we establish "democracy" which we expect to be both independent, and just like us, simultaneously. Not saying it's right or wrong, but I do know enough about French political culture to know they don't so much establish colonies, as extend France. But I digress.)

The film focusses on individuals, but unlike a Hollywood production where a compelling personal story would be overlaid on historical events to give the audience an emotional hook, this film focusses on several people, all of them engaged in violence (not passionate romance against the backdrop of a world gone mad!), and all of them quite capable of justifying their violence. The narrative is really quite simple.

The film opens with a voice over of a message to the Algerians from the National Liberation Front, the FLN (au Francais)*, declaring the need for liberation. At first, the mechanism of this liberation is to kill French gendarmes. This finally forces the police to shut down the city and set up check points in and out of the Muslim quarter of Algiers. Lots of sandbags and curlicues of barbed wire force pedestrians past the guards, who inspect all who pass. Shades of Baghdad, or perhaps occupied Palestine.

This only leads to an increase in violence against men in uniforms. Finally, one such street murder leads to outrage in the French quarter of Algiers, and an innocent Algerian street peddler is accused by the crowd of the murder. He is chased, captured, and taken to jail. Interestingly, the French police and military (who come in later) are portrayed sympathetically. They always offer "a fair trial" and at least the pretence of justice. But the street peddler soon disappears (I must admit a poor memory here, so forgive me if I bobble a plot point or two) from the story, because a group of Frenchman who know the man's address(I think they are lead by the police chief whom we've been sympathetic with, because he uses his credentials to pass a checkpoint after curfew) travel to his house (an apartnment, essentially) and light the fuse on a rather large package. A bomb, of course, which kills not only his family, but destroys much of the building the apartments are in.

This act of cowardice sparks a clamor for revenge, which the FLN orchestrates and promises to provide. And so they do, disguising three Algerian women as Europeans, who easily pass the checkpoints carrying time bombs to three very public locations. Here, again, there is no flinching. The locations are not remotely military. They are a bar, a "milk bar" (think malt shop), and the French airline terminal. Young people, even small children, are shown in these locations, and they are the sure victims of the explosions.

The response is predictable: more violence from the French government, this time through the military. A Lieutenant Colonel is given full civil and military authority in Algiers, and he uses it ruthlessly, though in such a civilized manner you don't even notice the knife in his hand. He instructs his men that Algiers is a "battlefield" (and yes, that term should have resonance today) and that extraordinary means must be used to gather intelligence about the plans of the enemy. Without ever using the word torture (as he notes later in a press conference, that word never appears in his orders), he clearly orders his men to torture suspects in order to gain information.

Long story short, the violence continues, on both sides, but the French have an advantage: the cut off the head of the FLN, finally capturing all the leadership, which effectively ends the struggle. Or should, except 5 years after the FLN is effectively extinguished, France was forced to give Algeria its independence. But the precise reasons for that are beyond the scope of the film, except that the Algerian desire for freedom doesn't die with the last FLN leader.

Perhaps the most interesting part of the film is a press conference with one captured FLN leader. When asked if bombs in public places aren't cowardly, he counters that it is no worse than dropping napalm from airplanes, and says: "Give me your planes, and I will give you my bombs." Another FLN leader says, earlier, that it is hard to start a revolution, hard to sustain it, and even harder to win it. But after that, he says, the real hard work of governance begins. The FLN, in other words, and the French, are portrayed even-handedly. Both use violence without remorse or apology (the women who plant the first bombs show no misgivings as they scan the room and see young children, or teenagers, who are soon to die), and both have their reasons for what they are doing. Both escalate the violence, each with a justification based on their reaction to the reaction of their opposition. When the French destroy the FLN, it is with a bomb that, again, levels a building, and as the French military officers walk away satisfied with their "mission accomplished," they ignore the looks of horror on the faces of every Algerian crowding the neighborhood. The ending of the film, with the return of an independence movement, is perhaps only a surprise to the French characters in the film.

If anything, perhaps, it was too neat a picture; or perhaps not. The French were quite concerned with being civilized and doing justice. The Lt. Colonel makes the arrests of all the leaders of the FLN, assuring them they will get a fair trial. He is determined and relentless, but while he is also ruthless, that is more the result of his mission than of his personal desires or interests. The FLN leaders are equally ruthless, but they have their mission, too.

So it was about Iraq, but not about Iraq. The French were the government there. The rebels threatened to destroy that government, and used violence to do so. We used violence to destroy the government of Iraq, and foolishly imagined new governance would spring up like plants in the springtime. In many ways, "The Battle of Algeria" is an object lesson in how one cannot contain an insurgency forever in a colony. In many ways, it is also a lesson in how completely stupid, futile, unnecessary, and just damned evil, the invasion of Iraq was. The French controlled Algeria for 130 years. We hever controlled Iraq for 10 minutes. The French established a government, which the Algerians eventually rejected. We destroyed the one government Iraq had, and thought we could contract out for a quick replacement. The French lived in Algeria, had connections to the Algerians that made it seem quite plausible the military would have enough intelligence to snap off the head of the FLN in a few years. We still don't seem to know who our enemy in Iraq is: Al Qaeda? Iran? Jordan? Syria? "Insurgents"? Former Baathists? We've had so many public explanations of what would finally end this war that we've stopped even paying attention to them, or calling anyone to account for them.

What struck me, finally, about Algeria, was that the French government had a duty (at least!) to its colony. America had one duty to the Iraqis: know damned well what we were doing before we moved in and kicked over their anthill, no matter how brutal and repressive Saddam Hussein was. It is telling, now, that not even George Bush tries to argue Iraq is better off than it was under Saddam Hussein. Dick Cheney said it, but he's been universally regarded as marginally insane for voicing that opinion. The French understood their posture in Algeria, and aparently decided, a mere 5 years after crushing the FLN, that staying was no longer an option (perhaps the violence never really abated in the countryside, but the film indicates the real impetus for independence was centered in Algiers, where the violence went on hiatus for 2 years, and then demonstrations began again, which lead to independence 3 years later). The French had 130 years in Algeria, and finally knew it was time to go.

When does America learn that lesson about Iraq? More to the point: when does our political leadership learn it?

*for the pedants in the crowd, yes, it actually opens with the capture of a rebel, and then goes into flashback. But it's easier to explain the story this way. Pipe down.

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