Why Algeria Should Be on the Minds of the Pentagon Generals

News Abroad

Ms. Johnson is an anthropologist, an editor for the Japan Policy Research Institute, and the wife of Chalmers Johnson.

Challenged by terrorist tactics and guerrilla warfare in Iraq, the Pentagon recently held a screening of"The Battle of Algiers," the film that in the late 1960's was required viewing and something of a teaching tool for radicalized Americans and revolutionary wannabes opposing the Vietnam War.--NYT, September 7, 2003

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 Fran├žaise." 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.

This article first appeared on www.tomdispatch.com, a weblog of the Nation Institute, which offers a steady flow of alternate sources, news and opinion from Tom Engelhardt, a long time editor in publishing, the author of The End of Victory Culture, and a fellow of the Nation Institute.

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omar ibrahim baker - 10/19/2007

"The point was drummed into our heads that torture was not only morally abhorrent, but that it was also unreliable and conterproductive to the accomplishment of our mission."

Well then this means that either the Pentagon changed its mind or sent "headless" soldiers to Iraq!

" In other words, it is outdated, irrevelent and misleading. "
Irrelevent? To whom is it relevant then?
Is that the Brazilian or the Sweedish army in Guantanamo and Abu Ghraib?

Stephen Thomas - 9/15/2003

Yes, we do.

Nazism has been driven from public discourse out of plain disgust with any person who would be so morally bankrupt as to employ Nazi ideology.

The Nation is permanently discredited by its endorsement of Stalinism and should be completely ignored. Any writer (or in fact any person who works for the Nation) has first to explain what they are doing working for an organization that has disgraced itself.

And there is no good answer for that, is there?

Marxism is Nazism.

John Kipper - 9/15/2003

Mr Meo:

First of all, it is not my take on the Army attitude towards _The Battle of Algiers_, my post articulates my verifiable experience of official Army training programs as taught over thirty years ago. My purpose was to show that Ms. Johnson's article is irrelevent as it addresses a non-existent problem, a situation that could have been very easily avoided if she had done even a modicum of research before she wrote it.

Secondly, I could give a fig whether you are encouraged or not. I have presented evidence from personal experience that the Army has trained its soldiers for many years to eschew gratitous violence and torture. Further, the Uniform Code of Military Justice expressly prohibits either issuing an order or following one that abuses prisoners or civilians, punishable by severe penalties, including death. Thirdly, the Oath of Office taken by every officer and enlisted man in the military binds every soldier to follow the laws of the United States, which once again forbid torture. All of this should convince anyone not blinded by his own prejudices that, indeed, the prohibition on torture is "generally shared" by the military, in your own fatuous words.

As for the School of the Amereicas, I have never had the privilege to attend it, although I personally several foreign oficers who have. To a man, they agree that the doctrine they learned there points out the disadvantages, both practical and moral, of using torture. Of course, once they return to their own countries and are subject to domestic pressures, they may or may not heed their instructions. The United States cannot be responsible for these individuals' actions, and only an ideologue would posit that the US is.

And finally, Mr Meo, your last paragraph concerning the professionalism of American private combat soldiers. These young men are, indeed, superbly trained. But they are trained as combatants, not policemen or conflict resolution negotiators. In thier melieu there are only two types of people, the quick and the dead. They are operating in a foreign country, in a hostile environment under terrible weather conditions and in constant peril. Their adreneline is pumping through their bodies at an incredible pace, their throats are parched, they are hot and sweaty, their nerves are at the breaking point and they are alone, oh, so alone, on patrol. Sometimes they make a mistake. Sometimes their actions are justified for self-protection but are misinterpreted by persons with no qualifications judge their actions because, often, those people don't have the experience, knowledge, empathy, or inclination to interpret the situation accurately or even intelligently. This is exactly how I would characterize your comments. Your insinuations that American soldiers are willfully gunning down women and children are both misinformed and contemptible. Your disingenuous question certainly does not add any credibility you may wish to project.

Michael Meo - 9/14/2003

Your take on the Army attitude toward The Battle of Algiers would be quite encouraging, Mr Kipper, if I could consider it generally shared.

Isn't the Army running the School for the Americas? Graduates of that institution seem to practice a good bit of torture.

And, while this is perhaps beyond the topic, could you tell non-veterans like myself why the U.S. Army acts in such--it seems a reasonable description--nonprofessional ways in occupying Iraq, shooting kids who toss a sneaker and pumping mothers with kids full of holes at checkpoints?

John Kipper - 9/12/2003

This article is more than a leap. The author assumes, or at least implies, that the Pentagon is either ignorant of or disagrees with the message of _The Battle of Algiers._ In fact, it is neither, or at least it wasn't when it was required viewing as part of my training in PsyOps in the middle '70's. This training was to prepare me to become an effective, if very junior member, of Brigade Operations. I believe that it was also required for intelligence staff officers and I know that it was on the recommended list for Advanced Officer training in the Army. The point was drummed into our heads that torture was not only morally abhorrent, but that it was also unreliable and conterproductive to the accomplishment of our mission
In my opinion, this article urges actions that have been in place for over thirty years. In other words, it is outdated, irrevelent and misleading.

Gus Moner - 9/12/2003

This article's main thesis is based on the assumption the author has a way of discerning that the Pentagon is thinking along her lines. It's a leap.

Gus Moner - 9/12/2003

And with that, Mr Thomas, we disqualify the person and therefore we think not of the argument. Is that Stalinist?

Stephen Thomas - 9/11/2003

Yes, it was and is.

Why should anything that emerges from this pseudo-Stalinist organization be taken seriously?

The author of this article might do better to write about how she justifies working for an organization that continues to advocate that criminal ideology -- Marxism.

Yet another loony who missed the moral message of the 20th century. This board if full of such goofs. Often hard to take seriously people who are this myopic and confused. Sheila, you work for the Nation. Explain that. Still pining for Chairman Mao and Uncle Joe.

Michael Meo - 9/9/2003

You wonder, Ms Johnson, what the hired killers of the Pentagon will take away from a war movie.

I am afraid it will simply be a validation of torture and killing, rather than a questioning of it.

Our movies, our video games, our news media, are drenched in violence. Our schools and our talk forums do not encourage thought.