Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

August 13, 2005

Looking Back at The Battle of Algiers

Filed under: Uncategorized — louisproyect @ 5:54 pm

La bataille d' AlgerChallenged 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.

Back in those days the young audiences that often sat through several showings of Gillo Pontecorvo’s 1965 re-enactment of the urban struggle between French troops and Algerian nationalists, shared the director’s sympathies for the guerrillas of the F.L.N., Algeria’s National Liberation Front. Those viewers identified with and even cheered for Ali La Pointe, the streetwise operator who drew on his underworld connections to organize a network of terrorist cells and entrenched it within the Casbah, the city’s old Muslim section. In the same way they would hiss Colonel Mathieu, the character based on Jacques Massu, the actual commander of the French forces.

The Pentagon’s showing drew a more professionally detached audience of about 40 officers and civilian experts who were urged to consider and discuss the implicit issues at the core of the film — the problematic but alluring efficacy of brutal and repressive means in fighting clandestine terrorists in places like Algeria and Iraq. Or more specifically, the advantages and costs of resorting to torture and intimidation in seeking vital human intelligence about enemy plans.

Michael T. Kaufman, “What Does the Pentagon See in ‘Battle of Algiers’?” (The New York Times, September 7, 2003)

Larbi Ben M'HidiAt a press conference dramatized in The Battle of Algiers, the captive FLN leader Larbi Ben M’Hidi is asked what chance he has of defeating the French. He answers that it has a better chance than the French have of defeating history. M’Hidi’s reply was probably lost on the Pentagon audience since every imperial power in history seems utterly convinced of its own invulnerability. The film has an entirely different significance for the left. We watch it to become inspired, all the more so at a time when Americans are facing our own version of the battle of Algiers.

Although there are real differences between Algeria and France in 1958 and the United States and Iraq today, there are a number of crucial similarities. To begin with, the Algerians saw their struggle in religious terms just as many insurgents do today. The very first communiqué of the FLN — heard in voice-over in the film — calls for “The restoration of the sovereign, democratic and social Algerian state, within the framework of Islamic principles.” Then, as now, the outside power saw itself as rescuing people from feudal and theocratic backwardness. During the height of the battle, the FLN resorted to terror just as elements of the Iraqi insurgency are doing today. When M’Hidi was asked by a reporter at the press conference whether he thought it was “cowardly to use women’s baskets and handbags to carry explosive devices that kill so many innocent people,” he replied:

And doesn’t it seem to you even more cowardly to drop napalm bombs on defenseless villages, so that there are a thousand times more innocent victims? Of course, if we had your airplanes it would be a lot easier for us. Give us your bombers, and you can have our baskets.

Another important similarity is the resort to torture, justified by the colonizers as a necessary evil. Today, after the growth of human rights activism, it is more difficult to mount the same brazen and open defense that the French did. Instead, you have references to “excesses” at Abu Ghraib, always the subject of review but never abolished. Liberal Joseph Lelyveld wrote a lengthy New York Times Magazine article on June 12, 2005 that amounts to a casuistic justification of “soft torture.” Sleep deprivation is okay; electrodes are not. He writes:

Here I have to admit to what may seem a moral debility. As a journalist who had reported on torture and torture victims, and who therefore thought he knew something about the subject, I was surprised that I was finding it harder than most commentators and most people I knew to take a fixed view of coercive force in interrogation.

The Battle of Algiers is a documentary-like, day-by-day, and even hour-by-hour, chronicle of the siege of the Casbah in 1958, which ended in a bloody rout of the FLN. However, just as was the case with the Tet Offensive of 1968 or the assault on Falluja in 2004, this was a pyrrhic victory. The political costs to the French far outweighed the tactical gains. As France grew isolated internationally, it found itself forced to deal with the FLN on its own terms, just as surely the United States will in Iraq.

The confrontation between the French and the FLN involves real and composite characters played nearly entirely by nonprofessionals. Director Gillo Pontecorvo once explained his preference for nonprofessionals. Queimada!When he has a face in mind for a certain character, he will not rest until he finds the person who has just the right appearance. When he was meeting with studio executives during the initial stages of the filming of Burn, they proposed that Sidney Poitier play the leader of the slave revolt. Pontecorvo stood his ground and insisted that Evaristo Marquez, a Colombian cane cutter who had never seen a film before working on Burn, be cast in the role instead.

full: http://mrzine.monthlyreview.org/proyect120805.html

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