A note from Radarsite: Earlier today I had a chance to once again see Gillo Pontecorvo’s magnificent The Battle of Algiers, 1966. For those of you who have yet to see this cinematic masterpiece, I highly recommend it. Although Pontecorvo was admittedly a (somewhat disillusioned) Communist, you will most likely never see a more even-handed treatment of this thorny subject. The examination of those relentless forces set into motion by rational human beings is pitiless and uncompromising. For anyone who wants to better grasp the conflicts of the Arab world, and its clashes with the West this great film is a must-see. Until this very day, The Battle of Algiers is used as an essential tool in attempting to understand the nature of insurgencies — especially Arab/Muslim insurgencies. Unfortunately, as you will see, quite often the wrong lessons are drawn from this historically accurate film, lessons that all too conveniently validate the liberal’s worldview. It is the intent of this article to help extricate the truth of the meaning of this major motion picture and separate it from the erroneous propagandist role it has had forced upon it. – rg
“One of the most influential political films in history.” Commissioned by the Algerian Government, Gillo Pontecorvo’s The Battle of Algiers, 1966, (La bataille d’Alger) shows the Algerian Civil War from both sides. Pontecorvo’s exceptional film vividly re-creates a key year in the tumultuous Algerian struggle for independence from the occupying French in the 1950s. As violence escalates on both sides, children shoot soldiers at point-blank range, women plant bombs in cafés, and French soldiers resort to torture to break the will of the insurgents. Shot in the streets of Algiers in documentary style, the film is a case study in modern warfare, with its terrorist attacks and the brutal techniques used to combat them.
In the film, the FLN starts off its campaign of national liberation by attempting to purge the Algerian people of what the political organization sees as decadent Western influences. One of the FLN’s communiqués reads: “People of Algeria, the colonial administration is responsible not only for the misery and enslavement of our people, but also for the brutalization, corruption and degrading vices of many of our brothers and sisters, who have forgotten their dignity….Starting today, the FLN has assumed responsibility for the physical and moral health of the Algerian people and has therefore decided to forbid the use and sale of all types of drugs and alcoholic beverages, as well as prostitution and pimping. All offenders will be punished and habitual offenders will be executed.”
One can only wonder [the author ponders] if the permissiveness and hedonism that is such a prominent aspect of Western democracy will be any more welcome in the Arab world of today than it as in the 1950s. [Ah, yes. Once again, it was the West that caused the Islamic jihad]
Then begin the murders of French policemen, who are usually shot in the back. The incidents multiply, and the prefect of police decides to take extra-legal measures that involve the bombing and complete destruction of an inhabited building associated with the FLN in the Arab quarter. Thereafter, the FLN starts it own bombing campaign. In the film’s most famous sequence, three Arab women made up and dressed as Frenchwomen manage to sneak bombs into the European quarter, which has been cut off from the Kasbah by checkpoints. Their targets are a bar, a milk bar, and the Air France office.
In one scene, the youthful, carefree French – teenagers and children among them – socialize, drink, and gyrate to the Latin tune “Hasta Manana” in the bar, while one of the women hides her bomb and leaves. What happens next in all three places is as horrific as it is familiar. [re: 9/11]
As the situation deteriorates, the French send in reinforcements, which arrive marching to the applause of the French residents. The narrator informs us that “the Inspector General of the Administration has taken drastic steps to ensure law and order and to protect people and property. In particular, to bring the 10th Para Division into Algiers…. The Commander will take over responsibility for law and order in Algiers using all civil and military measures necessary.”
Commander Lt. Colonel Philippe Mathieu tells his men: “The problem, as usual, is: first, the enemy; second, how to destroy him. There are 400,000 Arabs in Algiers. All against us? Of course not. There’s only a minority that rules by terror and violence.
This is the enemy to isolate and destroy…. It’s an unknown, unrecognizable enemy. It blends with the others. It is everywhere: in the cafes, in the alleyways of the Kasbah or in the streets of the European quarter, in the shops, in the shops, in the workplace.”
In a following scene, Pontecorvo deals with the issue of the killing of innocents by an army vs. such killing by an irregular force. During a press conference, a reporter asks a captured official of the FLN: “Isn’t it a dirty thing to use women’s baskets to carry bombs to kill innocent people?” To which the official answers, “And you? Doesn’t it seem even dirtier to you to drop napalm bombs on defenseless villages with thousands of innocent victims? It would be a lot easier for us if we had planes. Give us your bombers, and we’ll give you our baskets.”
In a second press conference, another reporter questions Colonel Matthieu about the use of torture against FLN members. The colonel responds: “I’ll ask you a question myself: Should France stay in Algeria? If the answer is still yes, you’ll have to accept all the necessary consequences.”
The “Necessary Consequences”
In 1954, the National Liberation Front of Algiers shot many French policemen beginning a movement for the independence of their country; in return, the Chief of Police plants a bomb in the Arab quarter, killing many dwellers. The NLF sends three women with bombs to two bars and the Air France office in the European quarter, killing many people. The French government sends the military forces under the command of the abusive Colonel Mathieu that does not respect the human rights and uses torture to destroy the NLF command. In 1962, the Algerians finally achieve their aimed independence.
The demonstration scene at the end of the film, with its Algerian-flag waving, ululating protestors, is where Pontecorvo indulges and celebrates his communist convictions – the victory of the people over their imperialistic oppressors – not foreseeing where liberation and independence would lead: in 1991, the FLN government of Algeria cancelled the results of a free election in which the decidedly un-communist FSI(Islamic Salvation Front) was poised to win a majority and banned the party. In response, a splinter group of the FSI, the Armed Islamic Group (GIA), set out to purify Algeria of all apostate and infidel elements. It is estimated that 100,000 Algerians have lost their lives as a result of the GIA’s zeal.
Battle of Algiers is gripping with its scenes that seem to have been shot today in Palestine and that possibly will soon be shot in Iraq. Though Pontecorvo was a communist who sympathized with the FLN, it is quite easy to watch and appreciate the film even if one identifies with France’s mission civilisatrice and believes in the superiority of Western over Eastern values. But even though a Western viewer might root for the French, he is still faced with the intractability of that discord between two cultures that Rudyard Kipling summed up so memorably.
The question that the film poses to us present-day Americans is the same, mutatis mutandis, that Lt. Colonel Matthieu poses to the journalists: Should France stay in Algeria? Should the United States stay in Iraq? If the answer is yes, I’m afraid that, like the French, we’ll have to accept all the necessary consequences.
Right History, Wrong Lessons
For Sheila K. Johnston of Common Dreams the lessons of “The Battle of Algiers” were crystal clear: “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.”
Emerging From the Muddy Waters
Sorry Sheila, but your dire predictions for Iraq have been discredited by recent history. A dangerous, ruthless dictator is gone. The Surge worked. And the Iraqis have had their first democratic elections, almost without incident. This is but one example of how easy it is to deduce the wrong lessons from the right history. One of the most egregious and yet eminently successful of the enemy’s propaganda ploys has been the widespread acceptance of that popular maxim that we, the West in general and America in particular, have by our ruthless expressions of imperialistic greed brought this tsunami of righteous Muslim wrath down upon ourselves. In support of this argument, the pacifist left relies on the bloody history of these twentieth century battles for independence of nationalist insurrectionists against their colonial occupiers. Whether, as we have seen above, in Algeria or in the Congo, in nineteenth century Sudan or twenty-first century Iraq, the battles are presented as essentially the same: The violent but morally justifiable manifestations of the inarticulate but noble yearnings of a downtrodden people.
Beginning with Britain’s post-colonial period of soul-searching, and it’s subsequent liberal revisions of history, and culminating in the worldwide anti-war Vietnam protest movements of the Sixties, these upheavals were seen to be the natural and just reactions to political oppression, and were — with the now-acknowledged help and direction of the Communist Party — championed by the left as righteous global exercises in civil rights.
It is not the intent of this essay to attempt to support the moral precepts of Imperialism, neither British nor French, nor to applaud the practical results of these ambitious colonial projects — even though we have all lived through the self-evident excesses of the bloody chaos of post-colonial self-rule in both Africa and the Middle East. Nor is this an attempt to weigh the possible benefits of colonial rule against its obvious drawbacks. Rather, the point of this essay is to attempt to disentangle our present-day GWOT from that universal tale of the Evils of Empire and put it back into its proper context. That is, a context in which the actions, or inactions, of the West have little or no bearing whatsoever on the traditional anti-Western Wrath of Islam. Beginning with the machinations of Sayid Qutb and the early Muslim Brotherhood, and culminating in the teachings of Ayman al-Zawahiri and Osama bin Laden’s al-Qaeda, the Islamists have, it seems, successfully managed to cleverly conflate the two — anti-colonialist nationalism with historical Islamic jihad. The Islamic Revolution began with the mission of Mohammed, and continues unabated till this very day. Although at times perhaps temporarily subsumed by great historical events, such as World Wars One and Two, this great Islamic jihad has never lost its sense of purpose, its avowed mission to conquer and subjugate the infidel Judeo/Christian West. There will always be a raison d’etre, there will always be some perceived affront to the Islamic World. Islam, it must be remembered, is an ongoing revolution, and ongoing revolutions require ongoing enemies. And the Koran is replete with them.
As we have seen in an earlier Radarsite article, Mahdi, Mahdi, who’s got the Mahdi? in the great jihad in mid-nineteenth century Sudan, the raison d’etre, the Muslims most vociferous complaint, against the West was that British General “Chinese” Gordon had disrupted and ruined their lucrative slave trade in Sudanese blacks. And what, one might legitimately ask, was the Muslim grievance that caused those (seemingly never-ending) eighteenth century acts of piracy on the Barbary Coast? Were they in any way similar to the Muslim complaint that precipitated that infamous and deadly attack on the Munich Olympics?
By conflating the Islamic jihad with the battles against the colonial empires, by conflating the Battle of Algiers to the War in Iraq, the Islamists and their leftist supporters have hoped to give their relentless bloodthirsty attacks against the West some aura of moral legitimacy. And to the undying shame and discredit of our weak-kneed Western Civilization they have largely succeeded in their efforts. To the leftists, the Arab/Muslim cause has always been seen as a legitimate battle for human rights and freedom against colonialist-style oppressors and of course the ruthless Zionists. And even to many of our fellow conservatives, the enemy propagandists have succeeded in muddying the waters of our resolve. They have forced us to question our motives and the righteousness of our cause. And, God help us, we have helped them.
So what then are the great lessons of “The Battle of Algiers”? That despite its loftiest intentions colonial powers will sooner or later inevitably — and often justifiably — be perceived by the indigenous population as oppressors. That sooner or later some nationalist revolutionary movement will take hold. And that sooner or later the occupying powers may lose support on their own home front and have to reevaluate their positions and cut their losses. These are perhaps quite legitimate lessons to take away from this epic tale of woe.
However, to attempt to equate these nationalistic movements with the fundamental truths of Islam is to make a grave error in judgement. Nationalistic movements may come and go but the force of Islam is constant and irreversible. It has nothing to do with the way we behave ourselves internationally. It has everything to do with what we are and what we represent. We represent the political embodiment of liberty and freedom. And we are infidels. Nothing we can ever do will alter this fundamental affront to the nature of Islam. Unless and until we grasp the simple yet profound meaning of these words we will continue losing ground in this veritable Clash of Civilizations. – rg