e n d n o t e s k a t h e r i n e m c n a m a r a
The Battle of Algiers
I write this in the rising hope among friends across the country and overseas that, because Kerry acquitted himself well in the first debate, he now has a real chance, and the unwelcome possibility of four more years of Bush, Cheney, Ashcroft, Rumsfeld, DeLay1, and the rest of their ilk may be scotched. The Financial Times (which once wrote, describing Bush’s tax cuts for the wealthy, that the lunatics had taken over the asylum2) heaved sighs of relief: “Kerry looked the more presidential” and “Bush came over as flustered.” On the same page, another headline said, “Europeans urge Bush to adopt Kerry’s line on Iran.”3
It is not possible to be objective about the debates, or the election, I suggest, because too much is at stake. (Undecided voters may truly not have been paying attention; or, simply, they don’t want to answer direct questions and reveal their likely vote, for which we can only say, good for them.) The war in Iraq is, as Kerry put it, “a colossal misjudgment” in every way. The president’s continual (and seemingly mindless) assertion that “we are making progress” is unproven. On the very day of the debate, a terrible battle had taken place in Samarra, with a huge number of deaths resulting. The number of American dead since the invasion is more than a thousand; and the wounded? Estimates vary; but it is agreed that wounds have been uglier and more damaging, because body armor protects against all but the most serious assaults, particularly those to the head. The Pentagon distinguishes between casualties in battle and injuries incurred elsewhere. It even attempts to redefine suicide, to keep the numbers lower. The numbers of Iraqi dead and of the injured are not counted by the Americans. Estimates of those lost range from 20,000 to 60,000; but how can we know? We can presume the numbers are great. They are greater than the number of lives lost in the September attacks on this nation. As Senator Kerry reminded President Bush, Osama bin Laden, not Saddam Hussein, attacked this country.
May I go back in time? We read that before the invasion, the top brass and civilians at the Pentagon watched Gillo Pontecorvo’s film “The Battle of Algiers,” supposedly to learn about the rigors of urban warfare and counteracting insurgency. That the film is considered one of the great anti-colonial works of the twentieth century was an irony possibly not lost on a few, at least, of the military viewers. Yet, Americans have never been able to see themselves as an occupying – let alone, colonial – power; and, under the Bush doctrine, this government will not recognize that status now, even as “democracy” and “liberty” are the words the president uses to justify his war of choice.
“The Battle of Algiers” is thrilling cinema.4 I saw it recently, for the first time, and agree that for us who have not known combat, that historical drama helps one to think – more clearly than the analogy with Vietnam – about the present war. Shot on newsreel stock, yet wholly staged, then edited with a dramatist’s eye, Pontecorvo’s film observes how the FLN (National Liberation Front, called “the organization”) takes shape in the Muslim quarter, the Casbah, of Algiers, by using targeted assassinations of police and large-scale bombings of civilians. We see how the French despise their subjects, the Arabs, who retaliate with organized vengeance and tactical skill. (Ali la Pointe, the last leader, is illiterate, a former boxer, laborer, street criminal, the sort of “malcontent” dismissed early on by the occupation authorities in Baghdad as instigating “unorganized” insurgences there. He is the most intransigent of the guerrillas.)
We are shown, in contrast, that the resistance to French rule is brilliantly choreographed by its leaders, disciplined men whose purpose, broadcast to the crowds in the streets, is independence: an Algeria governed under Islamic law but with “normal” rights and liberties “for all.” As their success grows – as the death toll mounts and the U.N. becomes concerned – we see the FLN take charge of their people’s well-being, and impose piety and acceptable behavior on the crowds. In their broadcasts, the leaders grow more puritanical. In a startling scene, little boys turn into a gang of shrill enforcers, like crows, pecking at a sad street drunk. It is the mirror-image of a scene in which an old beggar in a street of the European quarter is set upon by residents as a “dirty Arab,” who doesn’t belong in “their” streets.
The French paratroopers, crack forces, are welcomed with open arms by the European residents. Led by Colonel Mathieu, who, cool and rational, studies his adversaries not as enemies but opponents in a deadly-serious war game, they establish an efficiently brutal presence around the Muslim quarters. Mathieu instructs his force that the FLN are a small minority among the tens of thousands who are residents of the Casbah, invisible yet everywhere, smartly organized as cells in which each member only knows his superior and the two people he himself has recruited. Only the top four leaders know more; not until these men are killed or captured can the organization be stopped. Mathieu directs his men to use “any means necessary” to gain intelligence for breaking the cells. He is brilliantly, bloodily successful. The French paras segment the organization, then make its leaders ineffective. In the end, they smash the uprising.
This remarkable film is not a simple one, and its lessons, too – if lessons there be – are complex. Pontecorvo was Italian, a Marxist, presumably sympathetic to the anti-colonials, yet his dramatist’s eye follows all sides attentively. Mathieu is a professional soldier, as are his opposites – except for Ali la Pointe – in the FLN. Their combat, face to face, is an ironic chivalry. Mathieu, having captured one of the four leaders, says conversationally that he feels as if he knows him, having studied his dossier for months. He thus has shown both his respect and revealed his superior position, gained through breaking informers. The FLN leader returns his compliment. (The leader’s female companion is furious at the exchange and Mathieu’s superiority, and shouts furiously that Ali la Pointe remains in hiding, thus betraying him.) Again, at a press conference, Mathieu affirms his respect for a leader, al H’madi, who has been killed in captivity by the French, describing the man’s sense of morality and commitment to his cause as exemplary. (The official position is that in his cell the man had torn his shirt to strips, wove a rope, and hanged himself from the barred window. A reporter points out, dryly, that the man had been bound hand and foot to prevent his escape; therefore, how had he been so clever as to hang himself?)
The battle is a professional’s combat in which men lead. Women play key, although always subordinate or enabling, roles.5 Publicly, they are veiled, thus, invisible to the French, and carry arms hidden under cloth or in their handbags. It is three women who, shockingly, place the bombs that will kill crowds of civilians, Arabs and Europeans, who are laughing, eating, dancing together. They have put on French clothes and makeup, concealed the bombs in their hand baskets, and charmed their way – one, with her small son – through the French security checkpoints. They mingle with the crowds they are about to harm, place the explosives, and leave.
The pivotal moment, the one perhaps most instructive, is Mathieu’s press conference. The press, dismayed, carrying rumors of torture, finally ask him directly whether he has authorized its use on captured Arabs. His reply is equally direct:
The consequences are clear. Grim scenes of torture follow.7 Some of them will not be unfamiliar to Americans, after Abu Ghraib. But the FLN’s shootings and bombings, too, have been horrible. The resistance is a rhythm of terror and counter-terror, until the French paras crush the FLN’s urban armed resistance.
The film does not end with that defeat. In an epilogue, it forwards two years, when the French, to their surprise, are met with rising demonstrations by the populace. There follows swiftly the independence of Algeria. The lesson is complicated. “Resistance” and “insurgency” can be organized into popular movements that will fight asymmetrically against enormous military force. But the subsequent government of Algeria was bloody, dictatorial, Islamist. And France, after a long, bloody war in which their armed forces employed the use of torture, still bears the scar and the shame of it.
“The Battle of Algiers,” it is well to remember, is an art film. It is a kind of fiction based in a kind of truth. Its producer, Saadi Yaacef, a former colonel in the FLN, told an interviewer that a good film is harder to make than a revolution: “You can kill someone, but to educate him, that’s something else,” he said. “And during the war we destroyed. There was an enemy and we killed him. Creating something is very difficult.”
Baghdad and Falujah are not Algiers, but in them may in time be noticed a kind of analogy to “Algiers.” From the twentieth century onwards, occupiers and colonial powers have been defeated, in part by insurgency, in part by their own weariness. We don’t know, yet, another outcome. My questions are, therefore, insistent.
What costs are we willing to pay to keep our forces in Iraq?
How can we regain respect in the world?
The choice is clear, it seems to me: permanent wars of choice abroad in an increasingly unsafe world; higher taxes at home for the middle and lower classes, while the rich are spared having to contribute much to the common good; programmed reduction of social programs and services, as the number of those living in poverty continues to grow; an ever-increasing defense budget, though the (large) percentage going for mercenary contractors is obscured; rumors of a re-imposed draft; an Attorney General who does not respect the rule of law, and, even so, has not succeeded in convicting one of his 5,000 suspects of “terrorism”; secretive governing on a vaguely-defined war footing—
Or: the possibility of clear-headed, responsible leadership to begin to undo the terrible mess that George Bush and the radical Republicans have made. We will spend the rest of our adult lives cleaning up after them. The world will yet hold us to account.
National Security Comes from a Healthy Environment
This is a very big idea and the media haven’t gotten it. Kerry proposes uncoupling national security from assured access to oil (viz. Iraq oil fields), by policy and by proposed practice, i.e., exploration for and innovation in alternative sources of energy. This would be a major change in our nation’s direction, not only environmentally but also in foreign policy, because it would mean that protecting and expanding oil fields – and our access to them – would no longer be a reason for war and aggression by the United States.
Disciplined, Permanent Opposition
What form will permanent opposition take? Even if Senator Kerry wins the presidency, he is likely to face a hostile Congress. We have seen that the Republicans intended to destroy the presidency of Clinton, and, effectively, did so; they would be no less brutal to Kerry – and thus, to the electorate. Tom Delay ( see above), Majority Leader of the House, known as “The Hammer,” has vowed to reorganize Congress after the election, securing the reign of Republicans and insuring that the Democrats remain powerless. Attorney General Ashcroft, unlikely to go away, shows no particular respect for the Bill of Rights. We know the radical Republicans lie outright, by omission, by cover-up, and by euphemism. We know the operatives of their party are willing to do anything to control the government, at every level. We know they are dirty fighters.
What are we going to do? If we haven’t already planned the action of permanent opposition, we had better start right now, beginning at our precinct meetings and house parties. This will take discipline and fortitude.
Who Should Elect the President of the World?
It seems the French, and probably most other nations, think they ought to be able to vote too, and probably rightly, since we’re electing the president of the world. Even if Kerry does win – it’s possible, as I write this – these radical Republicans have got themselves firmly implanted in the structure of the government, and I can’t see how the oppositions can be resolved. In the far back of my mind, I fear more restriction, if not actual force. If Kerry doesn’t win, we’re in for more preventive war, and who knows what at home.
Our Calm, Alert Presence in the Streets
Joan Schatzman’s citizen’s-eye coverage of the demonstrations in New York during the Republican convention appears in these pages, and gives us a glimpse – again – of our better natures, as half a million of the Gore majority turned out to walk for peace and turn away from Bush/Cheney’s warmongering. Most of us, by now, are veterans of some march or other. I think that we had better not stop marching. If all politics is local, I urge that on election day, we who were part of the Gore majority, who are opposed to the dangerous policies and incompetence of Bush and his party, assemble in the main street of our town or city, and that we stand in place, calm and alert, on that day and for as many days as necessary until the vote count has been validated. With luck and hard work, we will have much to celebrate. And then, that we must hold our officials to account.
Mobilize. Vote. Trust, if you still can: but verify. Our civic duty calls for imaginative, attentive, permanent opposition.
—October 5, 2004
1 Tom DeLay (R-Tex), the House Majority Leader, was “admonished” by the House ethics committee recently for trying to bribe a fellow member, by offering to “endorse” that member’s “son in a Congressional primary if he would support a measure then teetering on the edge of defeat.” (DeLay marshaled “unnamed” corporate support and resources, offering to put them at the service of the Member’s son, and to use them against the son if the Member did not vote as DeLay demanded.)
The bill was the Medicare prescription-drug bill for seniors, the cost of which the administration lied to Congress about, as has been shown since. According to the Times, “The middle-of-the-night Medicare vote was memorable. The Republican leadership held the vote open for almost three hours to force the measure through, over the objections of Democrats who claimed it was not expansive enough and conservative Republicans like Mr. Smith [whose son Delay promised to support, in exchange for Smith’s vote] who argued it cost too much.” (Carl Hulse, “House Ethics Panel Says DeLay Tried to Trade Favor for a Vote,” The New York Times, Oct. 1, 2004. See also, UPI, “Analysis: DeLay’s ethics problems”.)
The House ethics committee, having given Delay its lightest sanction, is also considering – though not yet acting upon – charges of money laundering filed by former Rep. Chris Bell of Texas. According to CNN:
3 Joshua Chaffin, “View from the fireside: President came over as flustered”; Holly Yeager and Joanna Chung, “View from the newsrooms: Kerry looked the more presidential”; and Guy Dinsmore, “Europeans urge Bush to adopt Kerry’s line on Iran,” Financial Times, October 2/October 3 2004, p. 2. See “US Elections 2004”.
An essayist, Voline, writes in “The Battle of Algiers Revisited,” on September 16, 2004:
Derek Malcolm, in The Guardian Unlimited, July 20, 2000, writes
Charles Paul Freund, “The Pentagon’s Film Festival,” Slate, August 27, 2003, writes a good historical analysis of the film and comparison – in all the ambiguities and uncertainties – to the situation in Iraq.
An interview with Gillo Pontecorvo by Maria Esposito is on the World Socialist Web Site.
5 For example, this new interview by Liza Bear with Saadi Yacef, former FLN official and producer of “The Battle of Algiers”, on indieWire:
His subordinate was Col. Massu, on whom Mathieu was based. See also, “France Confronts Algeria Torture Claims,” BBC.
Joan Schatzman, “The Peace March in New York During the Republican National Convention,” this issue.
A World That Begins in Art, Vol. 8, No. 2
Incoming, Vol. 8, No. 1
The Only God Is the God of War, Vol. 7, No. 3.
Where Are the Weapons?, Vol. 7, No. 2.
Patriotism and the Right of Free Speech in Wartime, Vol. 7, No. 1.
A Year in Washington, Vol. 6, Nos. 3/4
Lies, Damn Lies, Vol. 6, No. 2
The Colossus, Vol. 6, No. 1
The Bear, Vol. 5 No. 4
Sasha Choi Goes Home, Vol. 5, No. 3
Sasha Choi in America,Vol. 5, No. 1
A Local Habitation and A Name, Vol. 5, No. 1
The Blank Page, Vol. 4, No. 4
The Poem of the Grand Inquisitor, Vol. 4, No. 3
On the Marionette Theater, Vol. 4, Nos. 1/2
The Double, Vol. 3, No. 4
Folly, Love, St. Augustine, Vol. 3, No. 3
On Memory, Vol. 3, No. 2
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Kundera’s Music Teacher, Vol. 1, No. 4
The Devil’s Dictionary; Economics for Poets, Vol. 1, No. 3
Hecuba in New York; Déformation Professionnelle, Vol. 1, No. 2
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