Two years ago — six months after the toppling of Saddam Hussein’s statue — the Pentagon decided it would screen a film for its hard-working staff. But, curiously, rather than choosing the noble bravado of “Blackhawk Down” or the epic righteousness of “Lord of the Rings,” the officials in charge opted for the avant-garde.
“The Battle of Algiers” (1965), an epochal film of the ’60s, is little known outside of the academy and a few cult circles. Depicting the inexorable rise of anti-colonial revolution, it won accolades from Europe’s liberal intelligentsia and became required viewing for members of leftist guerrilla groups like the Shining Path in Peru and the Black Panthers here in the States. Director Gillo Pontecorvo, an Italian ex-communist, saw in Algeria’s violent independence from the French a blueprint for further Marxist “third-worldist” liberation: evoking the untenable divide between colonizer and colonized, only reconciled through the destruction of one by the other. That this vision inspired other radical, revolutionary movements is not surprising; that the Pentagon too would find it instructive is a bit more bewildering.
An internal flier promoting the event reportedly declared: “How to win a battle against terrorism and lose the war of ideas … Children shoot soldiers at point blank range. Women plant bombs in cafes. Soon the entire Arab population builds to a mad fervor. Sound familiar?”
The Pentagon evidently cast the burgeoning Iraqi resistance as the current version of the film’s “Organization” — the cadres of Algerian FLN (National Liberation Front) rebels coordinating attacks on police officers, businesses and stadium grounds in Algiers’ European quarter. Yet, as the film shows the brutally effective French response to insurgent activities — through the imposition of curfews and the implementation of torture tactics — Pontecorvo’s work does little to reassure American military brass of the moral virtues of their war. Despite France’s best efforts to pacify the land it occupies, “The Battle of Algiers” points to the inevitability of national liberation. Colonial structures collapse on the very violence needed to sustain them.
But, in eulogizing the FLN’s revolution, the film deliberately skirts the violence the FLN used first to consolidate power and eventually replace the unjust colonial regime with its own authoritarian state. As Iraq’s insurgents slaughter dozens of their own people daily, the FLN frequently murdered those billed as “collaborators” or partisans of rival revolutionary organizations. Moloud Feraoun, a celebrated Algerian writer before and during the war for independence, expressed in a diary — recently translated and published in the United States — his disquiet with the revolution he supported. Responding in 1956 to the massacre of unarmed peasants by FLN forces, Feraoun lamented: “Can people who kill innocents in cold blood be called liberators? If so, have they considered for a moment that their ‘violence’ will engender more ‘violence,’ will legitimize it, and will hasten its terrible manifestation?”
Unlike Frantz Fanon, the revolution’s more famous ideologue, whose books inspired “The Battle of Algiers,” Feraoun rightly feared the end of peaceful reconciliation with the French and the subsequent campaign to violently “push them back into the sea.” Like many others, Feraoun was a native, patriotic Algerian employed by the French colonial government. Caught between the tug of his instinctive sympathies and the relationships formed through his professional duties, Feraoun did not have the luxury to side with a monolithic “us or them,” erected by both the FLN and the colonial-settler regime, and later immortalized by Pontecorvo. Most Iraqis today, too, have little patience for the rhetoric of Washington’s neo-conservatives or the proclamations of jihadists — each propagating their own uncompromising messianic visions, each ignoring the indelible trauma wrought by the execution of their fantasies.
Thursday’s New York Times reported the newest act of depravity in a war defined by violent mistakes and excesses. American soldiers posted in Afghanistan allegedly laid out the bodies of two Taliban fighters atop a hill near their village. The corpses were arranged to face Mecca in the west and then set aflame. As they smouldered, an American sergeant read a translated statement over loudspeaker to horrified spectators in the village, who were supposedly harbouring Taliban: “You allowed your fighters to be laid down facing west and burned. You are too scared to come down and retrieve their bodies. This just proves you are the lady boys we always believed you to be.”
As disturbing accounts of French torture and napalm dumping inflamed the hearts and minds of Algeria’s revolutionaries, this act is better “agitprop” for insurgents than any videotape delivered to Al-Jazeera. From bombings and beheadings to Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo, the current clash of “us vs. them” perpetuates itself in a contest of atrocity. One can only hope that someone in the Pentagon movie theatre realized the promises in “The Battle of Algiers” were mythic. For in reality, after such violence, there is no lasting peace, no eternal liberation.
Feraoun despaired for his time and ours, writing in June 1956: “A blade on fire stands poised over this century; it is stained with the blood of men: that of the fighters and the victims; it will form a bloody line of retribution across a useless page.” Six years later, as Algeria was on the cusp of independence, Feraoun would be shot 12 times in the chest by crazed French settler paramilitaries, a victim of his own premonitions.
Ishaan Tharoor is a senior in Ezra Stiles College.