[Tom Engelhardt wrote the following introduction, slightly revised here, to Sheila Johnsonâ€™s essay below.]
On August 26th, the Washington Post‘s David Ignatius had this in a column:
“Pentagon sources report one hopeful sign that the military is thinking creatively and unconventionally about
Robert Manoff, Director of the Center for War, Peace, and the News Media at New York University, wrote me the following sharp comment, which I enter on my ongoing (mental) list of striking historical analogies that have surfaced in the post 9/11 era:
“Although much is now being said about Vietnam as the precedent for the US Iraq adventure, I keep thinking that this is increasingly coming to resemble Algeria, with the Americans now cast in the role of the ill-starred French colonials, the operative metaphor being not the quagmire but the Kasbah, in which the French lost their bearings, their lives, and their appetite for empire amidst a hostile and mobilized Muslim populace. Either way, the
I’ve been struck by the richness and breadth of the historical analogies that have been suggested as critics of Bush administration policies in the world, and of the war and “postwar” in
But if the opponents of the war and Bush administration imperial policy have been continually searching for analogies to help explain this moment, its proponents, like the special ops chiefs showing The Battle of Algiers at the Pentagon, seem to be living out analogies. Sometimes, when I listen to them, I wonder if I’m simply living in an analogy. Of course, in the pre-war months, our homegrown imperialists and their boosters did hit on one analogy that pleased them briefly – we were a new
My own ability to be surprised by what I already know sometimes amazes me. I’ve often written about the American inability to settle up honestly with our defeat in Vietnam and so leave it behind us – and, of course, in three decades of running away from that catastrophic endless wave, our various right-wing leaders announced again and again that Vietnam (or the “syndrome” that came to replace it) was over, dead, done with, buried, the habit kicked. And yetâ€¦
I experienced that surprise just the other night when, while watching Fouad Ajami on Charlie Rose making the brilliant argument that, all other reasons for the war in
It’s not that Iraq is Vietnam, of course, but that our own leaders are living inside the analogy and can’t help but either impose it on Iraq, or bob and weave and duck not to do so. They’re in a losing battle with their own brains.
Only Friday, in the Washington Post, Thomas Ricks reported on devastating critical comments leveled by former General Anthony Zinni, a supporter of the elder Bush, who ran Centcom before Tommy Franks:
“In an impassioned speech to several hundred Marine and Navy officers and others, Zinni invoked the
Ricks added that:
“Zinni’s comments to the joint meeting in
And then last night I watched Don Rumsfeld on a the-glass-is-at-least-half-full whirlwind tour of
And yet nothing evidently can stop our media as well as our leaders from living, acting, dreaming inside the
While listening to the Vietnam-deja-vu chorus of the supposedly knowledgeable who, in one way or another, assure us that we can’t “cut and run” — the sort of phrase meant, of course, to end all thought, no less debate — I was struck by a set of passages in a recent essay by FAIR’s Normon Solomon:
“[H]ere’s a revealing fact: In early 1968, the Boston Globe conducted a survey of 39 major
“Yes, some editorials fretted about a quagmire. But the emphasis was on developing a winnable strategy — not ending the war. Pull out the
“Current media appeals for multilateral policies rarely go beyond nostrums like giving the handpicked Iraqi leaders more prominent roles, recruiting compliant natives and foreigners for security functions, and getting the United Nations more involved. But whatever the U.N. role in
“Despite the compromises, that’s the bottom line. The Bush administration is not letting go of a country that has so many attractive features to offer — including a central geopolitical foothold in the
Op-editorialists like the Boston Globe‘s James Carroll, the Nation‘s Jonathan Schell, the New York Times‘ Bob Herbert and a few others aside, you often have to turn these days to the web for the kind of commentary that we need. For instance, Josh Marshall of www.talkingpointsmemo.com offered the following amusing commentary on a CNN report of distinctly unhinged testimony by Paul Wolfowitz (“Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz said Thursday the Bush administration has been pushing for months for a new U.N. resolution to internationalize the force in Iraq, but it took the bombing of the U.N. headquarters in Baghdad to change the ‘atmosphere in New York.’”)
“Paul Wolfowitz told reporters today that it’s not the
“How about that? Wolfowitz is an awfully sharp guy. But he’s turning into the Comical Ali of the collapse of neoconservative grand strategy in the
“The UN is putty in our hands!
“We have bent them to our will!
“The humiliation of the French is complete!
“In the 19th century history was supposed to repeat itself: the first time as tragedy, the second as farce. In the 21st century it seems to be farce, followed by farce, followed by farce in a kind of infinite recurrence.”
And, with The Battle of Algiers in mind, let me direct you to a piece (pointed out by Marshall) in the River Cities Reader by Rich Miller, a Chicago-based journalist now in Iraq seeking “an alternative viewpoint on the postwar effort” (Postwar Iraq Moves Dangerously Close to Civil Disaster). It includes the following fascinating paragraphs on a book written by the general now in charge of
“It seems that almost everyone here believes we’re sitting on a precipice, and leaning precariously toward civil disaster. But it didn’t have to happen this way.
“A year ago, American General John Abizaid published an internal Defense Department book about urban warfare. Abizaid’s â€˜Doctrine for Joint Urban Operationsâ€™ was all but ignored by Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld and General Tommy Franks, who ran the Iraq war and the initial postwar occupation.
“Abizaid wrote about the massive troop requirements for urban warfare; warned of rapid burnout of soldiers and equipment assigned to urban battlegrounds; and time and again referenced catastrophic instances of over-confidence and under-preparedness among commanders and of disastrous misunderstandings of local cultures and their motivations. He also stressed how ‘essential’ it is that ‘law enforcement’ and other ‘routine activities’ be ‘returned to civilian agencies as quickly as possible.’”
In a sidebar below the piece, there are quotes from Abizaid’s book including the following – shades of The Battle of Algiers:
“[Seven factors that have historically led to the commission of war crimes:] (1) high friendly losses; (2) high turnover rate in the chain of command; (3) dehumanization of the adversary; (4) poorly trained or inexperienced troops; (5) the lack of a clearly defined adversary; (6) unclear orders; and (7) high frustration level among the troops.”
And a passage that indicates the general is considering his own set of analogies:
“[Quoting a book about the 1994 Russian invasion of
Sheila Johnson decided that if the Pentagon special ops people were checking out The Battle of Algiers, why shouldn’t she. Tom ]
of Battle and Its Lessons Algiers
By Sheila K. Johnson
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
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
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
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
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
“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
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
A final personal note: in the summer of 1962, my husband and I were returning from a year in
Sheila K. Johnson is an anthropologist and an editor for the Japan Policy Research Institute.
Copyright C2003 Sheila K. Johnson
[This article first appeared on Tomdispatch.com, a weblog of the Nation Institute, which offers a steady flow of alternate sources, news, and opinion from Tom Engelhardt, long time editor in publishing and author of The End of Victory Culture and The Last Days of Publishing.]