Iraq Analogies

[Tom Engelhardt wrote the following introduction, slightly revised here, to Sheila Johnson’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 Iraq. The Pentagon’s special operations chiefs have scheduled a showing tomorrow in the Army auditorium of ‘The Battle of Algiers,’ a classic film that examines how the French, despite overwhelming military superiority, were defeated by Algerian resistance fighters.”

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 US runs the risk of following in the footsteps of the hapless French.”

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 Iraq, sought to grasp what was actually happening to all of us. By this time, the list, were it gathered, would be long indeed and would include most recently the Israeli invasion of Lebanon, Vietnam obviously, the Russian experience in Chechnya, the French experience in Algeria, and even Napoleon’s disastrous invasion of Russia. My own suspicion is that this endless – and fruitful – reaching for analogous moments in some way reminds us of what a unique (or perhaps I mean uniquely unsettling) and strange moment we actually find ourselves 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 Rome (or possible a new Imperial Britain, or both-plus). But for some reason I haven’t heard much about that of late. Like Paul Wolfowitz in his Wall Street Journal op-ed this week, most of them are still stuck in Cold War analogous moments. We’re still, god save us, defending Berlin against the Commies, or of course, Saigon against the… well, who were those masked men and women?

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 yet…

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 Iraq having fallen away, the reason for us staying was that we were there. What I couldn’t believe though was that he was using – more than once – the old (Lyndon) Johnsonian phrase “cut and run,” a Vietnam-era classic, three words which are incapable of being spoken without being prefaced by “You can’t just…” I won’t even begin to plumb the ironies of Ajami saying such things. I waited curiously to see if he would begin talking about nailing the Iraqi “pelt” to the cabin wall (of Saddam’s pecker to… but let me stray no deeper into Lyndon’s World). But no, he must have been saving that for his next visit to Rose’s show, which displays a stiflingly narrow cross-section of what passes for opinion in this country.

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 U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War in the 1960s and ’70s. ‘My contemporaries, our feelings and sensitivities were forged on the battlefields of Vietnam, where we heard the garbage and the lies, and we saw the sacrifice,’ said Zinni, who was severely wounded while serving as an infantry officer in that conflict. ‘I ask you, is it happening again?’”

Ricks added that:

“Zinni’s comments to the joint meeting in Arlington of the U.S. Naval Institute and the Marine Corps Association, two professional groups for officers, were greeted warmly by his audience, with prolonged applause at the end. Some officers bought tapes and compact discs of the speech to give to others.”

And then last night I watched Don Rumsfeld on a the-glass-is-at-least-half-full whirlwind tour of Iraq in an exclusive CBS interview with Dan Rather duck and weave when Zinni’s criticism was quoted back to him.

And yet nothing evidently can stop our media as well as our leaders from living, acting, dreaming inside the Vietnam analogy, from constantly pressing the replay button and then acting accordingly. I have an urge to keep reminding them that whatever was to be learned from Vietnam, it was a defeat. You would think that whenever Vietnam came to mind, some creative thinking might be in order, but that, I believe, would involve “cutting and running,” which once again seems to mean shedding a “commitment” (read: war, read: invasion) that everyone is convinced will lose the United States global “credibility” forever and a day – even as our actions in “staying” do exactly that. I can almost hear the dominos falling.

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 U.S. daily newspapers and found that not a single one had editorialized in favor of U.S. withdrawal from Vietnam. While millions of Americans were demanding an immediate pullout, such a concept was still viewed as extremely unrealistic by the editorial boards of big daily papers — including the liberal New York Times and Washington Post.

“Yes, some editorials fretted about a quagmire. But the emphasis was on developing a winnable strategy — not ending the war. Pull out the U.S. troops? The idea was unthinkable. And so it is today…

“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 Iraq turns out to be, the U.S. government still insists on remaining in charge.

“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 Middle East, access to extensive military bases for the Pentagon, and … oh yes … about 112 billion barrels of known oil reserves under the sand.”

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 US which has changed positions, but the UN. We’ve wanted a new UN resolution for months. It’s just that the UN has finally come around to our position. The bombing of the UN compound in Baghdad ‘changed the atmosphere in New York.’

“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 Middle East.

“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 Iraq operations:

“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 ‘Doctrine for Joint Urban Operations’ 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 Grozny:] Instead, [the Russian battlefield generals] believed the erroneous assumptions generated at the strategic level and subsequently directed a woefully inadequate effort to understand the battlespace in all its complexity. This disregard for intelligence adversely affected virtually every other warfighting function at the operational level.”

Sheila Johnson decided that if the Pentagon special ops people were checking out The Battle of Algiers, why shouldn’t she. Tom ]

The Battle of Algiers and Its Lessons

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 Third World revolutionaries. In the 1980s my husband used to show it in a political science class he taught about revolution. And now the Pentagon has recently shown it to its functionaries, even as our own troops are deeply mired in urban guerrilla warfare. I wondered what tips and instruction they were intended to glean from it, and so I slipped our copy into the VCR and watched it again.

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 Algeria is to be discussed at the U.N., the revolutionaries call for a general strike to dramatize the strength of their movement. The seven-day strike is so successful that French soldiers are reduced to bashing in the shutters and doors of Moslem shops in an effort to get their owners to open them.

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 France should remain in Algeria], you must accept the consequences.” The viewer is then treated to a montage of the consequences: ordinary people tortured with electric shock, nearly drowned, hung upside-down — acts so crude and brutal that in the end they undermined the morale of the French military itself. Is this what the Pentagon wants to convey to its men and women in Iraq or to those who will lead them? That the end justifies the means? If so, they should recall that the use of torture in Algeria became one of the things that destroyed the French case for remaining there and it so disgusted the French public they ultimately acquiesced in giving up their colony.

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 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.

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 Iraq and why we should be loved instead of hated there — because we are bringing it to the poor, benighted Iraqis. The French felt similarly put out because the Algerians were rejecting not merely them but also their culture, which they believed to be vastly superior to anything the Algerians might have to offer. I am reminded of a conversation I had many years ago with my conservative Dutch father, who was convinced that the Dutch had governed Indonesia, their former colony, much better than it was subsequently being run.

“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 Iraq. If one credits Donald Rumsfeld’s latest pronouncements, that’s also what he wants for Iraq . . . except, of course, that he wants the U.S. to choose who can join the Iraqi army, head their government, and operate their oil fields.

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 Iraq, their families back in the U.S., and Iraqis should all see this film and ponder its implications.

A final personal note: in the summer of 1962, my husband and I were returning from a year in Japan via Southeast Asia and Europe on a French Messageries Maritimes ship. As we passed through the Red Sea and the Suez Canal, there were increasing rumors that our ship would be diverted to Algiers to pick up French refugees from newly independent Algeria. As it happened, the ship unloaded its passengers at Marseilles before proceeding on its rescue mission. But as we walked about that city we saw angry pieds noirs and colonials and signs scrawled on walls saying, “Algerie Française.” Earlier in the voyage we had made port in Saigon, where the American motto at that time was “Sink or swim with Ngo Dinh Diem.” I wonder what the scenario will be when the Americans get tossed out of Iraq.

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.]


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