Friday, January 16, 2004

Recycling news
I missed this at the time, but came to it through a bulletin board I contribute to. It's a fairly bizarre article by drunken internationalist Christopher Hitchens, whose premise is that a) a showing of Pontecorvo's Battle of Algiers has been arranged in New York, b) that it will give rise to comparisons with Iraq and c) that anyone who might make these comparisons should just stop it right now and not even think about it, right mate, cos it's wrong, so just don't! (thumps table).

When Counterpunch sought to out Hitchens as an alky earlier this year, my first reaction was...hang on, that's going a bit far. But further exposure to his recent style of writing seems to confirm it - one note, table banging harangues characterized by foggy, unfocused resentment and beefy shouldered belligerence towards his audience, who might, for all anyone knows, actually agree with him....

"No, really Chris, calm down, actually I think you're right...

"uuuh, you what...well just don't, I'm not finished yet

There's also the premise of the article, an odd form of rhetorical pre-emption...

....I know exactly what you're going to say, and just don't, right? Just don't

Anyway, here's the response I made on the BBS, only slightly less than fresh...

It's interesting that Hitchens has drawn a comparison between a film about what happened in Algeria and what's actually happening in Iraq. I think you can make a case for similarities between the film and the current situation in Iraq, but I'll get to that in a bit.

Surely the real issue is whether there were any similarities between what actually happened in Algeria and what's happening now in Iraq. A good source for that is Alaistair Horne's A Savage War of Peace, which seems to be the standard history of the conflict.

I'd see similarities in a couple of main areas:

Firstly, the evolution of the Iraqi insurgency. In the book, Horne describes how the FLN started recruiting. A candidate would present himself and in turn be presented with a gun and a single bullet. He would then be told to go and kill a French traffic cop, or some such. The insurgency then edscalated through bombings, armed raids and gradually got more organized until the FLN were able to field units in battalion strength in the Algerian maquis. You can see a similar trajectory in Iraq: from random shootings to improvised explosive devices to co-ordinated suicide bombings, mortarings and now, it seems, primitive flak corridors. There's no ideology behind them yet such as the FLN had. But now they're free of Saddam, I'm sure the insurgents will come up with something.

The second similarity is in the alignment of pro-and anti-colonianlist opinion in the occupying power. Hitchens writes:

Algeria in 1956—the "real time" date of the film—was not just a colony of France. It was a department of metropolitan France. The slogan of the French Right was Algérie Française. A huge population of French settlers lived in the country, mainly concentrated in the coastal towns. The French had exploited and misgoverned this province for more than a century and were seeking to retain it as an exclusive possession.

That misrepresents the political situation. At the time of the film, France had a centre left government (under Pietre Mendes France), which sought to head off the conflict by combining military measures with a hearts and minds policy towards the population, including various economic and political reforms. Sound familiar?

More generally, Algerie Francaise was supported across the French political spectrum, up to and including the Communist Party. The French left wanted Algeria integrated into France's political structure with full voting rights for Algerians, on the grounds that this would provide France with a permanent left wing majority. As the conflict continued, the left went over to a pro-FLN position, eventually taking De Gaulle and the centre with them.

The point is firstly that pro-and anti war opinion cut across the political divide, as it has with Iraq, and secondly that many of the people involved with it at a political level genuinely believed that they were bringing enlightenment and modernity to the population...if only they could get rid of those wretched guerillas.

On to the film. It seems like pretty much every cultural product in the US that isn't actually right wing gets called marxist sooner or later. Well, the Battle of Algiers is the real thing. It's heroes are the killers and bombers of the FLN. It's other heroes are the killers and torturers in the French paratroopers. Both sides are stepping up and taking their places in the dialectic. Everyone else is just a fool or a dupe. Now that's what I call Marxist movie making.

This gives the film a certain predictive character. It's a warning about what happens to both sides under the pressure of colonial occupation. It's hero, Ali La Pointe, is a street thief and general ne'er do well who finds himself in the uprising. It's anti-hero, general Massu is a cultured and sensitive fellow who knows his Sartre and is driven to torture, by, as he sees it, brute political necessity. I suspect that there arew quite a few Alis in Iraq right now, turning from crime to insurrection. And it's increasingly looking like the occupiers are getting a little touch of the General Massus.

Anyway, see the movie if you can. It's a truly stunning film. While you're at it, see it in conjunction with Klimov's Come and See. And read Malaparte's Kaputt when you're not doing either. Then see how seriously you can take the "Greatest generation then and now" mush we're going to get this year with the 60th anniversary of D-day.

Incidentally, one thing that Hitchens doesn't mention is that Chirac fought as a lieutenant in Algeria and got wounded in the process. Bet he thinks there's lessons to be learned.