Saturday, April 23, 2005

The Battle of Algiers

Reading the script of the Battle of Algiers is like a trip back through time.. It's the 1960s again and conceits and slogans which seem hackneyed today were then fresh and appealing. Take this line of dialogue between a terrorist leader and a French journalist:

Mr. Ben M'Hidi ... Don't you think it is a bit cowardly to use your women's baskets and handbags to carry explosive devices that kill so many innocent people?

Ben M'Hidi shrugs his shoulders in his usual manner and smiles a little.

And doesn't it seem to you even more cowardly to drop napalm bombs on unarmed villages, so that there are a thousand times more innocent victims? Of course, if we had your airplanes it would be a lot easier for us. Give us your bombers, and you can have our baskets. 

Mr. Ben M'Hidi ... in your opinion, has the NLF any chance to beat the French army?

In my opinion, the NLF has more chances of beating the French army than the French have to stop history.

Of course the fictional Ben M'Hidi's statement was exactly the reverse of the truth. A superiority in airplanes, tanks, missiles and mass armies proved useless to the Arabs in their 1947, 1956, 1965 and 1973 wars against Israel. It was the failure of Nasserism, with its trappings of modern warfare, that led terror to realize the truth: baskets were better than bombing planes. Scriptwriter Franco Solinas had misunderstood the situation entirely. The era of industrial armies fighting in open fields had ended a decade before. From the late 1960s onward war would largely mean urban warfare in which populations -- not bombing aircraft -- were the dominant battlefield factors.

But none of this was apparent when the Battle of Algiers was produced. It was then possible to speak without shame and irony of the irresistible tides of "history" which would bring forth a splendid Algerian independence, just as it had or soon would in the Congo, and Rhodesia and Ghana. But Solinas was remarkably perceptive about some things, such as the centrality of politics to the terrorist struggle.  Much of the terrorist strategy revolved around forcing their agenda onto the notice of the United Nations. It is somewhat strange to read the script and recall with what reverence the "UN" was regarded nearly 40 years ago. We have one of those loudspeaker moments (remember loudspeakers?) when the insurgent organization issues this message to the inhabitants of the Casbah:

"To all militants! After two years of hard struggle in the mountains and city, the Algerian people have obtained a great victory. The UN Assembly has placed the Algerian question in its forthcoming agenda. The discussion will begin on Monday, January 28. Starting Monday, for a duration of eight days, the NLF is calling a general strike. For the duration of this period, all forms of armed action or attempts at such are suspended. We are requesting that all militants mobilize for the strike's organization and success."

No veteran Marxist can read that paragraph without recognizing a dozen words which speak volumes of hidden meaning. Militants. Struggle. General Strike. Mobilize. Oh boy, oh boy. But, there's an indistinct point at which the world, even the recent world ceases to be what it once was. If the 'tides of history' were beyond the power of General Massu's 10th Para Division to stop, there is also a margin at which the post-colonial era, the world of Che Guevarra, Ho Chi Minh and Ben Bella ceases to be: when terrorism itself becomes as anachronistic as the District Commissioner with his barefooted askaris standing sentry.

For those who haven't read the script or seen the movie, the French under General Massu actually won the Battle of Algiers; but the War in Algria is subsequently lost both due to demographics and declining political support in Metropolitan France. The movie itself ends with another loudspeaker moment.

(off) This morning for the first time, the people appeared with their flags -- green and white with half moon and star. Thousands of flags. They must have sewn them overnight. Flags so to speak. Many are strips of sheets, shirts, ribbons, rags ... but anyway they are flags. Thousands of flags. All are carrying flags, tied to poles or sticks, or waving in their hands like handkerchiefs. Waving in the sullen faces of the paratroopers, on the black helmets of the soldiers.

"Another two years had to pass and infinite losses on both sides; and then July 2, 1962 independence was obtained -- the Algerian Nation was born."

Massu died in 2002 at the age of 94.