'Intelligent discontent is the mainspring of civilization.' -- Eugene V. Debs

Wednesday, January 21, 2004

The Shareef Don't Like It, But The Pentagon Does

Last weekend I had the opportunity to catch a showing of Gillo Pontecorvo's 1965 masterpiece, The Battle of Algiers, which has recently been re-released. The Battle of Algiers is a gripping cinema verite portrayal of the Algerian National Liberation Front's urban guerilla war against the French colonial authority. The movie is remarkably complex in terms of its story-telling, its cinematographic technique, and its socio-political understanding. It is probably the most accurate depiction of an anti-colonial insurgency in all of cinema, and might be the best political film I've ever seen, with the possible exception of Costa-Gavras's Z. So, you know, if you get the chance, go out and see it, for no other reason than that it's a great movie.

But The Battle of Algiers is sort of the kid of the moment. I'm not the only one singing its praises. Last summer, the Pentagon's Special Operations and Low-Intensity Conflict Office screened it for a select group of military officers and civilian specialists[*]. A flyer advertising the screening announced:

"How to win a battle against terrorism and lose the war of ideas? Children shoot soldiers at pointblank range. Women plant bombs in cafes. Soon the entire Arab population builds to a mad fervor. Sound familiar? The French have a plan. It succeeds tactically, but fails strategically. To understand why, come to a rare showing of this film."

Which is, you know, all fine and good until you start to think about it. I would like to believe that Pentagon moderators encouraged a discussion after the showing that focused on the film's theme of the equation between immoral and unjust policing techniques and terrorism. Given what I know about the way Bush's wars have been carried out -- given the existence of Guantanamo Bay, the internment of foreign nationals after 911, the Yee case, the Padillo case, etc. -- it seems likely to me that the only problem the US military sees with the counterinsurgency strategy practiced by the French in Pontecorvo's film is that it "fail[ed] strategically" as stated by the flyer. Pretty clearly, at least part of the reason for the screening was to educate those in attendence about the French military's successful anti-terrorist campaign so that similar techniques might be applied in Iraq. Which may not seem disturbing if you don't know what the French's counterinsurgency strategy was -- it went like this: capture some people that you think are low level members of the resistance, torture them until they rat out those above them, capture the next level up, repeat.

Which shines an interesting light on stories like this: ("US military condemned of 'brutalizing' Reuters journalists", angencies, 2004-01-13)

The world-famous Reuters news agency has made a formal complaint to the Pentagon following the "wrongful" arrest and apparent "brutalization" of three Iraqis working for it this month by U.S. troops in Iraq.

The complaint followed an incident in the town of Falluja when American soldiers fired at two Iraqi cameramen and a driver from the agency while they were filming the scene of a helicopter crash.

The Reuters team, led by Baghdad-based cameraman Salem Uraiby, was detained near where a U.S. Kiowa helicopter was shot down. One pilot was killed and the other was wounded.

... [snip] ...

Although Reuters has not commented publicly, it is understood that the journalists were "brutalised and intimidated" by US soldiers, who put bags over their heads, told them they would be sent to Guantanamo Bay, and whispered: "Let's have sex."

At one point during the interrogation, according to the family of one of the staff members, a US soldier shoved a shoe into the mouth of one Iraqi.

The US troops, from the 82nd Airborne Division, based in Falluja, also made the blindfolded journalists stand for hours with their arms raised and their palms pressed against the cell wall.

"They were brutalised, terrified and humiliated for three days," one source said. "It was pretty grim stuff. There was mental and physical abuse."

He added: "It makes you wonder what happens to ordinary Iraqis."

We don't know what's going on in Iraq. There's no independent adversarial press there to turn to. We do know those in charge of the occupation have a shocking disregard for the norms of law and justice and general decency towards human beings given Guantanamo Bay et al. Possibly the sorts of policies practiced by the French in Algeria are already going on in Iraq. In the film the head of the violent counterinsurgency campaign responds to critics at a press conference: “Must France stay in Algeria? If the answer is yes, then you must accept what that entails.” The point is quite valid and generalizes well. If the US is to stay in Iraq, control its resources, and jerrymander a puppet regime into power, then we must accept what that entails.

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