I hardly ever watch a

by francine Hardaway on March 12, 2005

I hardly ever watch a movie twice, but since it’s been forty years since the release of Jules Pontecorvo’s masterpiece “The Battle of Algiers” and I have just returned from Africa, I decided that I would Tivo it off the Sundance channel.

What a shock! Nothing has changed since I watched it during the Viet Nam war. I forget who said that “those who do not learn from history are destined to repeat it.”

“The Battle of Algiers” tells the story of the Muslim rebellion against the French colonial administration in Algeria in 1956 and 1957. The French had already lost Dien Bien Phu, and were determined not to lose in Algeria.

But the leaders of the revolutionary FLN use terrorism and insurgency to unite their people against the French. Theirs is an urban guerrilla war, using women and children who protect men by hiding them in wells and mosques. It’s a war between the European quarter of the capital city and the Casbah, where the natives live. It’s like the Green Zone and the rest of Baghdad.

When the insurgency becomes organized enough, its leaders call a week long general strike to force the issue in front of the United Nations. The strike works, the UN begins a debate, and no resolution can get a majority, so the organization decides not to intervene on behalf of the insurgents.

After that, the French begin an all out campaign of torture to squash the rebellion. Self-righteously deflecting the questions of the international press, they remind reporters that they were part of the resistance against the Germans, and that some of them are survivors of Dachau and Buchenwald. For them it’s not about ideology or politics, “our only job is to win.” And the torture tactics used by the French military don’t come close to the ones used by the insurgents, who believe their end justifies any means. The military has to play by a set of rules governed by worldwide public opinion.But the French eventually have to use torture to obtain intelligence about the leadership of the FLN, which they then systematically set out to capture much as the American military set out to capture Saddham Hussein’s “deck of cards.”

Although the French won the Battle of Algiers, they lost the war of ideas, and Algeria was one of the first African countries to win independence from colonialism in 1962. Soon after, Uganda, Rwanda, Congo, and all the others achieved freedom, and the United States lost the war in Viet Nam. Colonialism appeared to be over.

But then what happened? Forty years of corrupt African governments, including such notables as Idi Amin, culminating in the UN’s failure to act in the Rwandan genocide. And now, a worldwide outbreak of terrorism characterized by Hezbollah, Al Qaeda, and all the strange names that “claim responsibility.”

No wonder the Pentagon screened “The Battle of Algiers” for military people in 2003. Although its director was an Italian communist who clearly sided with the insurgency, the film illuminates the issues involved in both urban warfare and religious ideology, and the issues didn’t look very different forty years ago than they do today.

I hate to get on the bandwagon of UN bashers, but I am increasingly wondering why we pay our dues to the UN, when it faces dilemma after dilemma in which it fails to act. I am reminded of my visit to the Rwanda Genocide Memorial in Kigali, where after seeing almost intolerably cruel video of people being hacked to death with machetes, while both the UN and the US stood by watching, and after reading about how it was the Belgians who originally introduced the differentiation between Hutus and Tutsis, I read a plaque saying the Memorial was funded by the Belgian Government and the William Jefferson Clinton Foundation.

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