Sunday, March 22, 2009

Aping France

I first saw Pontocorvos’ documentary-style movie The Battle of Algiers shortly after its US release in 1967. I watched it again last night, and it remains crushingly relevant.

The Algerian uprising against France, which began a few years after World War 2, taught a couple of unfortunate lessons: 1) terror can be effective, and 2) military ruthlessness can be effective. The film covers the year the turbulent year 1957 in which rebel FLN activity swelled. Insurgents bombed Europeans (roughly a fifth of Algeria’s population at the time) in soda shops, airports, clubs, race tracks, and other ordinary places; European vigilantes carried out bloody and carelessly targeted reprisals against Arabs and Berbers. The French military, smarting from its recent reverses in Indochina, intervened with force and skill. French forces killed or captured key FLN organizers and quelled the revolt with surprising speed, but they achieved this success only by suspending due process, scrapping civil liberties, employing wholesale arrests, and using aggressive interrogation methods (read torture). Though the tactics succeeded, the French literally were demoralized in the process. In the movie, Colonel Mathieu shrugs off press criticism; he says that these are the methods required to win. If the French want to keep Algeria, he says, “you must accept the consequences.” The victory proved fleeting. The FLN resumed the insurgency in a couple years and the French didn’t have the heart to fight it out again. France quit Algeria in 1962.

France and the US are much more alike than the citizens of either like to admit. Both still take the ideals of their respective 18th century Revolutions seriously (at least in words); both have a sense of exceptionalism in the world; both mix cultural defensiveness with multicultural reality; both try to export their values which they consider universal; both confuse national interests with international ones; both are regarded as hopelessly arrogant by outsiders (and by each other); and each is reluctant to learn from the mistakes or successes of the other.

Despite the French experience in Indochina, Americans decided to repeat it and were defeated for much the same reasons. (Dien Bien Phu, though a setback, was no more crippling to the French military than Tet was to the Americans; what it shattered was political will.) Despite the Anglo-French boondoggle at Suez, the US repeatedly has intervened in the region since with no better results. The French experience in Algeria was almost mindlessly repeated by the US in Iraq.

The French haven’t brought any big disasters upon themselves lately (though they do have some minority assimilation challenges). Perhaps we’ll ape that too, for a while.

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