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        Sunday, July 08, 2007
        Unintentionally funny
        This Christian Science Monitor article about the US army and President Bush studying the Battle of Algiers to find answers for Iraq is really full of things that make you shake your head and laugh with disbelief.

        Funny #1. Before you even start reading the article, the advertisement on the right jumps at you. It is an ad for grad studies in diplomacy. I know online ads are smartly designed to reflect the subject at hand and all that. But, this one is ironically funny. Think about it. The movie The Battle of Algiers is all about Algiers independence fight with the French from November 1954 - December 1962. The CSmonitor article is about the US army today studying this fifty some year old movie to learn a trick or two from the French on how to control insurgents in Iraq. Then the ad. The ad is about mastering the arts of diplomacy. It's big and bold, and it seems to scream out "Forget that ancient crap. Learn modern day diplomacy, stupid!!!" Brilliantly hilarious.

        Funny #2. The headline reads "The US military – and President Bush – is studying the Algerian war for independence." The emphasis is mine, but that bit is funny. Imagine the raised intonation if this were spoken. It seems to say "Whaaat, the President is studying?"

        Funny #3. The caption under the picture in the first page reads "1958: Though French troops ultimately withdrew from Algeria, many of their tactics were successful." The contradiction between "ultimately" and "successful" is funny. The French left because they were defeated.

        Funny #4. Oh this one is good. "Here in Algeria, some of those who participated in that war find little use in the comparison. But the US military – and the American public – continues to study the 1954-62 Algerian war of independence for lessons on how to fight the insurgency in Iraq." All of it my own emphasis to show the funny-ness of the contradictions. Americans study Algerian's war of independence to be independent of Iraq? Because remember, the French "ultimately withdrew". So, what's the point of studying the old movie?

        What is not funny is, apparently, what the film depicts.
        The film opens with a scene in which "Paras" (French paratroopers) brutally torture an old Arab man. The information they get from him will lead them to the hide-out of Ali la Pointe, the last remaining leader (so they hope) of the FLN, the movement they are determined to crush. As they close in on the hide-out, the film retraces how the Algerian revolutionary movement began, showing us some of the routine indignities visited on Arabs by French colonials: a bunch of young French punks trip Ali just for the fun of seeing him take a fall. . . . As the Arabs begin to demand an independent Algerian state and terrorist cells begin to leave bombs in places frequented by the French (the race-track, bars, the Air France office) the colonists (many of them called pieds-noirs because they were born in Algeria) become more and more enraged, attacking even small Arab children trying to sell candy on the street.

        All of this Pontecorvo's film portrays in unsparing detail. The head '"Para," called Philippe Mathieu but intended to be the actual General Jacques Massu, who commanded the elite 10th Para Division, offers a strong defense of his tactics, including torture: "The FLN wants to throw us out of Algeria. We want to stay. . . . We are soldiers. Our duty is to win." And, finally, "If your answer is 'yes' [that France should remain in Algeria], you must accept the consequences." The viewer is then treated to a montage of the consequences: ordinary people tortured with electric shock, nearly drowned, hung upside-down -- acts so crude and brutal that in the end they undermined the morale of the French military itself. Is this what the Pentagon wants to convey to its men and women in Iraq or to those who will lead them? That the end justifies the means? If so, they should recall that the use of torture in Algeria became one of the things that destroyed the French case for remaining there and it so disgusted the French public they ultimately acquiesced in giving up their colony.

        Pontecorvo ends his film with the renewal of the FLN uprising in 1960, after two years of relative calm. "Go home," the French cops yell at crowds of Moslems thronging the streets. "What is it that you want?" And the voices shout back as one: "We want our freedom.

        Oh, just take the hint from the Christian Science Monitor's ad section. Take that course in diplomacy and hope for the best.

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