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"It is better to be drunk with loss and to beat the ground, than to let the deeper things gradually escape."

- I. Compton-Burnett, letter to Francis King (1969)

"Cynical realism – it is the intelligent man’s best excuse for doing nothing in an intolerable situation."

- Aldous Huxley, "Time Must Have a Stop"

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Wednesday, 17 December 2003

Topic: Iraq

Baghdad now, Algiers way back when... The kind of folks we Americans are - sort of French, actually.

September 1st in Just Above Sunset you'll find The Pentagon has a French Film Festival, sort of....

That was a discussion of something on the preceding Wednesday, the 27th, when the command of Special Operations in the Pentagon held a screening of The Battle of Algiers, Gillo Pontecorvo's 1965 classic film about a rather famous urban terrorist insurgency, the conflict between Algerian nationalist insurgents and French colonial forces in the late nineteen-fifties.

The Pentagon flier read in part:
How to win a battle against terrorism and lose the war of ideas. ... Children shoot soldiers at point blank 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.
This was supposed to be instructive.

Now it seems The Battle of Algiers will be released again next month in theaters here, so we can catch up with the Pentagon viewers.

This prompted a column in The New Yorker over the weekend.

Philip Gourevitch, The New Yorker, Issue of 2003-12-22 and 29, Posted 2003-12-15

Gourevitch comments that now the film comes at an interesting time.
Appalling, intolerable-in all senses, maddening-as the terrorist tactics of the Iraqi insurgents may be, their truck bombs, donkey-cart missile launchers, and sniper rifles are tactical political instruments that have steadily and systematically succeeded in isolating American forces in Iraq. They have effectively driven the United Nations, the international staff of the Red Cross, and other aid groups from the country, and - more disastrously - they have fostered a mutual sense of alienation between the American forces and the Iraqi people they are supposed to be liberating. Triumphalist pronouncements from Washington notwithstanding, our occupying forces are now clearly on the defensive. And the more aggressive their defense becomes, the more it serves the insurgents' purposes. When an American adviser in Iraq speaks of a new strategy of "terrorism versus terrorism," ... and an American lieutenant colonel tells the Times, "With a heavy dose of fear and violence, and a lot of money for projects, I think we can convince these people that we are here to help them," one may be forgiven for concluding that the enemy is defining the terms of the fight to his advantage.
But how is this like Algiers in the late fifties?

Gourevitch says this:
The ugly truth that Pontecorvo lays vividly bare, as his camera tacks back and forth between the Algerian guerrillas and the French paratroopers, is that terrorism works. For, although the film focusses on a chapter in the Algerian struggle when France succeeded in crushing the rebel movement, the final moments of the movie show how within a few years the French were forced to accept defeat and retreat, an outcome that in retrospect appears historically inevitable.
Does that mean we are to one day, next year perhaps, or later, accept defeat and return home with our tail between our legs. The administration, and most everyone else, says no. That is not acceptable. We are the good guys, the liberators.

As Gourevitch points out, rightly one thinks, unlike the French mission in Algeria, Washington's goal in Iraq is not to prevent the people from governing their own country but to help them to do so. Presumably, the insurgents - about whose politics, allegiances, organization, and objectives little is known - also want to see Iraqis in power, if not the same ones that Washington might favor.

Well Algeria finally had its elections. In the early nineties, an Islamic fundamentalist party won by a solid majority but was prevented from taking power by the secular military, which refused to accept the democratic election of an anti-democratic government. As a result, the country descended into a civil war that now has cost around a hundred thousand lives.

As for Iraq, well, we want them to be free, to elect who they want from their own people, but not to elect to have an Islamic fundamentalist state. We appointed the current interim government, the CPA, and that told them who of them we thought fit to govern. That was, one presumes, a sort of guideline, and warning.

So it won't turn out like the mess in Algeria.

But it will be messy.

Last night I saw the moralist Bill Bennett on Fox News arguing that now that we have captured Saddam Hussein we have the moral right, if not the fundamental moral duty, to use torture to extract the greatest possible information from Hussein. And he said we should be open about it - we should announce we are using torture, and rightly claim that this is for the greater good, to make the world safer. He said the world would rally to us in agreement.

Perhaps so. I don't think so. But Bill Bennett knows things. He served as Secretary of Education and Chairman of the National Endowment for the Humanities under President Ronald Reagan and Director of the Office of National Drug Control Policy under the first President Bush. His most recent project is Americans for Victory Over Terrorism (AVOT). He co-chairs, with former Democratic Senator Sam Nunn, the National Commission on Civic Renewal and the Partnership for a Drug-Free America, with former New York Governor Mario Cuomo. He has written or edited fourteen books. His current book is Why We Fight: Moral Clarity and the War on Terrorism - so who am I to disagree? Even if he has, or had, a gambling problem.

His comments might remind one of a scene in The Battle of Algiers when the commander of the French paratroopers, Lieutenant Colonel Mathieu, realizes that, despite of strategic successes against the insurgency, he is losing the larger battle for public opinion. At a press conference, reporters confront him with allegations that his men have tortured Algerian informants. Mathieu reminds the reporters that the press had originally been unanimous in calling for the suppression of the rebellion. "That's why we were sent here," he says. "And we're neither crazy nor sadistic.... We are soldiers. Our duty is to win. Since we're being precise, I'll now ask you a question. Is France to remain in Algeria? If your answer is still yes, you must accept all the necessary consequences."

Okay then. This is who we are now too.


Footnote: And what is the current thinking on this torture business?

Consider this exchange on CNN where anchor Wolf Blitzer posed the question to the author and Harvard University law professor Alan Dershowitz and Ken Roth, the executive director of Human Rights Watch. This is from Monday, March 3, 2003, so you see the topic has been ongoing. They are discussing what to do with a fellow who had been recently captured and might know some dangerous things, or might not.
BLITZER: Alan Dershowitz, a lot of our viewers will be surprised to hear that you think there are right times for torture. Is this one of those moments?

DERSHOWITZ: I don't think so. This is not the ticking-bomb terrorist case, at least so far as we know. Of course, the difficult question is the chicken-egg question: We won't know if he is a ticking-bomb terrorist unless he provides us information, and he's not likely to provide information unless we use certain extreme measures.

My basic point, though, is we should never under any circumstances allow low-level people to administer torture. If torture is going to be administered as a last resort in the ticking-bomb case, to save enormous numbers of lives, it ought to be done openly, with accountability, with approval by the president of the United States or by a Supreme Court justice.

... I would talk about nonlethal torture, say, a sterilized needle underneath the nail, which would violate the Geneva Accords, but you know, countries all over the world violate the Geneva Accords. They do it secretly and hypothetically, the way the French did it in Algeria. If we ever came close to doing it, and we don't know whether this is such a case, I think we would want to do it with accountability and openly and not adopt the way of the hypocrite.

ROTH:... The prohibition on torture is one of the basic, absolute prohibitions that exists in international law. It exists in time of peace as well as in time of war. It exists regardless of the severity of a security threat. And the only other comparable prohibition that I can think of is the prohibition on attacking innocent civilians in time of war or through terrorism. If you're going to have a torture warrant, why not create a terrorism warrant? Why not go in and allow terrorists to come forward and make their case for why terrorism should be allowed?

... Torture is not needed. If you start opening the door, making a little exception here, a little exception there, you've basically sent the signal that the ends justify the means, and that's exactly what Osama bin Laden thinks. He has some vision of a just society. His ends justify the means of attacking the World Trade Center. If we're going to violate an equally basic prohibition on torture, we are reaffirming that false logic of terrorism. We are going to end up losing the war ...

DERSHOWITZ: Well, in fact, we've done that [attacked civilians]. Of course, we've done that. We have bombed civilian targets during every single one of our wars. We did it in Dresden. We did it in Vietnam notwithstanding these rules. So you know, having laws on the books and breaking them systemically just creates disdain ... It's much better to have rules that we can actually live within. And absolute prohibitions, generally, are not the kind of rules that countries would live within.
Any comment?

Posted by Alan at 08:56 PST | Post Comment | Permalink
Updated: Wednesday, 17 December 2003 12:46 PST home

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