washingtonpost.com  > Movies > Stephen Hunter on Movies

The Pentagon's Lessons From Reel Life

'Battle of Algiers' Resonates in Baghdad

By Stephen Hunter
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, September 4, 2003; Page C01

Over in that five-sided horizontal skyscraper where the Defense Department nests, some boys and girls with metal on their shoulder boards are turning into movie buffs. But here's an issue I doubt gets much debate among the Pentagon's field-grade film critics: Who is cooler, Col. Mathieu or Ali La Pointe?

No, the senior special operations officers who attended a recent screening of the 1965 film "Battle of Algiers," which chronicles the struggle in that colonial city between National Liberation Front (FLN) guerrillas and the French military between 1954 and 1957, were more likely concerned with mastering its immediate tactical lessons for how best to proceed in Baghdad.

The French military faces off against FLN guerrillas in a scene from Gillo Pontecorvo's 1965 (Photofest)

Still, one presumes that this latest circle of viewers was drawn instinctively to the colonel. He is, after all, the very model of the modern counterinsurgency warrior. Slim, dapper, beautiful in his beret and his mirror-finish sunglasses, his MATS-49 submachine gun carried at just the right insouciant and oh-so-very-French angle, he is what every professional officer must aspire to be: the person who knows what to do next, how to do it, and whom to do it to.

So when this elegant paratroop officer (played by Jean Martin) takes over Algiers at the head of his battalion of well-schooled elite troops, he moves swiftly to put down a terrorist campaign that confronts and confounds the French colonial administration. He floods the Casbah with troops, he gains intelligence through torture, he breaks the revolutionary cells, and when he cannot persuade a cornered crew to surrender, he coolly wires the whole house with plastique and steps back to watch the explosion and the rain of body parts. Then he lights up a Gauloise and has an aperitif.

Yet even among the Pentagon spec-ops guys, there must be a secret admirer or two of Ali La Pointe. Or if not, you can bet that they paid attention to him because, no pun intended, Ali La Pointe is the point. Ali, played by an Algerian nonprofessional named Brahim Haggiag, is the fellow we hunt this very day in the gutters and broken byways of Baghdad, and he is a formidable opponent, to say the least. Ali -- thief and pimp, street tough and gangster, murderer and torturer, with a battered face and dead eyes, is the epitome of the hated Other: the well-motivated urban guerrilla who plays the game for keeps and can kill or even die without a great deal of emotional investment in his own fate, because his commitment to the larger idea of the society wrenched free from oppression is so powerful.

The fact that both the colonel and the guerrilla are so cool is one reason "Battle of Algiers" endures, 38 or so years after its making (it's available on VHS), and why the experts of the Pentagon hope to learn from it. The director, Gillo Pontecorvo, who had been a member of the Italian Communist Party, understood that his higher allegiance was to truth and not to party line. Thus he made a film -- shot on newsreel film stock (but with no newsreel footage) for that grainy cinema verite look, with an amateur cast (except for Martin) but with the total support of the recently victorious revolutionary government -- so clear, so vivid, so emotionally powerful, so free of cant and so complex that it became a classic portrait of the kind of action that haunts us into our new century: modern army, ancient enemy, terror, bombs, snipers, death in a hundred squalid ways, no fun, no end in sight but the unwanted one.

Pontecorvo understood, no matter where his political sympathies lay, that in the greater scheme of things, human beings behaved pretty much the same no matter which side of the line they were on. The French, nominally the "villains" in this story, would have no monopoly on evil: They would think of cool things to say, would be trim, efficient, admirable and heroic. The revolutionaries, nominally the "good guys," would have no monopoly on virtue: They would be murderers, thugs, cutthroats, given entirely to a war of terror and bringing death to the innocent not as collateral damage but as a military necessity. They knew that to break the French, they had to bleed them; the French knew that to break the Algerians, they had to torture them. Thus the movie is not pretty, but it has a relentless commitment to the actual.

But what will professional military strategists, who now study the film, make of it, particularly as its lessons are applied to U.S. forces in Iraq? First and foremost, the general news isn't good. It is that such fights will be endlessly bloody and confusing, that the innocent will die, that mothers will cry and children be orphaned. That is the way it is when First World confronts Third in an urban environment, and that is the way it will always be.

But our service intellectuals will also feel a sense of melancholy as they watch the film, for the battle it portrays, while bloody and bitter, is fought by an army that enjoys a freedom that they themselves will never enjoy. No American officer can or will enjoy the tactical freedoms that enabled Col. Mathieu, of 10th Para and cool shades, to deposit Ali in bad-guy hell or paradise, depending on your religious point of view.

For one thing, the colonel is operating as an instrument of national will. Behind him is a unified France (remember, it's the '50s); he is operating on behalf of a culture that then believes in such concepts as national destiny, a right to rule the world's darker people, the moral superiority of a system, a faith, an operating procedure, as backed by the unstoppable supply line from an industrialized economy. If there were dissenters in France in the '50s, they were small batches of the discontented in out-of-the-way arrondissements, gathering in cafes where they smoked too much, drank too much espresso and worshiped Sartre too intensely. They would find their voice eventually and even, eventually, become the culture. But not then.

The colonel also had a freedom from scrutiny and an automatic respect quotient that no American officer will ever have again. At his news conferences, he jousts merrily with reporters on the issue of torture. "I'll ask you a question myself: Should France stay in Algeria? If the answer is still yes, you'll have to accept all the necessary consequences," confident that his statement alone will mollify them. And there's really not much "them" at that point. No CNN, no Fox, no New York Times, no Washington Post questioning his decisions, doubting his intentions, playing him off against his superiors. No intrepid reporters asking his sergeants and corporals how they felt about their duties, what their morale was like, if they missed home. No instantaneous reportage flooding via satellite into 100 million or so American homes, with its close-up views of the ugliness of war.

And those little broken men with the bags over their heads, who are brought out to the stockades to identify the guerrillas? Why, there was nobody to wonder how come they were so broken, nobody to make an issue over the fate, in the basement at 4 a.m., of that poor guy seen entering a room where he was awaited by three para sergeants with an electric telephone machine that had no outside connections. Those screams? Why, you polite people, and those of you in the media, you do not need to know, and you were not told what was being done in the night in your name.

That freedom to wage war without facing consequences is all gone from American military culture. So no 101st Airborne colonel can torture suspects with impunity and flood a district with men. His is not to reason why; his is but to do and watch his men die, a guy at a time, at this intersection or that gas station, wherever.

And here's the even worse news: Pontecorvo's ultimate conclusion is that the French are doomed, or possibly that the West is doomed, as it seeks to work its will on an alien culture that has so many young men willing to die to thwart that will. Though he recounts what might be considered, in classic terms, a victory, it's a pitch-perfect case of winning the battle, losing the war (sound familiar?). For Pontecorvo's reading of history demanded that the will of the Algerian people, like a thunderous tide, be yielded to in the end by men in cool uniforms with cool guns from far across the sea. The French may win a battle, Col. Mathieu may track down and kill Ali La Pointe, but the larger issue spoke to a future that wasn't French then, and may not be American now.

© 2003 The Washington Post Company