FF18 - The Battle of Algiers

Intro by John Roderick

Once upon a time, war was an organized thing. Princes met on battlefields, armies arrayed against one another amidst banners whipping in the wind, borders were redrawn while valiant soldiers and clever generals made their names and fortunes. Yes, all this time there were also uprisings, rebellions, [and] insurrections. Leaders were overthrown through civil unrest and empires crumbled, but the designation "War" was reserved for a clash between armies.

The end of World War I set in motion a cascade of events that would change the definition of war. The Treaty of Versailles brought an end to both the Austro-Hungarian and Ottoman empires, inspiring all those formerly subject peoples like the Syrians and the Armenians to think of themselves as political entities rather than just ethnic groups. Some, like the Saudis, were granted vast kingdoms at the negotiating table. Others, like the Kurds, were delivered from Ottoman rule only to find themselves subject to brand new governments in Damascus, Baghdad, Tehran and Istanbul.

So: Nationalism flared, ancient rivalries reignited, arbitrary borders were hastily drawn, and new resentments were sown. Wars were still the province of nation states, but a great many people had seen the promise of liberation only to have their hopes dashed. Now in the aftermath of World War II, the European colonial system finally collapsed under its own weight. Liberation movements flared from Africa to Indochina. The peoples of these diverse lands were not soldiers and armies, they were subject peoples rising up against decades of foreign rule and they didn't form battalions, they engaged in civil disobedience and sabotage, fighting asymmetrical skirmishes in alleys and cafes, while a revolutionary class of diplomat spoke for their movements.

So a new definition of war evolved. And so it was between France and its territory of French Algeria. For 130 years, North Africa was governed from Paris, but after World War II the French hold weakened and the National Liberation Front organized and strategized a resistance movement that quickly engulfed the nation. Police and government officials were the first casualties in a guerrilla campaign that became a conflagration as larger and more indiscriminate targets came under attack. The French military under the command of a ruthless Colonel responded with a familiar litany of colonial brutality, mixing deployment of infantry large, scale arrests, ambushes and torture to root out the leaders of the resistance.

The film goes from the macro scale of global politics to a micro conflict in Algiers and finally to a conflict confined within the space of a bricked-in hidey hole. It will be peace at any cost when we watch the 1966 neorealism film The Battle of Algiers.

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