Like most Americans, I’m not very familiar with the Algerian war for independence (fought against the French, largely between 1956 and 1962). What familiarity I do have is through a cursory knowledge of the life of Albert Camus (who was attacked by some French leftists for not coming out definitively in favor of the Algerians) and through a remarkable movie, The Battle for Algiers. The Battle for Algiers is a fake documentary, although not in the Spinal Tap/Rutles sense. Instead, it’s an astonishingly believable, almost newsreel-like recreation (one commissioned by Algeria, it must be noted, although the film seems largely free of bias) of a relatively prosperous, Mediterranian city becoming a war zone, as pro-independence terrorists give teenaged girls bombs and as French soldiers turn to widespread use of torture to find the terrorist leaders. Italian director (and former Resistance participant) Gillo Pontecorvo created an astonishing film.
This all comes to mind because France has, belatedly, been struggling with its role in Algeria. It may be an oversimplification to say that Algeria to the French what Vietnam was to America (for one thing, from my limited knowledge, it seems that French military defeats at the hands of the Vietnamese are part of the reason that the situation escalated in Algeria), but the French never seemed to have the correspondent rethinking about the nature of geopolitics and limited war that followed the American withdrawal from Vietnam. Even if, as some argue, we have never really faced up to the full extent of American behavior in Vietnam, there is at least a fairly universal consensus: there was little to distinguish civilians from combatants, and in the heat of battle (and occasionally in cold blood), some American soldiers did awful things.
The recent dialogue about Bob Kerrey’s actions in Vietnam brings this to a fore — people disagree (in part because the true facts are unknown and possibly unknowable), but there is the framework for a discussion. Did that ever really happen in France? For the first year after The Battle for Algiers was released, it was banned in France. The consensus view, as I’m aware of it, is that France never experienced the paroxysms of self-inspection that America went through after Vietnam. (As I wasn’t around for them, I can’t claim any moral high ground here; gutwrenching rethinking of a geopolitical strategy is just that: gutwrenching. Even cursory exploration of American self-image in the ‘70s shows how hard it was.) Now, the publication of a French general’s memoirs, in which he readily admits to ordering torture and murder, has sparked new controversy. He is specifically exempted from prosecution — should a case even be possible after more than forty years — by French legislation giving amnesty for all acts committed during the war. But the French left and human rights groups are trying nonetheless.
I don’t know much about Algeria. When you get down to it, I don’t even know all that much about France. What I do know is that, with ethnic cleansing in Europe, with a shooting war closer than its been in years in the Middle East, the West needs to be prepared to, if nothing else, talk about these things, to decide what is the moral consequences of action or inaction. It is, quite literally, the least we should do. Regardless of what Gen. Aussaresses did, regardless of whether he deserves to be punished for what most certainly are crimes, even if they cannot be prosecuted as such, regardless of whether he was prosecuting a war the best way he knew how, regardless of how justice can best be served now, France needs to get to a point where these questions can be discussed. I wish them luck.