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Who’s a Barbarian? Reading Abu Ghraib Through The Battle of Algiers

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IRAQ WAR CULTURE REVIEW. The Abu Ghraib tortures, shockingly a non-issue in the last US political campaign, have been captured by cameras in a proud übermenschlich need for visibility that seems to have eradicated any moral principle, even that of decency, from these soldiers’ minds. Did the exhibitionist logic that affects people who participate in reality TV shows permeate these combatants as well?

Silvia Giagnoni

“Where civilization entailed the corruption of barbarian virtues and the creation of a dependent people, I decided, I was opposed to civilization,” says the Magistrate of a remote imperial post in J.M. Coetzee’s novel Waiting for the Barbarians. Echoing Fanon, Coetzee grasps the violating spirit of colonizers who created “the barbarians” in order to construct their own identities and thus to safeguard their Empire.

After the tragic events of September 11, many treated Samuel P. Huntington’s The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order as a kind of prophetic political account of our era. On the other hand, his stress on civilizations, it has been argued, not only deepens existing differences of culture, religion, and race, but generates them by fictitiously implying a supposedly monolithic nature of cultures. It promotes the idea of a Crusade-like conflict, an unavoidable clash between “Us” and “Them,” which entails re-feudalization of society.

As Arundhati Roy notices, we live in a newly perverse global political economic and media climate in which words have no longer any sense (“I witnessed the ritualistic slaughter of language as I know to understand it”) and in which the faculty of imagination has been somehow lost and with it its ability to allow human beings to create a better world; according to Roy, that is precisely because the meanings of words has been constantly deferred. A case in point is the fact that we are constantly (and repugnantly) told to keep on calling “democracy” what Roy suggests to be just a euphemism for neoliberal capitalism. War is consequently justified. Troops are sent to war in the name of ideals completely devoid of meaning beyond being charged with hideously profit-driven motivations.

The Abu Ghraib tortures, shockingly a non-issue in the last US political campaign, have been captured by cameras in a proud übermenschlich need for visibility that seems to have eradicated any moral principle, even that of decency, from these soldiers’ minds. Did the exhibitionist logic that affects people who participate in reality TV shows permeate these combatants as well? Or did they feel like they could do whatever they liked to their prisoners after the 9/11 attacks, since they would be excused? These images were a true product of the climate of a “clash of civilizations” created by the Bush administration with the help of corporate media after the World Trade Center tragedy.

The obscenity of these images seems to truly horrify only those “who get paid to be seriously and enduringly horrified: the critics,” as Jana Prikryl writes in The Believer. Interestingly enough, as Prikryl’s article shows, we might argue that these ‘specialists’— although probably we will never know their intentions — wanted to mock the very US popular culture images. For instance, Sabrina Harman smiles when looking at the camera while raising her thumb up as a sign of victory right next to the corpse of Manadel al-Jamadi, in a pose that, turned on its side, seems an evil caricature of Rosie the Riveter’s WWII heroism. As Susan Sontag reminds us, photographs represent always the view of someone. And these pictures we can safely assume are meant, at the very least, to be gruesomely staged.

If the “War on Terror” ushers a new paradigm in which even the Geneva Conventions are thrown out the window, why should soldiers respect the victims of what is in the end a war. Perhaps, as screenwriter Franco Solinas makes clear in an interview concerning The Battle of Algiers, the truth is that everything is allowed (and justifiable) in war and we should step back from a “hypocritical, phony, romantic, fictionalized idea of war.”

Endeavors to prove that war can be in the end fair play, like regulated and disciplined duels, brings us back to concepts of rationality that have ruled Western societies from the Enlightenment forward. Hence, Franco Solinas and Gillo Pontecorvo chose France to better represent the double standards of colonial power versus the high ideals of the French Revolution. As Solinas puts it:

Politically she [France] posed the contradiction between the slogans, phrases, rhetoric — in other words the form of the bourgeoisie revolution — and its contents — the everyday practice of domination, oppression, torture.

In the film, Pontecorvo condemns not the individuals but the political machine itself, trying to present the paratroopers as normal, part of the larger structure aimed at the maintenance of the status quo.

Although The Battle of Algiers is anything but an ideological movie, it is definitely a political film. Pontecorvo is able to foreground those politics through the large use of expressionistic close-ups. The eyes of Ali La Ponte/Brahim Haggiag literally haunt us throughout the length of the entire film and beyond. Pontecorvo’s characters do not have a past or a future, a private life or any kind of personal identification. Neither do they become the viewer’s heroes inasmuch as the film does not allow an identification process to take place. Instead the film’s imagery creates an insistence that it be read as a political text.

Abu Ghraib and the Anti-colonial Lens

In 1965, year in which The Battle of Algiers was released, the Cold World was at its high and postcolonial issues were well under debate. In 1963, Frantz Fanon’s The Wretched of the Earth appeared in a posthumous Spanish translation; in 1967, his Black Skin, White Masks was translated into English; and a host of Fanon translations appeared in Persian, Portuguese, Italian, Korean, Thai, Urdu, Arabic and other languages. The international analogies to these anti-colonial cultural productions appeared manifest. Pontecorvo defined his movie as “anti-colonial in general and anti the French permanence in Algeria in particular.” He aimed primarily at emphasizing the idea that the Marxist process of history, once begun, cannot be stopped, as Ben M’Hidi answers the journalist who asks him whether the FLN has any chances left and as underlined by the music theme (the obsessive drumming) at the end. However, the film resisted dating and limitation to a very specific historical setting, thus framing it as a classic, a masterpiece of world cinema.

Today we tend to re-interpret the movie through a Foucaultian lens and look, for instance, at the rationale of the French enterprise to penetrate the Kasbah and defeat the insurgents. The rational utopist idea that through transparency victory/democracy/freedom could be won permeates Lieutenant Colonel Mathieu’s motives:

He is an adversary who shifts his position above and below the surface with highly commendable revolutionary methods and original tactics… He is anonymous and unrecognizable enemy who mingles with thousand of others who resembles him. We find him everywhere; in the alleys of the Kasbah; in the streets of the European city, and in working places…

The enemy/terrorist is invisible; he adopts mimetic tactics. Colonel Mathieu Philippe (played by Jean Martin, the only professional cast for the film) represents the ‘civilized’ Western attempt to give order to the seemingly un-ordered terrorist web. Significantly enough, Mathieu represents the intellectual par excellence:

He is tall, slender, over fifty. He has thinning gray hair, a lean face, blue eyes, and a wide forehead. Were it not for the uniform, the weapons, his tanned skin, his manner of walking, and his energetic voice when giving orders, he wouldn’t seem a soldier, but an intellectual. [my emphasis]

In criticizing Octave Mannoni’s reading of colonialism and the dependency complex that supposedly affects colonized people, Fanon reports a passage in which Mannoni openly betrays his naïve assumptions by absolving Europeans (and therefore Western Thought) from colonial racialism. Fanon cites the Mannoni quote:

European civilization and its best representatives are not, for instance, responsible for colonial racialism; that is the work of petty officials, small traders, and colonials who have toiled much without great success.

The general assumptions behind Mannoni’s study, a psychological ethnography applied to the history of colonialism, are the same ones that permitted the mass killing of millions of Congo inhabitants under King Leopold II’s colonial administration to occur and that still allows Western countries to overlook a dark element of European history, one whose death toll was of Holocaust-size dimensions. In constructing natives as inherently willing to submit and colonizers as innately keen to exercise authority, as Fanon shows, Europe reveals its profoundly racist structure. The actual regime of economic exploitation was sold to the public opinion as a way of bringing civilization and uplifting the natives. As Adam Hochschild points out in King Leopold’s Ghosts, “there is something very modern about that, too, as there is about the bomber pilot in the stratosphere, above the clouds, who never hear screams or sees shattered homes or torn flesh.”

What about the Abu Ghraib or the Guantanamo American soldiers though? Do we a have a definition (‘postmodern’ does not grasp the macabre nature of their gestures) for them? They surely heard screams and smelled the odor of the human flesh.

In The Battle of Algiers, Colonel Mathieu deploys geometry in his lesson in the Villa Headquarters: to picture the structure of organization (pyramid-like with little non-communicating triangled sub-pyramids) means to dominate it. Through a geometric drawing on the blackboard, ‘the intellectual’ tries to make sense not only of the enemy but also of the Other’s ways of working and thinking. The very visualization unveils a differently-structured type of organization whose strength resides precisely in the invisibility and the anonymity of its members. Invisibility is used tactically here as a means to fight the power structure, in a revolutionary moment that precedes the actual organization of the FLN. Pontecorvo’s purpose was to take a stand in favor of a people’s struggle for self-determination and to catch the vital moment in which change starts. In that very moment even violence comes to be excused since it does not look for justification or distinction. The insurgents fight for their people and they do not require external justification for their behavior. The Abu Ghraib “specialists” crossed the line; they overcame the hypocritical justification of a war by showing the indecent and visceral side of it and, by extension, of American culture.

We may eventually come to be grateful to those images if they trigger a process of rethinking the very idea of war in our consciousness. We have learnt from Susan Sontag’s critique that pictures are not able to shock unanimously “the people of good will.” (And who are those “people of good will”?) There is no hypothetical shared experience to evoke. My pain does not equal your pain. The dead I mourn are not the dead you mourn. The mere circulation of pictures and other images is not enough. They need to be discussed, contextualized, and compared.

In Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now what Kurtz despises most is precisely judgment, which ultimately seems to have been the reason why he ran away from civilization (“he could have gone for general but he went for himself instead”). Kurtz has “to be terminated” because his methods have gone insane. The most telling line from Willard is “I don’t see any method at all,” thus stressing the abyss between the supposed rationale for any US military operation and Kurtz’s craziness. How many Kurtz-figure must go crazy before those in power understand that a dramatic global change must occur? That war cannot be the answer? It leaves us to ask — how do we stop History?

Silvia Giagnoni is a doctoral candidate in comparative studies at Florida Atlantic University.

Bottom image courtesy George and Tony’s Iraq War Photo Gallery

Copyright © 2005 by Silvia Giagnoni. All rights reserved.

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