Less than a month ago, civilian experts and Pentagon special operations chiefs gathered for a showing of “The Battle of Algiers,” the same film UCSB Arts & Lectures will screen tonight.
“The Battle of Algiers” depicts the urban guerrilla warfare waged between Algerian nationals and the French colonial army in the 1950s during the struggle for Algerian independence. A Defense Department official said the film offered “historical insight into the conduct of French operations in Algeria, and was intended to prompt informative discussion of the challenges faced by the French.”
What, you might ask, could American military officers learn from a movie about ordinary Arab citizens grouping together to shuck off a large Western occupying army? After all, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld insists the daily attacks on U.S. troops in Iraq are from “dead-enders, foreign terrorists and criminal gangs,” not John and Jane Q. Iraqi. Rumsfeld’s deputy Paul Wolfowitz famously predicted Americans would be “cheered as liberators” by average Iraqis. Wasn’t he proven correct when U.S. tanks first rolled through Baghdad March 21?
“That was yesterday,” ABC News journalist John Donvan reported on March 22. “Traveling unescorted into Safwan today, I got a far different picture. Rather than affection and appreciation, I saw a lot of hostility toward the coalition forces, the United States and President Bush… The newly-liberated Iraqis ask the same questions that seem to nag many outside Iraq. Why are you here in this country? Are you trying to take over? Are you going to take our country forever?”
The hostility described by Donvan seems only to have deepened. Rajaa Habib Khuzai, a member of the U.S.-appointed Iraqi Governing Council, warned last week of “widespread hostility to coalition forces.” On the same day, U.S. Defense Department intelligence assessments indicated the “most formidable foe in Iraq in the months ahead may be the resentment of ordinary Iraqis increasingly hostile to the American military occupation.” A study commissioned by the conservative, pro-Iraq war American Enterprise Institute, the “first scientific survey of Iraqi public opinion,” according to The Financial Times, showed “most Iraqis do not trust Americans and want to be left alone.”
Many Americans have trouble understanding why Iraqis would feel such frustration with the same forces that so recently deposed Hussein. We need only take note of the enmity existing in the South today, more than 135 years after the Civil War and subsequent Northern takeover. Military occupations are humiliating; they breed lasting bitterness and organized resistance.
Other factors could also explain the Iraqis’ anger. Essential water, electric and sanitation services have not returned even to the level maintained under Hussein’s regime. U.S. viceroy Paul Bremer has delayed popular elections “indefinitely” while installing obedient figures from Hussein’s regime as regional or city chiefs. Our military is even hiring members of Saddam’s old Gestapo-like intelligence service, the Mukhabarat, to glean secrets about Iran and Turkey. Of course, resentment still lingers in Iraq over the 12 years of U.S.-backed sanctions that turned the Arab world’s richest and most secular state into a land of squalor and fundamentalism.
For better or worse, the fate of Iraq is now in American hands. We citizens can be silent and let Iraq fester, or speak up now and make our demands known. We can add our voices to the chorus of GIs and military families demanding the troops’ withdrawal. We can pressure the U.N. be given full political and economic authority in Iraq to oversee a speedy transition to Iraqi self-rule.
Yes, our politicians will zealously avoid a withdrawal policy, curdled by the fear of advocating “surrender.” Instead, escalation will be justified by linking vicious terrorists to Iraqi resistance fighters.
But still we must act, so incoming freshmen can open up their newspapers on graduation day four years from now and not find scenes of desolation, violence and societal rot like those depicted in “The Battle of Algiers.”