The Free State
"Man, in a word, has no nature. What he has is - history."

Sunday, October 04, 2009

The War that Lingers

As part of their “Veterans” mini-series, Al Jazeera English has an excellent, if brief, documentary on the Algerian War. The half-hour video provides a concise narrative of the war that pitted France and its 1-million European settlers in Algeria against the native Arabs and their revolutionary movement, the National Liberation Front (FLN). In addition, there are also interviews (as the title suggests) of those who participated in the war and how haunts their lives still.

The show is particularly good at conveying the complexities of a chaotic situation. This was not merely a war between European and Arab, but also, within both groups. On the one hand, thousands of Harkis, Algerian soldiers who fought on the side of the French, were brutally massacred at the end of the war by the revolutionaries, an action which the French government did nothing to prevent. On the other, the OAS (Secret Army Organization) was a group of hard core French officer and settlers who conspired against their own government when it looked like it was turning towards peace, committing numerous terrorist attacks and making several attempts on President Charles de Gaulle’s life.

It is a good introduction to the Algerian War through its lingering consequences. From the French soldier who still has nightmares from witnessing Algerian prisoners having their throats slit under French orders. To the descendents of Harkis in France where they were put into camps and marginalized by the French and feared reprisals from more recent immigrants from Algeria who still hated them as collaborators. In so doing, the horrors and the moral ambiguities of the war are ably drawn out.

The documentary does not need to draw explicit parallels for it to make us think on today’s controversies. It is still unclear today exactly who in the French government knew about the widespread and systematic use of torture by French forces in Algeria. In 2000, General Jacques Massu, a resister during the Second World War who commanded during the Battle of Algiers and remained to de Gaulle, said torture “was not necessary in time of war” and that they could have “very well gotten along without it.” Another General, Paul Aussaresses, caused controversy in 2000 when he began to make interviews and books defending the torture he himself said he had committed in Algeria. Here the director leaves us on a chilling note, letting the one-eyed nonagenarian Aussaresses sing (!)what he calls “my song,” one by Edith Piaf: “Non, rien de rien, non je ne regrette rien.” Sinister lullaby.

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