Tuesday, August 28, 2007

THEN & NOW: War and Terror from Algeria to Iraq

An Editorial and Review of ALBERT CAMUS THE ALGERIAN, Colonialism, Terrorism, Justice by David Carroll; Columbia University Press, 2007, HC, 235 pages, $29.50.

Having read and pondered, I wish to share reflections on ALBERT CAMUS THE ALGERIAN, a new title by Professor David Carroll. The book’s subject is timely, if not urgent, and personally engaging; Camus was formative and continues in influence my own thinking and worldview.

David Carroll, a professor of French at UC Irvine, sets the tone of his inquiry early on, challenging his reader to examine the relationship of a non dogmatic man of courage and high moral standards struggling against the politics of his day—a political nightmare of terror, counter terror, torture and mass murder—conditions easily transferable to the betrayal of life and failure of compassion, justice and dialogue being repeated before us now. We are reminded that Albert Camus was born on the soil of Algeria, when much of North Africa was under French colonial rule, and that he hailed from poor immigrant parents, occupying a tenuous social and economic rung only slightly above the subjected majority population of Arabs and Berbers. Camus’ father was a semi-literate migrant worker who perished with millions of others in the trenches of the First World War, his mother was an illiterate housekeeper. Albert, of course, rose to international acclaim and received the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1957. On pages 6-7 of Carroll’s study we find the positional identification of this man of common origins, as Camus as Algerian pertains to the specific focus of the book—Camus as mediator against the politics of organized crime and advocate for the protection of life. “Camus was a resistant who never forgot ‘the Algerian’ in him and who, even during his active involvement in the struggle against Nazi totalitarian oppression and the racist ideology that divided peoples into superior and inferior races, never accepted that colonialism, also rooted in the fictions of cultural and racial superiority, could ever be justified or the injustices it perpetrated accepted.”

On pages 8-9 again the image is amplified: “The Algerian in Camus should not be understood as an attempt to define who he really was, but rather as an expression of the alterity or hybridity of his conflicted identity, of a division at the very core of the self that constitutes an opening and receptivity to others. The Algerian in Camus is also an important component of his agnosticism, of his determined resistance to political and religious doctrines, systems and ideas, the side of him that maintains a distance from—and a complicated, oppositional relationship with—national, cultural, ethnic and political identities, the side that resists oneness, sameness, uniformity and all expressions of absolute truth.” In other words, we are asked to view “the Algerian in Camus,” as the stranger within the son of a colonial French immigrant and as the other in the midst of French notoriety in a era of betrayal, dirty war and colonial dissolution; as the other who must, from a position of significant contradictions, insist on dialogue for the sake of clarity and equality of justice.

As Carroll moves on into the larger substance of his work he uncovers a secret longing—a vicious, ideological and criminal inclination—which he claims lay dormant in the collective mind of the French people and their colonial compatriots. This was the secret longing to remove once and for all the costly irritant of non compliant otherness, to execute a policy of genocide against the subject but rebellious Algerian population, a population non-European, non-Christian, not white and not French. And it is here that ALBERT CAMUS THE ALGERIAN becomes more than history past and begins to bleed over into history present and nightmare future.

Admittedly I have shuddered before the genocidal specter more than once since March 19, 2003. So it is on this point in particular that the sinister nexus between France’s war in Algeria and America’s war in Iraq connects and casts an ominous shadow throughout the pages of this important work. Consider: what thinking person has not been disturbed by the possibility that our own empire fantasizing administration is actually playing cowboys and Indians in the Middle East?

On this question there is no cause to stretch or even exercise the imagination. Without inflation or exaggeration, realities speak for themselves. Moreover, one does not wish to make more of such an inquiry than it might actually be, but rather only to coolly face the potential and make a cautionary evaluation of the evidence at hand. In matters of the politics of annihilation, realties speak for themselves. Honesty is indispensible.

It is widely known now that in the closing phase of the First Gulf War, when the deliberately over estimated Iraqi army was in full retreat back to Baghdad, the US military delivered a holocaust from the sky and incinerated 100,000 largely unarmed and non threatening men on what has since become known as the Highway of Death. So much has this undeniable atrocity entered the field of public knowledge that a graphic recreation of the scene of annihilation is depicted in the film version of the book JARHEAD. Throughout the entire film scene, with burned vehicles and charred death stretching to the desert horizon, only a single line is spoken, when one young American soldier says aloud to his conscience, “They were retreating.”

Between the end of Operation Desert Storm and the more recent occupation initiated through the military muscle flex of Shock and Awe; that sensationalized albeit sanitized television spectacle of aerial bravado and indiscriminate death on the ground; fall the years of sanctions, deprivations leveled not so much against the buffeted dictatorial regime of Saddam as against the vulnerable civilian population in general. Again the information is publically accessible that during this period one million Iraqi children wrongfully perished from hunger and the lack of medicine and adequate medical care. To this same assault on the people of Iraq should be added the statistics of increased infant mortality, the sharp rise in cancer fatalities, and the numbers of infants born deformed due to radioactive elements introduced into the environment through the discharge of 300, 000 tons of depleted uranium shells, that is, tactical nuclear weapons, expended by the United States ground forces in the short campaign of 1991.

As part of the historical background and inherited national identity, whether we like it or not, we are responsibly obligated to admit that slavery (the subjugation and systemic exploitation of persons reduced to subhuman status and forced to subsist under inhuman conditions) and genocide (the expulsion and eventual mass murder of an ethnic population in the coveting of their territories and resources, and/or to fulfill the fantasies of a politics of malice) are two nightmare components within the formative structure of the American dream. To ponder a possible agenda of playing cowboys and Indians is far from sarcasm or grim humor. By the same token, the psychotic expression, “The only way to have peace with those people is to nuke ‘em,” is a present darkness among us in serious need of public expose, identity searching examination and eventual healing. This is an especially significant challenge if ever the renaissance of a fully integrated and newly integral American is to emerge onto the world stage, librated from the patrimony of an evangelical manifest destiny, and exemplarily offering to share with a world without borders a purer, more mature and especially non-androcentric democracy. To get there, the American dream must first be re-envisioned without the accompaniment of the American nightmare.

But wait! I already anticipate and acknowledge objections, even as eyebrows are raised and jaws drop in indignation. True, polls tell us that, at long last, the majority now opposes the war in Iraq, that the majority has finally come to view the reasons for a preemptive war by this government as propaganda veiling a hidden agenda, and that the American people want out and seek change. Certainly this u turn from the post 9-11 rush from disaster to disaster is a promising sign. But for all of that, the genocidal factors are not removed from the political landscape and the disquieting question regarding intention, enactment and long term preparation remains an over shadowing apprehension.

Let us look again at evidence, this time evidence that is up to date. For the greatest fear here is that we indulge in self congratulations for initiating changes while that which is in most serious need of change continues under the covert of silence and a tacit acquiescence borne out of an attention deficit resulting in a public indifference to crimes committed in our names. Until the long labor of a reformation of our own democracy has been undertaken, we cannot rule out the potential consequences of a permissive mindset to remove, once and for all, that which irritates, that, meaning those who embody, any troubling, non-cooperative, oppositional otherness.

The two Gulf Wars have, in part, been tactical nuclear wars and this is a significant and unfortunately overlooked development. The use of depleted uranium shells increased three times during the invasion phase of the current occupation from 300,000 tons to 900,000 tons, and the long term consequences on the health and ecology of the region is not yet sufficiently estimated.

Evidence: THE GUARDIAN has tracked the number of Iraqi civilian war deaths from an estimated 100, 000 in 2004 to over 600,000 in 2006. Now, in a recent issue of Lancet Journal, second only in prestige to the New England Journal of Medicine, the estimate from the international medical community is that one million Iraqis have died as a result of violence since the US occupation forces “liberated” their homeland. This figure, one million, recurs and a person need only do the math to envision a future where the present war against global terrorism becomes the predicted intergenerational war, extending over another fifteen or twenty years at an ever increasing velocity of slaughter. (There were an approximate 25 million Iraqis before the initial US incursion and there were an estimated 30 million Native Americans on the North American continent when the first Europeans began to colonize.)

Evidence: According to a Max Blumenthal article in an August 2007 issue of THE NATION, the Department of Defense even now is reading an evangelical OSU tour to entertain and indoctrinate the troops in Iraq into a further commitment to their role in the ongoing crusade that but thinly veils the End Time Theology of the Fundamentalist Right. As part of this propaganda campaign, thousands of new video games are being shipped over. These toys of indoctrination are shooter games based on the apocalyptic LEFT BEHIND novel series. I do not recall now how many copies of Hitler’s MEIN KAMPF were read in Nazi Germany, but I am mindful that over 20 million copies of the LEFT BEHIND books have been sold in contemporary America and that the latest military offshoot, a game for our boy-soldier, is called LEFT BEHIND: ETERNAL FORCES.*

To the foregoing, what may, by comparison, appear as a small aside, take into account the fact that the Department of Homeland Security has had Immigration Services expand the number of Iraqis allowed to relocate to the United States during this past year. This decision bodes ill for the future safety of the Iraqi people overall. For those who are being relocated are first and foremost the professionals and intellectuals—the doctors, nurses, engineers and scientist who would be needed if Iraq is to someday stop bleeding and independently rebuilt, whether that rehabilitation result in a sovereign, self determining nation or a sovereign, self determining confederation.

But here, lest somebody accuse me of having taken the ball from David Carroll and run off in my own direction, let us return to the actual text of ALBERT CAMUS THE ALGERIAN. To the contrary, we will see that we have been moving along parallel lines all along.

The title of the concluding chapter of Carroll’s book is “Terrorism and Torture from Algeria to Iraq”. On pages 179-180 we encounter the following sentences: “In the spring of 2003, it was reported that Gillo Pontecorvo’s 1965 film, The Battle of Algiers, was being shown to the American military intelligence officers who would be involved in planning and carrying out the interrogation of suspects and other counterterrorist activities in Iraq. One can only speculate as to what lessons those watching the film were expected to learn, but the Pentagon announcement claimed that the film showed how the French plan for Algeria had succeeded ‘tactically’ but failed ‘strategically.’ It would be interesting to know specifically why Pentagon strategist thought that France’s overall strategy had failed, even though the French counterterrorist tactics in general and the systemic torture and summary execution of suspects in particular were successful in the short term… Why did they feel France lost the war in spite of their victory in this crucial battle against terrorism?

“For those responsible for the Pentagon announcement, it would seem as if the ‘successful tactics’ of the French against terrorism, which in fact solidified opposition in both Algeria and France to continued French control of Algeria, had no role in their ultimate defeat and no effect on the French soldiers participating in the torture and execution, not to mention the horrible suffering of the Algerian people. But, at the very least, by deciding to show The Battle of Algiers to Pentagon strategists, the very people responsible for planning and implementing America’s counterterrorist war explicitly linked the French counterterrorist actions taken…against terrorists in Algeria to American counterterrorist tactics in the United States’ global war on terrorism.

“It is unfortunate that, after seeing the film, Pentagon strategists did not also read Camus’ essays on Algeria, especially those that denounce the criminal nature of both terrorist and counterterrorist activities.”

And on pages 184-185, Professor Carroll sums up, calling for clearer vision and an alternate perspective; a perspective embodying a different, perhaps we might say a dialogical value system; while issuing an appeal to personal as well as national conscience.

“I do not believe it would be an exaggeration to claim that today we are once again living in an age of terror, which in its general ideological configuration could be compared to the climate described by Camus during both the cold war and the Algerian War. In this age, we are once again being given the choice of being ‘for’ or ‘against’; the voices of moderation, voices that include both sides in their dissent and all sides in their concern for justice, voices that refuse to accept that the lives of innocent civilians should be sacrificed for any cause, are once again being ignored, rejected, or treated as traitorous. If this is the case, it is all the more reason to listen to a voice like Camus’ again, not because he was always right or had all or even necessarily the best answers for ending the injustices of colonialism or other forms of political oppression—he was not and never claimed to be a sophisticated political theorist—but rather because he steadfastly refused to accept the unacceptable, even in the name of justice.

“Instead of showing the film The Battle of Algiers so that Pentagon officials could learn about how France succeeded ‘tactically’ but failed ‘strategically’ in Algeria, it would have been better for us all, but especially for the civilians who have died or been horribly maimed in ‘the war on terrorism,’ if the Pentagon, the president, and all the president’s men had studied the effects on both the Algerian and French participants in France’s dirty war in Algeria and thought about the long-term consequences of France’s allegedly successful counterterrorist tactics. It would have been better if those involved in the counterterrorist ‘war on terrorism’ had read and discussed the work of Albert Camus, if they had taken seriously his denunciation of both terrorism and torture, and had been sensitive to the anguish his later work expresses, if they had ‘thought about it’ more and differently than their subsequent actions revealed that they did. If they had listened to rather than ignored or suppressed dissident voices within and outside the administration. If they had understood and accepted that no end justifies the use of criminal means, no matter how atrocious the acts committed by the ‘terrorists’ of the other side. If they were incapable of this kind of critical reflection, or, more likely, if they refused to even consider it, then oppositional politicians, the press, the intellectual community, and citizens of this country and other countries who were still capable of thinking needed to have done more to oppose the means being used to counter terrorism, and opposed it sooner and more effectively. That little if any of this happened does not prevent us from doing now what was not done before. Camus’ writing on Algeria… dramatically shows how terror is a trap for both sides in any conflict and why justice demands the recognition of limits and a respect for human lives that must come before the pursuit of any cause. Even before the cause of freedom, even before justice itself. For to defend life before justice as a general principle is in fact to defend justice itself.”

*There is no intention here to make a literal comparison between the political autobiography of Adolf Hitler and the fictional prophecies of the American evangelical authors of the LEFT BEHIND novels. But rather to ask readers to consider the consequential links between different fantasies of global cleansing as such expressions of megalomania, self-righteousness and self-fulfilling prophecy translate into the politics of destruction and mass murder.

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