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From the Letters to the Editor column of the December 2010 issue of Perspectives on History

More on the Battle of Algiers

Charles D. Smith, December 2010

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To the Editor:

I agree with Ron Briley (October 2010) that the film The Battle of Algiers is useful to introduce students to issues of colonialism and wars of national liberation as well as torture and American military intervention in Iraq and Afghanistan. That is why I showed it as part of my four-day teaching stint in late January 2003 at Fort Huachuca, the center for training American intelligence personnel in the United States. Fort Huachuca is located in Sierra Vista, 75 miles southeast of Tucson.

I was instructing reservists who were to be trained to be interrogators at Guantanamo, to replace regular military personnel who were preparing to go to Iraq. These reservists ranged in age from mid-50s to early 20-year olds. Most knew nothing about the Middle East, let alone any Middle Eastern language. I was offering them a view of Arab societies and Islam in light of modern history and their attempts to throw off Western imperial domination, as a counterpoint to the instruction I knew they were receiving on how to deal with terrorists. Why did Arab and other societies resist Western occupation? I had made the point, noted by Ron Briley, that although the actual Battle of Algiers appears to have be won by the French due to torture, at the end of the film Algerians are once more demonstrating in the streets for their freedom.

When I arrived for my final day at Fort Huachuca, having had the reservists view the film the day before, I was accosted at the break by their “minder”, a regular army NCO overseeing their official instruction. He mentioned the film and my remarks, and then said that they were showing the film in the Pentagon for the opposite reason, that is, to say that torture worked.

Perhaps, as Ron Briley said, an August 2003 screening at the Pentagon was intended to raise questions about the efficacy of torture as a means of combating terrorism, but I wonder. That is not why they were showing it eight months earlier—then it was to justify torture.

—Charles D. Smith
University of Arizona