Dilemmas, dilemmas.

America’s involvement in the Middle East since the invasion of Iraq has forced Americans to confront all sorts of painful issues. It appears that they have had a hard time reaching a steady conclusion.

America may be the “most powerful nation in the world,” but most Americans don’t want to be part of projecting that power. Ten years ago, two years after the invasion of Iraq, 70 percent of Americans opposed reviving the military draft; 66 percent would attempt to dissuade a daughter from enlisting; 55 percent would attempt to persuade a son not to enlist. On the other hand, 27 percent favored reviving the draft; and 32 percent would encourage a son to enlist.[1]

The means used to wage the war on terror have disturbed Americans. In January 2010, 63 percent of American voters believed that government efforts to combat terrorism were too concerned with protecting the civil rights at the expense of national security.[2] (But the NSA already knew that.)   In early July 2013, 42 percent of Americans had a positive view of Edward Snowden. By mid-July, however, his approval rating had fallen to 36 percent, while 43 percent had an unfavorable opinion of him.[3]

At the end of 2014, 56 percent of Americans believed that torture used by the CIA on captured Al Qaeda members and other suspected terrorists had provided valuable information that helped prevent terrorist attacks. Curiously, only 51 percent of Americans believed that the methods used had been justified. That is, about 5 percent of Americans believed that torture had produced valuable intelligence and still thought it unjustified. Partisan division on this issue matched that on many other issues: 76 percent of Republicans believed the methods were justified compared to 37 percent of Democrats.[4]

In July 2014, just after the dramatic advances made by ISIS in Iraq, 51 percent of Americans laid the crisis at the feet of former President George W. Bush, while 55 percent said that President Barack Obama was doing a poor job of handling the crisis.[5] Even so, a clear majority then opposed intervention, while 39 percent supported it.

In Spring 2015, ISIS outlawed the wearing of “Nike” brand clothing or footwear by its soldiers.[6] In retaliation, the United States began bombing. (The rich man’s IED.) By August 2015, 5,500 American air-strikes against ISIS had killed an estimated 15,000 jihadists. (That’s fewer than three jihadists/air strike. Not exactly cost-efficient, since most of the strikes are launched off carriers in the Arabian Sea.) Moreover, new recruits have filled up the places of many of the dead. Intelligence estimates suggested that ISIS still fielding a force of 20,000 to 30,000 troops.[7] American air-strikes also sought to disrupt, even destroy, the ability of ISIS to pump, transport, and sell oil from wells in Iraq and Syria. Again, the results disappoint. ISIS still earns $50 million a month from covert oil sales.[8]

By mid-August 2015, Americans were having a hard time sorting out the proposed agreement with Iran on nuclear issues. They divided into roughly equal groups between supporters (35 percent), opponents (33 percent), and “don’t know” (32 percent). The divisions within the parties are interesting. While a big block of Democrats (58 percent) support the agreement and a big block of Republicans (60 percent) oppose it, a small share of Democrats (8 percent) oppose it and a small share of Republicans (15 percent) support it. That leaves 34 percent of Democrats and 25 percent of Republicans “not sure.”[9]

[1] “Poll Watch,” The Week, 15 July 2015, p. 19. My best friend from high-school has a son who is an Army Ranger. He has deployed seven times. “Some gave all, most gave none.”

[2] “Poll Watch,” The Week, 29 January 2010, p. 21.

[3] “Poll Watch,” The Week, 19 July 2013, p. 15.

[4] “Poll Watch,” The Week, 26 December 2014, p. 17.

[5] “Poll Watch,” The Week, 18 July 2014, p. 15. About half as many (27 percent) blamed President Obama for the crisis.

[6] “Noted,” The Week, 15 May 2015, p. 16.

[7] “Noted,” The Week, 14 August 2015, p. 16.

[8] “Noted,” The Week, 6 November 2015, p. 20.

[9] “Poll Watch,” The Week, 14 August 2015, p. 17.

“The Battle of Algiers” (1966).

Saadi Yacef was born in Algiers, the capital city of Algeria, in 1928. He learned the trade of baker, but didn’t learn to read or write. Yacef became involved in nationalist politics from 1945 on. From 1947 to 1949 he was a member of a secret nationalist para-military organization. The French stomped on this organization. Escaping the round-up, Yacef went to France for three years. While working as a baker, he thought a lot about what he had learned about conspiracy. He returned to Algiers in 1952. When the Algerian war for independence broke out in 1954, Yacef joined up. From May 1956 to September 1957 he commanded the Algerian nationalist forces inside the city of Algiers. The French captured him in September 1957, then kept him in prison until the end of the war in 1962. In prison he purportedly wrote a memoir of the Battle of Algiers. That memoir became the basis for the screen-play of the movie “The Battle of Algiers.”

Enter Gillo Pontecorvo, who was born in Pisa, Italy, in 1919. Well-off, Jewish, and trained in science, Pontecorvo fled Mussolini’s Italy for France in 1938. While scratching out a living as a journalist, he met a lot of interesting people in Paris and got started in the movie business. After the Second World War broke out, Pontecorvo returned to Italy to join the Communist Party and the Resistance movement. He led the Communist Party’s resistance organization in Milan from 1943 to 1945, so he knew a good deal about living on the run and blowing up things. After the war, Pontecorvo taught himself to make movies. He remained a Communist until 1956, and never stopped being a “man on the Left.” His movies had a strong anti-capitalist, anti-imperialist strain in them. So he was a natural for the Algerians who were seeking a director to tell the story of their war against the French.

Pontecorvo had his own style. He shot the movie in black-and-white. He shot it on location, with the eager assistance of the post-colonial Algerian government. The combined effect is to make it look like a documentary. He liked using amateurs, whose faces looked right for the scene, rather than professional actors. (His one exception in this movie was Jean Martin, a former member of the French Resistance and a paratrooper in the Indo-China War, who plays the commander of the French paratroopers.) You can see he had watched a lot of Eisenstein.

Colonel Mathieu, the para commander is a composite of several real French officers (Jacques Massu, Marcel Bigeard, Yves Godard). Many of the other leading characters are based on real people: Andre Achiary (the mustached police officer), Ali “la Pointe” Ammar, “le petit Omar,” Hassiba Ben Bouali, Djamila Bouhired (who later married Klaus Barbie’s defense attorney), and Zohra Drif (actually Yacef’s girlfriend at the time). Some of them are still living.

The movie came out in 1966. The French government banned it for five years; Fidel Castro’s Cuba awarded it a big prize. So that’s a wash. The movie deserves to be evaluated in its own right as a work of art. More to our purposes is the reception it has received from professionals in the insurgency line of work. Andreas Baader, one leader of a 1970s German terrorist group, claimed it was his favorite movie. Israeli audiences flocked to see the movie in 1988 when it was shown at the same time as the Palestinian “First Intifada” broke out. In Summer 2003, shortly after completion of the major military operations phase of the Iraq War, the US DoD’s Directorate for Special Operations and Low-Intensity Conflict sponsored several showings of the movie in the Pentagon. So, a lot of people at the sharp end of the business thought that it had some lessons to teach. What are they?