“The Battle of Algiers”: Do the ends of national liberation justify the means?

A scene from "The Battle of Algiers"
A scene from “The Battle of Algiers”


Note — This post is by Alexis Parchell, a senior in the Honors College at Oakland University majoring in Art History. Students in my course, International Relations on Film, are  contributing posts to the blog reflecting on the movies we are watching in class and the ideas those films are helping us to think about. Alexis’ piece is presented here with minor editing.

The 1966 film The Battle of Algiers has no qualms about its political message. Filmed only four years after Algeria’s war for independence ended, the film follows the National Liberation Front (FLN) and its campaign of terrorism in the city of Algiers. Saadi Yacef and Samia Kerbash, who play El-Hadi Jaffar and Fatiha, are two members from the actual FLN who recreated their wartime activities for the film.

Shot in an Italian neorealist style, The Battle of Algiers gives viewers a documentary-like account of the acts of guerrilla warfare committed by the FLN and the counter-terrorism efforts of French forces, led by paratrooper commander Col. Mathieu, a composite character based on several different historical figures.

In the film, we are introduced to Ali La Pointe, who becomes a leading member of the FLN after his recruitment Jaffar. His recruitment, an attempted assassination of a French police officer, alludes to the future means taken by the FLN to end French rule over Algeria.

Throughout the rest of the film, the FLN’s members carry out different instances of urban terrorism. The first acts of FLN violence are against French security officers in the city, the most visible agents of the oppression of the Algerians the FLN were claiming to represent.

Despite their efforts to control the situation by controlling the population, like installing checkpoints and aggressively searching Algerian Arabs, the local French authorities were unable to  stop the attacks. We see a French police commander take matters into his own hands as he and fellow Europeans detonate a bomb outside home of a suspect in the casbah, killing innocent civilians in the process.

With the FLN vowing of vengeance, this bombing sets in motion the deliberate targeting of civilians that is the characteristic feature of terrorism.

The FLN then go from targeting French police and soldiers to targeting civilian areas. The first set of these attacks target a café, a milk bar full of dancing teenagers, and an airline office. Many innocent people are killed, mimicking the deaths of the innocent people in the first bombing of the casbah. As the film shows, more civilians die in further FLN attacks, at a racetrack, and on the streets of the city’s European quarter.

In the city of Algiers, the means by which the FLN attempts to free their country from colonial rule are defined as terrorism, where the violence largely targets innocent people rather than soldiers. Although their acts are successful in causing terror, do the FLN’s methods work in advancing their war of independence? Does Algeria’s eventual independence justify this violence?

The FLN’s methods do attract the attention of the United Nations, even though in the end they are not given support by the organization.

The Algerian movement for independence wasn’t out of the ordinary. The mid-twentieth century was characterized by fights for independence from the European powers. Even within Algeria, the FLN’s aim of gaining freedom was not isolated in Algiers, but was waged throughout the country as Algerians fought against French power.

As Americans, I think that many of us support movements for freedom and independence. However, I am also someone who grew up during the “War on Terror” and I have seen acts of terrorism like 9/11, the November attacks in Paris, and most recent Brussels attacks.

I find it hard to sympathize with the killing of innocent people when there are non-violent alternatives that are even more effective. Watching The Battle of Algiers, I agree with the legitimacy of a desire for independence, but the acts of violence enacted by the FLN only served their movement to a point.

So, do the ends justify the means? For me, no.

The continuing relevance of “Dr. Strangelove”

strangeloveNote — This post is by Myles Zilinsky, a freshman in the Honors College at Oakland University studying in the School of Business. Students in my course, International Relations on Film, are  contributing posts to the blog reflecting on the movies we are watching in class and the ideas those films are helping us to think about. Myles’ piece is presented here with minor editing.

Dr. Strangelove, the 1964 political satire film directed by Stanley Kubrick, plays on the numerous fears and anxieties that came with the Cold War standoff between the nuclear-armed powers of the United States and the Soviet Union.

After an opening scene showing the balletic refueling of an American B-52 bomber midflight, the film proceeds into U.S. Air Force Gen. Jack D. Ripper’s office where he orders a “limited” nuclear strike on their Soviet adversaries. Although many question Gen. Ripper’s principal intentions in ordering this opening nuclear strike, one is only left with his thoughts of a “shoot first, ask questions later” attitude on relations with Soviet officials.

Through the numerous instances of irony and subtle jokes, from dubious character names to puzzling movie props, Dr. Strangelove largely depicts the common misperceptions the Americans and Soviets had of each other and of the strategic environment during this time of nuclear tension.

To begin, the Americans, portrayed by the paranoid Gen. Ripper, believed they lived in a strategic world in which offensive military capability reigned, where a nuclear first strike would not only surprise an adversary, but be so devastating that effective retaliation would be impossible. But in the film, this world they perceived actually would turn out to be the complete opposite, as unbeknownst to the Americans before their attack, the Soviets had implemented an ultimate, yet undisclosed deterrent to an impending foreign nuclear strike: The Doomsday Machine.

As Russian Ambassador de Sadeski details the aspects of The Doomsday Machine to American officials in the War Room, he states that any nuclear bomb that penetrates the soil of the Motherland triggers it. Once triggered, the linked bombs destroy all life on Earth, leaving behind a radioactive shroud that would last 93 years. What made it the perfect deterrent is that The Doomsday Machine was completely automated. It could be neither deactivated nor countermanded. Any nuclear attack, whether first-strike or retaliatory second-strike, would lead to the extermination of everyone.

In addition to showcasing the countries’ misperceptions about one another on apparent attacks and strategies, Dr. Strangelove depicts the modern nuclear world as one that is far more dangerous than previous times. From the beginning montage of nuclear explosions to the ending scene of The Doomsday Machine going off, Stanley Kubrick shows the disastrously high stakes attached to creating and advancing the technologies and strategies of nuclear warfare.

Furthermore, through his characterization of Gen. Ripper, Kubrick demonstrates the immense dangers the world could face if the wrong people and organizations were in charge of such destructive weapons. Thousands if not millions of people’s lives could be at stake with the push of a button. However, although a nuclear-free world would seem like a more peaceful one given these weapons’ horrid potential, who is to say that international conflicts would go away even if nuclear-armed states gave up their arsenals? And what would necessarily happen if there were ia major conflict between former nuclear-armed countries? Who is to say they would not race back to rebuild and even employ these ultimate weapons?

Although no one knows the exact answers to these difficult questions, the reality is, is that in our current state, the nuclear bomb continues to play a perplexing role in the world of international politics.

Forty years after Dr. Strangelove, states still seek nuclear arms to enhance their military power and increase foreign political influence with that power. Scholars and analysts still suggest that nuclear arms can be a stabilizing force in international politics. But, as we’ve seen with North Korea and Iran, the pursuit and possession of nuclear weapons can also make a country an unwanted outcast, the source of extreme tension and dread in the eyes of others.

“Thirteen Days” of bureaucracy?

13 days

Note — This post is by a student in the Honors College at Oakland University. Students in my course, International Relations on Film, are  contributing posts to the blog reflecting on the movies we are watching in class and the ideas those films are helping us to think about. This entry is presented here with minor editing.

Do we negotiate, or do we strike? This was the fundamental question which the Kennedy Administration needed to answer during the Cuban Missile Crisis, dramatized in Roger Donaldson’s 2000 film Thirteen Days. The movie demonstrates how policy-makers come to decisions in crisis mode.

It’s thrilling at times, watching Adlai Stevenson grill Valerian Zorin at a UN Security Council meeting:

“All right sir, let me ask you one simple question. Do you, Ambassador Zorin, deny that the U.S.S.R has placed and is placing medium and intermediate range missiles and sites in Cuba? Yes or no? Don’t wait for the translation: yes or no?”

It’s rather nauseating at others, watching cabinet level-officials explain to the president that the only permissible option is to go to war, as if it were beyond their cognitive abilities to think of potential alternatives.

Scholars continue to examine the Cuban Missile Crisis for lessons to be learned about foreign policy. Graham Allison, a professor at Harvard, surmised three “conceptual lenses” to analyze the Cuban Missile Crisis (and other foreign policy crises) with. The first is that of a “rational actor.” It models statesmen as acting rationally, so that they make the best decision possible given the options they are confronted with. In particular, it supposes that high-level policy-makers are apolitical, free to support the most rational option. While most citizens would certainly hope this to be the case, they would likely offer a more cynical view – that policymakers act in their own best political interest, as opposed to the national interest.

Second, we consider Allison’s “organizational process” lens. This models foreign policy decisions as a function of the competition between somewhat stove-piped organizations, and the procedures and regulations which “bind” each of them.

This is a prominent feature of the depiction in Thirteen Days. Kennedy’s national security team is initially bent on the idea of forceful military intervention. He’s presented with three options: a “surgical airstrike against the missiles themselves,”a larger air strike against their air defenses along with the missiles,” and/or an invasion. At this point, given his team’s push toward hardline military options, Kennedy says that he’s certain he will order the airstrikes.

One of the subsequent scenes depicts his two closest advisors, Attorney General and brother Robert F. Kennedy and Special Assistant Kenneth O’Donnell (as depicted in the movie), telling him that conducting airstrikes would be an emotional rather than rational response to the situation. It shows Kennedy’s realization that the recommendation from the military men comes from their military organizational process, and that he must rationally keep all options open. It demonstrates a shift, in practice, from an organizational process model to a rational actor model. Note that the three options he was presented with did not include the naval blockade, which was actually implemented.

Allison’s third model is what many citizens might imagine is the case, especially as the political environment becomes increasingly polarized. The “governmental politics” model, also known as “bureaucratic politics,” envisions policymakers as maneuvering and compromising in order to achieve their own personal goals and policy preferences. The idea of a rational foreign policy and rational actors to dispense it is exchanged for a foreign policy defined by the bargaining of the top advisors’ ideological predilections.

Thirteen Days could be viewed through the lens of a bureaucratic politics model at times, though it often fits much better as an intersection of the organizational process and rational actor models. For example, the scene described earlier, where organizational processes seemed to give way to rational actors could alternatively be viewed through the lens of bureaucratic politics. Kennedy’s reluctance to accept Gen. Carter’s position on airstrikes,“it’s obvious. It’s the only option,” and also former Secretary of State Dean Acheson’s, “the General is right. There is only one responsible choice here,” could be viewed as pitting his personal policy preferences against the security team’s’ preferences, in contrast to modeling his position as one of a rational actor.

Thirteen Days shows the making of foreign policy decisions through the viewpoint of a bureaucracy. If Kennedy simply followed the organizational processes which his advisors were beholden to, the Cuban Missile Crisis would have likely ended in a very different way. We cannot say for certain that Kennedy was free from his own office’s organizational processes, intragovernmental politics, or that he was a rational actor. We can say that the choice of a naval blockade does seem better than the alternatives of war offered by most of his advisors.

History, myth, and politics in Eisenstein’s “Alexander Nevsky”


Note — This post is by Jonathon Dillon, a junior in the Honors College at Oakland University majoring in Bioengineering. Students in my course, International Relations on Film, are  contributing posts to the blog reflecting on the movies we are watching in class and the ideas those films are helping us to think about. Jonathon’s piece is presented here with minor editing.

The 1938 Russian film Alexander Nevsky is movie about the Russian people fighting off a 13th century invasion. But it is also more than that. Famed director Sergei Eisenstein made Nevsky specifically as a propaganda film at a time when relations between the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany were strained.

In making this film, Eisenstein aimed to bring the Russia people together in hopes of inspiring them to defend their homeland in the face of a looming threat of German aggression.

To do this, Eisenstein brings us back to the story of Alexander Nevsky, Prince of Novgorod, who achieved legendary status for his victories over Swedish invaders. In Eisenstein’s telling, having defeated the Swedes, Nevsky withdrew from public life to live simply as a fisherman along side his personal guard.

When he gets word that German crusaders have invaded Russia, sacking its cities and slaughtering its people, he rises back to action in defense of the motherland. He travels to the city of Novgorod and rallies its citizens, motivating them to pick up their swords and fight off the German invaders.

Eisenstein chose this story because it was familiar, believable, and inspirational, but still flexible enough to be reinterpreted by the storyteller. In short, the Nevsky saga is what the British sociologist and scholar of nationalism Anthony Smith calls a “usable past,” one which can be repackaged and delivered to the audience in a way that will resonate with them, as Eisenstein did with Alexander Nevsky and the Soviet people.

Usable pasts can play a large role in politics, especially in the strategies of elites seeking to unite or mobilize the masses. For example, a politician can use memories of the past to help his campaign, telling the people that they need to “make our country great again.”

Or a leader may make reference to a past “golden age,” a period where the nation had achieved its greatest heights of accomplishment, whether philosophical, economic, or military, in order to inspire his country to try to reclaim its lost heritage.

In the case of Alexander Nevsky, Eisenstein looks back to a golden age of Russian military victory and national unity, reminding the Soviet people of the strength they had shown and the glory that they could reclaim.

In using this piece of history, Eisenstein also takes advantage of national myths shared by with the Russian people.

Myths play a central role in politics, argues Hungarian scholar György Schöpflin. Eisenstein understood this, and used it to his advantage when writing Alexander Nevsky, referencing Russian myths of military valor. Such myths focus on the strength of the military and battles fought and  won in the past.

The film represents this by focusing on a strong military hero and Russian victory in battle. In the final speech of the movie, having decisively routed the German invaders, Nevsky tells the people that he will one day return if Russia is in trouble, and vows to smite whoever fails to fight for their country in the future.

These words from Nevsky are used to inspire the Soviets to fight for their country in their effort against Nazi Germany. This is not the only myth that Eisenstein uses in his film, however.

Another myth which features prominently in the film is the myth of ethnogenesis and antiquity. This encompasses a belief that those who first inhabited a place have foremost rights to the territory, a direct connection between the people and the land itself. Eisenstein plays to that several times in the film.

For example, a song played in the background of the film tells of the people’s blood soaked into the soil of Russia, showing that the people of the nation and the land are connected by blood, and that the people will shed their blood in order to defend it.

This is given strong visual representation in the scenes of Nevsky gathering his army to meet the Germans. We see peasants climbing out of dugouts in the ground, and while we understand they have built their homes underground, the visual conveys the idea that the people are literally born from the land they must fight for.

This again sends the message to the people that they are one with the motherland, and must rise to  defend it. The myths in this film provide a framework for a common identity of the Russian people, inspiring them and reminding them why they must be ready to fight for their country.

The film Alexander Nevsky is most notably a propaganda piece intended to rally the Russian people to fight for their homeland, and its filmmaker, Sergei Eisenstein, made that fact quite obvious. It is hard to deny that it is a great example of how usable pasts and myths are used in international politics.