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The Dark Soul of Colonel Mathieu


I’ve been working on this post for close to a year. I return to it every time I watch Battle of Algiers, which I saw last Thursday for the fourth time this year. If you haven’t seen the film, go see it now.

The first time I saw Battle of Algiers was during a security studies retreat at Cornell University. In the discussion following the film, one of the political science faculty surprised the room by suggesting that Lieutenant Colonel Mathieu was one of the most evil characters that he had seen portrayed on film. There was considerable disagreement on this point, and I was completely unconvinced. Mathieu appeared to me to be the picture of a professional military officer; on the wrong side of history, perhaps, but concerned primarily with his duty and by no means evil. That Mathieu clearly respected his opponents made him even more appealing. Later, we dismissed the professor’s argument as simply a re-assertion of the banality of evil hypothesis. I’ve probably seen Battle of Algiers 15 times since then, and each time I’ve had opportunity to rethink the argument. I have come to believe that the professor (Peter Katzenstein) was correct, that Lieutenant Colonel Mathieu is one of the most vile characters ever portrayed in film, and that it has nothing to do with the banality of evil.

In Battle of Algiers, Mathieu is a paratroop colonel who is assigned to put down the revolt of the FLN in Algiers. In service of this objective, he orders his troops use torture as an interrogation tactic. Mathieu is uniquely well qualified for the mission because of his experience both in Indochina and, as part of the anti-Nazi resistance, in France. Wry and witty, he names one operation “Champagne”, and takes time to make fun of Sartre. He expresses sympathy and respect for his opposites in the FLN.

Why is Mathieu a troubling figure? First, he’s on the wrong side of history. There is simply no way in which the French presence in Algeria could be justified. We aren’t talking about the US in Iraq, or even in Vietnam. The French presence in Algeria was explicitly colonial, and inevitably involved the domination of the local Algerian population. The French “civilizing” project was clearly a joke, as the Algerians continued to resent French rule 120 years after its imposition. The only justification for French domination was French national power and greatness.

Being on the wrong side of history does not necessarily make one evil. If Mathieu legitimately believed in the importance of the French mission, or in French greatness, his actions would be understandable. However, I don’t think he does. After fifteen viewings, I am more convinced each time that Mathieu believes in neither France nor its mission. He is obviously a bitterly cynical man, and I can’t believe that he finds French nationalism compelling. He certainly never voices any support for French nationalism, his only concern on that point being for the solidarity necessary to maintain support for operations. He’s just too smart of a character to buy into what were clearly, by the 1950s, illusions of French power and mission. Note that a belief in French greatness wouldn’t absolve Mathieu, but it would make his character understandable and somewhat less cold blooded. As it is, Mathieu has all the warmth of a lizard, exhibiting respect only for professionalism and for the abstract notion of political commitment, rather than commitment itself.

This leaves Mathieu with only duty to excuse his actions. If we believe that Mathieu was compelled by his position in the Army to carry out his actions, then we can excuse at least a portion of the atrocities. But that explanation doesn’t wash. Mathieu didn’t end up on the wrong side of history through accident. It’s clear that he’s brutally intelligent, fully capable of understanding the implications of the decisions he makes. At one point, he teases French journalists for being incapable of measuring up the results of their political commitments. Had he wished to remain in the Army, he almost certainly could have done so even had he refused the assignment to Algeria. Were he a moral man, he would have turned the assignment down regardless of the effect on his position in the Army. Instead, he goes to Algeria.

This leads us to the second consideration, which is Mathieu’s commitment to torture. His use of torture quickly puts the lie to the notion that Mathieu is simply doing his duty, as required by his position in the Army. Mathieu orders his men to torture Algerian suspects as a first resort, not a last. He begins violating the laws of the French Republic the day he arrives in Algiers. His conversation with the French journalists is telling; he puts the onus of the torture on them, by suggesting that, because of their support for keeping Algeria in France, they have authorized him to use whatever means necessary to that end. At no point does he admit to a hint of patriotism, which might at least point to a commitment to a greater duty. Mathieu never evinces commitment to anything beyond the ethics of the professional killer.

It is not enough to say that, had he refused, someone else would have taken his place. It is true that the French Army would have found someone else. It is also almost certainly true that someone else would have acted with less competence, less efficiency, less brutality, and with a lower chance of success than Mathieu. One look tells us that he is the best that the French Army has to offer. No one else could do this job as well as he. Mathieu is a critical cog in the mechanism of French colonial domination. Moreover, he understands his role; there is nothing thoughtless or banal about him. He relishes his own potency, quietly revels in the success of his methods. He’s cool enough to know that he’s cool, and he knows that he’ll win.

I think that this is the core of twentieth century evil. The Stalinist terror, the Armenian Genocide, the Holocaust, all of these required more than just ideological commitment or the bureaucratic diffusion of responsibility. They required men like Mathieu, men who understood fully the consequences of their actions and carried them out anyway, carried them out with the competence, brutality, and efficiency that they required. I suspect that in most cases ideological certitude accompanied the competence. Pontecorvo’s portrait of Mathieu is particularly jarring and brilliant, however, because it paints such a figure sans ideology, the perfect component for the machinery of killing.

UPDATE: Kat puts it very well:

He’s so cool about everything he does–like treating it as if it was all in a day’s work, that you don’t feel like he’s actually doing anything wrong

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