Pentagon heeds Battle of Algiers

Chris Brady cdbrady at sbcglobal.net
Sun Sep 7 11:16:00 MDT 2003


What Does the Pentagon See in ‘Battle of Algiers’?

By MICHAEL T. KAUFMAN
New York Times, September 7, 2003

 Challenged by terrorist tactics and guerrilla warfare
in Iraq, the Pentagon recently held a screening of
“The Battle of Algiers,” the film that in the late
1960’s was required viewing and
something of a teaching tool for radicalized Americans
and revolutionary wannabes opposing the Vietnam War.

Back in those days the young audiences that often sat
through several showings of Gillo Pontecorvo’s 1965
re-enactment of the urban struggle between French
troops and Algerian nationalists, shared the
director’s sympathies for the guerrillas of the
F.L.N., Algeria’s National Liberation Front. Those
viewers identified with and even cheered for Ali La
Pointe, the streetwise operator who drew on his
underworld connections to organize a network of
terrorist cells and entrenched it within the Casbah,
the city’s old Muslim section. In the same way they
would hiss Colonel Mathieu, the character based on
Jacques Massu, the actual commander of the French
forces.

The Pentagon’s showing drew a more professionally
detached audience of about 40 officers and civilian
experts who were urged to consider and discuss the
implicit issues at the core of the film - the
problematic but alluring efficacy of brutal and
repressive means in fighting clandestine terrorists in
places like Algeria and Iraq. Or more specifically,
the advantages and costs of resorting to torture and
intimidation in seeking vital human intelligence about
enemy plans.

As the flier inviting guests to the Pentagon screening
declared: “How to win a battle against terrorism and
losethe war of ideas. Children shoot soldiers at
point-blank range. Women plant bombs in cafes. Soon
the entire Arab population builds to a mad fervor.
Sound familiar? The French have a plan. It succeeds
tactically, but fails strategically. To understand
why, come to a rare showing of this film.”

The idea came from the Directorate for Special
Operations and Low-Intensity Conflict, which a Defense
Department official described as a civilian-led group
with “responsibility for thinking aggressively and
creatively” on issues of guerrilla war. The official
said, “Showing the film offers historical insight into
the conduct of French operations in Algeria, and was
intended to prompt informative discussion of the
challenges faced by the French.” He added that the
discussion was lively and that more showings would
probably be held.

No details of the discussion were provided but if the
talk was confined to the action of the film it would
have focused only on the battle for the city, which
ended in 1957 in apparent triumph for the French with
the killing of La Pointe and the destruction of the
network. But insurrection continued throughout
Algeria, and though the French won the Battle of
Algiers, they lost the war for Algeria, ultimately
withdrawing from a newly independent country ruled by
the F.L.N. in 1962.

During the last four decades the events re-enacted in
the film and the wider war in Algeria have been cited
as an effective use of the tactics of a “people’s
war,” where fighters emerge from seemingly ordinary
lives to mount attacks and then retreat to the cover
of their everyday identities. The question of how
conventional armies can contend with such tactics and
subdue their enemies seems as pressing today in Iraq
as it did in Algiers in 1957. In both instances the
need for on-the-ground intelligence is required to
learn of impending attacks. Even in a world of
electronic devices, human infiltration and
interrogations remain indispensable, but how far
should modern states go in the pursuit of such
information?

Mr. Pontecorvo, who was a member of the Italian
Communist Party, obviously felt the French had gone
much too far by adopting policies of torture, brutal
intimidation and outright killings. Though their use
of force led to the triumph over La Pointe, it also
provoked political scandals
in France, discredited the French Army and traumatized
French political life for decades, while inspiring
support for the nationalists among Algerians and in
much of the world. It was this tactical tradeoff that
lies at the heart of the film and presumably makes it
relevant for Pentagon
study and discussion.

But this issue of how much force should be used by
highly organized states as they confront the terror of
less sophisticated enemies is far from simple. For
example, what happens when a country with a long
commitment to the Geneva Convention has allies who
operate without such restriction.  {sic; i.e., there
is no question mark in the original}


Consider the ambivalent views over the years of
General Massu, the principal model for the film’s
Colonel Mathieu.

In 1971, General Massu wrote a book challenging “The
Battle of Algiers,” and the film was banned in France
for many years. In his book General Massu, who had
been considered by soldiers the personification of
military tradition, defended torture as “a cruel
necessity.” He wrote: “I am not afraid of the word
torture, but I think in the majority of cases, the
French military men obliged to use it to vanquish
terrorism were, fortunately, choir boys compared to
the use to which it was put by the rebels. The
latter’s extreme savagery led us to some ferocity, it
is certain, but we remained within the law of eye for
eye, tooth for tooth.”

In 2000, his former second in command, Gen. Paul
Aussaresses, acknowledged, showing neither doubts nor
remorse, that thousands of Algerians “were made to
disappear,” that suicides were faked and that he had
taken part himself in the execution of 25 men. General
Aussaresses said “everybody” knew that such things had
been authorized in Paris and he added that his only
real regret was that some of those tortured died
before they revealed anything useful.

As for General Massu, in 2001 he told interviewers
from Le Monde, “Torture is not indispensable in time
of war, we could have gotten along without it very
well.” Asked whether he thought France should
officially admit its policies of torture in Algeria
and condemn them, he
replied: “I think that would be a good thing. Morally
torture is something ugly.”

At the moment it is hard to specify exactly how the
Algerian experience and the burden of the film apply
to the situation in Iraq, but as the flier for the
Pentagon showing suggested, the conditions that the
French faced in Algeria are similar to those the
United States is finding
in Iraq.

According to Thomas Powers, the author of
“Intelligence Wars: American Secret History From
Hitler to Al Qaeda”:  “What’s called a low-intensity
war in Iraq brings terrible frustrations and
temptations - the frustrating difficulty of finding
and fixing an enemy who could be anyone anywhere, and
the temptation to resort to torture to extract the
kind of detailed information from prisoners or
suspects needed to strike effectively. How the United
States is dealing with this temptation is one of the
unknowns of the war. We are told that outright torture
is forbidden, and we hope it is true. But as
low-intensity wars drag on, soldiers tell themselves,
‘We’re trying to save lives, no one will ever know,
this guy can tell us where the bastards are.’ ”

If indeed the government is currently analyzing or
even weighing the tactical choices reflected in “The
Battle of Algiers,” presumably that is being done at a
higher level of secrecy than an open discussion
following a screening of the Pontecorvo film. Still,
by showing the movie within the
Pentagon and by announcing that publicly, somebody
seems to be raising issues that have remained obscure
throughout the war against terror.

http://www.nytimes.com/2003/09/07/weekinreview/07KAUF.html?ex=1063949906&ei=1&en=c216f82adcae672c


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