What do the Pentagon, the Black Panthers, and the Irish Republican Army have in common? All three studied Gillo Pontecorvo's classic 1966 film The Battle of Algiers to learn how to fight -- or wage -- an insurgency. Watch my ReThink Review below:
There was a spike in interest in The Battle of Algiers in 2003, when the Pentagon's Directorate for Special Operations and Low-Intensity Conflict arranged a special screening of the film for military and civilian experts. The invitation read:
"How to win a battle against terrorism and lose the 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."
According to a Defense Department official, the object of the screening was to provide "historical insight into the conduct of French operations in Algeria, and was intended to prompt informative discussion of the challenges faced by the French."
The elephant in the theater, of course, was the Iraqi insurgency, which Donald Rumsfeld was still characterizing as "small elements" and "pockets of dead-enders" who clearly hadn't absorbed the full impact of Bush's "Mission Accomplished" banner. Rumsfeld claimed that the deaths of 50 US soldiers since the end of "major combat operations" were not evidence of a growing insurgency since "if Washington, D.C., were the size of Baghdad, we would be having something like 215 murders a month." Ah, to be old, callous and clueless again...
What was interesting about this screening is what it admitted about the situation in Iraq -- that the US was in the role of the colonialist French while the Iraqi insurgents were the anti-occupation freedom fighters. And the years to come would sadly reveal that, in spite of the screening, the Bush administration didn't learn a damn thing from The Battle of Algiers -- or history.
The film makes it quite clear that mass arrests, torture, daily humiliation and disregard for civilian lives might appear justifiable to ensure force protection, and they sometimes lead to short-term gains. But those gains are easily erased by the nationalist fires stoked by such tactics. It also shows that rooting out and decapitating the leadership of an insurgency won't stop it, and that a movement with only a small number of active fighters is not an indicator of a lack of public support. But instead of learning from France's mistakes, the US simply repeated them and hoped that things would somehow be different this time. After all, God and freedom was on our side. Or something.
So why were the Black Panthers and the IRA such fans of The Battle of Algiers? Some credit the Algerian uprising with providing the blueprint for how modern insurgencies can win wars against militarily superior foes, sparking similar insurgencies across the globe. Instead of facing certain defeat in a toe-to-toe battlefield confrontation, a smart insurgency makes use of its homefield advantage, melting away into the population and springing up for terrorist hit-and-run attacks. A decentralized, cell-based structure will keep the identities of leaders and fighters hidden, and when the occupying forces respond in heavy-handed retaliation, they will only succeed in turning more of the population against them. We've seen these strategies replicated by insurgents in Vietnam, Iraq, Palestine, Afghanistan and in similar conflicts around the world.
The Battle of Algiers also shows that an insurgency is no place for sexism. Despite the fact that Algeria is a Muslim country where women were veiled, women were considered equal partners in the struggle. They were instrumental not just for supporting the fighters, but as secret weapons who could carry out missions their male counterparts couldn't without attracting scrutiny. And in the film's last scenes, the haunting ululations of the Algerian women serve as both a taunt to the French and a challenge to Algerian men to join the fight and take back their country.
If you're interested in seeing The Battle of Algiers (and I hope all of you are), you're in luck -- you can stream the whole movie on Google video for free!
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