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Destroying Villages to Save Villages

(This is the last post in a week of posts on The Battle for Algiers and we felt we should end the series with an article on how the war ended. Note: we have used quotes from the translation of the Criterion Collection DVD.)

A recent article in Newsweek epitomized the counter-movement against population-centric counter-insurgency. “Can insurgencies be crushed by purely military means? Many counterinsurgency-theorists doubt it, arguing that guerrilla wars are won or lost primarily on the political front. It will be interesting, then to see what conclusions they draw from the dramatic end of Sri Lanka’s brutal civil war against the Tamil Tigers.” An article in the Atlantic points out that the Sri Lankans employed, "...techniques...which the United States could and should never employ."

I have to disagree with a basic assumption of both the Newsweek and Atlantic articles: that the Sri Lankan Civil War is over. Michael and I had watched Pontecorvo’s The Battle for Algiers right before the Sri Lankans' final military push to defeat the Tamils. This naturally led us to connect the two different political wars. However, instead of admiring the efficacy of brutality, we both drew the lesson that the situation in Sri Lanka was over.

About an hour into The Battle for Algiers, Lieutenant Colonel Mathieu explains the two most important parts of war to his men, “First, the adversary, and second, the means to destroy him.”

He goes on to detail the problem with Algeria, “There are 400,000 Arabs in Algeria. Are they all our enemies? We know they’re not. But a small minority holds sway by means of terror and violence. We must deal with this minority in order to isolate and destroy it. It’s a dangerous enemy that works in the open and underground, using tried and true revolutionary methods as well as original tactics. It’s a faceless enemy, unrecognizable, blending in with hundreds of others. It is everywhere.”

Later, Lt. Col. Mathieu defines the specifics of his strategy: kill the four leaders of the FLN’s executive board and the resistance will fall apart. He compares them to a tapeworm. With the head cut off, the creature dies; otherwise, it will keep growing. But how to find them? Matthieu explains his tactics: To find the enemy, they must use intelligence. To get intelligence, they must use interrogation. And the interrogations must be, “Conducted in such ways as to ensure we always get an answer. In our situation, humane considerations can only lead to despair and confusion.”

The French Army waits for a chance to implement its strategy. When the FLN (National Liberation Front) coordinates a general strike among the Arabs, the French use it as their excuse to ferret out the leaders of the FLN. The French soldiers force the men from their homes, choose them at random for either interrogation or forced labor, and rip off the doors of their shops to "open" them for business. Women randomly search the streets for their loved ones, children cry, men are beaten. At the end, in a delayed attempt to win the hearts and minds, the French soldiers attempt to hand out bread and cheese. No one will take it.

And then there is the torture. Brutal, ugly torture. A man getting his head dunked in water as smoking French soldiers watch. A man getting burned by a blow torch. A Man getting hung and crucified, blood dripping down his face. Others get electric shocks.

For the last half hour of the film, the fruits of Matthieu’s labors are shown: all four leaders of the FLN are killed or captured. A General congratulates Lt. Col. Mathieu, “The tapeworm’s headless now...The FLN is decapitated in Algiers.”
Mathieu, “We’ll hear no more of it...at least for the time being.”
General, “Forever, let’s hope.”

And if the movie had ended there, then we would have no disagreement trying to learn from Sri Lanka and Tamil’s "finished" civil war But the movie has an addendum. Two years later, a narrator reads: “For some unknown reason, due to some obscure motive, after two years of relative quiet, with the war contained mostly in the mountains, disturbances broke out again without warning, and nobody knows why or how...Two more years of struggle lay ahead. Then, Algeria became its own nation.”

Perhaps, at the time, the French didn't know why the revolution spontaneously revived itself. But to the viewer, the motive is crystal clear: the cruelty of the French Army drove the people to the streets. Because of the torture, the beatings, and the suspension of civil rights, the French sowed the seeds of their own destruction and lit a fire in the Algerians that could not be quenched.

So, we can say the Sri Lankans have defeated the Tamil Tigers. True, they paraded the bodies of the Tamil leadership on television. But the French did these things as well in Algeria. There are two lessons to be taken here. First, the battle in Algeria wasn’t over until meaningful political change was adopted. Second, we cannot say that using brutality will defeat an insurgency in the long term because we haven't seen it happen yet.

two comments

The old wisdom of removing a head so the body withers doesn’t really apply anymore. Removing leadership from militant groups only creates further anger and chaotic reciprocation. The access to weaponry and the mentality towards violence toward occupying forces is just too prevalent. I agree, even if the leadership is gone, the war doesn’t end, it just becomes something else. It becomes random violence and latent hatred. Look at our own country; I have family in the southeast who have confederate flags on their trucks and spout slogans like “the south will rise again.”

I’d disagree with the second assertion. Raw brutality has destroyed many an insurgency. Destroying the insurgency does not mean the basic political question has been settled.

Chechnya is a good example. The Russian conquest of Chechnya was reasonably complete by the 1800s. That did not convert Chechens into Russian citizens, but it did end significant political violence there for decades. However, because the basic political problem of Chechen integration within Russia was not solved, a second Chechen insurgency had ample support when Russia’s grip loosened.