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Monday, September 01, 2003

Pontecorvo in the Pentagon

Interesting report from David Ignatius in the Washington Post about the fine balance between military and political in Iraq. Inter alia the point that the Pentagon are organising a showing of Pontecorvo's Battle of Algiers :

Andrews argues that if Iraq is becoming a war of counterinsurgency, the United States must make sensible decisions about strategy and troop levels. Bad news shouldn't stampede America into pulling out. But it shouldn't mean an automatic decision to send more troops to implement a flawed strategy.

Pentagon sources report one hopeful sign that the military is thinking creatively and unconventionally about Iraq. The Pentagon's special operations chiefs have scheduled a showing tomorrow in the Army auditorium of "The Battle of Algiers," a classic film that examines how the French, despite overwhelming military superiority, were defeated by Algerian resistance fighters.

A Pentagon flier announcing the film puts it in eerie perspective: "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."
Source: Washington Post

To which Tacitus adds:

The movie that's being screened is essentially a propaganda piece -- the filmmaker, Gillo Pontecorvo, was an active member of the Italian Communist Party, and the film itself features former FLN guerrillas as themselves on location in Algiers. I'd watch it for historical instruction about as readily as I'd watch The Patriot. The real lesson of the Algerian war is that insurgencies of that type are militarily winnable -- at war's end, the FLN was confined mostly to Tunisian base camps, and many more Muslims were fighting for France than for independence. The OAS and the pied noirs essentially defeated themselves by setting themselves against de Gaulle and the French state. They paid the price. No, it's not so glamorous as a doughty native liberation movement (which liberated its people right into autocracy), but it's the historical truth. For the full scoop, Alistaire Horne's standard English-language work is highly recommended.

In fairness, whilst the film is hardly unbiased viewing (although who am I to criticise the Pentagon's taste in films, and anyway it's pretty clear that the torture scenes portrayed in the film were real enough. Anyone who doesn't know what happened in Paris on the night of 17 October 1961 should), Tacitus does rather muddy the water, since it is not clear what would be a definition of 'militarily winable' in a case like this (or, evidently, that of Iraq). The whole point would seem to be that the 'pied noirs' became isolated politically (and hence turned against De Gaulle), precisely because there was no easily available military solution. Part of the problem is that the military is constantly caught in a vice between over- and under-reacting. Overreact and you turn the population against you, underreact (viz Najaf) and you catch the blame for not 'guaranteeing security'. (BTW: the name 'pied noir' seems to have originated with the boots the Alsacian colonisers tended to wear).

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