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Applied competitive behavior: "The Battle of Algiers"


Certain films and books so capture a feeling or describe an event that they transcend what textbooks have to say about the subject. If you want to understand the eviscerating, incapacitating terror that a guerilla group can instill in a local population, you only have to read Jim Corbett's slim work, "The Man eating Leopard of Rudraprayag." Killing over 120 people in eight years, a single leopard paralyzed a region, forcing the British to offer massive rewards, send in a Gurkha army, and employ all manner of hunters, traps and poisons - all to no avail - until Corbett bagged it in 1926. Every special ops guy to whom I recommended the Leopard has treasured it.

If you want to understand the ruthless, no quarter growth and suppression of an insurrection and guerilla war, you have only to watch Gillo Pontecorvo's "The Battle of Algiers." While I admit to a love of the films of Pontecorvo and Constantin Costa-Gavras as few other have so well painted political oppression and fascist states, I first saw Algiers after returning from Asia. While everyone else in the audience seemed to be a war protester that had 'yet to go,' I had come back having already made my uneasy peace with tactical necessity. The film was like an exquisite text and resonates with me still today.

Reprising a private note of Sept 2003, "I think it inspired that someone in the Pentagon recently had Algiers screened for a group of serving officers as we slip into such an insurgency in Iraq. The open, easy US soldier attitude of the first few weeks has vanished thanks to the attacks, succeeding in the first goal of isolating "us" from "them" so that corrosion commences on both sides. Demonization is soon to follow. We only have to watch for the equivalent of zips, slops, slants, and gooks and we are there."

Mercifully I do not hear those words, but the conflict has become increasingly grisly. The French plan succeeded tactically but ultimately lost the war. DeGaul ended it by withdrawing the French forces but was nearly assassinated for his trouble and French society, politics, and the military were riven for years. I can attest to the allure of tactical means in dealing with clandestine terrorists and what I used to call "the art of interviewing those who desperately don't want to be interviewed."

"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?"

If it at all possible for you to see Algiers, I recommend that you should. This is a "low-intensity war" or "asymmetrical warfare" in the flesh with both sides at once human and monster. You can gain an understanding of how a guerilla operates, what a patient al Qaeda operative looks and waits for, and how a conventional force attempts to counter and subdue it when the high tech tools of the day do not yield an easy fix. Unless we can engineer a better solution -- and I am not advocating withdrawal -- folks will indeed start to say 'I have men down, worse, in pieces, no one will know, and this guy can tell us what we need to know.'

Note that while Kaufman's original article has scrolled off to archives, the text is mirrored in many locations such as here and a useful Battle of Algiers study guide here.

What Does the Pentagon See in 'Battle of Algiers'?
September 7, 2003
New York Times

Gordon Housworth

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