“The Battle of Algiers” at 50: From 1960s Radicalism to the Classrooms of West Point




THIS MONTH The Battle of Algiers turns 50. But Gillo Pontecorvo’s acclaimed movie about the Algerian people’s fight for liberation from French colonialism shows little sign of aging. Often described as a “classic” that has “stood the test of time,” the film has been acknowledged as an influence on everyone from the Black Panthers and the Red Army Faction to the military juntas of the Southern Cone. It may, however, have had the greatest impact in the United States, where it has appealed both to scholars of colonial and postcolonial history, such as myself, and to members of the military and defense community.

A screening of the film at the Pentagon in August 2003 unleashed a small media storm, as journalists reacted with skepticism and scorn: was the Bush administration at such a loss in Iraq that it needed to draw lessons from a 40-year-old Italian movie? “It seems far too late for Mr. Bush to begin studying about counterinsurgency now that Iraq has cratered into civil war,” opined Maureen Dowd. “Can’t someone get the president a copy of Gone With the Wind?”

Such barbed commentaries did not, however, end the film’s influence on American policy makers. To the contrary, The Battle of Algiers continues to be taught and analyzed in military classrooms and government think tanks. To understand why a film that celebrates the overthrow of a colonial regime also appeals to those charged with containing insurgencies, I reached out to a group of military educators and security analysts who have either taught or lectured on the film.

If cultural historians and film scholars typically dwell on The Battle of Algiers’s Marxist and third-worldist currents, security professionals are drawn to its portrayal of the dynamics of insurgency and counterinsurgency. Pontecorvo learned about these tactics from Saadi Yacef, the former FLN (National Liberation Front) commander who plays a version of himself in the movie, and from French military officers whom he interviewed in Paris. The enduring interest generated by the film’s depiction of war is partly attributable to the iconic status of Algeria as a battlefield of decolonization, but it also stems from the fact that in the early 1960s, the tactics used by the two sides were translated into a systematic theory of modern warfare that continues to influence military strategists.

“Counterinsurgency” doctrine developed in the 1960s in response to the proliferation of conflicts, from Africa to Latin America, in which colonial regimes and national armed forces were confronted by political uprisings. Elaborated by French veterans of Algeria, it boiled down to a few core ideas: insurgencies are hard to manage; to control them requires a combination of vigorous intelligence-gathering and a viable political response. And to defeat an armed uprising requires, above all, winning the “war of values and ideas.”

The influence of this doctrine — which might be called “the other French theory” — was greatest in the United States, where battling Communist insurgencies in countries including Vietnam and Cuba had become a priority. Books including Colonel Roger Trinquier’s Modern Warfare: A French View of Counterinsurgency and Lieutenant Colonel David Galula’s Counterinsurgency Warfare: Theory and Practice circulated widely and undergirded new military training programs. Pat Lang, a former Defense Intelligence Agency executive who, in the 1990s, headed all Middle East analysis, told me that when he underwent counterinsurgency training at Fort Bragg, North Carolina, in the mid-1960s, the materials were predominantly French, and Trinquier and Galula were among the guest speakers. He also recalls seeing The Battle of Algiers, presumably just a few months after it premiered at the 1966 Venice Film Festival. Decades later, in the fall of 2003, Lang led the discussion of the movie when it was shown to an audience of prominent policy makers and journalists at the Council on Foreign Relations.

In academic and left-wing circles, the screening of The Battle of Algiers at the Pentagon a month earlier has generally been denounced as a sign of the Bush administration’s naïveté or ideological blindness. It’s assumed that Pentagon officials focused on the film’s vivid depictions of paratroopers dismantling the cells of the nationalist movement, overlooking the brief but powerful epilogue that depicts the moment, three years later, when massive popular protests finally brought the French to the negotiating table. But the film wasn’t in fact shown because the DOD had failed to grasp the significance of this final sequence. Organized by SOLIC (the division of Special Operations/Low Intensity Conflict), the principal civilian advisor to the Secretary of Defense, the screening’s purpose was to cast doubt on the over-confident nation-building rhetoric of the neoconservatives in the Bush administration. The flier publicizing the screening warned that you can “win a battle against terrorism and lose the war of ideas.” It gestured to disconcerting similarities between Algeria and events beginning to unfold in Iraq: “Children shoot soldiers at point-blank range. Women plant bombs in cafes. Soon the entire Arab population builds to a mad fervor. Sound familiar?” Barely three months after Bush declared “mission accomplished” in Iraq, SOLIC was presenting a different scenario shaped by the tenets of counterinsurgency.

Counterinsurgency doctrine had fallen from favor in the US 1970s and ’80s. A casualty of the bitter aftermath of Vietnam, it was also tainted by its association with the dirty wars of Argentina, Chile, and Brazil, where French and American military personnel served as advisors. In these conflicts, the principle of winning hearts and minds was discarded, and regimes resorted to torture and extrajudicial killing to maintain their grip on power. Over the last decade, however, it has made a significant comeback as a result of the War in Iraq. This revival culminated in the 2006 publication of a new field manual commissioned by then Lieutenant General David Petraeus, as well to the republication of Galula’s Counterinsurgency Warfare. It also generated renewed interest in The Battle of Algiers.

After the film’s high-profile screenings at the Pentagon and the Council on Foreign Relations, it was rereleased by the Criterion Collection in a special three-disc edition. The bonus materials included a conversation with Richard A. Clarke, former chief counterterrorism advisor on the National Security Council and an outspoken critic of the Bush administration, and Michael Sheehan, who led SOLIC from 2011 to 2013 and who currently holds a distinguished Chair at the Combating Terrorism Center at West Point — one of the Professional Military Education institutions where The Battle of Algiers is regularly taught. Both Clarke and Sheehan use the film to make the case that defeating an insurgency requires winning the “war of values and ideas.” With one eye trained on Guantanamo Bay and Abu Ghraib, they emphasize that having recourse to practices such as torture inevitably undermines any attempt at a political solution.

Since 2003, counterinsurgency training has become an important field of professional military education, with centers and programs springing up at institutions like the US Military academy at West Point, the National Defense University, and the Naval War College. A search of these institutions’ websites indicates that The Battle of Algiers is a fixture of these courses. At West Point, it’s shown regularly in the French and Arabic programs. A flier for an upcoming screening explained that the film is of interest because it uses “language in a political and military context” and because “the issues faced by the French in Algeria are many of the same issues currently faced by the United States and its allies in Iraq and Afghanistan.” It’s also shown in courses offered at USMA’s Combating Terrorism Center. Lieutenant Colonel Bryan Price told me that he uses the film to illustrate methods such as sector-by-sector containment and the impact of decapitating a movement’s leadership, and as a case study of what works and what doesn’t.

All of the defense professionals whom I spoke with tied their interest in the film to their advocacy of counterinsurgency strategies that emphasize political solutions and reject tactics such as torture. David Ucko, an associate professor at the College of International Security Affairs at the National Defense University, said that he encourages foreign security personnel who are engaged in combating terrorism to focus on establishing political legitimacy. In his eyes, the inescapable lesson of The Battle of Algiers is that if you act as the French did in Algeria, you’re going to lose.

Somewhat contrary to my expectations, these conversations didn’t leave me with the impression that military educators’ approach to teaching The Battle of Algiers is particularly doctrinaire. Price told me that he encourages students to interrogate the concept of terrorism and the definition of a terrorist. He also said that while most cadets identify with the French, some end up taking the side of the Algerian insurgents. Ucko similarly noted that the film helps his students to humanize the enemy.

But if the teaching of The Battle of Algiers in policy and military contexts isn’t closed-minded, it does raise some other questions. To hold that it’s better to win people over with values and ideas rather than by force is good in principle, but it assumes that there are social and political principles that could unite all parties. This seems highly questionable in a situation such as Iraq, where the objectives of the US presence have been far less straightforward than those of the French in Algeria, and where “insurgency” has become increasingly protean.

Another issue is the apparent lack of attention paid to the film as a film — to the questions of storytelling and cinematography that preoccupy cultural scholars. The film seems to be taught in military colleges as a mirror of history, while history is approached as a reservoir of examples from which lessons can be drawn. Ben Nickels, an associate professor at the Africa Center for Strategic Studies at the National Defense University, observed that this approach is somewhat symptomatic of the field of military history as a whole. Over the last 30 years, military history has all but vanished from the academic mainstream, flourishing only in professional military education, where it has been sheltered from historiographical practices that focus on primary documents as contingent representations.

If The Battle of Algiers is going to be used as a case study of the Algerian War, it’s important to acknowledge the selective, largely symbolic ways in which it frames the war. Consider, for example, its famous treatment of the issue of torture. Though the film examines torture as a moral and political problem, it nonetheless approaches it in the same way that counterinsurgency theory does — as a form of muscular interrogation whose purpose is to obtain actionable intelligence. Yet as Raphaëlle Branche, the leading authority on the question, has shown, torture was used in Algeria not only to extract information but also — as in Latin America and more recently Iraq — as a mode of psychological warfare. Practiced on women as well as men, and often taking the form of rape, it became, above all, a way of inflicting humiliation.

The film’s depiction of the FLN is also selective. It makes no reference to the movement’s internal rivalries and vicious purges, fractures that have durably scarred Algerian politics. It also obscures the role played by female combatants. In one of the film’s most famous scenes, women who are about to set off bombs in the European quarter are shown unveiling and changing their appearance in order to look more French. In reality, the women responsible for setting bombs were mostly students who already dressed in European style. Though the film shows them acting under the tutelage of Saadi Yacef, they were often better educated than their male colleagues. Since gender remains a focal point of American foreign policy in the Middle East, it’s important to recognize that depictions of Muslim societies frequently distort or oversimplify the nature of their gender relations.

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If The Battle of Algiers at 50 seems as relevant to viewers in the defense community as it did in the 1960s, can the same be said for the film’s left-wing audience? The film critic Pauline Kael famously wrote that The Battle of Algiers is “probably the only film that has ever made middle-class audiences believe in the necessity of bombing innocent people.” But if the film undoubtedly inspired both real and armchair revolutionaries in the 1960s and ’70s, tolerance of revolutionary violence has waned, not least in response to the proliferation of jihadist movements. A half century after the film’s making, the film inspires more left-wing nostalgia than genuine revolutionary fervor.

What does continue to energize The Battle of Algiers’s left-wing and postcolonial admirers, however, is its critical depiction of political oppression and military brutality, including the use of torture — issues that have unfortunately lost none of their currency. There’s common ground here with the film’s security audience — much more so, in fact, than most academics and political activists tend to believe — though the factors that draw audiences to the film (the promise of revolution on one side, the defense of order on the other) are profoundly different.

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Madeleine Dobie is a professor of French at Columbia University and author of Trading Places and other works.


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