They were called “dead-enders,” then “Saddam loyalists” and “remnants of the old regime.” This was when the Pentagon was in denial about the insurgency it faced in Iraq. Later it was “foreign terrorists,” whom we were told it was better to confront in Iraq than in the capital cities of the West. “Bring ‘em on,” exclaimed President Bush, although the invitation to turn Iraq into a site for urban warfare was issued without the permission of those unfortunate enough to be living there.
The golden rule of colonialists is that all forms of resistance to their rule are illegitimate. Washington’s attitude in Iraq is no exception. Given the appalling and often indiscriminate violence they employ, including hostage-taking and suicide bombing, it has not been difficult to demonise those who oppose the occupation of Iraq. The ease with which the ‘terrorists’ are condemned, however, masks the underlying dilemma of how they can actually be defeated.
With little human intelligence about the insurgency, no clear understanding of who comprises it, how they recruit cadres and co-ordinate their attacks, or even what their ultimate political goals are, the failure of the Washington’s counter-insurgency strategy in Iraq comes as little surprise.
It’s no wonder the Pentagon’s special operations chiefs have taken to screening The Battle of Algiers, Gillo Pontecorvo’s classic 1965 recreation of the French war in Algeria during the 1950s.
Pontecorvo’s film depicts with disturbing verisimilitude the extreme methods used by both the French Army and the FLN guerillas, including torture, assassinations, bombs in cafes and booby traps. It’s underlying message is that no matter how many tactical battles the French won with propaganda, repression and superior technology, they could not achieve a strategic victory and were eventually driven out of Algeria by a violent and sustained insurgency which sapped their will to rule. At considerable human cost to both sides, the French learned that there are no military solutions to political problems.
History rarely produces exact historical pairs, however the French experience in Algeria will offer little comfort to those in the Pentagon who viewed Pontecorvo’s masterpiece. In the film’s climax the death of Ali La Pointe, who organised highly effective terrorist cells within the city’s Casbah, signalled a French victory in the battle of Algiers in 1957. However, it did not prevent the FLN from coming to power in an independent country five years later. Would the capture of Abu Musab al Zarqawi be any different?
And just as the exposure of torture by the French in Algeria divided public opinion at home and loosened their grip on the colony, so too have the revelations at Abu Ghraib galvanised opposition to Western interests across the Middle East.
While in the mood for movies, another film about the French experience of war might also be shown during the Pentagon’s ‘film festival.’
Although Marcel Ophuls’ celebrated chronicle of life in France under Nazi occupation was first screened over three decades ago, as a study of the morality of collaboration and resistance, The Sorrow and the Pity contains important and uncomfortable lessons for today.
One short scene is particularly poignant for those questioning the legitimacy of the West’s military occupation of Iraq.
Pierre Le Calvez is a theatre owner in the small industrial city of Clermont-Ferrand which is in the so called “free zone” of Vichy France. He is a supporter of Marshal Petain and seemingly undisturbed by the regular appearance of the Wehrmacht in his town.
One evening a group of German soldiers, accompanied by armed sentries, approached his theatre just before the 6pm session was due to commence. Without warning, they were attacked by local fighters with hand grenades. According to one report, 8 German soldiers were killed and 40 others were wounded, before their assailants escaped the scene. This is how Mr Le Calvez remembered the incident:
“Å the terrorists threw the bombs from high up on the city walls. Å The wounded fell, the ambulances came and the show went on.”
Beyond the insouciance of the theatre owner, the striking aspect of these remarks is his ascription “terrorists” to those who opposed the Nazi occupation. As Ophuls’ remarkable documentary reminds us, it was not unusual for those French who collaborated with the Nazis to regard the resistance as the enemy and their methods as terrorist. Today, however, it is the resistance – those Mr Clavez brands “terrorists” – who are celebrated as true French patriots and collaborators who are routinely condemned as traitors.
Today, Calvez’s words echo across the Western world, describing people using similar methods of resistance against US and British forces in Iraq. Throughout the Middle East, however, perceptions are often diametrically opposed.
How will history make its judgement about Iraq?
It’s not just the legitimacy of the cause which determines who the terrorists and liberators are. As the Pentagon well knows, history is ultimately written by those who win the war.