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Teaching The Battle of Algiers

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scene-from-the-battle-of-001

This is a really interesting essay about how the military establishment teaches The Battle of Algiers and how it usually draws poor lessons from it.

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.

That is fundamentally true about military history within the academy. As its’ become more isolated, it’s hardly surprising that it would fall further and further behind the rest of the field conceptually. Also, I taught Battle of Algiers in my summer film course a couple of years ago and one of the students, who was an ex-Marine who had gone to Lebanon just after the barracks were blown up, said they watched it back then to understand what was happening in the Middle East. I mean, I think there are things one can learn from films, but it worries me that the leading document to understand the contemporary Middle East within the military establishment is a fifty-year old film made by an Italian Marxist about a secular, nationalist revolutionary movement.

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  • Srsly Dad Y

    What the film really drove home to me (nonmilitary, nonacademic) is the game theory of an insurrection against occupiers. Logic drives the weaker side to acts of terrorism and the occupying force toward group punishment and torture, almost regardless of their ideologies. That seems to me to be what the speech of the French colonel is about. You see it again and again irl.

    Then again you see confirmation bias everywhere once you start looking for it.

  • I think Alistair Horne’s Savage War of Peace is still the best general description of the Algerian war. Excellent read — you don’t even notice how thick it is.

    • Srsly Dad Y

      Outstanding.

    • Tracy Lightcap

      Yes, it’s a great book and catches the feel of the war better then any other I’ve read (and I read a lot of them recently).

      What gets me is that the military seems to turn to a relatively inaccurate movie to get an overview of the war in Algiers instead of Horne. The insurgency in Algiers wasn’t curbed by torture but by the pass system and selective murder by death squads. I think Colonel Trinquier’s book about Algiers – he was in charge of the pass system – colors how the movie is seen since he accepts the need for torture under certain circumstances. Also, he couldn’t discuss the murders without implicating his comrades. Still, a better look at the situation – like the one in Horne, perhaps supplemented Aussaresses’s The Battle of the Casbah – would tell the recruits more about how the French defeated the FLN in Algiers and elsewhere, but still lost the war.

  • Snarki, child of Loki

    I, for one, look forward to the release of an authoritative film documenting the Trump presidential campaign: “Birth Of A Nation”.

    • Bill Murray

      I though they were going for

      Rebirth of a Nation or
      Birth of a Nation Again

      • Snarki, child of Loki

        “Afterbirth of a Nation”?

    • bexley

      One reboot we could have done without.

      • cpinva

        “One reboot we could have done without.”

        that’s a quick description of Trump in general. pity he didn’t disappear into the dung heap of financial history, after his first bankruptcy. he’d have left behind a grateful nation/world.

        Birth Of A Great Nation Again, Again

        for tomorrow night’s debate, I see two possibilities, ala Trump:

        1. he lies like a rug, and gets called on it real-time by the moderator. won’t affect his standing with his “40%”. the pundits will bitch, because calling him on his lies in real-time will stretch the debate to ten hours, way past their nightcap time.

        2. he chooses not to lie, so is left with nothing to say except “good evening”, and “goodnight”. still won’t affect his standing with his “40%”. the pundits however, will go wild with applause, noting his very Presidential Silence!

        • Redwood Rhiadra

          They’ve already agreed that the moderator won’t call him on any lies. So Clinton will have to spend all her allotted time trying to defend against his Gish Gallop, and won’t be able to say anything substantive of her own. Pundits will all applaud Trump’s amazing success.

        • Ghostship

          Trump is that most beloved of American characters, the snake oil salesman. Everybody knows they lie but it doesn’t matter anyway since they buy his product because they’re ignorant and stupid. Calling Trump on his lies will have no effect whatsoever, in fact it might have the opposite effect because he can label his detractors as that most unloved American character, the intellectual. To “win” the debate, Hillary needs to out sell a consummate snake oil salesman and that can’t be done.

  • DocAmazing

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rzy2wZSg5ZM

    Legnd has it Edith Piaf dedicated a live version of “Non, Je Ne Regrette Rien” to the French airborne soldiers who had committed atrocities clearing the Casbah.

    • CP

      As if I needed another reason to dislike her.

      I actually know nothing about her as at all as a person. But I hate her voice. Not her songs, they’re fine when sung by someone else (or played on the piano as my uncle likes to do). But her voice is like nails on a blackboard to me. Never understood why so many people love her singing.

  • Wapiti

    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.

    I was in the Army at the beginning of the second Iraq war; I didn’t serve in the sandbox. At the time my view was that if you don’t have a legitimate casus belli, and don’t tailor your war aims proportionately, you’ll never be able to win over the populace with values and ideas.

  • REParent

    As a humanities scholar who has taught The Battle of Algiers, for me the big question that the film raises is this:

    Is it ever possible for an invading and/or occupying force to win the hearts and minds of the locals?

    That’s it. And the film pretty definitively answers that question in the negative, while helping viewers to understand why the answer is no.
    I’m also reminded of the edutainment game September 12th, which dared its players to find a way to bomb terrorists away.
    Have we learned nothing from Wargames?

    • Phil Perspective

      Have we learned nothing from “Wargames”?

      Why would we learn anything when just yesterday/today we have the media, and a number of liberals, fluffing Dubya just because he secured funding, a lot of it corporate, for the NMAAHC. Like we’re supposed to ignore all the blood in his hands.

    • cpinva

      “Is it ever possible for an invading and/or occupying force to win the hearts and minds of the locals?”

      you can always win over some of the locals, usually those who have a vested financial interest in your invading/occupying their country. see: France: WWII: collaberators

      and there will always be some of these, no matter how horrible that invading/occupying force is. some % of the locals will be able to make a buck off of it. this was as true in occupied Algiers as it was in occupied France, and occupied Vietnam.

      I just recently watched The Battle Of Algiers on Youtube. it’s probably been at least 30 years since the last time I saw it. I suspect my current take away has been colored by my feelings about our illegal wars in both Afghanistan & Iraq. my sympathies were not with the French.

      I have also been watching documentaries on King Leopold of Belgium’s rubber horrorshow in the Belgian Congo. holy shit!

      “we have the media, and a number of liberals, fluffing Dubya just because he secured funding, a lot of it corporate, for the NMAAHC.”

      Phil, not that I disbelieve you, but could you please provide the names of those liberals who were “fluffing” Dubya?

      • Phil Perspective

        Did you see the picture of Michelle Obama and Shrub from the NMAAHC opening this weekend? People are passing it around Twitter saying: “Awww, how cute!!” It’s the people passing it around saying such things that I have a problem with. The people saying Bush well well-meaning just stupid, or variations of that theme. There are too many to list here, sadly. But it’s easily findable.

        • Phil Perspective

          I wish I remember the Twitter user who originally pissed me off. I know one thing about him though. He used a picture of Zinedine Zidane as his Twitter avatar.

    • Murc

      That’s it. And the film pretty definitively answers that question in the negative,

      That doesn’t seem right. The Germans and Japanese may not have been thrilled with our presence, but they didn’t, you know, wage a decades-long insurgency. Not even, in the case of the Germans, against the Russians, who they really hated. And they totally could have.

      It does, however, seem like the postwar occupations of the Axis powers may have been a unique situation.

      • econoclast

        I almost feel like the historical lesson of the last 75 years is “If you think this is like World War 2, think again.”

        • JohnT

          That’s so on point that I’m going to have to plagiarise it some time!

      • sonamib

        Maybe people weren’t willing to fight in the occupied Axis powers because they were utterly crushed militarily? I mean, they were supposed to be grand World conquerors, but their Armies were humiliated in the battlefield and their cities firebombed into the stone age. Not to mention, the Allies had nukes, and were willing to use them. Staging an uprising in those circumstances must have felt pretty hopeless. And where would they find any national pride to motivate the struggle?

        • Barry_D

          In the larger sense, yes. But that would not have stopped the odd thousand die-hards from doing just that.

          • njorl

            Between deaths, serious injuries and POWs (who were held into the late 40s and early 50s), Germany lost access to about 20,000,000 fighting age men from a total population of about 70,000,000.

            In Japan, the losses were not nearly as extreme, but the American occupation included significant food aid and the forced enactment of very popular policies which had been held back by the pre-peace government.

        • ajay

          Maybe people weren’t willing to fight in the occupied Axis powers because they were utterly crushed militarily?

          Iraq was also utterly crushed militarily, with almost ludicrous ease. At least the Germans put up a fight.

          • njorl

            No, Iraq wasn’t crushed. The percentage of young men with combat training who were removed from Iraqi society was insignificant. Many of them still had their small arms.

          • DAS

            Is the cohesiveness of the losing side as a “nation” actually preventative of insurgency? Say what you will about the tenets of National Socialism, at least Hitler focused on building a German nation out of a recently politically unified collection of regions. And Japan was pretty well unified too.

            OTOH, what is Iraq? You have Sunni Arabs, Shia Arabs, various ethnic minorities, etc. with little sense of national unity. So what is the motivation to stick with a program, especially one imposed from outside, and rebuild an Iraqi state? In the case of Germany and Japan, the Germans and Japanese at least had a sense of national identity and hence would be more willing to cooperate with rebuilding their nations, even if the power rebuilding their nation (in the case of East Germany) was one as loathsome to the average German as Soviet Russia.

            • sonamib

              My argument isn’t so much that losing as a nation prevents insurgency, it’s more losing as an ideology. Nationalism being a specific ideology. In short, how could Aryans lose to Untermenschen?

          • sonamib

            Yeah but Iraq was never supposed to *win* against the US. It can’t be a huge blow to the national pride if you weren’t expected to win anyway. Germany was supposed to conquer all, the Third Reich was supposed to last a thousand years, because they were the superior race. When they were defeated by Untermenschen swine and decadent Westerners, it must have been quite the blow to nazi ideology, and German nationalism in general.

            Of course, there are other complications in Iraq. The insurgents weren’t just fighting the military occupiers, they were also fighting each other. A big part of the conflict was a sectarian war, Iraqis against Iraqis. The fundamentalist Shia ideology wasn’t crushed in the battlefield, and neither were fundamentalist Sunnis.

  • Editor of the Fabius Maximus website

    DoD run and affiliated schools do an excellent job of teaching tactics, but carefully avoid many of the big lessons of modern warfare. Perhaps most important: since Mao brought 4GW (aka non-trinitarian conflict) to maturity after WWII, foreign armies almost always lose to local insurgents (i.e., when foreign forces take the lead, they lose — excerpt for a few special cases).

    Martin van Creveld gives the summary in Chapter 6.2 of The Changing Face of War (2006):

    “What is known, though, is that attempts by post-1945 armed forces to suppress guerrillas and terrorists have constituted a long, almost unbroken record of failure … {W}hat changed was the fact that, whereas previously it had been the main Western powers that failed, now the list included other countries as well. Portugal’s expulsion from Africa in 1975 was followed by the failure of the South Africans in Namibia, the Ethiopians in Ertrea, the Indians in Sri Lanka, the Americans in Somalia, and the Israelis in Lebanon. … Even in Denmark {during WWII}, “the model protectorate”, resistance increased as time went on.

    “Many of these nations used force up to the level of genocide in their failed attempts to defeat local insurgencies. Despite that, foreign forces have an almost uniform record of defeat. Such as the French-Algerian War, which the French waged until their government collapsed.”

    Sometimes they get to help the local government defeat insurgents (e.g., Malaysia). Sometimes the conflicts are not clearly local vs. foreign (e.g., Northern Ireland).

    These defeats are not a matter of armies restrained by rules, or unwillingness to “stay the course”, being insufficiently macho, or any of the increasingly fanciful explanations given for this record of defeats. The overall pattern is clear, and our military works to avoid seeing it.

    • Snarki, child of Loki

      To which I’d add (continuing the more tongue-in-cheek comment above):

      US post civil-war Reconstruction, 1865-2016.

      • Chetsky

        Hoooooley moley. Mind, blown.

        I’d never thought of it this way.

        Damn. Damn.

        There -is- that one question about the portion of the population that wasn’t on the side of the white population, though. It was pretty sizable. One wonders whether that would have changed things (if the Union had pursued a more aggressive Reconstruction). No idear, of course.

        But your thesis is not-strangely compelling.

        • DocAmazing

          Arming and training battalions of freedmen might have changed the success of that resistance. I do not kid when I suggest that Grant should have authorized the formation of Nat Turner Brigades.

    • cpinva

      “The overall pattern is clear, and our military works to avoid seeing it.”

      not just our military, legitimate militaries throughout the world and throughout time. as long as the insurgents maintain reasonable popular support, it will be well nigh impossible to defeat them in the conventional sense, absent a total scorched earth policy, denying them both material & psychological support.

      • Editor of the Fabius Maximus website

        coubva,

        “throughout the world and throughout time.”

        Unfortunately, not so. Before WWII the number of successful insurgencies in the West was small. The Maccabees in the 2nd century, the Haitian slave rebellion in 1791, etc — it’s a short list.

        Snarki,

        I like the “union army as a foreign force in the South” comparison. It’s a good reminder that the commonplace talk about the US as cohesive whole isn’t the full story.

        Unfortunately the post-reconstruction era is one of the most successful counter-revolutions in modern history. A sad time for America, whose ill effects are still felt.

        • Srsly Dad Y

          Before WWII, or at least WWI, western powers would fix insurgencies with famines and genocide, correct? Now we can’t do that (thank fsm) and they never end.

          • Cheerful

            But isn’t the point that even after WWII the occupying nations were willing to use “force up to the level of genocide” ? Can you really claim that levels of violence before and after were that significantly different and that post WWII powers would have succeeded better if they had just used more?

            My uninformed opinion is that after WWII there were ideological factors that supported insurgencies by making them feel that success was in fact possible in a post imperialist world. And, also, the proliferation of lethal low cost weaponry might have been a factor.

            • AMK

              It’s an interesting question. Compare, say, the Soviet and American approaches to Afghanistan–the same insurgents (literally, many of the same exact people) in the same place just over a decade apart. The Soviets spent years blowing entire villages to smithereens at the slightest hint of insurgent activity; the US and NATO spent years running various iterations of the hearts and minds/COIN/three-block war playbook. Both lost*

              *I don’t follow Afghanistan closely and I’ve heard the new guy we have there is much more effective than Karzai, but does anybody really think the Kabul government would last two months without Western troops?

      • ajay

        as long as the insurgents maintain reasonable popular support, it will be well nigh impossible to defeat them

        This is both true and information-free. “Maintaining popular support” is not an exogenous factor; it is how you win. It’s like saying “well, as long as the attacker in conventional warfare is able to advance and occupy and hold ground against counter-attack, it will be well nigh impossible to defeat him”.

        And the same applies to the point about “when foreign troops take the lead”. When foreign troops are taking the lead, it’s because the local government is incompetent and unpopular. Again, that’s not an exogenous factor.

        • JohnT

          Well, that is an open point. Certainly US backed governments have an incredible track record of failure, which van be summed up by the fact that a thousand people blew themselves up for Mullah Omar but I don’t think anyone did for Hamid Karzai….

          • ajay

            Certainly US backed governments have an incredible track record of failure

            This isn’t actually true, though. Most US-backed governments that faced actual or potential insurgency have succeeded. West Germany? South Korea? Greece? Italy? Turkey? Colombia? The UK?

    • BubbaDave

      The overall pattern is clear, and our military works to avoid seeing it.

      How much of that is an aspect of our military’s efforts to leave political questions to the civilian government while they focus on the tactical/strategic aspect? That is, if the only response to “you need to win a counterinsurgency campaign in Iraq” is “Nope,” then what does that do to the principle of civilian control of the military?

      If we are going to maintain civilian control of the military, the military has to be willing and able to carry out orders even if they think those orders are stupid. So…

      • Editor of the Fabius Maximus website

        BubbaDave,

        “That is, if the only response to “you need to win a counterinsurgency campaign in Iraq” is “Nope,””

        Do you believe that is what DoD’s leadership told Bush and Obama? If so, do you have any evidence? It’s an odd theory given the vast sums spent and ~4500 US military dead and 40 thousand wounded.

        “even if they think those orders are stupid.”

        Do you have any evidence that “they” believed that? The public statements by US military leaders were both enthusiastic and confident of victory.

        • BubbaDave

          Do you believe that is what DoD’s leadership told Bush and Obama?

          No (although General Shinseki came close with his “several hundred thousand” troops estimate, and we know how well that worked out for him); this is a hypothetical question.

          If the US military trained its offices to understand that counterinsurgency is a mug’s game, then when they were ordered by their civilian superiors to attempt something they believed ton be impossible, what would their response be? What would that response mean for civilian primacy?

          If instead, the military were determined to maintain civilian control, then wouldn’t the logical way to do that be to divorce “political” (and therefore civilian) considerations from “strategic and tactical” (and therefore military) considerations? The problem, of course, being that counterinsurgency warfare is inherently political, so by choosing not to address the political you’re making the decision to lose the war.

          That said, as much as I hated the Iraq war, I’d rather lose 100 Iraqs and Afghanistans than suffer one Regime of the Colonels.

    • wengler

      The Malaysian counterinsurgency was popular during the Iraq War, and you can clearly see how it was used by the US military in the Tal Afar strategy, aka ethnic cleansing.

  • CP

    it worries me that the leading document to understand the contemporary Middle East within the military establishment is a fifty-year old film made by an Italian Marxist about a secular, nationalist revolutionary movement.

    Yeah, that’s kind of what I thought when I read “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.”

    The French in Algeria faced a secular, nationalist, revolutionary movement: the Americans in Afghanistan and Iraq are facing ethnic/sectarian based militias with a religious fundamentalist bent. Algeria was a war of independence; Iraq and Afghanistan are civil wars with factions that target each other probably even more than they do the Americans. Algeria was, legally speaking, French soil, which makes a huge difference when it comes to the political stakes and therefore the public opinion that supports your war. Etc.

    • AMK

      My thoughts exactly. It’s like medical schools showing Grey’s Anatomy because “the issues faced” by Patrick Dempsey “are many of the same issues” the students will face practicing medicine.

      • Editor of the Fabius Maximus website

        CP and AMK,

        I think that’s a bit too critical. War changes slowly, so the 50 years makes less difference than it would to Google. They still study Sun Tzu’s The Art of War, and perhaps should do so more closely.

        As for the specifics of our post-9/11 wars vs the Algerian war of independence — many of the dynamics of war are unaffected by the causes of the war. That’s why military history is considered an important part of an officer’s education — despite most of it concerning wars so different than our own.

        • AMK

          Insurgencies are political. Not understanding the politics behind them is a pretty serious gap.

    • Editor of the Fabius Maximus website

      Erik,

      “the leading document to understand the contemporary Middle East within the military establishment is a fifty-year old film”

      The quote you give doesn’t say that.

      I’ve talked with scores of officers about their training for COIN, and this film is not “the leading document” used to help them understand the region or our current wars.

      • JohnT

        What is the most popular document ( honest question, and would be good to compare your view with Farley’s)?

        • ajay

          Scroll down to the bibliography. http://fas.org/irp/doddir/army/fm3-24fd.pdf

          It includes “The Battle of Algiers”…

          Bulloch, Gavin. “Military Doctrine and Counterinsurgency: A British Perspective.”

          Calwell, Charles E.
          Small Wars:
          Their Principles and Practice
          Reprint of
          Small Wars: A Tactical Textbook for Imperial Soldiers.

          Galula, David.
          Counterinsurgency Warfare: Theory and Practice.

          Gurr, Theodore. Why Men Rebel. Princeton,

          Hoffer, Eric. The True Believer: Thoughts on the
          Nature of Mass Movements.

          Horne, Alistair. A Savage War of Peace. New York: Viking, 1977.
          The best analysis of the approaches and problems on both sides during the war in Algeria. For
          more on this conflict, see The Battle of Algiers, a troubling and instructive 1966 movie.

          Jeapes, Tony. SAS Secret War.

          Kitson, Frank. Low-intensity Operations: Subversion, Insurgency and Peacekeeping. London: Faber
          and Faber, 1971.

          Komer, R.W., The Malayan Emergency in Retrospect: Organization of a Successful
          Counterinsurgency Effort.

          Larteguy, Jean. The Centurions.

          Lawrence, T.E. Seven Pillars of Wisdom: A Triumph.

          Lawrence, T.E. “The 27 Articles of T.E. Lawrence.”

          Linn, Brian McAllister.
          The Philippine War, 1899–1902
          .
          McCuen, John J.
          The Art of Counter-Revolutionary War

          Mao, Zedong.
          On Guerilla Warfare

          Peng, Chin.
          My Side of History.

          Race, Jeffrey.
          War Comes to Long An: Revolutionary
          Conflict in a Vietnamese Province.

          Thompson, Robert.
          Defeating Communist Insurgency

          Tomes, Robert. “Relearning Counterinsurgency Warfare.”

          Trinquier, Roger.
          Modern Warfare: A French View of Counterinsurgency

          United States Marine Corps.
          Small Wars Manual.

    • ajay

      Algeria was a war of independence; Iraq and Afghanistan are civil wars with factions that target each other probably even more than they do the Americans.

      Bit like Algeria then. If you watch the film it even depicts a ratonnade. (Hint: if you don’t know what a ratonnade is, you are not a good position to hold forth about the Algerian war.)

  • Ghostship

    I mean, I think there are things one can learn from films, but it worries me that the leading document to understand the contemporary Middle East within the military establishment is a fifty-year old film made by an Italian Marxist about a secular, nationalist revolutionary movement.

    Well at least that’s better than reading anything by Bernard Lewis or The Arab Mind by Raphael Patai,

  • Thom

    Battle of Algiers is a great film. It teaches effectively that colonial forces, in the face of nationalist resistance, were brutal and also that resisters were willing to employ brutal tactics in opposition. This of course was especially true in settlement colonies like Algeria, Kenya, Rhodesia (Zimbabwe), and in the settler state of South Africa.

    It is also very effective the real cost of violence.

    Unfortunately the film also teaches that torture is an effective method of breaking a resistance movement (at least temporarily), and I suspect that is part of why it was so popular with US military forces in the period after 9/11.

    • Latverian Diplomat

      Yes, and the film ends with a tacked on “and a short while later the Algerians kicked out the French after all,” with no explicit connection to what happened before. Lesson learned?

  • Robespierre

    Random thoughts as to why it has become so hard to “win” counterinsurgencies.

    In part, I guess the bar is higher. For modern standards, early-modern and even colonial states were incredibly violent, including parts of western Europe well into the late 19th century, with illegality, banditism, an absent authority alternating between indifference and short bouts of brutality, even open revolt and communal violence being commonplace.

    In part, I think, it’s because it is really hard to keep an industrial – or at least protocapitalist – society together. Wage labour, production for the market, infrastructure and utilities are all vulnerable, hard to coordinate and easy to disrupt.

    In part I think it’s because – this goes with higher standards – democracy and nationalism are out of the bottle, and are now two important sources of legitimacy. On the one hand, (perceived) illegitimate governments have to use a lot more violence; the violence itself reduces legitimacy and so does disruption of the economy. On the other hand, it is really difficult to satisfy both democracy and nationalism if a country’s people(s) just want you out.

    Also: to some extent, it could be demography. Despite their sky high birth rates, pre-modern countries could barely keep their population stable, growing slowly in good times and crashing in bad times. War was literally unsustainable in the long run. But modern third world nations are (were) nothing like that. I don’t think there’s a single year during the war that, say, Vietnam’s population actually decreased. I don’t know what to make of this.

    Last point: foreign backers for insurgent groups. These complicate everything.

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