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Teaching The Battle of Algiers

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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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