Battle of Algiers Revisited
Screening Telegraphed Administration Intent to Torture
by Josef Schneider
September 15, 2004
In September 2003 several newspapers reported that the Department of Defense was holding screenings in the Pentagon of Gillo Pontecorvo's 1965 film The Battle of Algiers for military officers and civilian experts. Shot in black and white using actual newsreel film stock in a mock documentary–style, it dramatizes one part of the larger struggle by which Algerians won independence from French colonial rule in 1962. There are obvious similarities between the situation depicted in the movie and the one that faced the US government in Iraq. In both, an armed rebellion has broken out in an Arab country against occupation by a wealthy and powerful western nation-state.
In an article for The New York Times, Michael Kaufman wrote that the idea for the screenings "came from the Directorate for Special Operations and Low-Intensity Conflict, which a Defense Department official described as a civilian-led group with 'responsibility for thinking aggressively and creatively' on issues of guerrilla war." Those invited to the showings were "urged to consider and discuss the implicit issues at the core of the film – the problematic but alluring efficacy of brutal and repressive means in fighting clandestine terrorists in places like Algeria and Iraq." What lessons did Rumsfeld and his staff see in this movie?
All but the last few minutes of The Battle of Algiers concerns a bloody period of terror and counter-terror in the city of Algiers between the French and the Algerian National Liberation Front (FLN). This urban battle ends in 1958, with the total defeat of the insurgency in Algiers. The nuts and bolts of how the French army accomplished this – that's what the Pentagon hoped to learn.
The commander of the French troops in the film is the cool and intellectual Col Mathieu. Upon his arrival in Algiers he gathers his officers for a lecture. We have been hearing echos of his speech for months:
"There are 80,000 Arabs in the Casbah. Are they all against us? We know they are not. In reality, it is only a small minority that dominates with terror and violence. This minority is our adversary and we must isolate and destroy it ..."
The audiences in the Pentagon certainly recognize this! During the first months of the occupation in Iraq we often heard from the Bush administration and US military that the resistance in Iraq was only a minority of "dead-enders" from the old regime.
The US occupation possesses enormous military power. It can destroy any target in the world that it sets its sights on. But as Mao famously said, the guerrilla moves among the people as a fish swims in the sea. Except when he suddenly and briefly rises to attack, the insurgent remains unrecognized beneath the surface of the civilian population. The problem therefore is to identify the enemy so that the occupiers may bring their enormous advantage in firepower to bear on him. Col Mathieu understands this:
"He is an adversary who shifts his position above and below the surface with highly commendable revolutionary methods and original tactics. ... He is an anonymous and unrecognizable enemy who mingles with thousands of others who resemble him. ...
"To know them means to eliminate them. Consequently, the military aspect is secondary to the police method. I know we are not fond of this word, but it is the only word that indicates exactly the type of work that we must perform."
The problem that Col Mathieu and the French in the film face is that the FLN is structured as a pyramid of semi-autonomous cells. Each cell is in contact with only the one cell above and the two below. An entire cell may be destroyed, but it will be reconstituted by the cell above it in the hierarchy. Col Mathieu offers a metaphor: "Have any of you ever had a tapeworm?", he asks his officers . . .
"The tapeworm is a worm that can grow to infinity. There are thousands of segments. You can destroy all of them; but as long as the head remains, it reproduces itself immediately."
The US government clearly subscribed to the theory that the Iraqi resistance was organized as the FLN was in The Battle of Algiers. General John Abizaid, the head of US forces in Iraq said, "When you understand that they're organized in a cellular structure, ... you'll understand how dangerous they are." Politicians, military officers, and police have given their lives to hierarchy. It is so inherent in their world-view that they may see it where one does not exist. In their minds there must be a few at the top giving the orders that create the Iraqi resistance. Witness their absurd assertions that attacks on US forces would abate after the capture of Saddam.
In this conception of the insurgency, the occupier may capture or infiltrate one of the fighting cells at the base, but that will only yield information about the single cell above it. Col Mathieu instructs us how to proceed against such a resilient structure:
"We must make the necessary investigations in order to proceed from one vertex to another in the entire pyramid. The reason for this work is information. The method is interrogation. And interrogation becomes a method when conducted in a manner so as to always obtain a result, or rather, an answer. ... We need to have the Casbah at our disposal. We must sift through it ... and interrogate everyone."
But those people who have the most information will be precisely those who are most reluctant to tell the occupiers what they need to know. Mathieu does not shrink from what needs to be done:
"In practice, demonstrating a false humanitarianism only leads to the ridiculous and to impotence. I am certain that all the units will understand and react accordingly. ... And here is where we find ourselves hindered by a conspiracy of laws and regulations that continue to be operative, as if Algiers were a holiday resort and not a battleground.
"The word 'torture' does not appear in our orders. We have always spoken of interrogation as the only valid method in a police operation directed against unknown enemies."
And so The Battle of Algiers proceeds with a montage of arrests, interrogation, torture and more arrests. It is terrifying, but it clearly works. Subjected to beatings, electrical shock, and blow torches – the militants reveal their comrades to the French. Finally the last elements of the armed resistance in Algiers are discovered, cornered and – as the Arab population of the city looks on – blown up.
At the same time that screenings of The Battle of Algiers were being arranged in the Pentagon Major General Geoffrey Miller, the commander of the US penal colony in Guantánamo Bay, was on a tour of the US jails in Iraq. His job was to "assess" their operations and to suggest ways that they could more effectively extract information from the imprisoned. Gen Miller's recommendations could have come from the mouth of Col Mathieu (if instead of forthright French, his lines had been in the pseudo-technical cant of the US Military). According to Maj Gen Taguba's report on the Abu Ghraib prison, Miller concluded that the jails in Iraq should be reorganized so "that detention operations must act as an enabler for interrogation." Taguba quotes Gen Miller as saying, "it is essential that the guard force be actively engaged in setting the conditions for successful exploitation of the internees."
The word "torture" does not appear in the orders of the American occupiers of Iraq, either. But the message was clear. As one former intelligence official laid it out for Seymour Hersch of The New Yorker, "The rules are 'Grab whom you must. Do what you want.'" 
Evidence continues to accumulate that the torture of prisoners is a policy in the war on terror that was set in the White House. On January 18, 2002 President Bush determined that the Geneva Conventions on the Treatment of Prisoners of War did not apply to al Qaeda and the Taliban. In a memo uncovered by Newsweek reporter Michael Isikoff, White House Chief Counsel Alberto Gonzales advised the President that the "new paradigm" of the war on terror, "renders obsolete Geneva's strict limitations on questioning of enemy prisoners".  Administration officials have frequently asserted that it is their policy to treat suspected al Qaeda and Taliban prisoners in ways consistent with the Geneva Conventions. But if you intend on adhering to them, why bother to make a formal declaration that they don't apply?
It is now obvious what the Pentagon saw in The Battle of Algiers: a narrow lesson in the effectiveness of torture for fighting urban insurgents. Why didn't they see more? The film does not end with the defeat of the insurgents in Algiers. In a brief epilogue we see mass demonstrations against French occupation in 1960. Resistance had again broken out and, the narrator tells us, in 1962 Algeria won its independence. Perhaps in the Pentagon they turned off the projector after Col Mathieu blew up the FLN hideout. If they did sit through the epilogue they resolutely refused to absorb what it implies.
The French won the battle of Algiers only to lose the Algerian war of independence. Their mistake, and the one that the US government has made, was in their definition of the fundamental problem. As Col Mathieu tells a news conference, "The problem is: the FLN wants us to leave Algeria and we want to remain." If the problem was the armed insurgency, then the solution was to defeat the FLN. But the fundamental problem was never the insurgents of the FLN. The French problem in Algeria – and the US government's problem in Iraq today – is that the people want the occupiers to leave.
Josef Schneider is a writer and activist who lives in Portland, Oregon.
 Kaufman, Michael. "What Does the Pentagon See in 'Battle of Algiers'?". New York Times, 7 September 2003. Section 4, Page 3.
 Hersch, Seymour M. "The Gray Zone". New Yorker, 17 May 2004.
 Taguba, Antonio M. Article 15-6, Investigation of The 800th Military Police Brigade.
 Gonzales, Alberto R. Decision Re Application of the Geneva Convention on Prisoners of War to the Conflict with al Qaeda and the Taliban. 25 January 2002.