The Moving Image

By: Kalev I. Sepp

There is a remarkable theme that runs through two movies set on different sides of the same insurgency: torture works. The insurgency is the Algerian Revolt, 1954–1962, that ended when France granted independence to its long-held North African colony. The two movies are Battle of Algiers, directed by Gillo Pontecorvo and nominated for three Academy Awards, and Lost Command, based on the novel Les Centurions by French war correspondent Jean Pierre Lucien Osty, who wrote under the pen name Jean Lartéguy.

(Battle of Algiers)
Casbah/Igor, 1966

Both movies ostensibly tell their stories by moving back and forth between the viewpoints of the insurgents and the counterinsurgents. Battle of Algiers is more convincing because of its realistic documentary style—shadowy black-and-white scenes shot on location in Algiers, with former Front de Libération Nationale (FLN) guerrillas playing themselves in several of the roles. Lost Command, shot in Spain, has the stagey, klieg-lit sheen of the Hollywood production it is, complete with movie stars—although the Basque highlands stand in well enough for the Atlas Mountains, where the FLN had its bases.

Despite the balanced portrayal both movies claim to present, Algerian rebels are the principal characters of Battle of Algiers, and French paratroopers – les paras -- dominate Lost Command. Where the two coincide, in a disturbing way, is when the French paras interrogate captured and suspected insurgents. Physical torture is not just implied, but plainly depicted. The result in both movies is always the same—the prisoner tells all.

Battle of Algiers begins in small, tiled room, like a restaurant kitchen, with a sink and steel tables. Broad-shouldered paras in camouflage jackets and caps—called "leopard suits"—surround a slight, shivering Arab, naked except for undershorts. A para colonel strides in. "He came clean," reports one of the officers. The Arab suddenly bolts from his chair toward an open window. The paras shove him back—"Do you want another round?" With pain creasing his face, he leads the paras to an insurgent chief's hideout.

The necessity of this approach to intelligence collection is explained by the newly arrived para colonel, who has been sent to Algiers to crush the terrorist insurgents. Meeting with his staff, the colonel describes the FLN terrorist organization as a geometric pyramid of interconnected cells, and then announces his regiment's objective: identify the insurgent "Executive Bureau" (the leaders). The method they will use, he says, will be interrogation, "conducted in such a way as to ensure we always get an answer…In our situation, humane considerations can only lead to despair and confusion."

Soon, another scene in a dimly lit space reveals leopard-suited paras at the edge of a cone of light. Next to a large tub of water, a shirtless Arab, his wet hair matted down on his forehead, gasps for air, his chest heaving. As a para takes notes, the Arab betrays all the details of his insurgent unit.

Casbah/Igor, 1966

Journalists in the capital eventually get wind of what's going on, and at a press conference, they ask bluntly: Is torture being used by French troops? "The word ‘torture' isn't used in our orders," the colonel replies with a straight face. He changes the direction of the interview. This isn't about methods, he asserts; it's about staying or going. If the pieds noirs[1] (Europeans) want to stay in Algeria, they must accept the consequences.

Different techniques of torture are portrayed. A para turns a blowtorch on a man's ribs as he hangs by his wrists. An Arab is trussed and hung upside down from a pipe. Paras fix battery clamps to the earlobes of a man who writhes in agony as the current is applied. Another captive is waterboarded.

Many of the same incidents are depicted in Lost Command as a French paratroop regiment hunts down FLN guerrillas in the sandpaper countryside. In a dusty village, a staff officer enters a storeroom to see an Arab slumped in a chair, unconscious, with a blackjack-wielding para sergeant by his side. A para captain in the room boasts they've learned the location of the guerrilla base (this, after the unit has been in town five minutes). The staff officer is outraged: "Torture!" he accuses. The captain snaps back, "We came out here to win!"

There are parallel scenes from Battle of Algiers in Lost Command. A suspected bombmaker is arrested and brought to a dark cellar. A para interrogator taps battery clamps together, sending sparks flying. "And that's nothing, sir—it can be made 10 times as strong." The para intelligence officer warns the suspect, "I'm going to get that information from you…one way or the other." Another prisoner staggers in with a bruised and bloody face.

When the French commander discovers an Algerian woman is a spy, a para officer slaps and beats her (on camera) until she passes out (off camera), but not before she reveals every detail about insurgent arms shipments and the top rebel commander. This capitulation takes about three minutes. Success comes because the para officer shed his naïve notions of "rules of warfare," since the enemy doesn't play by them anyway.

So, according to one movie commissioned by the Algerian government and another scripted from the French perspective, torture works.

But did it? How did the tough French paras win the battle for Algiers but lose the war for Algeria? Part of the answer is operational. By 1957, the FLN leaders recognized Algiers had become too dangerous for them and moved back into the hinterlands, where they continued their insurrection. They had not been destroyed, only beaten in one battle. Another explanation is that for years, the French government and security forces in Algeria fundamentally misunderstood the FLN to be a Marxist-Communist movement. Although some FLN members employed classic Communist tactics, notably ruthless terrorism, they were really nationalists.

One of the central reasons the French lost the war against the rebels stems from the larger ramifications of their use of torture. As Dr. Hy Rothstein of the Naval Postgraduate School faculty has pointed out, to whatever degree and for whatever rationale torture was employed, the French public was appalled. They lost faith in their government, and so the French government lost its legitimacy. The people lost confidence in their Army, and the Army lost confidence in itself. Unable to resolve the political and moral crises in Algeria, the Fourth Republic collapsed. Charles de Gaulle became leader of France, and he soon sought a negotiated end to the rebellion.

These "peace talks" infuriated a number of French officers, who formed the outlaw Organisation Armée Secrète (OAS) to kill Algerian Muslims, derail the negotiations, and assassinate de Gaulle himself. (This movement inspired Frederick Forsyth's best-selling novel and acclaimed 1973 movie The Day of the Jackal, which both include a plot-point torture scene.) In the end, it was the OAS—not the FLN—that was wiped out, and the Algerian revolutionaries finally gained their sought-after independence after a bitter, eight-year-long civil war.

But does this mean that torture still worked? Not according to then-Colonel Paul Aussaresses, who confessed his personal use of extrajudicial killing and torture in his memoir, The Battle of the Casbah Terrorism and Counter-Terrorism in Algeria, 1955–1957. The French Army intelligence officer admits he gained fewer successes against the FLN through torture than he did through standard police methods, including careful analysis of records and files and a thorough population census. In combination, these tactics illuminated the nodes and connections of the insurgent networks. Patient and painstaking collection of information to form actionable intelligence is what eventually broke the FLN hold on the Casbah. There was nothing in the French methods that overcame the inherent unreliability of information received from torture—the distortion of memory under fear and duress, and the subject's willingness to say anything, particularly what he thinks his tormentors want to hear, to stop the pain.

So, why would both sides—the FLN in Battle of Algiers and the French military in Lost Command—ascribe such efficacy to torture? For the French practitioners, it can be explained as justification. If this illegal method were employed at all, it had to be presented as wholly effective in all cases to vindicate the torturers. For the FLN, it was necessary to emphasize, even overstate, the French use of torture in order to remake history. One reason the FLN would choose to attribute its setbacks to French torture would be to conceal its own poor leadership, internal informants, and tactical failures. Another reason would be to make its own widespread atrocities—including terrorist bombings, murder of anti-FLN Imams, and massacres of entire towns of Algerian Muslims who were French loyalists—seem less vile by contrast, and thus excusable.

In their depictions of torture and by choosing to give torture an integral role in the storylines, Battle of Algiers and Lost Command are both diminished. These films exaggerate the effectiveness of torture—for political effect on the one hand and for dramatic effect on the other. Torture didn't—and doesn't—really work. It is worth watching these movies for their cinematic qualities, the actors and the acting, and intriguing glimpses of history—the para colonel's analysis of counterinsurgency metrics on a wall chart might surprise some viewers with its familiarity. However, as studies of the viability of torture in counterinsurgency operations, there are no lessons to be learned. These movies are, in this regard, only movies.

About the Author(s): Dr. Kalev I. Sepp is senior lecturer in Defense Analysis at the U.S. Naval Postgraduate School. He earned his Combat Infantryman Badge in the Salvadoran Civil War.


[1] Literally, "black-feet," possibly from the black boots worn by 19th-c. French colonists.

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