November 11, 2007

COIN Book Club, No. 2

We still persist in studying a type of warfare that no longer exists and that we shall never fight again, while we pay only passing attention to the war we lost in Indochina and the one we are about to lose in Algeria.

Last week's first installment of the Counterinsurgency Book Club introduced David Galula, arguably the most important counterinsurgency theorist of the 20th Century. This week, Abu Muqawama wants to spend a little bit more time on the French experience in Algeria by highlighting not just one but two books -- and even a film -- that you should check out from the local library if you have not already.

The first book is Roger Trinquier's Modern Warfare: A French View of Counterinsurgency. This is the other great French "how-to" manual on counterinsurgency, and it's a gem. Now, the minute some readers of this blog read the name "Roger Trinquier," no doubt the first word that pops into their heads is ... torture. Trinquier writes, at one point:

No lawyer is present for ... an interrogation. If the prisoner gives the information requested, the examination is quickly terminated; if not, specialists must force his secret from him. Then, as a soldier, he must face the suffering, and perhaps the death, he has heretofore managed to avoid. The terrorist must accept this as a condition inherent in his trade and in the methods of warfare that, with full knowledge, his superiors and he himself have chosen.

Indeed, throughout Trinquier's work, there is a kind of a la guerre, comme la guerre attitude toward the dark side of counterinsurgency. Abu Muqawama, as you all know, does not endorse such tactics. But he likes the fact that just as Trinquier sees little wrong with torturing insurgents, he is also not shocked by the enemy's use of terror. There is a delightful French cynicism at work in the writings of both Galula and Trinquier. As we Americans are shocked -- shocked -- that insurgents would do despicable things like blow themselves up in crowded markets, you can almost hear Galula and Trinquier calling down from heaven and up from the inner rings of hell, respectively: "Est-ce que vous êtes ivres? Of course they're going to use terror. As a tactic, it works. So get over it already and figure out how you're going to stop it."

For Trinquier, stopping the insurgent meant getting troops out of large forts and into small patrol bases close to the population, something the U.S. Army and Marine Corps have been doing more and more these past two years in Iraq.

Trinquier, for all his faults, was a smart counterinsurgent -- full of lessons hard-won on the confused battlefields of Indochina and Algeria. He was, as Bernard Fall calls him in his introduction to Modern Warfare, a true "centurion." Fall was referring, of course, to the famous Jean Larteguy novel, The Centurions, which follows a cadre of French paratroopers in Indochina and Algeria ... and just happens to be the next stop on this week's Book Club.


When a former commander of Abu Muqawama took over an airborne infantry battalion in Italy, he went to the post library and checked out Jean Larteguy's The Centurions.* He noticed, to his dismay, that he was the first person to have checked the book out in over a decade. What the hell, he wondered, are paratroop officers reading these days?

The Centurions is, in many ways, the book they should all be reading, given the experiences of a whole new generation of paratroop officers on the battlefields of Afghanistan and Iraq. Following a group of French paratroop officers from Dien Bien Phu to the Battle of Algiers, the hero of Larteguy's novel, Colonel Raspeguy, is a fictionalized version of Marcel Bigeard, who readers of Fall's Hell in a Very Small Place will recognize as pretty much the hardest man who has ever lived. (He's still living, actually, in France.) Incredibly, Bigeard was also (allegedly, along with Trinquier himself) the model for another fictionalized counterinsurgent -- one Abu Muqawama thinks you all know quite well:

If, on the other hand, you have no clue who the above man is and have not yet seen this classic movie, then what in the hell are you doing wasting your time, reading this blog? Hurry: run to the movie rental before they close. Now! (Jeez... these are the same people Abu Muqawama has to remind to read this book.)

*This book is damn hard to find in English, so you're going to want to either read it in French or check out a copy of the English translation from the library. Larteguy, who is still living, is holding out on publishers eager to re-print this novel in English.