A Descent Into Dishonor

Andrew J. Bacevich, a professor of international relations at Boston University, is currently a fellow at the American Academy in Berlin.

Sen. Edward Kennedy’s recent characterization of Iraq as President Bush’s Vietnam is as predictable as it is misleading. The news is actually much worse. Iraq may be shaping up to be America’s Algeria.

Day by day, the evidence mounts that an ugly war is turning uglier. U.S. and coalition troop losses, which have again spiked upward, provide one measure of that ugliness. The ratcheting up of American firepower and the climbing toll of Iraqi dead, many of them evidently innocent bystanders caught in the crossfire, provide a second. But there is a third measure, perhaps the most troubling of all: hints that the discipline of U. S. forces is beginning to fray.

In a story that has not attracted widespread attention but should, the Washington Post has reported a second incidence of an Army battalion commander being cited for misconduct. The first episode involved terrorizing an Iraqi prisoner. The more recent involved American soldiers dumping a pair of Iraqi detainees off a bridge into the Tigris River -- a clear violation of the Geneva Convention -- and the commander being reprimanded. Iraqis claim one detainee drowned.


Welcome to urban guerrilla warfare -- a type of war radically different from the United States’ last unhappy encounter with guerrillas. In Vietnam, intense fighting was concentrated in the countryside. South Vietnam’s mountains and jungles offered communist guerrillas sanctuary, concealment and a base of operations. Major cities saw heavy combat only rarely, as during the famous 1968 Tet offensive.

In Iraq, the situation is the reverse. The countryside is a barren wasteland of little use to the insurgents. The dense and complicated urban landscape, by comparison, offers an ideal operational environment. So cities like Baghdad and Fallouja have become focal points of resistance. Here the insurgents hide, draw sustenance and launch their most effective attacks against coalition forces.

This is where the Algerian parallel becomes instructive. In the Algerian war for independence, which began in 1954 and lasted until 1962, cities also played a central role. Control of Algiers, the capital, was the war’s primary bone of contention and, hence, the site of the bitter struggle that pitted Algerian “terrorists” against the French “forces of order.”

In their efforts to destroy the National Liberation Front, French authorities found that conventional tactics did not work. To abide by the traditional law of war was to concede to the other side an enormous advantage. So, in their frustration, the French opted to fight a “dirty war,” employing systematic torture, extrajudicial killings and their own brand of terror.

The effect was dramatic: French forces made impressive tactical gains, temporarily dismantled much of the resistance network and regained control of Algiers -- at the cost of mobilizing the Algerian people against any possibility of continued French rule. The army destroyed the last shreds of French legitimacy in Algeria and thereby laid the foundation for eventual French defeat.

This process was brilliantly captured in Gillo Pontecorvo’s recently re-released 1967 docudrama, “The Battle of Algiers.” Last summer, perhaps to remind itself of the dangers of winning battles in ways that lose wars, the Pentagon screened Pontecorvo’s film for Defense Department officials. But one wonders if the lessons making their way into the field are the right ones.

In one of the film’s most famous scenes, reporters question the hard-as-nails French commander, sent to clean up Algiers, about rumors of torture and assassination. We are just doing what you sent us to do, Col. Mathieu replies -- quibbling about the methods that must be employed is rank hypocrisy.

Alas, there are signs that Mathieu’s attitude may be taking hold among the U.S. troops in Iraq. Asked about the punishments meted out for the Tigris River incident, an American soldier told the Post, “It’s a little like the French colonel in ‘The Battle of Algiers.’

To which, however much they may empathize with those sent to wage this ugly war, American political and military leaders must emphatically reply: Not true and not acceptable.

Indiscipline, lawlessness and the excessive use of force will not guarantee victory in Iraq; indeed, the reverse is true.

The French experience in Algeria stands as a warning: Down that road lies not only defeat but also dishonor.