Path of Greatest Resistance

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Bush and Blair's denunciation of Iraqi insurgents as 'criminals' and 'terrorists' recalls the experience of the French Resistance and the Algerian war of independence.

There is nothing new about the situation in Iraq. Ever since imperial powers have imposed their rule on other peoples, there has been resistance. And since the occupying powers have superior weapons, those fighting back use unconventional methods, breaking the rules that their oppressors would like to force on them. This meant guerrilla fighting of some sort. Already in the 1840s a British military commander in India moaned that rebels were 'cruel bloodthirsty cowards' who hid and ran rather than give the British 'a little honest fighting'.

The victims of occupation have to make up for military inferiority by popular support, local roots and imaginative tactics. There are some interesting comparisons with the French Resistance and the Algerian war of independence.

In 1940 the French armed forces collapsed in the face of the German invasion. The Nazi occupiers set up a puppet government. The occupiers immediately froze wages and made strikes illegal. The new regime stressed 'family values' - in at least one case an abortionist was guillotined.

Party of the executed

Resistance began almost immediately. The first acts came from isolated individuals. Within weeks of the defeat an agricultural labourer cut the telephone wires at a German-occupied airport. He was shot - the first of many.

In the summer of 1941, when Hitler invaded Russia, the French Communist Party threw its full weight behind the Resistance. It faced a situation where the Germans took hostages and executed them in retaliation for acts of violence. The Communist slogan 'Chacun son boche' ('Let everybody kill a German') invited the assassination of individual German soldiers.

The Communists deliberately provoked Nazi repression, because this made it easier to encourage supporters to engage in armed struggle. They needed martyrs. The party exploited them both during the war and at the Liberation, when it styled itself the 'party of the executed'. The parallels with the suicide bombers of a later age are striking.

The German authorities responded by denouncing Resistance fighters as terrorists and common law criminals who did not deserve to be treated as prisoners of war, rather as the US treated its prisoners some 60 years later.

As the Resistance grew the military struggle reached a higher level. Sabotage was directed against railways, power stations and German military depots. The Resistance forces made grenade attacks against cinemas, restaurants and buses reserved for German soldiers.

Workers brought their skills to the movement. Miners experienced in working with explosives stole dynamite from their own pits and used it. Engine drivers developed a method of derailing trains that did maximum damage while giving the driver and fireman a good chance of surviving.

Resisters showed enormous courage in the face of the atrocious torture used by the Nazis. The Paris engineering worker Jean-Pierre Timbaud faced the firing squad with a cry of 'Long live the German Communist Party!' - a magnificent use of his last breath.

Although until recently they have been written out of history, there were tens of thousands of foreigners in the French Resistance, just as Iraq has now become a focus for foreign fighters. There were many veterans of the Spanish Civil War who, having escaped from Spain after Franco's victory, had been interned in France - in particular many Germans, political refugees from Hitler. There were also a number of Vietnamese, who had been brought to France as cheap labour at the outbreak of war and had been interned in 1940. Many escaped and found their way to the Resistance.

Nowadays the activists of the French Resistance are regarded as heroes. For decades after the war it was impossible to make a political career in France without a Resistance record (real or fabricated). Even Jean-Marie Le Pen once claimed, rather implausibly, to have been a Resister. Yet the tactics and methods of the French Resistance were remarkably similar to those of the Iraqi insurgency, and the rhetoric of Bush and Blair closely recalls the Nazi slander of 'terrorist and common law criminals recruited in the underworld'.

Two points should be added. Firstly, while the French Resistance undoubtedly caused problems for the occupiers, they never looked like winning a military victory. The Resisters were a small minority - at most 5 to 7 percent of the population supported the Resistance. France was liberated from outside. The dominant powers of the time - the US, Britain and Russia - saw Germany as a 'rogue state' which must be crushed.

Secondly, there was a political alternative to the indiscriminate attacks on members of the occupying forces. For the French Trotskyists, German soldiers were workers in uniform. As they wrote, 'The terrorist act creates a barrier between French workers and German soldiers, but no victory is possible without unity between them.' Despite their small numbers, the Trotskyists published a German-language newspaper, and drew a few German soldiers into their orbit. The Gestapo took these efforts seriously enough to crush them with the utmost ferocity.

In November 1954 the Algerian National Liberation Front (FLN) launched its insurrection against French rule with some 70 simultaneous attacks - bombings, fires, shootings and attacks on barracks. Eight people were killed.

France had ruled Algeria for over 100 years in the name of its 'civilising mission'. This was a pure lie. A French general in 1834 reported that 'nearly all the Arabs can read and write; in each village there are two schools'. By 1954 only 10 percent of native Algerians were literate, and only one in five of their children went to school.

The tactics of the FLN were very similar to those of the French Resistance, that is, what is now called 'terrorism'. Anyone who has seen The Battle of Algiers will recall the scenes in which policemen are shot and bombs planted in cafes.

For years the French government refused to recognise that this was a war, thus reducing FLN combatants to the status of criminals. The Communist Party, forgetting its own 'terrorist' past between 1941 and 1944, condemned FLN actions as 'individual acts liable to serve the ends of the worst colonialists'.

Although the French had incomparably superior financial and military resources, they were at a disadvantage against the FLN's guerrilla methods. One officer described their task as 'like an elephant trying to catch a flea'. Some French conscripts described their activity as follows:

'The enemy is everywhere. Surprise attacks, ambushes and terrorist attacks are matched by military operations and policing. We could remain for years just about to reach the last quarter of an hour. "Pacifying" a region means essentially sending troops to it, and it remains pacified only as long as they are there.'

Systematic torture

The struggle drew in more and more of the Algerian population. In particular women were increasingly involved, often forsaking their traditional dress. As Frantz Fanon, one of the FLN leaders, wrote:

'Carrying revolvers, grenades, hundreds of false identity cards or bombs, the unveiled Algerian woman moves like a fish in western waters. The soldiers, the French patrols, smile to her as she passes, compliments on her looks are heard here and there, but no one suspects that her suitcases contain the automatic pistol which will presently mow down four or five members of one of the patrols.'

Just as the Nazis had done in France, the French tried in vain to crush the movement by repression. FLN militants faced napalm, concentration camps and the systematic use of torture.

But though the FLN did at times engage in indiscriminate bombings, they also made efforts to win support among European settlers. Fanon paid tribute to the 'constant support' given by 'hundreds and hundreds of European men and women'. European farmers let their land be used by the FLN to store supplies and arms, while European doctors and nurses supplied drugs and treated wounded FLN combatants.

The FLN also got material support from a small minority in mainland France. When an attempt was made to arrest a leading FLN activist who worked at Renault in Paris, trade union activists succeeded in causing a work stoppage which confused matters - they hid the militant in the factory, later enabling him to escape. As good trade unionists, they made sure he collected his outstanding pay before leaving.

The FLN never came near winning a military victory. But they succeeded in creating a political situation in which the French regime no longer had the will to remain. In 1962 Algeria won independence.

History does not repeat itself and the parallels between Iraq and earlier struggles are far from complete. The Iraqi resistance seems to have far less political focus and unity than the movements in France or Algeria.

There is little likelihood that the Iraqi resistance can win a military victory, but, as Britain learned in Northern Ireland, even a small guerrilla force can survive for many years. The fate of Iraq will be decided politically, not militarily. Already there is evidence that some members of the occupying forces are deeply disaffected. Hopefully a section of the resistance will develop an internationalist strategy that enables it to approach these people.

The main task of socialists in the west is to make it politically impossible for the occupying troops to remain. This in turn will have a profound effect on the left in the imperial nations. The traditional parties of the French left were shown to be completely bankrupt in the course of the Algerian war. But a new generation of young activists were drawn into politics by the struggle. Just six years after 1962 many of those same activists played a key role in the student revolt and mass strike that rocked France in 1968. Here too there is a lesson from the past.