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James Carafano: Zero Dark insight

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Trailer of the original 1966 film "The Battle of Algiers." Much of the film is available free to Internet users via online clips, though it's not clear whether those clips are posted legally under international copyright law.

To understand how to track down terrorists -- this was "the" movie. Long before anyone had heard of al Qaeda, there was "La Bataille d'Alger" or "The Battle of Algiers."

The 1966 movie chronicled the French campaign to hunt down terrorist cells in the Casbah. It became one of the most acclaimed military films of all times -- a classic.

As young cadet at West Point and later as a faculty member in the academy's History Department, I saw the movie several times. It was often introduced as a text-book example of how militaries organize to hunt down would-be suicide bombers and assassins.

There was only one problem. It was just a movie.

"The Battle of Algiers" was filmed in a style known as cinema verite where directors used locals rather than trained, professional -- and therefore recognizable actors. To create the impression of a documentary, they filmed in black and white and used shaky, hand-held cameras. Many viewers assumed the movie used a lot of actual combat footage. In fact, every scene was staged.

The actual battle was far from being a "text book" on how to fight insurgencies. Yes, the Foreign Legion cleaned out the Casbah. But often overlooked is the brief postscript to the film, which notes that the French were subsequently driven out of Algeria by the backlash against their suppression of the Algerians' war for independence.

For filmmakers, Job One is to make a compelling film, not to provide a definitive portrayal of history. When movie-makers have to make a choice between moving and compelling or accurate and boring, moving and compelling wins every time.

There is a lesson here for those who go to watch the movie "Zero Dark Thirty," the story of the hunt for Bin Laden that opened in Washington this weekend: It's a movie.

"Zero Dark Thirty" employs many of the techniques used in "The Battle of Algiers" to make a very watchable movie. And, like "The battle of Algiers," there is a lot of actual history mixed in. But, there is also a lot context and back story left out. Key characters and events are MIA. And in some scenes, drama wins out over accuracy. But, hey -- it's a movie.

A serious conversation about what to do about transnational terrorism and the global Islamist insurgency ought to focus on what is going on in Washington, not Hollywood. The nomination of John Brennan as the next director of the Central Intelligence Agency will give the Senate plenty of opportunity to do that, and there is a lot to talk about.

Brennan has been the chief operative in putting together President Obama's way of fighting the war on terrorism. That includes everything from not calling it a war, to soft-pedaling the war of ideas, to fixating on drone strikes and covert operations in a game of global whack-a-mole.

Since 9-11, U.S. intelligence and law enforcement have thwarted at least 54 Islamist-inspired terrorist plots aimed at the American homeland. On the other hand, new terrorist sanctuaries are popping-up across Africa, and the Middle East. Al Qaeda's allies are resurgent in Iraq and Afghanistan and entrenched in Pakistan. The United States must pay more attention to the transnational criminal cartels in Mexico as well as established networks by Hamas, Hezbollah, Iranian intelligence and other terrorist organizations running around Latin America.

There is little room for complacency.

Like Obama's other top national security picks for the second term, the Brennan nomination suggests that the administration wants no changes in its national security strategy. The question for the Senate to ponder is: Is more-of-the-same good enough?

Examiner Columnist James Jay Carafano is vice president for Defense and Foreign Policy Studies at the Heritage Foundation.

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