"Roman Candle" turns 20: Secrets of Elliott Smith's accidental masterpiece (slideshow)
Elliott and the friends with whom he recorded in middle school in Texas (photo courtesy of Dan Pickering)
Torture apologists point to one powerful example to counter all the arguments against torture: the Battle of Algiers. In 1956, the Algerian FLN (National Liberation Front) began a terrorist bombing campaign in Algiers, the capital of Algeria, killing many innocent civilians. In 1957, Gen. Jacques Massu and the French government began a counterinsurgency campaign in Algiers using torture. As English military theorist Brian Crozier put it, “By such ruthless methods, Massu smashed the FLN organization in Algiers and re-established unchallenged French authority. And he did the job in seven months — from March to mid-October.”
It is hard to argue with success. Here were professional torturers who produced consistently reliable information in a short time. It was a breathtaking military victory against terrorism by a democracy that used torture. Yet the French won by applying overwhelming force in an extremely constrained space, not by superior intelligence gathered through torture. As noted war historian John Keegan said in his recent study of military intelligence (“Intelligence in War: Knowledge of the Enemy From Napoleon to Al-Qaeda”), “it is force, not fraud or forethought, that counts” in modern wars.
The real significance of the Battle of Algiers, however, is the startling justification of torture by a democratic state. Algerian archives are now open, and many French torturers wrote their autobiographies in the 1990s. The story they tell will not comfort generals who tell self-serving stories of torture’s success. In fact, the battle shows the devastating consequences of torture for any democracy foolish enough to institutionalize it.
Torture by the French failed miserably in Vietnam, and the French could never entirely secure the Algerian countryside, so either torture really did not work or there was some additional factor that made the difference in Algiers.
Among many torture apologists, only Gen. Massu, with characteristic frankness, identified the additional factor. In Vietnam, Massu said, the French posts were riddled with informants. Whatever the French found by torture, the Vietnamese opposition knew immediately. And long distances separated the posts. In Algiers, the casbah was a small space that could be cordoned off, and a determined settler population backed the army. The army was not riddled with informants, and the FLN never knew what the army was doing.
And the French had an awesomely efficient informant system of their own. Massu took a census in the casbah and issued identity cards for the entire population. He ordered soldiers to paint numbers on each block of the casbah, and each block had a warden — usually a trustworthy Algerian — who reported all suspicious activities. Every morning, hooded informants controlled the exits to identify any suspects as they tried to leave. The FLN helped the French by calling a general strike, which revealed all its sympathizers. What made the difference for the French in Algiers was not torture, but the accurate intelligence obtained through public cooperation and informants.
In fact, no rank-and-file soldier has related a tale of how he personally, through timely interrogation, produced decisive information that stopped a ticking bomb. “As the pain of interrogation began,” observed torturer Jean-Pierre Vittori, “they talked abundantly, citing the names of the dead or militants on the run, indicating locations of old hiding places in which we didn’t find anything but some documents without interest.” Detainees also provided names of their enemies — true information, but without utility to the French.
The FLN military men had also been told, when forced to talk, to give up the names of their counterparts in the rival organization, the more accommodationist MNA (National Algerian Movement). Not very knowledgeable in the subtleties of Algerian nationalism, the French soldiers helped the FLN liquidate the infrastructure of the more cooperative organization and tortured MNA members, driving them into extreme opposition.
Unlike in the famous movie, which portrays the Algerian population as united behind the FLN and assumes that torture is why the French won the battle, the real Battle of Algiers was a story of collaboration and betrayal by the local population. It was, as Alistair Horne describes in “A Savage War of Peace: Algeria 1954-1962,” a population that was cowed beyond belief and blamed the FLN leadership for having brought them to this pass.
Gen. Massu’s strategy was not to go after the FLN bombers but to identify and disable anyone who was even remotely associated with the FLN. It was not a selective sweep. The smallest interrogation unit in Algiers possessed 100,000 files. Out of the casbah’s total population of 80,000 citizens, Massu arrested 30 to 40 percent of all males.
Torture forced “loyal” Algerians to cooperate, but after the battle, they either ended their loyalty to France or were assassinated. Torture forced a politics of extremes, destroying the middle that had cooperated with the French. In the end, there was no alternative to the FLN. As Paul Teitgin, the police prefect of Algiers, remarked, “Massu won the Battle of Algiers, but that meant losing the war.”
The judicial system also collapsed under the weight of torture. Judges and prefects found themselves unable to deny warrants to armed men who tortured and killed for a living. Police records show that Teitgin issued 800 detention orders (arrêtes d’assignation) for eight months before the battle, 700 for the first three months of the battle and then 4,000 a month for the remaining months. By the end of the battle, he had issued orders to detain 24,000, most of whom (80 percent of the men and 66 percent of the women) were routinely tortured.
And “what to do with these poor devils after their ‘use’?” asked a French soldier. Many torturers preferred to kill them, though, one soldier conceded, genocide was difficult. “There isn’t enough place in the prisons and one can’t kill everyone …, so one releases them and they’re going to tell others, and from mouth to mouth, the whole world knows.” Then, he observed, their relatives and friends “join the resistance.” By the end of the battle, about 13,000 Algerians (and some Frenchmen) were in detention camps and 3,000 “disappeared.”
Doctors, whose task it was to monitor torture, were themselves corrupted by the torture. “Our problem is,” remarked a doctor attached to a French torture unit, “should we heal this man who will again be tortured or let him die?” As oversight failed, the French military government arrested more people for flimsier reasons.
Use of torture also compromised the military. Lt. Col. Roger Trinquier, the famous French counterinsurgency expert, believed that torturers could act according to professional norms — applying only the pain necessary to get information and then stopping. But the stories of rank-and-file torturers confirm previous studies of the dynamics of torture. “I realized,” remarked a French soldier, “that torture could become a drug. I understood then that it was useless to claim to establish limits and forbidden practices, i.e. yes to the electrotorture but without abusing it, any further no. In this domain also, it was all or nothing.”
Torture drifted headlong into sadism, continuing long after valuable information could be retrieved. For example, soldiers arrested a locksmith and tortured him for three days. In his pocket, the locksmith had bomb blueprints with the address of an FLN bomb factory in Algiers. The locksmith bought time, the bombers relocated and the raid by the French three days later fell on open air. Had the soldiers been able to read Arabic, they would have found the bomb factory days earlier. But they were too busy torturing. As one would predict, engaging in torture prevented the use of ordinary — and more effective — policing skills. (Incidentally, the French could not believe that the most wanted man in the casbah had spent months only 200 yards from the headquarters of the army commandant.)
The French military also fragmented under the competition associated with torture. Parallel systems of administration emerged, and infighting occurred between the various intelligence agencies. Officers lost control of their charges, or the charges refused to follow higher command. And in the end, the soldiers blamed the generals for exposing them to torture, noting its pernicious effects on their lives, their families and their friends — a sense of betrayal that has not diminished with the years.
Yves Godard, Massu’s chief lieutenant, had insisted there was no need to torture. He suggested having the informant network identify operatives and then subject them to a simple draconian choice: Talk or die. This would have produced the same result as torture without damage to the army.
The British successfully used precisely this strategy with German spies during World War II. British counterespionage managed to identify almost every German spy without using torture — not just the 100 who hid among the 7,000 to 9,000 refugees coming to England to join their armies in exile each year, not just the 120 who arrived in similar fashion from friendly countries, but also the 70 sleeper cells that were in place before 1940. Only three agents eluded detection; five others refused to confess. Many Germans chose to become double agents rather than be tried and shot. They radioed incorrect coordinates for German V missiles, which landed harmlessly in farmers’ fields. But for this misdirection, British historian Keegan concludes, in October 1944 alone close to 1,300 people would have died, with 10,000 more injured and 23,000 houses destroyed.
The U.S. Army’s field manual for intelligence (FM34-52) notes that simple direct questioning of prisoners was 85 percent to 95 percent effective in World War II and 90 to 95 percent effective in the Vietnam War. What about those 5 percent at the margin? Couldn’t savage, unprofessional, hit-or-miss torture yield some valuable information from them? Actually, there was one case in the Battle of Algiers in which torture did reveal important information.
In September 1957, in the last days of the battle, French soldiers detained a messenger known as “Djamal.” Under torture, Djamal revealed where the last FLN leader in Algiers lay hidden. But that wasn’t so important; informants had identified this location months before. The important information Djamal revealed was that the French government had misled the military and was quietly negotiating a peace settlement with the FLN. This was shocking news. It deeply poisoned the military’s relationship with the civilian government, a legacy that played no small part in the collapse of the Fourth Republic in May 1958 and in the attempted coup by some French military officers against President De Gaulle in April 1961.
The French won the Battle of Algiers primarily through force, not by superior intelligence gathered through torture. Whoever authorized torture in Iraq undermined the prospect of good human intelligence. Even if the torture at Abu Ghraib served to produce more names (“actionable intelligence”) and recruit informants, torture in the end polarized the population, eliminating the middle that might cooperate. Dividing the world into “friends” and “enemies,” those who are with us or against us, meant that we lost the cooperation of those who wished to be neither or who were enemies of our enemies.
Whoever authorized torture in Afghanistan and Iraq also destroyed the soldiers who were ordered to perform it. Studies of torturers show that they would rather work as killers on death squads, where the work is easier. Torture is hard, stressful work. Many torturers develop emotional problems, become alcoholics, beat their families and harbor a deep sense of betrayal toward the military brass that hangs them out to twist in the wind. The soldiers at Abu Ghraib had dreams, dreams that democracy promised to fulfill, dreams that now may never be fulfilled thanks to the arrogance of their superiors.
Those who authorize torture need to remember that it isn’t something that simply happens in some other country. Soldiers trained in stealthy techniques of torture take these techniques back into civilian life as policemen and private security guards. It takes years to discover the effects of having tortured. Americans’ use of electric torture in Vietnam appeared in Arkansas prisons in the 1960s and in Chicago squad rooms in the 1970s and 1980s.
Likewise, the excruciating water tortures U.S. soldiers used in the Spanish-American War appeared in American policing in the next two decades. For those who had been tortured, it was small comfort when, on Memorial Day 1902, President Roosevelt regretted the “few acts of cruelty” American troops had performed.
Some believe that judges can issue selective torture warrants to security officers in important cases. But the rapid increase in the number of torture warrants issued during the Battle of Algiers is evidence enough that civil servants can exercise little selective control once they have licensed unlimited power.
Others believe that torture occasionally is necessary and that when it is, one should have to answer for one’s actions before the law. But “morally justified” torture does not resemble morally justified civil disobedience. Civil rights protesters break the law in public and then submit their behavior to juries and courts. But I know of no modern torturer who voluntarily submitted to public scrutiny and took the heat. Like boasts of bravery, this opinion is too easy to hold when there is no danger of it being tested. Modern torturers operate in secrecy and specialize in techniques that leave no marks. What would we really know of Abu Ghraib in the absence of the photographs?
And once soldiers get away with torture, they repeat it. Few things predict future torture as much as past impunity.
It is easy to criticize the leaders and torture apologists who misled us and continue to do so. What is harder is to determine how to repair the damage. One crazy man can block the well, but it takes the whole village to remove the stone, an Iranian proverb says.
We can learn from the mistakes of other democracies that have tortured. These democracies lost their wars because the brutality they licensed reduced their intelligence, compromised their allies and corrupted their military and government, and they could not come to terms with that.
When the politicians first heard of the torture, they denied it happened, minimized the violence and called it ill treatment. When the evidence mounted, they tried a few bad apples, disparaged the prisoners and observed that terrorists had done worse things. They justified the torture as effective and necessary for the extreme circumstances and countercharged that critics were aiding the enemy. As time passed, they offered apologies but accepted no consequences and argued that there was no point in dwelling on past events.
The torture continued because these democrats could not institutionally recommit themselves to limited power at home or abroad. The torture interrogations yielded the predictable results, and the democracies remained mired in their wars despite overwhelming military superiority against a far smaller enemy. Soon the politicians had to choose between losing their democracy and losing their war. That is how democracies lose wars.
Darius Rejali, a professor of political science at Reed College, was a 2003 Carnegie scholar. He is the author of "Torture and Democracy," to be published by Princeton University Press in 2005.More Darius Rejali.
Elliott and the friends with whom he recorded in middle school in Texas (photo courtesy of Dan Pickering)
Heatmiser publicity shot (L-R: Tony Lash, Brandt Peterson, Neil Gust, Elliott Smith) (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott and JJ Gonson (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
"Stray" 7-inch, Cavity Search Records (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott's Hampshire College ID photo, 1987
Elliott with "Le Domino," the guitar he used on "Roman Candle" (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Full "Roman Candle" record cover (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott goofing off in Portland (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Heatmiser (L-R: Elliott Smith, Neil Gust, Tony Lash, Brandt Peterson)(courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
The Greenhouse Sleeve -- Cassette sleeve from Murder of Crows release, 1988, with first appearance of Condor Avenue (photo courtesy of Glynnis Fawkes)