By guest contributor Robert Koch
After two world wars, the financial and ideological underpinnings of European colonial domination in the world were bankrupt. Yet European governments responded to aspirations for national self-determination with undefined promises of eventual decolonization. Guerrilla insurgencies backed by clandestine organizations were one result. By 1954, new nation-states in China, North Korea, and North Vietnam had adopted socialist development models, perturbing the Cold War’s balance of power. Western leaders turned to counterinsurgency (COIN) to confront national liberation movements. In doing so, they reimagined the motives that drove colonization into a defense of their domination over faraway nations.
COIN is a type of military campaign designed to maintain social control, or “the unconditional support of the people,” while destroying clandestine organizations that use the local populations as camouflage, thus sustaining political power (Trinquier, Modern Warfare, 8). It is characterized by a different mission set than conventional warfare. Operations typically occur amidst civilian populations. Simply carpet bombing cities (or even rural areas as seen in the Vietnam War), at least over an extended period of time results in heavy collateral damage that strips governments of popular support and, eventually, political power. The more covert, surgical nature of COIN means that careful justifying rhetoric can still be called upon to mitigate the ensuing political damage.
Vietnam was central to the saga of decolonization. The Viet Minh, communist cadres leading peasant guerrillas, won popular support to defeat France in the First (1945-1954) and the United States in the Second Indochina Wars (1955-1975) to consolidate their nation-state. French leaders, already sour from defeat in World War II, took their loss in Indochina poorly. Some among them saw it as the onset of a global struggle against communism (Paret, French Revolutionary Warfare, 25-29; Horne, Savage War for Peace, 168; Evans, Algeria: France’s Undeclared War, Part 2, 38-39). Despite Vietnam’s centrality, it was in “France,” that is, colonial French Algeria, that ideological significance was given to the tactical procedures of COIN. French Colonel Roger Trinquier, added this component while fighting for the French “forces of order” in the Algerian War (1954-1962) (Trinquier, Modern Warfare, 19). Trinquier’s ideological contribution linked the West’s “civilizing mission” with enduring imperialism.
In his 1961 thesis on COIN, Modern Warfare, Trinquier offered moral justification for harsh military applications of strict social control, a job typically reserved for police, and therefore for the subsequent violence. The associated use of propaganda characterized by a dichotomizing rhetoric to mitigate political fallout proved a useful addition to the counterinsurgent’s repertoire. This book, essentially providing a modern imperialist justification for military violence, was translated into English, Spanish, and Portuguese, and remains popular among Western militaries.
Trinquier’s experiences before Algeria influenced his theorizing. In 1934, a lieutenant in Chi-Ma, Vietnam, he learned the significance of local support while pursuing opium smugglers in the region known as “One Hundred Thousand Mountains” (Bernard Fall in Trinquier, Modern Warfare, x). After the Viet Minh began their liberation struggle, Trinquier led the “Berets Rouges” Colonial Parachutists Battalion in counterguerrilla operations. He later commanded the Composite Airborne Commando Group (GCMA), executing guerrilla operations in zones under Viet Minh control. This French-led indigenous force grew to include 20,000 maquis( rural guerrillas) and had a profound impact in the war (Trinquier, Indochina Underground, 167). Though France would lose their colony, Trinquier had learned effective techniques in countering clandestine enemies.
Upon evacuating Indochina in 1954, France immediately deployed its paratroopers to fight a nationalist liberation insurgency mobilizing in Algeria. Determined to avoid another loss, Trinquier (among others) sought to apply the lessons of Indochina against the Algerian guerillas’ Front de Libération Nationale (FLN). He argued that conventional war, which emphasized controlling strategic terrain, had been supplanted. Trinquier believed adjusting to “modern warfare” required four key reconceptualizations: a new battlefield, new enemy, how to fight them, and the repercussions of failure. Trinquier contended that warfare had become “an interlocking system of action – political, economic, psychological, military,” and the people themselves were now the battleground (Trinquier, Modern Warfare, 6-8).
Trinquier prioritized wining popular support, and to achieve this blurred insurgent motivations by lumping guerrillas under the umbrella term “terrorist.” Linking the FLN to a global conspiracy guided by Moscow was helpful in the Cold War, and a frequent claim in the French military, but this gimmick was actually of secondary importance to Trinquier. When he did mention communism, rather than as the guerrilla’s guiding light, it was in a sense of communist parties, many of whom publicly advocated democratic means to political power, as having been compromised. The FLN were mainly a nationalist organized that shunned communists, especially in the leadership positions, something Trinquier would have known as a military intelligence chief (Horne, Savage War for Peace, 138, 405). In Modern Warfare, although he accepted the claim that the FLN was communist, in fact he only used the word “communist” four times (Trinquier, Modern Warfare, 13, 24, 59, 98). The true threat were “terrorists,” a term used thirty times (Trinquier, Modern Warfare, 8, 14, 16-25, 27, 29, 34, 36, 43-5, 47-49, 52, 56, 62, 70, 72, 80, 100, 103-104, 109). The FLN did terrorize Muslims to compel support (Evans, Algeria: France’s Undeclared War, Part 2, 30). Yet, obscuring the FLN’s cause by labeling them terrorist complicated consideration of their more relatable aspirations for self-determination. Even “atheist communists” acted in hopes of improving the human condition. The terrorist, no civilized person could support the terrorist.
Trinquier’s careful wording reflects his strategic approach and gives COIN rhetoric greater adaptability. His problem was not any particular ideology, but “terrorists.” Conversely, he called counterinsurgents the “forces of order” twenty times (Trinquier, Modern Warfare, 19, 21, 32-33, 35, 38, 44, 48, 50, 52, 58, 66, 71, 73, 87, 100). A dichotomy was created: people could choose terror or order. Having crafted an effective dichotomy, Trinquier addressed the stakes of “modern warfare.”
The counterinsurgent’s mission was no less than the defense of civilization. Failure to adapt as required, however distasteful it may feel, would mean “sacrificing defenseless populations to unscrupulous enemies” (Trinquier, Modern Warfare, 5). Trinquier evoked the Battle of Agincourt in 1415 to demonstrate the consequences of such a failure. French knights were dealt crushing defeat after taking a moral stand and refusing to sink to the level of the English and their unchivalrous longbows. He concluded, if “our army refused to employ all the weaponsof modern warfare… national independence, the civilization we hold dear, our very freedom would probably perish” (Trinquier, Modern Warfare, 115). His “weapons” included torture, death squads, and the secret disposals of bodies – “dirty war” tactics that hardly represent “civilization” (Aussaresses, Battle of the Casbah, 21-22; YouTube, “Escuadrones de la muerte. La escuela francesa,” time 8:38-9:38). Trinquier was honest and consistent about this, defending dirty war tactics years afterward on public television (YouTube, “Colonel Roger Trinquier et Yacef Saadi sur la bataille d’Alger. 12 06 1970”). Momentary lapses of civility were acceptable if it meant defending civilization, whether it be adopting the enemy’s longbow or terrorist methods, to even the battlefield dynamics in “modern warfare.”
Trinquier’s true aim was preserving colonial domination, which had always been based on the possession of superior martial power. In order to blur distinctions between nationalists and communists, he linked any insurgency to a Soviet plot. Trinquier warned of the loss of individual freedom and political independence. The West, he warned, was being slowly absorbed by socialist—terrorist—insurgencies. Western Civilization would be doomed if it did not act against the monolithic threat. His dichotomy justifies using any means to achieve the true end – sustaining local power. It is also exportable.
Trinquier’s reconfiguration of imperialist logic gave the phenomenon of imperialism new life. Its intellectual genealogy stretches back to the French mission civilisatrice. In the Age of Empire (1850-1914), European colonialism violently subjugated millions while claiming European tutelage could tame and civilize “savages” and “semi-savages.” During postwar decolonization, fresh off defeat in Indochina and facing the FLN, Trinquier modified this justification. The “civilizing” mission of “helping” became a defense of (lands taken by) the “civilized,” while insurgencies epitomized indigenous “savagery.”
The vagueness Trinquier ascribed to the “terrorist” enemy and his rearticulation of imperialist logic had unforeseeable longevity. What are “terrorists” in the postcolonial world but “savages” with modern weapons? His dichotomizing polemic continues to be useful to justify COIN, the enforcer of Western imperialism. This is evident in Iraq and Afghanistan, two countries that rejected Western demands and were subsequently invaded, as well as COIN operations in the Philippines and across Africa, places more peripheral to the public’s attention. Western counterinsurgents almost invariably hunt “terrorists” in a de facto defense of the “civilized.” We must carefully consider how rhetoric is used to justify violence, and perhaps how this logic shapes the kinds of violence employed. Trinquier’s ideas and name remain in the US Army’s COIN manual, linking US efforts to the imperialist ambitions behind the mission civilisatrice (US Army, “Annotated Bibliography,” Field Manual 3-24 Counterinsurgency, 2).
Robert Koch is a Ph.D. candidate in history at the University of South Florida.