Academic journal article Essays in French Literature and Culture

Representing Conscripts' Experience of Counter-Insurgency Warfare on Screen: Laurent Herbiet's Mon Colonel

Academic journal article Essays in French Literature and Culture

Representing Conscripts' Experience of Counter-Insurgency Warfare on Screen: Laurent Herbiet's Mon Colonel

Article excerpt


During the eight years of the Algerian War of Independence there were up to 470,000 French troops on the ground in Algeria at any one time, the large majority national servicemen; perhaps two million appelés [conscripts] served during the course of the war1, many for considerably longer than the due service of eighteen months as the date of their release was continually postponed. Most were between twenty and twenty-two years old; many of them, from poor, rural backgrounds, had never travelled outside their local region. Transported to a completely unfamiliar territory where their official mission was to "restore order", the conscripts were drawn into the spiral of violence of an undeclared war. This article explores how the experience of the conscripts sent to Algeria has been represented in recent publications and cinema, with a particular focus on Laurent Herbiet's 2006 film, Mon Colonel. It uses these texts to examine the effect on young, inexperienced soldiers of having to implement counter-insurgency tactics developed by French military officers in the wake of defeat in Indochina, and to consider whether these ill-trained and ill-prepared conscripts can be considered amongst the victims of the Algerian War.

Casualties of War

The physical casualties of the war can be identified: over 26,000 French troops were killed in the war and some 70,000 were wounded, the majority conscripts, although there appear to be no reliable records of the numbers who suffered lasting physical handicaps. The impact of mental trauma is less easy to quantify, but some studies have estimated that a quarter of the conscripts suffer at some time in their lives from psychological problems resulting from their service (Bernard, 2003), a proportion that is in line with estimates of trauma from other wars. Since they had officially been involved only in operations of maintien de l'ordre, reservists and draftees did not obtain the rights, benefits and recognition to which they would have been entitled as war veterans until many years after the war.2 Nor did they receive the psychological counselling and support that would be offered today to soldiers exiting a theatre of war:

Aucune institution ne tenta de prendre en charge les jeunes démobilisés et de leur apporter un soutien psychologique. Or, la guerre d'Algérie fut pour beaucoup un poids que certains traînent encore, aujourd'hui, comme un fardeau ou comme une croix (Bantigny, 2004, 106).

The conscripts returned at the end of their service to a France undergoing rapid transformation as a consumer society was built in the train of the Trente Glorieuses and the population, keen to forget the past whether of the Second World War or of the failed wars in Indochina and Algeria, "s[a]nk into a collective amnesia" (Alexander et al, 2002, 16). Censorship by the government, during and for some time after the war, along with the denials of the use of torture by the military hierarchy, left the conscripts to come to terms in silence and self-censorship with what they had seen and perhaps done. Interviewed late in life, many veterans claimed that if they did try to speak to friends and family of their experiences, they were met with indifference, disbelief or condemnation (Rotman, 2002, 250-1; Bantigny, 2004, 106). Moreover, how could the public understand the nature of the veterans' war experiences, so different from the confrontations of the regular armies of World War Two? The wars of decolonisation had led to the development of a doctrine of counter-revolutionary warfare that imposed on the soldiers the task of close surveillance and control of a population whose loyalties could never be decided.

Counter-Insurgency Warfare

The defeat of the French at Dien Bien Phû in 1954 led some in the French military to question why an experienced, technologically advanced army had been outmanoeuvred by peasant forces. It was because, they argued, they had not adapted their tactics to the new post World War Two forms of combat, where the guerrillas lived among and drew support from the surrounding populations and into which they could disappear, in Mao's words, like fish in water. …

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