Saturday, October 9, 2004

Michael Collins (Film Review, Ruminations on Guerrilla Warfare)

After the debate last night, with family asleep, MILO, FLINKY and your host, El Jefe Maximo settled in with a glass of Yellow Tail Shiraz and watched Michael Collins (1996) (Liam Neeson, Julia Roberts). If you want to understand how the banditti fighting us in Iraq, as well as Al Qaeda, see themselves, then watch Michael Collins.

Michael Collins covers the Irish War of Independence (1919-1922), particularly in Dublin. The title character, Michael Collins (Neeson), was the Irish hero of that war, and should be remembered as one of the more significant military/political figures of the 20th Century. Irish agitators and rebels of one type or another struggled sometimes bloodily and always unsuccessfully for separation from Great Britain for hundreds of years. It was Collins, a farmer’s son from hardscrabble, rural, County Cork, who, more than anybody else, converted the Irish independence movement from a mixture of eccentric political ideologues and bandits into a guerrilla movement that defeated the British Empire.

The film sticks reasonably close to historical events, probably too closely for most people to enjoy the film without a little background knowledge. Despite reasonable (well, stretches some points a bit) fidelity to the record, Michael Collins is an unabashed exercise in hero worship, totally from the Irish republican perspective. There were probably as many loyalists and neutrals in Ireland as there were rebels, if not more, but their story is ignored. The film also gives short shrift to Eamon de Valera, who had at least as much to do with Irish independence as Collins. Still, I enjoyed the film, although my own biases make me tend to sympathise more with the British than the Irish rebels.

The meat of the picture is its depiction of Collins's and the IRA’s struggle with G Division of the Dublin Metropolitan Police (DMP), and the Royal Irish Constabulary (RIC). The film provides some excellent insight into the problems of police/intelligence/military organisations and guerrilla warfare.

G Division was tasked, among other things, with spying on and neutralising anti British rebel organisations such as the IRA. Collins recognised early on that Irish rebel movements in the past had always been defeated by informers and spies in their own ranks. Collins’s answer was to recruit and plant spies of his own within the DMP/RIC (including the famous Ned Broy, a member of G Division, depicted in the film), and use these persons to find, hunt down, and murder G Division’s detectives and informers. These people, of course, were usually as Irish as their IRA killers, the only difference being that they served the king, not the Irish rebel movement. Collins was even able to obtain access to the DMP’s secret files, and, more importantly, to use them as the basis to construct files of his own, to aid his assassination team ("the Twelve Apostles").

Collins’s methods have been copied and played themselves out again and again since the 1920’s, in Vietnam, Algeria, the West Bank, the Philippines, Malaysia… and so on. Something similar is going on in Iraq, right now, particularly in the Sunni parts of the country. Since the arrival of American troops, the Americans have tried to build an intelligence organisation, using informers, spies, and bribes, to destroy the Sunni rebel organizations.

After a slow start, they began to have some success, culminating in the capture of Saddam Hussein late last year. The rebels have responded, trying to plant and recruit spies (like Ned Broy) in the new Iraqi army and police, murdering police and soldiers who cooperate too much with Americans, and saving their worst punishments (as did, and does, the IRA), for informers in their own ranks cooperating with the occupation. In the Sunni areas, the rebels, like the IRA in Dublin, seem to have for the moment gained the upper hand, because the new Iraqi police and army lack intelligence sources, and because they cannot protect informers.

The film cloaks this dirty business in an aura of freedom-fighter romance, leaving you rooting for the rebels in their succession of risks and hair-breadth escapes. The most honest portion of the film is a weird sequence where the perspective moves back and forth between Michael Collins and his eventual love interest Kitty Kiernan (Julia Roberts) hiding out in a hotel room, and Michael’s boys all over Dublin murdering fourteen members of a special British intelligence unit (the “Cairo Gang”).

Lots to think on in this film. The most interesting personality in the film, at least for me, was Broy (played by Stephen Rea), the traitor on the inside; a detective in the G Division, going to work and associating every day with people he has set up to be killed. An indispensable person for a successful guerrilla movement, but Broy's double dealing and betrayal of his erstwhile comrades typifies one reason guerrilla warfare becomes (more even than conventional war) a parade of dirty atrocities. To fight the guerrillas successfully, the police and army must become like them.

Unfortunately, this sort of warfare is the way of the future. Fighting as irregulars allows weaker parties such as the IRA or the Sunni guerrillas to negate their opponent’s technological and industrial advantages. Guerrilla warfare takes maximum advantage of the unwillingness of democratic societies to tolerate long, grinding attritional struggles that always proceed slowly; that threaten civil liberties; and require a degree of ruthlessness on the part of the authorities that is not received well in modern western social democracies.

The film also shows the messy endings of most guerrilla wars – when the foreigners are gone, the victors fall out among themselves. Collins and his friend Harry Boland (Aidan Quinn) wind up on opposite sides of the Irish Civil War, with fateful results for both. Haunting rendition of a song called "She Moved Through the Fair" by Sinead O'Connor. Definitely worth a look.

If you’re interested in the IRA and this period, any of the books by Tim Pat Coogan are worth reading. Michael Hopkinson’s The Irish War of Independence is also very good. For guerrillas, and the future of warfare, have a look at Martin Van Creveld's The Transformation of War, a scary, scary book.

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