The Nation has published a review of Zohra Drif’s acclaimed autobiography, Inside the Battle of Algiers: Memoir of a Woman Freedom Fighter, where the author Bill Fletcher Jr. asks the provocative question: should the civilian settlers of a colonial power – or their “loyalist” descendants – be a legitimate target in a national liberation struggle? The answer, as you might expect, is a complex and morally ambiguous one, whether those doing the targeting are state or non-state actors.
Despite this, some universal characteristics can be found in a number of countries and regions which have experienced colonisation:
Algeria was among those colonies of Europe that could be defined as “settler states” or “settler colonies.” These were colonies where the Europeans not only controlled the territory and seized its resources but where there had been a conscious decision to settle Europeans. Other such settler states included Ireland, Kenya, Rhodesia/Zimbabwe, South Africa, Palestine/Israel, Canada, the USA, Australia, and New Zealand.
There are many noteworthy things about settler states. One is how often God is referenced, as having allegedly given those territories to the European settler population. That was particularly true in Ireland, South Africa, Israel, and the United States.
A certain type of crusader or missionary zeal has been an aspect of the Anglo-British presence in Ireland for centuries, the echoes of which can be found in the more extreme forms of ideological unionism on the island (hence the Reverend Ian Paisley’s infamous claim in 1981 that his Scots and English ancestors had brought civilisation to a land of cave-dwelling savages).
During the so-called Troubles in Northern Ireland from the late 1960s through the mid-1990s, the Irish Republican Army generally took great pains to distinguish hard targets (military or government targets) from soft targets (civilians). This did not mean that civilians were not killed—there were some horrendous exceptions to this policy—but rather that they were generally not the targets of military activity. This, in fact, distinguished the IRA from the loyalist paramilitary organizations, which disregarded the soft target/hard target distinction and were quite comfortable attacking nationalist/Catholic civilians. Such an approach made it difficult for the British to successfully portray the IRA as terrorists, though the British media worked overtime in support of the London government on this issue.
The example of Ireland also illustrates an additional complication. During the Troubles, the British would establish military installations in or near civilian establishments, which I witnessed first-hand in 1988, during a visit to Northern Ireland. This meant that if the IRA were to carry out a military attack on a British installation, there was a good chance that civilians would be killed or injured, and the British could describe the attack as an act of “terrorism.” The fact that the British created this situation was generally missed by the media.
The ubiquitous use of “human-shields” by the United Kingdom’s military and paramilitary forces in the north-east of Ireland, for both fixed installations and mobile patrols, remains one of the rarer discussed aspects of the former conflict or Troubles. Though, arguably, it was also one of Britain’s most successful counterinsurgency tactics for securing footholds in otherwise dangerous or hostile areas.
The heavily fortified military observation post which once squatted on the reinforced roof of the twenty-storey Divis Tower in nationalist West Belfast, was a prime example of the UK using Irish civilians to protect the lives of its soldiers. At one stage some 2500 men, women and children lived in the shadow of the few dozen troops occupying the steel and concrete structure, and the requisitioned 19th and 18th floors beneath, providing a twenty-year buffer against insurgent attacks by the Irish Republican Army. Which turns the question of anti-colonial forces targeting settler or settler-descended populations on its head.
The ministers and generals in London who adopted the human shield strategy in the 1970s did so precisely because they viewed local populations in the Six Counties in terms of “natives” (nationalists/republicans) and “colonists” (unionists/ loyalists). In this context, the lives of the former were of negligible value except where they served an immediate or long-term politico-military purpose. Hence, equally, the United Kingdom’s precipitous and willing descent into a “Dirty War” to protect its embattled holdout across the Irish Sea. This resulted in a range of policies against the non-belligerent “indigenous” community, from the use of army death squads to collusion with loyalist terror gangs, with the intent of curtailing popular support for the insurgency (in the case of the local, state-backed Ulster Defence Association or UDA, this also meant a decades long refusal by successive UK governments to ban an allied terrorist grouping).
Of course, after hundreds of years of settlement and interaction, clear-cut lines between domestic and alien populations in Ireland no longer existed by the latter half of the 1900s (if they ever did, at least following the initial settlements of the Medieval era and the plantations of the 17th century). Contemporary 1960s’ Algeria, though similar to the segregationist Six Counties in many ways, had a more explicit and recognisable schism due to visible ethno-racial differences between groups rather than the ethno-religious split between two otherwise outwardly identical – and frequently intermixed – communities in the same country.
In targeting members of the minority unionist population, albeit while in the uniform or service of the British occupiers, the Irish Republican Army was in many ways targeting a segment of its own people. And a significant one at that. Which adds further complexity to the question asked originally. If, as most republicans would argue, engaging in attacks against non-combatant civilians is wrong, regardless of the historical or communal circumstances, what happens when those you claim as your own act on the enemy’s behalf? Including targeting you and yours?* An anti-colonial liberation struggle then takes on the aspects of a civil war (as, arguably, happened in German-occupied France during 1943-45, particularly when the Vichy regime sought to suppress its domestic enemies and rivals. Though this contest was to become a true internecine conflict).
However, and here be the rub, there are certainly some among the pro-union minority in north-east Ulster who think of their community’s history in terms of preordained conquest and settlement. To the point of seeing an almost biological division between unionists and nationalists, a separation that transcends shared characteristics. That feeds into, and from, loyalist notions of ethno-cultural and religious supremacy. Of “Britishness” being eminently greater and more prestigious than any rival form of nationality, here or across the world. One which could not countenance sharing a territory with an ethnicity inferior in language or custom. Or, for the want of a better description, “the natives”. Hence, Brexit and the distinct possibility of a partition 2.0, a “hard border” outcome sought by many in the Democratic Unionist Party. Or a return to the colonial and segregationist certainties of old.
*Note: The implementation of a Vietnam-style “Ulsterisation” policy by the UK in the 1970s further blurred the line between legitimate and non-legitimate targets. Were locally recruited part-time soldiers and police officers combatants or civilians? If killed while wearing their occasional uniforms was that an act of war? Whereas an out-of-uniform death represented a war crime? What category did the civilian employees of the Occupying Power fall into? Were judges, prosecutors, prison warders, civilian searches or even census takers justifiable targets if the colonial state could not function without them? If viewed one way, they were collaborators, perpetuating the occupation and conflict. If viewed another way, they were loyal and law-abiding citizens going about their ordinary business.