The 1993 movie ‘In the Name of the Father’ is a film based on the real life story of Irishman Gerry Conlon, who was one of the ‘Guilford Four;’ a group of innocent men wrongly convicted of a lethal IRA bombing. The whole movie is excellent (although not without controversy given that the script departed from real life events considerably) and is one that cemented actor Daniel Day-Lewis reputation as a exceptional actor. In this post, though, I want to focus on the opening ten minutes of the film.
Basically, in these first ten minutes we get a master class in what’s known as ‘Aid to Civil Power’ or ‘Counter Insurgency Warfare‘ and how badly things can go wrong when brute force is applied in the complex world of an urban insurgency.
Not that it would have been any less racist, but studying the first ten minutes of this film would have made Uprising a more realistic novel.
The film opens with Daniel Day-Lewis’s Gerry Conlon reminiscing about Belfast in the 1970s. The war with the IRA is in full swing and the British Army in bunkered down in siege mode. As the scene opens, an IRA sniper has been spotted and the Brits are pushing out patrols and OPs to try and flush him out. Sections of British troops creep their way up the streets, while a Quick Reaction Force (QRF) sits ready in a troop of armoured cars and observers scour the rooftops with bios.
In the middle of all this, Gerry Conlon and two of his friends are stealing scrap metal from the roof of a building. In the voice over, Gerry confesses that he has already received three warnings from the local IRA commander, and if he gets caught again he’s likely to suffer. Despite this, and despite the fact that the city is literally a block-by-block armed camp, he’s not only up on the roof top, but when he discovers a piece of metal pipe he can’t help but dance around and air guitar with it.
In an instant that’s telegraphed to everybody but him, his performance is glimpsed by one of the street level patrols. These men are scared. The population is against them and they know it, and the sniper they’re looking for has the home ground advantage. All they see is a flash of movement but it’s enough. ‘Shoot him before he shoots us!’ a soldier screams as their section sharpshooter shoulders his rifle.
He fires, but the shot misses. And with that shot the scene erupts.
As the section pushes forward and the luckless thieves scramble to escape the rooftops, the alarm is raised. The British OP party signals the QRF which goes tearing down the streets but in among the neighbourhood’s population, a different alarm goes out.
As the army surges forward women who just moments before were going about their day to day lives begin banging trashcan lids and beating pots and pans to alert the neighbourhood. The Brits are moving! Something is happening!
One of these women is an actual IRA member. As she seizes a trash can lid she orders her daughter to run a warning in to the local IRA safe house. The man she warns takes one look at the confusion in the streets, hears the growing chorus of the alarms and orders his people to evacuate. High up on a different rooftop, the actual IRA commander watches the scene unfold without bothering to take cover. His only concern is the identity of the knuckleheads who just set off the British Army.
Conlon and his friends reach the streets and take off running. A random neighbour waves them into a house where they cut through (a baby cries in confusion) to reach a nearby alley. The foot patrol is hot behind them, kicking down the house’s front door just seconds later as the QRF races by to cut them off on the next block.
But the alarm raised by the local women has taken effect, and the neighbourhood is reacting accordingly. As the armoured cars race down the streets a random man emerges from his house, seizes a nearby trash can and hurls it at the passing cars. Others begin emerging a block over and start dragging debris into the streets to make a barricade.
So far nobody has any idea what is going on, but they know the army’s on the move which means it’s a fight.
Conlon and company cut through another house and plunge down an alley, almost running headlong into a party of shady-looking characters carrying suspicious looking bundles hidden under blankets.
They’re crossing the alley into another house and Conlon almost leads the pursuing British foot patrol straight into them.
Just a few seconds are all that allow the IRA fighters to slip past the pursuing British patrol, but now the vice is closing in and as Gerry Conlon emerges into the street the QRF is close behind him. Up ahead the residents have dragged a burned out car (apparently from a previous riot) into the streets to form a barricade, but the armoured car isn’t slowing down. It crashes through the car and the men flee down the street, but by now a serious crowd has begun to form and organize itself.
The women push to the front to face the QRF. Several of them sit down in the road, daring the armoured cars to run them over while others simply stand. It works. The armoured cars screech to a halt and the men of the neighbourhood surge forward, hurling stones. Up on the rooftops more stones rain down. Someone flings a Molotov cocktail and the drivers and crew commanders of the armoured cars button up.
The Brits have prepared for this eventuality, or at least they think they have. The rear hatches burst open and the troops inside, bristling with riot gear erupt into the streets. The fact that none of these men know who they’re looking for doesn’t matter. The fact that the man they’re chasing isn’t the sniper doesn’t matter. The fight’s on and these guys don’t plan on losing. Never mind the fact that they’ve already lost.
For a moment chaos reigns as the troops try to organize themselves. Random children are running through the riot, delighted to see the excitement up close.
But the troops start to organize, and the foot patrol catches up to thicken out the line while an officer hauls away the kid.
Tear gas is fired and the troops advance. For a second the crowd manages to push them back but a second rush tramples several people in the crowd. A man goes down under a rain of blows while a woman is pinned up against a wall and beaten.
Both the crowd and the troops pause to regroup, and Gerry Conlon is in the thick of the action, taunting the army.
Even as he does so, a trio of IRA men calmly enter the crowd to snatch him and his accomplices. Behind him the riot continues, as the crowd and the army beat each other into a stalemate he is drawn aside to face justice.
The crowd has little idea what exactly is going on, but Gerry’s father Giuseppe Conlon (played by the late lamented Pete Postlethwaite and still at work instead of rioting out in the streets) has just heard that his son is in danger. Desperately he races through the street, negotiating his way past both the army’s lines and the crowd of rioters to plead his case with the IRA directly.
As furious as the IRA men are, Giuseppe’s pleadings have an instant effect. Gerry’s would-be mutilator instantly backtracks, insisting that they’d only meant to scare him. A few minutes of negotiation see Gerry & Co released into his father’s care, which in turn sets the rest of the movie’s events into motion.
Now there’s a lot to digest in this short piece of film, but the key discussion question I want to draw attention to is this: How many sides are there in this fight?
The obvious answer is two: the British Army and the IRA, but consider the fact that the crowd that emerges to fight with the Brits has no real interest in protecting Gerry Conlon and his friends. Some of them actually heckle him as he’s held at gun point and urge the IRA fighters to shoot them for the trouble they’ve caused.
At the other end of the spectrum, Giuseppe doesn’t seem to want to fight anyone. He stays at work as the riot breaks out and only risks emerging when he realizes his son’s about to be shot. While he’s respectful of the local IRA commanders, he’s quite clearly at odds with their purpose.
So to the Brits and the IRA we need to add the neighbourhood itself. They may or may not support the IRA in particular, but they’re united by their hatred of the British. So much so that they’re willing to get their heads cracked for the sake of this douchebag here:
Then there’s Gerry and his friends.
The fourth side. The X-factor.
The local bums who are too stupid to have an actual political stance, and yet they’ll find a way to actually bring the whole army down on the neighbourhood. For all the military’s well-laid plans, for all the IRA’s secrecy these bozos managed to ruin everything.
This is the reality that comes with a bare-knuckled approach to Aid to Civil Power/Counter Insurgency. In any given society there are conflicting forces, multiple groups and factions with their own concerns. But as an outside army, your chances of actually getting a read on these undercurrents is slim because, whatever your intentions, you’re still an outsider. You don’t belong.
In his seminal essay on counter-insurgency, Autralian Army LCol David Kilcullen described an ideal scenario in which every rifle company facing an insurgency would field its own integrated intelligence section. Literally 8-10 troops should be taken off the front lines to collate data and look for patterns. This information would be shared with other companies, pushed down to the platoon level, and become the driving force of operations.
Take a second and think about that: A company should actually reduce it’s effective fighting strength by 10% in order to improve upon their intelligence gathering capabilities! This suggestion didn’t come because the higher echelons of military intelligence were ineffective. It’s because the old maxim ‘All Politics is Local’ is not just a clever phrase; in aid to civil power or counter-insurgency operations, it’s also a threat.
So how does this tie in to Uprising? Two main lessons are illustrated here. One is that military power is useless on its own without information to guide it, and that information needs to be pushed down to the ground level. In the scenario depicted above, for all their planning the British Army succeeded in little more than beating up a lot of local civilians, and getting a number of their own troops injured as well. Their fighting capability is now degraded (slightly) and the locals have that much more reason to hate the British. As much as I love the army and believe that it’s an important part of Canadian society, the fact is we’re a world apart from the average citizen and even when dealing with a friendly population we’re probably going in blind.
The second is that an insurgency can move with impunity within a friendly population, but only so long as they maintain the good will of that population. They are, however, in no position to fight the British openly. At the first hint of the alarm the safe house is immediately evacuated and their weapon stockpile is moved. While they can certainly do a great deal of damage with those weapons, their ability to prosecute their war depends on choosing the time and place, instead of fighting the army head on.
So in the classic insurgency scenario, the army has superior fighting power, but limited mobility when the population is hostile. Their best hope of success depends on accurate information gathering so they can isolate the insurgency within the population and engage them directly. The insurgency can move quickly and undetected, but they are bound to their supporting population to whom they must appear as a positive (or at least legitimate) force. When their actions are challenged on a (seemingly) legitimate level, they have to eat their losses and back down, allowing the local boob to (literally) walk free. Even with popular support, they are limited in their ability to fight any kind of head on engagement and their default option must always be to run and hide.
As the novel Uprising progresses, we’re going to see a lot of these major concepts turned on their head, and not for any particularly good reason. Much like the armoury raids that employed textbook style patrol tactics that could have been better handled by some forged paperwork and a truck, Douglas Bland is going to actively ignore these concepts. In place of a realistic scenario we will be presented with a bizarre, Rube-Goldburg machine that will tell us little about Canada, the army, or the First Nations but will, I think, speak volumes about the author.
 Contrary to popular belief, most young soldiers are NOT willing to run over a middle aged woman who could easily be their mother.
 Twenty-Eight Articles: Fundamentals of Company-Level Counterinsurgency. Kilcullen’s prescription for information capabilities is outlined in Article 3: Organize for Intelligence.
 Back in Pt 3, I mentioned the death of Patrick Doherty, a protestor on the streets of Derry during Bloody Sunday. What I didn’t mention at the time was his then-9 year old son would later grow up to join the IRA. At age 18, Tony Doherty would be arrested for the attempted firebombing of a furniture store in Derry.