Facing the Question

An occupying army, an Islamic insurgency, and no end in sight.... Scott McLemee looks at two books ripped from the headlines -- of 50 years ago.

January 25, 2007

"Sixty Minutes" reported a couple of weeks ago that George W. Bush is now, on the advice of Henry Kissinger, reading a book about the Algerian War.

My new year's resolutions preclude taking any of the various cheap shots made conveniently easy by this bit of news. No, mustn't. Instead, it's worth dwelling on an interesting fact there, between the lines. Even someone with a pretty slight knowledge of the literature on the Algerian conflict (okay, I confess it) will immediately know which book Kissinger recommended to the president. It's obvious.

First published 30 years ago, A Savage War of Peace: Algeria 1954-1962, by Alistair Horne, very quickly established itself as the standard account of that period available in any language.

The author had been a member of the British military in the 1940s and a foreign correspondent for The Daily Telegraph in the early 1950s, before going on to write a three-volume history of warfare between France and Germany. He must know how to talk to people: Savage War reflects an extraordinary degree of access to participants in both the Algerian guerilla movement and the French occupying forces. Certainly no French historian had written anything comparable in scope or balance. Perhaps none could -- the passions of the conflict itself having been followed by years of public amnesia.

When Horne's book first appeared, it seemed to be an account of one major, but now largely closed, chapter in the history of postwar decolonization. Subsequent developments -- in Algeria and elsewhere -- have made the past prologue. Savage War has become a de facto textbook for American military officers facing time in Iraq. Doubtless it has close students on the other side, as well.

In recent years, used copies of the book have fetched at least $100 apiece online. Fortunately a paperback reprint has recently been issued by New York Review Books (the publishing house associated with the journal).

In a preface to the new edition, Horne notes that the Israeli press once mentioned that Ariel Sharon's favorite bedside book was a Hebrew translation of Savage War. He then quotes, with approval, a comment by Amos Elon, an eminent Israeli journalist and social critic. Sharon "must have tragically misunderstood it," wrote Elon. "That book could not tell him what to do, but it could have told him what not to do."

Horne goes on to spell out what George Bush and Tony Blair might have learned from a careful study of Algeria. His point is much the same as the one made by Elon. "At the very least," he says, "its lessons might have imposed caution before getting involved in Iraq in the first place."

He notes "at least three areas where the echoes are particularly painful, if not deafening."

One was how easily a guerilla force could maximize its impact through a focused and demoralizing use of force. The National Liberation Front (FLN) initially concentrated its firepower, not on the French military, but on members of the Algerian police who remained loyal to France. The result, writes Horne, was "a deadly loss of morale among the police, with defections to the FLN, and the French army defensively reduced to protecting the police, instead of concentrating on active 'search and destroy' missions."
Sound familiar? "The 'insurgents' in Iraq," writes Horne, "have learned from this strategy with deadly effect."

A second parallel is the effect of porous borders. Geography is destiny. Whatever advantage the French army might secure within Algeria itself at any given moment, it was "paralyzed by its inability to pursue its FLN enemy across into its friendly bases in neighboring Tunisia and Morocco." Change that to "Syria and Iran" and the scenario is as familiar as the day's headlines.

Finally, Horne points to "the vile hand of torture; of abuse, and counter-abuse."

Let's be clear about something: Horne is no sentimental idealist. There is a reason that military officers study his work. He's pretty hardboiled. So when he says that one of the major lessons he learned from Algeria is that "torture should never, never, never be resorted to by any Western society," it isn't out of insufficient realism.

"In the production of reliable intelligence, regardless of the moral issue, torture is counter-productive," he writes. But it also proves disastrous in other ways.

Horne places less emphasis on morality than morale. And in that regard, torture is a weapon that can be relied upon only to blow up in your face. "In the Algerian War," he concludes, "what led -- probably more than any single other factor -- to the ultimate defeat of France was the realization, in France and the world at large, that methods of interrogation were being used that had been condemned under the Nazi Occupation." Torture is also a gift to the enemy, given "the propaganda value even the least substantiated rumors of it can arouse."

Another new reprint, this time from University of Nebraska Press, harkens back to the Algerian War's closest equivalent to dissemination of the Abu Ghraib photographs. The Question, by Henri Alleg, was published in France in 1958 and soon banned by the government, which only guaranteed that there was a huge audience for the clandestine edition that soon appeared.

Alleg was a French-born journalist for an Algerian Communist newspaper (the same one for which Albert Camus had been a cub reporter in the 1930s) who was arrested by the French military in 1957. The authorities wasted little time before putting him to "the question," as the idiom for torture called it. He managed to write a narrative of the experience while still in prison. It was smuggled out and published,, and very quickly translated into numerous languages -- attention for it benefiting, to no small degree, from the preface by Jean-Paul Sartre.

The Question appeared in England and the United States in 1958, but the book has been out of print for decades. Sometime in 2002, James D. Le Sueur, an association professor of history at the University of Nebraska at Lincoln, decided that the time was right for a reprint. "I don't remember the exact date," he told me in a phone interview, "but it was before the abuse scandals."

Unfortunately his intuition was very good.

It made sense to think of University of Nebraska Press, in part because the publisher had already issued Le Sueur's edition of the wartime journal of Mouloud Feraoun, an important Algerian intellectual. Two years ago, Nebraska also brought out a revised edition of Le Sueur's book Uncivil War: Intellectuals and Identity Politics During the Decolonization of Algeria.

There was also the matter of convenience. "I'm a faculty member," he says, "so I could just walk over to the press’s office."

ReadingThe Question now, you get flashbacks to the past few years, including the discussion over "waterboarding" -- an interrogation technique we were assured, from some quarters anyway, is really not that bad.

Alleg does not use the expression, but he describes waterboarding from the victim's side. After enduring a few sessions of electrocution, he was tied to a plank, a tube stuck in his throat, and a rag rapped around his head. "When you want to talk, all you have to do is move your fingers," one of the torturers told him.

"And then he turned on the tap. The rag was soaked rapidly. Water flowed everywhere: in my mouth, in my nose, all over my face. But for a while I could still breath in some small gulps of air. I tried, by contracting my throat, to take in as little water as possible and to resist suffocation by keeping air in my lungs for as long as I could. But I couldn't hold on for more than a few moments. I had the impression of drowning, and a terrible agony, that of death itself, took possession of me. In spite of myself, all the muscles of my body struggled uselessly to save myself from suffocation. In spite of myself, the fingers of my two hands shook uncontrollably."

Cheered by this sign that Alleg is ready to surrender, the torturers stop for a little while. Then they get really mad because he still won't talk. So under the faucet he goes, three more times -- passing out, waking to vomit water, and to endure the beatings. And this is only the beginning.

“My case is exceptional,” Alleg writes, “in that it has attracted public attention. It is not in any way unique.” If anything, as a French citizen, he got off lightly: Muslim prisoners were treated much worse.

As we discussed Alleg’s book, Le Sueur mentioned another title that I’ve heard of, but never read: The Gangrene. Published about a year after The Question, it provided an account of the “muscular interrogations” (as another euphemism puts it) of Algerian immigrants in France itself. The torture spread, like gangrene.

That book, too, is long since out of print. The English translation from 1960 was by Robert Silvers, who went on to found The New York Review of Books. It seems like a good candidate for a new edition.

On the other hand, making such books available only does limited good, in itself. In the preface to the new edition of Savage War, Alistair Horne notes that he sent a copy to Donald Rumsfeld in 2005 “at the suggestion of his staff.” For his trouble, he got a polite but dismissive reply.

Everything is bound to change, of course, given that there is a new Secretary of Defense. And the president is reading Savage War now -- all to the good. Things will really start to improve once he begins to apply what he’s learned. That’s assuming, of course, the Pentagon is actually building a time machine.


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