A Savage War of Peace by Alistair Horne
The Algerian War of Independence must surely be the most fascinating war that I knew nothing about. Certainly, I knew that Algeria used to be a part of France. I've read Albert Camus' The Plague and The Stranger, after all. But I had no idea that the separation of Algeria from France was so bloody, so destructive, and so riveting. Fortunately, this remarkable episode in history has been captured by one of our best historians, Alistair Horne.
Written in 1977, fifteen years after the end of the war, A Savage War of Peace tells the story of the birth of one nation, the near-collapse of another, and a combustible mix of colonialism, nationalism, Cold War politics and civil-military relations. Many of the characters are simply larger than life, from the Algerian guerrilla leaders to the French paratrooper colonels to France's own indispensable man: Charles de Gaulle. In the original preface to the book, Horne explained the importance of the conflict:
To Algeria it brought birth. But, during that war, more was involved than simply the issue of whether nine million Muslims should gain their independence or not. Not merely one but several "revolutions" were taking place on a variety of distinct levels; there was, inter alia, a profound social revolution going on within the framework of Algerian Muslim society; and, on the French side, "revolutions" first by the army and later by the OAS against the political authority of France. Finally, there was the tug-of-war for the soul of Algeria as fought externally on the rostrum of the United Nations and the platforms of the Third World, and in the councils of both Western and Eastern blocs.
One of the most surprising aspects of the war was how threatening it was to France itself. One might reasonably think that the greatest danger posed to a colonial power by a war of independence is the loss of the colony. But the Algerian war presented almost surreal potential for destruction to the mother country:
I also happened to be in France on two other occasions when events in Algeria threatened the very existence of the Republic--in May 1958 and again in April 1961, the latter the most dangerous of all when ancient Sherman tanks were rolled out on to the Concorde to guard against a possible airborne coup mounted from Algiers...The war in Algeria (which lasted nearly eight years--almost twice as long as the "Great War' of 1914-18) toppled six French prime ministers and the Fourth Republic itself. It came close to bringing down General de Gaulle and his Fifth Republic and confronted metropolitan France with the threat of civil war.
How could this be? The mighty nation of France, survivor of two world wars, laid low by a rebellion in North Africa? To gain some sense of how this came to pass, Horne takes us through a whirlwind tour of French Algeria, from the landing of an expeditionary force in 1830, to the 1848 French constitution which converted Algeria from colony to part of France proper, to the 1865 decree which guaranteed full nationality for European colonists (the so-called Pieds-Noirs), but made citizenship for Muslims based on the intolerable condition that they renounce the authority of their religious courts. The entire Algerian relationship was anomalous, even amongst French colonial possessions:
At the top, Algeria - since it had been annexed as an integral part of France - was governed through the French Ministry of the Interior. This was in sharp contrast to its closely related Maghreb neighbours, over whom France established only "protectorates" during the nineteenth century and which were consequently dealt with by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
This policy made sense only insofar as Algeria was to be considered as much a part of France as Normandy or Provence, and it is worth comparing what relatively peaceful transitions both Morocco and Tunisia made from French colonies to independent nations. But how seriously could anyone take this idea, when 90% of the population were non-citizen Algerian Muslims? Quite a few people, as it turned out. The two communities, pied-noir and Muslim, tenuously co-existed, with the Europeans enjoying absurdly unfair privileges in governance and commerce. This system was clearly unfair, never more so than when Algerian Muslims who fought for France in World War II returned to their homeland to find they were still to be treated as second-class citizens:
[W]hen, early in 1943, a Muslim delegation approached the Free French leader, General Giraud, with a petition of reforms, they were headed off with "I don't care about reforms, I want soldiers first." And indeed, Algeria did provide France with soldiers - as in the First World War: magnificent Tirailleurs and Spahis, to whom General Juin was heavily indebted for his victorious progress through the grinding Italian campaign. These Algerian soldiers at the front were either largely unaware of, or had their backs turned upon, the turmoil brewing at home - until Sétif. But the camaraderie of the battle-front, their contact with the more privileged British and American troops, as well as the training they received, were things not to be lightly forgotten.
The 1945 Sétif_massacre, an account of which opens Horne's book, resulted in more than 6,000 Algerian deaths and marked the birth of the nationalist movements which would break into open rebellion in 1954. There was not one unified movement, and the story of the internal politics and violence within the revolutionary movement receives due attention throughout the book. Of particular note for comparison to other recent revolutionary movements was the tension between the FLN leaders in exile and those who were doing the actual fighting, the "exterior" and "interior":
In the first instance the row was over the continued failure of the external delegation to provide the arms demanded by the "interior". An angry exchange of correspondence in April 1956 culminated with this insulting ultimatum to Ben Bella: "If you cannot do anything for us outside, come back and die with us. Come and fight. Otherwise consider yourselves as traitors!"
An array of military and economic measures were deployed by the French in the early years of the war, alternately trying to use the carrot to ease Muslim complaints while deploying the stick to destroy or deter insurgent violence. The leaders of the FLN recognized the principle of guerrilla warfare that "a resort to blind terrorism provoke the forces of law and order into an equally blind repression, which in turn would lead to a backlash by the hitherto uncommitted, polarise the situation into two extreme camps and make impossible any dialogue of compromise by eradicating the "soft centre". The FLN took this step on the outskirts of the city of Philippeville, where the violence deployed was almost unspeakable:
It was not until two o'clock that a forest guard managed by a miracle to dodge ambushes and bring the news to Philippeville on foot; and still another hour and a half elapsed before a para detachment could reach the village. An appalling sight greeted them. In houses literally awash with blood, European mothers were found with their throats slit and their bellies slashed open by bill-hooks. Children had suffered the same fate, and infants in arms had had their brains dashed out against the wall. Four families had been wiped down to the last member; only six who had barricaded themselves in a house in the centre of the village and had held out with sporting rifles and revolvers had escaped unscathed. Men returning from the mine had been ambushed in their cars and hacked to pieces. Altogether thirty-seven Europeans had died, including ten children under fifteen, and another thirteen had been left for dead.
This horrendous violence would recur again and again, driving both sides to unthinkable acts of brutality. The French military and police would stoop to the types of torture from which their society had so recently suffered under German occupation, and in the waning days of the war the pieds-noirs would form their own bands of vigilantes to rain terror upon Muslim civilians. All of which worked to the FLN's ends, to eliminate the so-called "Third Force," the interlocuteurs valables with which the French government would seek to compromise, rather than concede to the unbending demands for independence levied by the militants.
The situation was complicated immensely by the pied-noir problem. Not only could the French not simply abandon the million-plus citizens residing in Algeria, but those citizens had voting rights and thus representatives in the French government. And in the pathetically fragmented post-war Fourth Republic, the pied-noir caucus could swing a vote of confidence and bring down a government. This instability was intolerable to the military, which saw it is an impediment to victory, thus leading to the May 1958 in which the Algerian-based paratroopers effectively threatened to invade Paris and overthrow the government if Charles de Gaulle were not brought back to power:
On the morning of the 27th the crisis reached its peak. Parisians looked up nervously at every plane overhead; Simone de Beauvoir had Freudian nightmares about a python dropping on her form the sky; and in the Ministry of the Interior Jules Moch received an intelligence report that "Resurrection" was now scheduled to take place on the following night. He ordered his C.R.S. force to prepare to defend government buildings. Meanwhile, young para officers were arriving in the capital in civilian clothes, carrying suspiciously heavy suitcases. Among their targets was the kidnapping of Jules Moch himself, and with them - on his own mission - came Lagaillarde. Then, early in the afternoon, de Gaulle - apparently as a result of the mounting pressures upon him - issued a communique announcing that he had begun the "regular process" of forming a legitimate republican government, and condemning any threat to public order.
This would not be the last, nor the most dangerous of the attempted military coups. It was amazing to me to read how close the government of France, which today we celebrate as a stable member of the sisterhood of democracies, came so close on several occasions to being overthrown by its own military. But Horne, while not defending this treason, does attempt to provide some perspective:
To understand what to other Western minds may seem incomprehensible and shocking, the disaffection within the French army which was to culminate in full-scale revolt in less than eighteen months' time, one needs to consider the stresses imposed by French history beyond merely the unbroken chain of humiliation that stretched from 1940 up to the Algerian war. Since the execution of Louis XVI in 1793, the French army had been subject to the First Republic, the Directory, the Consulate, the First Empire, the First and Second Restorations, the "Bourgeois Monarchy" of Louis-Phillipe, the Second Republic, the Second Empire, the Commune, the Third Republic, Petain's Vichy and de Gaulle's Free French Committee, the Fourth Republic, and now the Fifth Republic. Each change of regime had contributed fresh division within the army, and added new confusion as to where loyalties were ultimately due - a compound of experience shared by no other army in the world (outside, perhaps, Latin America).
Indeed, the only even remotely comparable analogy I could muster in modern American civil-military relations was the open disregard shown for President Truman by General Douglas MacArthur during the Korean War, resulting in MacArthur's prompt dismissal from command and (eventual) widespread consensus that the general had gone too far. As far as I can remember, there were no colonels in the airborne divisions plotting to jump into D.C. to force a regime change.
Ultimately, this was a war the French could probably never win. The era of colonialism was coming to an end, and whatever distinctions the French saw between Algeria and their other former colonies, the rest of the world was unsympathetic. The Algerian rebels played a stellar game of shuttle diplomacy, eventually getting support or at least neutrality out of the Americans, the Chinese, and the Soviets (no mean feat in the early 1960s!). They had the numbers, they had the willingness to resort to terrible acts of violence, and they were not playing for the short-term. The FLN knew that they could simply outlast the French, and in the end they were right.
Horne's book has gained a new following since the start of the Iraqi insurgency, coming back into print in 2006. The new cover advertises that it is "on the reading list of President Bush and the US military," and it was apparently recommended to the then-President by no less than Henry Kissinger (whose authorized biographer is, wait for it, Alistair Horne). Now certainly it is on the reading list of some in the US military, yours truly for starters, but I'm not entirely sure the book holds anything but bad news for America.
In the first place, I'm not entirely sure how apt the analogy is. Yes, the Algerian war for independence can be described as an insurgency. But this is a land that had been considered part of France proper, at least by the French, for well over a century. By the time of Algeria's independence in 1962, there were a million pieds-noirs, with full French citizenship and voting rights, born and raised in Algeria. Yet even overlooking the vast differences between the situations, what about the Algerian experience is instructive for America? The war took down the very structure of French government, inspired two military coup attempts, resulted in almost total political defeat for France (despite tremendous military success once the resources were finally committed), the mass migration of the pieds-noirs, the slaughter of France's erstwhile Algerian allies, and the eventual disintegration in Algerian civil society leading to a full-blown civil war beginning in 1991. Not a lot there to be happy about, though it does make for a great read.