History Repeats Itself: France in Algeria, the US in Iraq

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Marnia Lazreg is a Professor of Sociology at Hunter College and Graduate Center City University of New York and the author of Torture and the Twilight of Empire: From Algiers to Baghdad (forthcoming).

The disclosure by the New York Times on October 4, 2007 of Alberto Gonzales’s secret memo authorizing torture and President Bush’s public acknowledgment on October 6, 2007 that “interrogation” is necessary to obtain “actionable intelligence,” starkly reveal the logical thread that ties wars of occupation together.  The Viet Nam war has often been invoked in making sense of the Administration’s involvement in Iraq, yet the Algerian War is a better model for understanding the US military strategy and a better predictor of its evolution.  Apart from the Pentagon finding “The Battle of Algiers” a useful training tool, the French anti-subversive war methods were taught at Fort Bragg in the 1960’s as Algeria was gaining its independence, by no other than General Aussaresses, the self-confessed torturer and architect, with General Massu, of the generalized use of torture in Algiers in 1957. 

Mr. Gonzales defined the war in Iraq (and Afghanistan) as a “new war” against a rogue or “failed state” that justified the use of new methods of interrogation of which torture is an essential part.  This justification of torture has a much longer history than is fathomed.    The French military had defined the war of decolonization started by the Algerian FLN in 1954 as a “new war,” or guerre révolutionnaire, a subversive war concocted by international communism acting by proxy to destabilize western democracies.

Even though invoking Al Qaeda as an international threat may be more compelling today than the communist boogie man of the Cold War, the reasoning behind the justification of war and torture is the same. French anti-subversive war strategists modeled their methods after those of the Algerian guerillas (which they felt resembled the Viet Minh’s).  Combat troops thus became indistinguishable from their elusive enemy in mobility, stealth, determination, and tactics; they fought terror with terror.  A theorist of guerre révolutionnaire, Roger Trinquier, flatly declared torture to be “the antidote to terrorism.” 

The adoption of guerilla tactics by a regular army accustoms troops to the use of unrestrained force in violation of international conventions, fosters contempt for the civilian population, and flaunts civil control over military actions.  Indeed, torture demands that intelligence officers have free reign, unencumbered by considerations of civil rights and due process.  More importantly, its defense requires civil authorities to define political issues in military terms, and thus lose sight of the political and social consequences of their decisions. 

Torture became systematic during the Algerian War, and “humane torture” was taught as part of the training troops received in “counter-guerilla” techniques.  Humane torture is “clean,” that is, “it does not leave any trace; does not take place in presence of young soldiers or sadists; is not inflicted by an officer or a person of rank; and must end as soon as the suspect has talked.”  Electricity and water-boarding were presented as perfectly clean techniques.  Unlike Mr. Mukasey or Mr. Giuliani who, when asked whether they would condone water-boarding and electricity, distinguished between “legal” and illegal techniques, French strategists understood that “humane” torture was nevertheless torture, and that it was illegal. Wishing to demonstrate that torture was no big deal, General Massu had himself tortured by his sidekick, General Aussaresses, who nevertheless went easy on his superior.   Military tribunals gave priority to “operational interrogation,” which relied on speed and efficiency. Captured combatants were thus tortured on the spot with portable equipment during military operations. As an officer put it, intelligence is a “form of combat.”

What the administration is missing from its reading of the Algerian War, however, are two important lessons:

1- When torture is condoned by the state as a legitimate combat tool, it acquires a life of its own, and can no longer be justified in terms of “actionable intelligence.”   Furthermore, the use of torture has unintended consequences: it gives the officer an overconfident sense of unlimited power; perverts the stated values of the Army, and makes it dependent on an easy (it is easy to torture a suspect tied to a chair) source of dubious intelligence. 

2- Anti-subversive wars are fought in and against the population.  They consequently cannot win the people’s hearts and minds as occupying forces seldom distinguish a peaceful native from a “terrorist,” and must subject innocent people to torture.

French strategists offered health and education services to the rural populations to secure their loyalty. However, the institutions that delivered these services, the Sections Administratives Spécialisées (SAS), also used them to gather intelligence with torture, and control regrouped villagers from whom food was frequently withheld in exchange for information.  The recent decision by the US Military to use anthropologists to help in the pacification of the rural Afghan population harks back to the French SAS. French psychological warfare experts used the combined knowledge of anthropologists, historians, Islamicists and Arabists in designing their soft and hard propaganda, (forcibly) unveiling women, and designing torture techniques that exploited their assumed cultural knowledge of Algerians. However, occupation rests on force and the projection of an image of force.  Since the population “friend-enemy” was a war front, doctors, teachers and social workers were unable to give it a peaceful face. 

By the end of the Algerian war, France had committed half a million men to fight a losing battle.  The American “surge” in Iraq, means the use of more repressive methods, reminiscent of Massu’s attacks on the Qasbah.   In the end, the lesson to learn from the Algerian war is not how to adapt and refine French anti-subversive war methods, but to follow France’s example:  leave. 

Related Links

  • Ted Morgan: Algeria and Iraq: Yes, There Are Parallels

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    More Comments:

    Arnold Shcherban - 12/25/2007

    <The war in Iraq was about getting rid of Hussein>
    And we naive folks thought that it was about Iraq's WMD - a deadly threat to the US national security, based on the faulty CIA info allegedly fooling the White House...

    <...and then trying to stop the ex Baathists and Al qaeda from instigating a civil war by attacking civilians and Shiite shrines.>
    To think that the civil war was instigated by the US agression against Iraq and Baathists regime, which actually successfully prevented
    that civil war, though by using repressive methods of "persuasion" for many years is, of course, beyond the imagination of such pundits as Ms. Reyes, no matter how well it corresponds with reality.
    This reality tells us about not only
    the instigative reason mentioned above, but also that the US anti-insursengy experts created Shiite death squads, I guess initially as
    promoting peace between two major religious groups military units, which later turned "rogue".
    (It is a curious fact by itself that wherever the US counter-terrorism/counter-insurgency experts are involved death squads pop up as mushrooms after a rain. One has to just recall past events in Central and Latin America.

    <If that country doesn't want the US, they could have voted agains the US.>
    Where and when in the world any occupying great power (the US not excluded) let the indigenous people
    vote against it?!
    In Germany? In Greece? In Eastern Europe? In Japan? In Indochina? In Philippines? In Central America?
    The choice was actually more like live or die...
    This is truly a piece of an Orwelian speak on Ms. Reyes' part.

    As far as the torture is concerned I would like to ask Mr.Reyes a question:
    Did KGB torture Western spies in post-Stalin era?
    I want Ms. Reyes prove it with statistics, since this is undeniable fact for the overwhelming majority of Americans.

    Nancy REYES - 12/6/2007

    The bloody Algerian war was about independence.
    The war in Iraq was about getting rid of Hussein and then trying to stop the ex Baathists and Al qaeda from instigating a civil war by attacking civilians and Shiite shrines. If that country doesn't want the US, they could have voted agains the US.

    However, perhaps a better parallel would be the war of the Algerian government against their own Islamic terrorists of the 1980's and 1990's...
    But the best parallel would be the change in tactics by Magsaysay in Luzon.

    As for torture, you need to prove it is as widespread in Iraq by Americans...statistics, not rhetoric please..

    Serge Lelouche - 12/5/2007

    This article shows no sensitivity whatsoever to the intricacies of Algerian society. Like the Westerners she no doubt dislikes, Lazreg sees "Algerians" as an undifferentiated other. They were, in fact, a diverse group (Kabyle, Jews, Corsicans) who had differing ideas and loyalties. But, if one is going to make such a simple-minded argument as Lazreg does, all nuance and detail must be sacrificed.