Alistair Horne: Bush is reading his book on Algeria (on Kissinger's recommendation)

Historians in the News

... During his “60 Minutes” interview, Mr. Bush mentioned that he was reading Alistair Horne’s classic history, “A Savage War of Peace,” about why the French suffered a colonial disaster in a guerrilla war against Muslims in Algiers from 1954 to 1962.

The book was recommended to W. by Henry Kissinger, who is working on an official biography of himself with Mr. Horne.

Mr. Horne recalled that Dr. Kissinger told him: “The president’s one of my best students. He reads all the books I send him.” The author asked the president’s foreign affairs adviser if W. ever wrote any essays on the books. “Henry just laughed,” Mr. Horne said.

It seems far too late for Mr. Bush to begin studying about counterinsurgency now that Iraq has cratered into civil war. Can’t someone get the president a copy of “Gone With the Wind”?

Maybe it was inevitable, once W. started reading Camus’s “L’Etranger,” set in Algeria, that he would move on to Mr. Horne. As The Washington Post military correspondent Tom Ricks wrote in November, the Horne book has been an underground best-seller among U.S. military officers for three years, and “Algeria” has become almost a code word among counterinsurgency specialists for the mess in Iraq. The Pentagon screened the 1966 movie “The Battle of Algiers” in 2003, but the commander in chief must have missed it.

I asked Mr. Horne, who was at his home in a small village outside Oxford, England, what the president could learn from his book.

“The depressing problem of getting entangled in the Muslim world,” he replied. “Algeria was a thoroughly bloodthirsty war that ended horribly and cost the lives of about 20,000 Frenchmen and a million Algerians. There was a terrible civil war. ...De Gaulle ended up giving literally everything away and left without his pants.”

President de Gaulle had all the same misconceptions as W., that his prestige could persuade the Muslims to accept his terms; that the guerrillas would recognize military defeat and accept sensible compromise; and that, as Mr. Horne writes, “time would wait while he found the correct formula and then imposed peace with it.”

Mr. Horne also sees sad parallels in the torture issue: “The French had experience under the Nazis in the occupation and practiced methods the Germans used in Algeria and extracted information that helped them win the Battle of Algiers. But in the long run it lost the war, because it caused such revulsion in France when the news came out, and there was huge opposition to the war from Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir.”

In May 2005, Mr. Horne gave a copy of his book to Rummy, with passages about torture underlined. “I got a savage letter back from him,” the author said.

The best thing now, he said, is to try to “get around the mullahs” and “get non-Christian forces in there as quickly as possible, mercenaries. As Henry said the other day, if only we had two brigades of Gurkhas to send to Baghdad.”

Meanwhile, maybe W. should move on to reading Sartre. “No Exit,” perhaps.
Read entire article at Maureen Dowd in the NYT

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