Tuesday, June 9, 2009

What was the Algerian War/Why should you care

So here are the basics, quick and dirty. (Okay, one out of two ain't bad. Sorry. I am a wordy person, what can I say?)

From 1954-1962, Algerian fighters under the banner of the Front National de Libération* (FLN) waged a war of independence against France, which had held Algeria as a colony since 1830. Algeria was unusual in France's colonial empire in that it was a "settler" colony: by 1954 about a million Europeans -- of French, Spanish, and Italian origin -- lived in Algerian territory along with about eight million Muslim Algerians. The war (which was not officially acknowledged as such by France at the time -- just referred to as "operations" or "events") ultimately resulted in the decolonization of Algeria, and the mass exodus of the entire European population. Along the way perhaps half a million people died, most of them Muslim Algerians. (This figure is extremely contested, but I'm not going to deal with that whole debate here. It's also worth knowing that Muslim Algerian civilians suffered terribly in ways that cannot be expressed through casualty figures -- for example, about 2 million of them were uprooted and displaced to "regroupment camps.")

The French military tortured systematically from the beginning to the end of the war, most spectacularly during the "Battle of Algiers" in 1957. They used all the classic methods: electricity, simulated drowning, beatings, sexual torture and rape. (The French also committed other sorts of war crimes/atrocities -- summary execution, unlimited detention without charges, etc. -- which I'll write about another time.) The FLN's use of terrorism -- in particular their targeting of European civilians at popular clubs, bars, and so on in urban bombing campaigns -- served as the rationale for this "exhaustive interrogation" of "suspects."

Now, aside from the bare fact of being Muslim, the FLN did not have a great deal in common with twenty-first century Islamist terrorists: for one thing, its members were more motivated by nationalism than by religious ideology (though that did play some role); for another, relying only in part on "terror," they were waging a full-scale war of national liberation against a colonizing power. The Algerian War was a war of independence, a war of decolonization. In that sense, it cannot and should not be understood as analogous to, or a direct precursor to, the United States' "war on terror." I want to be very clear about this. Although I think that learning about what happened in Algeria from 1954-1962 and beyond is enormously interesting, I'm not suggesting that some sort of "key" to America's current experiences lies there. (If you are into this for the sake of the history, probably the best short account that's been translated into English is Benjamin Stora's Algeria, 1830-2000. The bonus there, too, is the book also includes a good succinct history of post-independence Algeria. Alistair Horne's Savage War of Peace , which George Bush once horrifyingly bragged he was reading in search of inspiration for counterinsurgency tactics in Iraq, is a classic and a joy to read, if now a bit dated. A Diplomatic Revolution by Matthew Connelly is fabulous, too, from a broader diplo-history perspective.)

As an American today, what I find really significant about the use of torture in the Algerian War is what it did to France, which underwent a profound crisis of democracy as it attempted to hold on to Algeria. Now, obviously, not all of the ways that France got ripped apart over the Algerian War can be blamed on torture -- as I said, it was a war of decolonization, and the loss of Algeria, which had been previously understood by most French people to be an integral part of France, was traumatic in all kinds of ways. The collapse of France's Fourth Republic in 1958, in the wake of what was essentially a military coup in Algiers, along with the subsequent attempted coups and civil violence that plagued the Fifth Republic until the conclusion of the war, had all kinds of complicated causes. But what torture did do was poison the public sphere: to conceal the fact that the military was torturing, French governments turned to censorship, seizure of publications deemed deleterious to the honor and reputation of the Army, paralyzing control over the movements of journalists, and prosecution of those who nevertheless continued to publish evidence that torture was going on. Torture fueled high-level government deception; it robbed France of any moral high ground from which to denounce FLN terrorism; it put in an impossible, shaming, corrupting position the roughly two million men who served in France's conscript Army in Algeria. (Most of them had nothing directly to do with torture, which tended to be the job of elite units.) And, of course, inevitably, over time it seeped back into metropolitan France, so that by the end of the war torture was being employed by the Paris police.

The reason all the government censorship was necessary was that a small but incredibly passionate, intellectually high-powered anti-torture movement developed in France from late 1956. By any concrete measure, it failed: France continued to torture straight through to the miserable end of the war, and no one was prosecuted then or later specifically for having tortured (or ordered torture). But in another sense, its triumphs were enormous: people like Pierre Vidal-Naquet (read the Guardian's obit of him here), carrying on despite constant government harassment, prosecution, journal seizures -- and, eventually, despite death threats and bombings from hard-line supporters of France's presence in Algeria -- told the truth about what France was doing. Relentlessly. They laid the groundwork for France's eventual reckoning with its past, which is still going on today. (Vidal-Naquet's investigations of government involvement in torture, carried out under huge constraints during the war, remain indispensable for historians of the period.)

The French anti-torture activists also laid an invaluable groundwork for other people living in Western democracies, people like us, to draw on when we try to articulate what, exactly, is so absolutely corrosive and wrong about torture, and why the use of it signals a mortal threat to all that is good and right and admirable in our political system. (Vidal-Naquet got this better than anyone -- check out his 1963 book titled Torture: Cancer of Democracy.) What is especially significant, for our purposes: they did this while acknowledging that France was fighting an opponent that used terrorism against civilians. (Some of them did a much, much better job of this than others -- something that I think affords lots of lessons and that I'd like to continue blogging about in future posts.)

They also did it from a variety of perspectives: Catholics were active in the anti-torture campaign (and especially good at articulating the "infernal dialectic" between torture and terror, and the reason that one was morally obligated to fight against them both), and so were secular humanist existentialists; anti-colonial activists but also people who would have preferred that Algeria remain part of France both participated.

So -- so what? Why does this stuff matter? After all, it's not as if we're short on contemporary commentators who are very, very good at explaining what is wrong with torture -- why dig back to a bunch of French people doing a similar thing in radically different circumstances? Especially since now the major issue on the table is prosecution, and we can see that the French hardly provide any positive insight there: they failed to prosecute and indeed passed general amnesties (thus more recently, when a former Algerian War torturer came out with a proudly confessional memoir, French courts were able to sentence him only for "making excuses for war crimes," not for having comitted them in the first place).

I think it matters for a couple of reasons. Second one I'll save for a subsequent post because this is getting unconscionably long. The first one is that I think that historical comparison can function as illuminating intellectual practice. I posted several days ago about a friend asking me whether the French Right had made "this-stuff-doesn't-really-hurt" arguments to justify torture. Well, it's a long answer (one that begins with pointing out that the correct subject for the sentence is really not "the French Right" but a far more complicated entity), but it basically boils down to "no." Thinking through why that difference exists is helpful for recognizing certain features of the current American debate. Like, wow, cell phone cameras really changed the world. Because the main reason the French torture-defenders didn't argue that stuff like simulated drowning was no big deal was because they didn't have to: they didn't have to admit simulated drowning was happening AT ALL. In the absence of certain forms of highly-circulated, red-handed visual evidence, like the Abu Ghraib photos in Bush-era America, "deny, deny, deny" (even if massive, overwhelming proof actually does exist) remains a plausible public-relations strategy. Even more plausible if any time a newspaper prints the word "torture," the government seizes it! So although it's frustrating as all hell to hear waterboarding described over and over (and over and over) as a form of "enhanced interrogation" or whatever, thinking about the French case made me realize that the fact that this is happening is actually a sign that the free press in America, thanks in large part to the web, is still functioning. Denial that these things happened at all, which will always be the first line of defense, is no longer possible. And that is encouraging, despite everyting.

I'll end for the moment on that quasi-hopeful note.

* Oh fun, I just spent an hour awkwardly figuring out how to do accents in blogger without cutting& pasting. I guess html is going to be a kind of learn-as-you-go project for me. This is really good -- my students last semester were so derisive of the baby-level html skills I demonstrated in formatting the class's Blackboard site that I started to feel like, compared to them, there is basically no difference between me and certain older family members who still call the internet "the AOL."


  1. Great post!
    One thing though about "apologie de crimes de guerre". Aussaresse has been condemned for making a praise for war crimes, not excusing them (apologie meaning praise in French).

  2. Actually, pom, in the legal context “apologie” means defense or vindication.

    It's also worth noting that the case made its way up to the European Court of Human Rights, which recently ruled that France violated the Article 10 rights of Aussaresses’s co-defendants.

    Press release: (http://cmiskp.echr.coe.int/tkp197/view.asp?action=html&documentId=845504&portal=hbkm&source=externalbydocnumber&table=F69A27FD8FB86142BF01C1166DEA398649)


  3. Actually, I have completed a novel a few months ago where I take the massacre on 17 October 1961 in Paris as starting point, back in time, way back to 1830 when the French marched in (to Algeria), further back even, back to Cato the Elder with his relentless remarks in the Roman Senate on the destruction of Cartage.

    Although only manuscript still I have been at a reception at the Algerian Ambassadors residence, two weeks ago, now I am mailing with our (Dutch) Ambassador in Algiers. I think this novel could really mean something in the stalemate we are in, Westerners and Muslims.

    So where are those En. and Fr. publishers who think we W. are to blame as well in all this turmoil & hate we both, W & M, got ourselves in. All it takes is a good translator, 45.000 wrds.

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