Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

January 16, 2007

Bush and the war in Algeria

Filed under: Africa,imperialism/globalization — louisproyect @ 6:11 pm

Bush’s latest reading material

Out of morbid curiosity, I watched Scott Pelley’s interview with George W. Bush last Sunday night on “Sixty Minutes”. It included the following:

PELLEY: (Voiceover) Mr. Bush, realizing he’d never had a TV camera on-board, urged us to catch the Washington Monument going by. He’d been reading a book on the history of the city and pointed out landmarks along Pennsylvania Avenue. He told us he’s reading another book, a historical parallel to Iraq about France’s long, losing fight against insurgents in Algeria. Henry Kissinger had recommended it. Within minutes, we had reached Andrews Air Force Base and Air Force One.

I strongly suspected when hearing this that the book in question is Alistair Horne’s “A Savage War of Peace” that I cite in my “Battle of Algiers” review on MRZine. I subsequently learned from Eli Stephens that CNN is reporting that Bush is indeed reading Horne’s book for lessons on what to do in Iraq.

My review of “The Battle of Algiers” began with a similar use of the “lessons” of Algeria:

Challenged by terrorist tactics and guerrilla warfare in Iraq, the Pentagon recently held a screening of “The Battle of Algiers,” the film that in the late 1960’s was required viewing and something of a teaching tool for radicalized Americans and revolutionary wannabes opposing the Vietnam War.

Back in those days the young audiences that often sat through several showings of Gillo Pontecorvo’s 1965 re-enactment of the urban struggle between French troops and Algerian nationalists, shared the director’s sympathies for the guerrillas of the F.L.N., Algeria’s National Liberation Front. Those viewers identified with and even cheered for Ali La Pointe, the streetwise operator who drew on his underworld connections to organize a network of terrorist cells and entrenched it within the Casbah, the city’s old Muslim section. In the same way they would hiss Colonel Mathieu, the character based on Jacques Massu, the actual commander of the French forces.

The Pentagon’s showing drew a more professionally detached audience of about 40 officers and civilian experts who were urged to consider and discuss the implicit issues at the core of the film — the problematic but alluring efficacy of brutal and repressive means in fighting clandestine terrorists in places like Algeria and Iraq. Or more specifically, the advantages and costs of resorting to torture and intimidation in seeking vital human intelligence about enemy plans.

Michael T. Kaufman, “What Does the Pentagon See in ‘Battle of Algiers’?” (The New York Times, September 7, 2003)

Horne’s book is a devastating indictment of colonialism. It has now been reissued as a paperback and I strongly recommend it. Here’s a review by Thomas Ricks, the Washington Post author of “Fiasco”, a celebrated attack on the war in Iraq.

The Washington Post November 19, 2006 Sunday Aftershocks; A classic on France’s losing fight against Arab rebels contains troubling echoes of Iraq today.

Reviewed by Thomas E. Ricks

A SAVAGE WAR OF PEACE Algeria 1954-1962
By Alistair Horne
New York Review Books. 608 pp. Paperback, $19.95

When Americans talk about the raging insurgency in Iraq, they often draw parallels with the Vietnam War, but a better analogy is probably the French war against nationalist rebels in Algeria from 1954 to 1962. That’s one reason why the landmark history of that conflict, Alistair Horne’s A Savage War of Peace, has been an underground bestseller among U.S. military officers over the last three years, with used copies selling on Amazon.com for $150. Indeed, “Algeria” has become almost a codeword among U.S. counterinsurgency specialists — a shorthand for the depth and complexity of the mess we face in Iraq. Earlier this year, I referred to Horne’s book while conversing with one such expert in Taji, Iraq, and got a grim nod of agreement.

Now a new paperback edition of Horne’s 1977 classic has been issued, cutting the price of wisdom to a more reasonable $19.95. In a new preface, Horne makes the connection to Iraq explicit. First, he notes, the Algerian insurgents fighting to end France’s colonial control over the country avoided taking on the French army directly; instead, they attacked the police and other more vulnerable targets, thereby demoralizing local supporters of the French presence. Second, Algeria’s porous borders greatly aided the insurgents, who could receive reinforcements, arms and sanctuary from neighboring countries such as Tunisia and Morocco. Third, and most emphatically, he writes that “torture should never, never, never be resorted to by any Western society.”

Those three parallels are provocative enough, as far as they go. But many other, perhaps less obvious points in Horne’s lucid, well-organized history may do even more to deepen our understanding of the Iraq War.

Again and again, Horne wrote passages about the French in Algeria that could describe the U.S. military in Iraq. As I wrote about the U.S. Army’s big “cordon-and-sweep” operations that detained tens of thousands of civilian Iraqi males in the Sunni Triangle in the fall of 2003, I remembered Horne: “This is the way an administration caught with its pants down reacts under such circumstances. . . . First comes the mass indiscriminate round-up of suspects, most of them innocent but converted into ardent militants by the fact of their imprisonment.”

Like the Americans in Iraq, the French in Algeria consistently misunderstood the nature of the opposition, focusing too much on supposed foreign support and too little on the local roots of the insurgency. Horne also detected a distinctly familiar pattern of official optimism among French officials, who were quick to declare their war “virtually over” four years before it ended in their defeat.

Moreover, A Savage War of Peace draws an important distinction between torture by the police and torture by the military. The former damages mainly individuals and need not be hugely damaging to the war effort; the latter, Horne quotes a former French officer as saying, involves the honor of the nation — as it did at Abu Ghraib and other facilities where Iraqis were abused by American soldiers in 2003-04.

Along the way, Horne offers three other comments that are not particularly encouraging. First, when considering the Bush administration’s policy of having U.S. forces stand down as newly trained Iraqi forces stand up, it is worth noting that throughout the eight years of the Algerian war, more Algerians were fighting on the French side than on the rebel side — and the French still lost.

Second, when trying to understand Iraq’s current violence, it is good to recall Horne’s comment that “such a simultaneous internal ‘civil war’ ” often rages alongside a “revolutionary struggle against an external enemy.”

Finally, when we hear U.S. military officers arguing that they achieved their mission in Iraq but that the rest of the U.S. government failed or the will of the American people faltered, remember Horne’s quotation from a French general, Jacques de Bollardière, who was critical of his army’s performance: “Instead of coldly analysing with courageous lucidity its tactical and strategic errors, it gave itself up to a too human inclination and tried — not without reason, however — to excuse its mistakes by the faults of civil authority and public opinion.”


To be sure, there are huge differences between the two wars. Most notably, the United States isn’t a colonial power in Iraq, seeking to maintain a presence of troops and settlers as long as possible. Rather, in Iraq, victory would consist of getting U.S. personnel out while leaving behind a relatively friendly, open, stable and independent government. And while elements of the French military tried to assassinate French President Charles de Gaulle for pulling out from what he termed “a bottomless quagmire,” there is little fear that U.S. officers will go down that rebellious road.

But there are numerous suggestive parallels — mainly relating to conventional Western militaries fighting primarily urban insurgencies in Arab cultures while support for their wars dwindles back home and while the insurgents hope to outlast their better-armed opponents. As such, anyone interested in Iraq should read this book immediately.

Thomas E. Ricks, a Washington Post military correspondent who has reported frequently from Iraq, is the author of “Fiasco: The American Military Adventure in Iraq.”


The New York Times, January 17, 2007 Wednesday
Aux Barricades!
By Maureen Dowd

Being president can be really, really hard.

”Sometimes you’re the commander in chief,” W. explained to Scott Pelley on ”60 Minutes.” ”Sometimes you’re the educator in chief, and a lot of times you’re both when it comes to war.”

President Bush has been dutifully making the rounds of TV news shows, trying to make the case that victory in Iraq is ”doable.” He thinks the public will support the Surge if he can simply illuminate a few things that we may have been too thick to understand. For instance, he says he needs to ”explain to people that what happens in the Middle East will affect the future of this country.” Yes, Mr. President, we get it.

He also told Jim Lehrer last night that in 20 years, radical Shiites could be warring with radical Sunnis and Middle Eastern oil could fall into the hands of radicals, who might also get weapons of mass destruction.

So after scaring Americans into backing the Sack of Iraq by warning that radicals could get W.M.D., now he’s trying to scare Americans into supporting the Surge in Iraq by warning that radicals could get W.M.D.

So many deaths, so little progress.

It’s unnerving to be tutored by an educator in chief who is himself being tutored. The president elucidating the Iraqi insurgency for us is learning about the Algerian insurgency from the man who failed to quell the Vietcong insurgency.

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.


Inside Higher Ed, Jan. 24

Facing the Question

By Scott McLemee

“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.

Read full article here.


  1. Hi Louis, thanks for writing this. I’m not sure if Horne’s book can only be read as an indictment of colonialism. Apparently Ariel Sharon thought Horne’s book was so important he kept it for years by his bedside.

    In one of the passages of Horne’s book, he recounts in fetishistic and voyeuristic detail the rape and mutilation of a European woman in Phillipeville by FLN supporters. Over one hundred Europeans were brutally murdered. Yet when he describes the vicious murder of betweeen 1200 and 12,000 Algerians (the variation is in French and FLN figures), on the same page no less, he cannot take their point of view; he quotes the words of French soldiers being ‘forced’ to shoot “crazed” Algerian children. The horrible massacre by Algerians is described in nightmarish detail. But the systemic violence of the French soldiers and colonists, also an extreme violence, arguably genocidal, is only seen as an existential crisis for these enlightened humans, against people who are portrayed as inhuman. Horne’s compassion is tactical. He details in horrifying detail maximum violence when it speaks of the savagery of colonized people, or to advance his Cold War fantasies. When it is by the French, he details their own words and justifications. I think this in itself is an act of violence, manipulating the rape of women to his political agenda, lining up their horrors as a rhetorical flourish in his prose.

    Comment by hollowentry — January 20, 2007 @ 1:46 am

  2. Thanks for reminding me of what I didn’t care for in Horne’s book. You are right. It is obviously hostile to the FLN. But it is still a useful source of information on French depravity. I would compare it to mainstream liberal literature on the Vietnam war, like Stanley Karnow’s. Here are Marxmail subscriber Greg Dunkel’s recommendations on histories of the Algerian war:

    I bought “Algeria:1830-2000, A Short History” by Benjamin Stora because I
    appreciated what he has written in French. I think some of his politics
    were toned down by Cornell University Press, but it is still the best book
    I know of in English, written by a French scholar who was born in Algeria.

    Three other books I have in my library:

    “The French Stake in Algeria, 1945-1962” by Tony Smith
    “A Savage War of Peace, Algeria 1954-1962” by Alistair Horne
    “The War without a Name” by John Talbot

    The Talbot book has the most discussion of the role of the PCF (French
    Communist Party), which was shameful and close to reactionary in many
    aspects, even though many of its members participated heroically in the
    struggle against this imperialist war. At least one member of the PCF was
    guilotined and one died in battle with the FLN, fighting against the French
    army, while he was suspended from PCF membership because he supported
    an independent Algeria.

    Hope this list helps.


    Comment by louisproyect — January 20, 2007 @ 3:15 am

  3. Thanks for the list. I’ll have to read the Talbot book.

    Comment by hollowentry — January 20, 2007 @ 4:33 am

  4. I just started, Churchill’s Folly: How Winston Churchill Created Modern Iraq by Catherwood. Solid background of how Churchill as Colonial Secretary in 1921 placed Feisal I as King of Mesopotamia(Irak)though Feisal was from near Mecca, not Baghdad. Gives some background why it took a autocratic despot like Saddam Hussein to hold an artificial nation together, much like Tito kept Yugoslavia together. Like Iraq, Yugoslavia was a British creation of WWI.

    Comment by m.c. — January 23, 2007 @ 7:24 pm

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