Algeria as Iraq

Kuro5hin suggests that the U.S. military in Iraq is modeling its actions on those of the French in Algeria in the 1950s. It says that “the Bush administration telegraphed their intent to use torture on prisoners in Iraq when they screened Gillo Pontecorvo’s 1965 film The Battle of Algiers.” It concludes that “The French won the battle of Algiers only to lose the Algerian war of independence.” I am not going to argue American politics on this one way or the other. The history is much bigger and darker than this. The Algerian crisis led to an attempted coup in Paris and the collapse of the Fourth French Republic:

The governor-general [of Algeria] had already left for Paris bearing a barely disguised ultimatum from the soldiers threatening insurrection if parliament would not clearly endorse a policy of Algerie Francaise. . . . On 29 May the president of the Republic called on the general [de Gaulle] to form a government of national safety, saying the country was in danger of civil war.1

When the generals called for de Gaulle they were lying, for they saw him merely as a battering-ram, to smash the Republic and take power for themselves. . . . De Gaulle took over to avert an invasion of France itself, which would probably have succeeded or, alternatively, produced civil war. He saw ominous parallels with the beginning of the Spanish catastrophe in 1936.2

The whole story is enough to make me cry. According to Johnson, the policy of the terrorist FLN in Algeria was to polarize the population by eliminating moderates on both sides. France first reacted by installing Governor-General Jacques Soutelle, who “thought he could defeat them by giving the Arabs genuine democracy and social justice.” The FLN responded with atrocities calculated to goad France into brutal reprisals, thereby forcing Arab moderates to their side. They succeeded. The French government then replaced Soutelle and gave the military carte blanche to commit torture and murder to destroy out the terrorists: “the war became a competition in terror.”

The French won this war. But when news of their actions reached the French people, support for the military collapsed. The clash lead to crisis in the French government. De Gaulle took power, indicating to the military and the French in Algeria that they would not be abandoned with the famous line, “Je vous ai compris” (I have understood you). Over the next few years he shored up his control; when he did abandon Algeria the consequent coup in France failed.

Algeria has been a bloody mess of torture and murder, razed villages and massacred innocents, ever since. According to the CIA factbook, “operations by the activists and the army resulted in nearly 100,000 deaths” in the 1990s.

The parallels with Iraq are questionable (Chechnya is probably a better comparison). I certainly don’t believe the American army will rebel. One implication is perhaps that terrorists can win against democracy and freedom on their own soil. The greater lesson is that while torture might succeed in a limited sense, its corrupting influence risks destroying the society which allows it. But perhaps what scares me the most is that the Kuro5hin article contains no mention of the attempted coup. If Iraq became Algeria all over, we would hardly know it.


1 Roberts, J.M. Twentieth Century. Pages 547-8.

2 Johnson, Paul. Modern Times (revised ed.). Page 502.