A Savage War of Peace: Algeria 1954-1962 by Alistair Horne. 608 pp. New York Review Books. $19.95 (paperback)
The Algerian war of independence against France must be considered among the most brutal conflicts of the 20th century. The French citizens who lived in Algeria, known as pied noirs, numbered one million to eight million Muslim subjects. Like all imperial ventures, there was a great disparity between the political power, economic opportunities, educational attainment and land resources of the colonialists as compared to the indigenous subjects. Half-hearted attempts at reform were discouraged by the pied noir lobby. Eventually an all-out war was waged by the Algerian independence forces, the FLN.
A Savage War of Peace documents just how savage the war was between the FLN and the French military. It involved terrorist bombing campaigns between the FLN and the French ultras, known as the OAS; indiscriminate massacres and reprisals; internecine warfare; the killing of collaborators, and bombings in Paris itself, including by the OAS. The French use of torture not only demoralized the torturer but resulted in false information–issues with which we’re all too familiar since the Bush administration.
The most fascinating portrait in the book is that of President Charles de Gaulle, brought back to power to resolve the Algerian conflict. At first, the pied noirs thought that de Gaulle was on their side; quickly, however, many noticed the ambiguity of his pronouncements. One forms the conclusion that he wanted to liberate France from the economic and military costs of the Algerian millstone. In response, four French generals tried to mount a coup in Algeria, ultimately unsuccessful, on behalf of Algerie Francaise. De Gaulle did initially try to advocate an “association” between the two countries, but the FLN was adamant in its aims and distrustful of France from the start. As the chaos continued, de Gaulle and his negotiators conceded point after point. The OAS terror campaigns backfired, making it impossible for any pied noirs to remain in Algeria, and they were sent back to France, where many suffered from the dislocation. Following the withdrawal, France itself enjoyed an economic boom. Algeria realized its independence and an impressive amount of development, along with periods of political and economic chaos and bloodshed. Unlike India after independence from Great Britain, Algeria certainly did not become a democracy.
Similar to the war in Vietnam, the Algerian war demonstrated that a Western power can prevail militarily yet ultimately be defeated by persistent, determined guerrilla warfare. Horne makes the lessons clear in this illuminating, often harrowing work:
There was the failure of a materially mighty Western power to combat a civil insurrection… ...the instrument of torture, as well as being fundamentally wicked in itself, was proved to be a boomerang weapon. There was the failure of the West to comprehend Third World aspirations; and the failure of the moderates to prevail against the extremist minority on either side…