My Battle of Algiers by Ted Morgan
My Battle of Algiers
by Ted Morgan
Collins. 304 pp. $24.95
A well-known journalist and biographer, Ted Morgan, born Sanche de Gramont, was as a young man a reluctant conscript in France’s last colonial war. Morgan arrived in Algeria in September 1956, two years into the gruesome and complex struggle that would put an end to France’s 130-year North African empire. Now, five decades later, he writes that the guerre d’Algérie, which Algerians call their revolution, is worth recalling because of its role in the invention of modern Arab terrorism. But he also means to come to terms with an experience that in his own eyes left him morally compromised, and that remains a subject of sharp political controversy.
Military historians and moral philosophers may quarrel about just what constitutes modern terrorism, Arab or otherwise. But the terrorism of the Algerian nationalist insurgents, which was deliberately aimed at civilians, seemed at the time unprecedented—more cruel and immoral, Albert Camus wrote, than anything envisioned, let alone carried out, by such earlier proponents of terrorism as the Russian nihilists or the Spanish anarchists.
The French response, too, was unprecedented. Torture is no doubt as old as warfare, but this was probably the first time a liberal-democratic regime permitted its own soldiers to apply such methods systematically. To restore security in the capital city of Algiers, French forces rounded up and tortured thousands of Muslims and a few score of their European allies, mostly members of the Algerian Communist party, often killing them in the process or afterward. For recalling this—without regret—in a memoir published five years ago, a retired French general officer named Paul Aussaresses was taken to court and found guilty of justifying torture, a crime in today’s France.
In the matter of precedents, Morgan reminds us that, from the start, the Algerian revolution combined terror, conventional military operations, and atrocities on both sides. Even before hostilities started, pro-independence demonstrations in some areas had degenerated into gruesome murders, to which the French responded with massive naval and aerial bombardments that killed thousands of innocent villagers. When the uprising began in 1954, the first victims of the insurgents were policemen, a local Muslim village leader, and a school teacher recently arrived from mainland France: a fair sampling of insurgent targets throughout the war.
Morgan’s recounting of subsequent events follows the generally accepted historical record. By 1956, the leadership of the National Liberation Front (FLN) had marginalized or killed rival nationalists, organized rear bases in the newly independent states of Morocco and Tunisia, and made the decision to take the rural guerrilla war into Algiers, a city of 600,000 Europeans and 300,000 Muslims, most of whom were concentrated in the casbah (fortified old town) that rises steeply from the city’s harbor.
The strategy had three aims: to gain international attention for the insurrection, to scare the French, and to radicalize both sides. It worked: with the local police unable to stop the apparently random bombings, the (Socialist) government in Paris gave full powers to the 10th paratroop division. It was commanded by General Jacques Massu, a tough veteran married to a nurse, Suzanne Rosenberg, who wanted to win over Arab hearts and minds.
This was no flagrant contradiction. Massu and his colonels, notably Marcel Bigeard, were veterans of the French defeat in Indochina. In their bitter experience there, they had met an enemy who would stop at nothing—propaganda, deception, torture and terror—to win. Believing with some justification that they were facing the same kind of enemy in Algeria—the FLN received East-bloc support—they assumed they should adopt his rules of engagement. At the same time, however, they tried to counter the Muslims’ negative view of France. They knew the system in French Algeria needed overhauling, and they took the initiative with army-run educational and social services.
In the final analysis, however, it was the French use of torture that won what was dubbed the battle of Algiers, by overcoming the FLN’s strategy of intimidating or assassinating informers. The 10th division’s commanders defended the torture and death-squad activities of Aussaresses’s unit and others by maintaining that the FLN’s tactics were themselves barbaric, and that they could not secure the city or target insurgent safe houses unless they could get information as quickly as possible.
Massu’s methods succeeded. But by encouraging both sides’ hardliners, the success prolonged the war. Charles de Gaulle, who returned to power in 1958 with widespread support both on the mainland and in Algeria, sought at first to continue the dual aim of winning the war while instituting reforms (against the will of the colons, or European Algerians, who thought the securing of their principal city had given them an indefinite lease on life). But even with an army of 400,000 driving the Muslim forces into mountain hideouts, compromise with the FLN proved impossible. Nor was there any other negotiating partner, since the FLN had eliminated all rival movements and enforced internal discipline with Stalinist ruthlessness.
French Algeria, begun in 1830 as a somewhat frivolous military adventure that soon turned into a war of conquest and extermination, ended in 1962 in a final rampage of scorched earth, serial murder, and terror, this time committed by the irredentist colons as de Gaulle now led French public opinion toward withdrawal. The final French mission was to oversee the removal of nearly a million of these European Algerians while the Muslims who had served in French ranks were abandoned to savage reprisals. The rest were left to the rule of a single-party police state that would mismanage things for another 30 years until, in the early 1990′s, a new insurgency, one that gave the world the term “Islamism,” would again plunge the country into civil strife and terror.
The son of a French diplomat posted in Washington in the late 1930′s, Sanche de Gramont grew up in the U.S. Well connected—John Negroponte, the scion of a prominent Balkan family, is a cousin on his mother’s side—he was educated at Yale and was just beginning a career in journalism when duty called. Though he despised colonialism, he ruled out any thoughts of dodging the French draft and enlisted in officer candidate school, hoping that by the time he completed the extra months of training, the “events,” as the French at first insisted on calling the war, would be over.
Instead, the young second lieutenant found himself at the front in a region near Algiers. There he witnessed what, in his telling, he still believes to have been the murder of an unpopular officer by his colonial troops. He also relates his own inadvertent beating to death of a prisoner. When he tried to have himself placed under arrest, his sergeant scoffed: “Don’t be ridiculous. When you go to the hamam (steam bath) you sweat, and in war there are losses.”
Through an American diplomatic connection, de Gramont met General Massu, who assigned him to a unit putting out a pro-French paper secretly funded by the army. The 10th division was swinging into action, and de Gramont had a ringside seat, in mufti, during the battle for the city. He used it to good effect. His sharp observations, retold now with a powerful feel for the drama of the time, re-create the dangerous mood of 1957 Algiers.
With friends on both sides—after all, he had his journalistic duties—de Gramont was able to cut a fairly wide swath through Algiers, including among the ladies, one of whom furnished him with FLN contacts. He was convinced then and still is today that, notwithstanding the intentions of moderates on both sides, no compromise was ever possible. In leaving, one of his last acts was to assist an army deserter. When he returned in 1962, it was to cover the beginnings of independent Algeria for the New York Herald Tribune.
A few years ago, having long since exchanged his prominent French name for an American anagram, Ted Morgan caught a New York revival of The Battle of Algiers, an on-location reenactment of the famous battle, directed by Gillo Pontecorvo and produced by an FLN leader, Yacef Saadi. It may be indicative of Morgan’s feelings about the war that he had never seen this famous historical drama when it first came out in the mid-60′s with the help of the Algerian government and with Yacef Saadi playing himself in a rather flattering light.
At the screening in New York, Morgan writes, who should be there to present the movie but Yacef Saadi himself, “looking spry and fit at seventy-six.” Yacef had organized the FLN terror campaign during the battle of Algiers, but was captured by the French. To avoid torture, according to Morgan, he cooperated, giving away the last hold-outs, prominent among whom was a legendary hoodlum turned revolutionary named Ali-la-Pointe. But the movie tells a different story. In it, Ali is instead betrayed by a prisoner who succumbs to torture.
“I went up and introduced myself,” Morgan writes, “surprised that [Yacef] had bowdlerized his true role.” But, he adds, “since this was almost half a century after the events, I decided not to mention it.”
Some observers today tend to see a replication of colonial relationships in any struggle between the U.S. and forces in what used to be called the third world. From this they deduce that attempts to intervene in the internal affairs of countries like Iraq are doomed. Morgan does not say as much, but in a passing remark about his cousin John Negroponte’s “irrelevant” tour as ambassador in Baghdad during a period when post-Saddam Iraq still had no government, a throwaway line to the effect that Iraq’s “porous borders” render the American war there “unwinnable,” and a few ironic comments on France’s civilizing pretensions in Algeria, it is difficult not to see an implicit criticism of American foreign policy.
Still, as Morgan also notes, the fundamental differences are patent between Algeria back then, with its million European settlers, and Iraq today. Details matter, and the details in 1957 Algiers especially so. Ted Morgan’s strength as a writer is to limit himself almost entirely to the details of his own time at war, and not to lose sight of its peculiarity.