Commentary Magazine

Lieutenant in Algeria, by Jean-Jacques Servan-Schreiber

Lieutenant in Algeria.
by Jean-Jacques Servan-Schreiber.
Knopf. 231 pp. $3.50.


In July 1956, a thirty-two-year-old French journalist and editor was called up as a reserve officer and ordered to embattled Algeria for six months. Some say Jean-Jacques Servan-Schreiber was drafted so that the government would have relief from his attacks on its Algerian policy in his weekly, “L’Express.” However that may be, Parliament was later advised by the Minister for Algeria that the lieutenant had been given considerably more latitude than other junior officers. “He maintained,” said Robert Lacoste, “the best relations with his superiors, all the way up, even to the General Commander-in-Chief, and with my closest associates.” Conversely, Servan-Schreiber faced the same risks and bruises as his fellow officers, showed competence and courage, and even won some medals. Mission accomplished, and restored to civilian freedom, he promptly fired a salvo of newspaper articles and a book based on his “eyewitness” experiences. Now published in America, it has been widely described as a persuasive indictment of France’s failure in Algeria.

Official French hopes for an Algerian solution rest on the policy known as “pacification”: stern suppression of terrorism and insurrection, simultaneous with generous conciliation of the Moslem masses. Restoration of peace is to be followed by elections and sweeping progress in self-government. Now Servan-Schreiber contends that the French army, which should have been the major instrument of “pacification,” has suppressed without conciliating. Armed brutality toward native Algeria, without distinction between friend and foe, has converted the whole country into an enemy camp and turned “a rebellion into a revolutionary war.” The earnest efforts of a few dedicated officials and some honest soldiers have been nullified by lack of guidance from the top, the pervasive “rottenness of the Administration,” the malevolent influence of reactionary colonialism, and army traditionalism itself. In sum, the author concludes, there is little to choose between the French army in Algeria and the Gestapo in occupied France. A whole generation of French youth conscripted for Algerian duty is being infected by totalitarianism. France may end by losing not only Algeria but her own democracy.

Both the articles and the book attracted wide attention in France at the time of publication there. The effect, insured by the author’s impressive credentials and the damaging character of his charges, was heightened by his literary skill. The vivid story simply could not be put down or, once read, ignored. It was rich with memorable episodes: the scene inside a native hut as the lieutenant’s friendly commando unit and a group of only half-persuaded villagers bed down gingerly together for the treacherous night; the author’s encounter with a paratrooper allegedly assigned by a reactionary French “underground” to liquidate him; the dialogue with two faceless officials in Algiers who intimate archly that if he writes anything unpleasant after being demobilized, someone may disclose “evidence” that he took a cut from the fees of a military brothel in his area. . . . No such “disclosures” followed, but echoes of Servan-Schreiber’s charges resounded widely through France, while the subsequent American edition was helped by a heroic publicity photo showing the author handsomely arrayed in battle dress.

How solid is Servan-Schreiber’s case? The question involves more than one man’s journalistic judgment or integrity. No one has denied that French forces, in their retaliation against the fellaghas (partisans) have indulged in brutal excesses—sometimes against innocent persons. But are these outbreaks systematic and officially endorsed, or are they the aberrations of individuals? If the former, then Servan-Schreiber is right. Sooner or later, a program of blind repression against all Moslem Algerians would rally them behind the most extreme faction of the nationalists and destroy the native moderates who are France’s sole hope for a sane solution.

Such blundering would jeopardize France’s economy, prestige, morale, and political stability. It would affect the West profoundly, if only because France is the heart of NATO. It would engage the whole important southwest Mediterranean shelf: Algeria dwarfs neighboring Morocco and Tunisia, which are relatively pro-Western and cool to pan-Arabism; Algerian extremists are pro-Nasser, potentially “neutral” and ominously impatient even now with the moderates in Tunis and Rabat. Algeria also contains some 135,000 Jews; the more rabid nationalists have already begun to preach boycott against them; a sovereign Algeria led by such extremists would soon be part and parcel of the Arab League.

At first glance, Lieutenant in Algeria seems to be an objective, balanced, and accurate report. Its denunciations are not wholly one-sided. It refers to the fellaghas’ ruthless reprisals against pro-French Moslems, to their abominable practice of mutilating corpses, to the existence of warring factions inside the nationalist ranks. It notes that any fellagha leader who may seek an ultimate understanding with the French is just as hamstrung as is an enlightened French commander.

But how much of this air of objectivity is genuine? The author’s reference to fellagha atrocities is minimal, considering their enormity and their extent. On the other hand, his description of individual fellaghas tends to be genial, almost admiring. Except for the few Frenchmen of whom he approves, he shows no such sporting attitude toward his own compatriots. The general who turns a simple infantry operation against one rebel-held house into an air bombardment of a whole village, the sergeant who butchers a carload of unarmed Moslems to prove he is not a “sissy,” soldiers who would sooner shoot a “gook” than interrogate him—these are the types whom the author selects as truly representative of French pacification. The officials and settlers he depicts are hardly more edifying.

What sort of eyewitness evidence supports such portraits? The author records conversations which he could not possibly have overheard, among persons who could not possibly have confided in him. Some of the episodes are so apt, so neat in their contours, that one must suspect artistic contrivance. Servan-Schreiber is careful not to say that his book is an exact account. In fact, he states expressly—and letters in the appendix confirm it—that he has made “changes.” But for what reason? Merely to prevent the identification of “certain of my comrades-in-arms” who had a right to anonymity? Since this presumably involved only a revision of names, localities, and minor details, the author leaves the impression that his story is otherwise authentic. He was more cautious in the French edition, which declared, after explaining his desire to protect his friends: “Ce récit comporte donc les transpositions nécessaires, et ne doit pas être considéré comme un document.” The latter half of this sentence—that the narrative “should not be taken to be a document,” is significantly omitted from the English version. One can perhaps overlook journalistic contrivance if the product is at least true in its major aspects. This requires, however, that all of the essential facts be reported. But too much has been omitted from Lieutenant in Algeria.

Take Servan-Schreiber’s allegation that army excesses are not only condoned but officially encouraged. To investigate such charges, the government appointed a commission of distinguished jurists and others of unimpeachable disinterestedness. Their report, recently published, confirmed that outrages had been committed, but it also found that these were not officially inspired; that they were sporadic and individual, not systematic; and that the authorities had taken action against them.

A major point in Servan-Schreiber’s indictment is the army’s alleged failure to establish and spread friendly contact with the Moslem masses. He asserts that the “Black Commandos”—volunteer units which undertook to remedy this by hazardous missions of conciliation into angry native territory—were unique, an innovation by his own commanders in the field, not by the higher authorities, and were deliberately frustrated by other commanders and even by the supreme command. In consequence, according to the author, the entire population is turning in revulsion away from France toward the fellaghas. This hardly corresponds to the situation as this reviewer was able to observe it in Algeria himself some nine months before Servan-Schreiber arrived. True, I was not a member of the French armed forces at daily grips with the fellaghas, and I only stayed six weeks, not six months. But I traveled widely as far southwest as the Saharan frontier with Morocco, as far northeast as Philippeville. In the Aurès Mountains, cradle of the revolt, I watched French troops fighting the guerrillas—and fraternizing with the population. Special French “Native Affairs” units, long before Servan-Schreiber’s “Black Commandos” were invented, were building schools, distributing seed and medicines, and even recruiting Moslems into volunteer militia against the fellaghas.

Today such units are serving widely in the once rebel-terrorized regions as teachers, engineers, architects, judges, doctors, and in other welfare posts. What effect has this had on the population? On pain of death, the fellaghas have long proclaimed an absolute ban against Moslem use of any French services, or patronage of any French or French-supported institutions. Yet in a recent twelve-month period, the number of Moslem children in elementary schools rose from 189,000 to 326,000, the number of Moslem patients in free clinics from 150,000 to over 600,000. Over 35,000 Moslems last year joined the native police auxiliaries and the volunteer militia—vastly more than the fellaghas have recruited in toto, even according to their own maximum claims. Perhaps the most spectacular success of all has been scored in Arab reception of a new local self-rule program: last November, 2,950 Moslem councilmen were serving alongside 540 Europeans in newly formed communes, despite fellagha threats of assassination which were occasionally made good.



Servan-Schreiber’s book, if only because of its concentrated episodic style, creates the impression that the rebels are an organized army waging daily battles and capable of formidable operations. This was hardly true when he wrote, and it is considerably less true today. Even when his first articles appeared there were clear signs that the fellaghas were beginning to slow down. By the end of 1957, though it was still far from certain that France would ultimately achieve a satisfactory solution for herself in Algeria, the uprising seemed feebler than at any time since its outbreak. The fellagha “high command” was shaken by defections, with rival “armies” butchering one another. The “battle of Algiers”—a city which the rebels had once promised to engulf in terror—had been won by the French, at least for the moment. The capital was tranquil again—thanks mainly to Casbah inhabitants who had led French raiding parties to rebel lairs. In the countryside, fellagha bands were operating sporadically through occasional hit-and-run attacks. Even the graph of assassination had plunged downward.

Finally, it should be noted that Servan-Schreiber was not new to Algerian affairs when he arrived as a lieutenant. He was the editor of a weekly which had long been manifesting an unflinching tenderness for North African independence movements. It is also relevant that the author is a collaborator and disciple of Mendès-France. In short, he went to Algeria with a ready-made thesis—and with facilities available to help him prove it.

Algeria may yet turn out to be one of the tragedies of our era. At this uncertain juncture it would be rash to predict how the drama will end. It is too early to say that Paris has entirely shaken off the influence of “imperialist” mentality. The much advertised “loicadre,” which schedules progressive stages of autonomy within the integral frame of France, has yet to win clear acceptance from Moslem and European in Algeria. Pacification has still to demonstrate that a sovereign status can somehow be retained for France in a predominantly Moslem community, which is groping slowly but massively for a sovereignty of its own. Nor can France in good conscience simply cut herself off from Algeria: there are a million Frenchmen involved—and a Moslem people of nine millions whose ancient foundations of society, for better or worse, have been washed away and who may not be equipped to survive a total French departure. (The peaceful exodus of the Dutch does not seem to have been entirely a boon to Indonesia.) Servan-Schreiber’s book offers no substitute for pacification. It does not construct or propose. It condemns. No service is thereby rendered to France, the West, or even Algeria.



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