Baraka and Bloodshed
IN THE CITY OF ALGIERS in the summer of 1957 I thought about buying a bulletproof vest. It hung invitingly on a dummy torso in the window of Bissonet, a fashionable store on the Rue Michelet, and at the time there was some reason for considering its purchase. The Battle for Algiers, between the bombers of the Front de Liberation Nationale (FLN) and General Jacques Massu's paratroop teams, had just ended, but we didn't know it then. Paratroopers and yellow jeeps still patrolled the streets. Customers, especially Muslims, were regularly frisked going in or out of large stores. From 5:00 to 6:00 P.M. the town was still observing what had come to be known as “The Hour of the Bombs.”
In an attempt to terrorize Algiers and bring its work to a standstill the FLN had exploded forty-six bombs in the city, usually just after work, when the cafes were crowded. Forty-seven civilians had been killed, women and a few children among them. More than 250 people were badly injured. The last device, placed by a fifteen-year-old Muslim busboy, went off in early June among the dancers at the seaside Casino de la Corniche, leaving nine dead and eighty-six wounded, including the dance band's girl singer, who had both her legs blown off at the knees. Yet when I arrived a few weeks later, at the Hour of the Bombs the brightly painted chairs and gaudy parasols spilling out over the trottoirs outside the cafes were jammed with aperitif drinkers. The streets were filled with pretty girls, sun-bronzed, indolent and discreetly underdressed, and fatmas, homeward bound from their day's work as housemaid to the French, faces half-shrouded in handkerchiefs drawn tight across the bridge of the nose, bodies lost in the folds of gray jellabas. Through the crowds stalked four-man search teams. Totally silent. No one looked at them, and they caught no one's eye. But once, when I carried a paper-wrapped package of shaving cream out into the street, I was aware that they were watching me.
In those innocent days, the Hour of the Bombs, like much else that occurred in Algeria, stirred a peculiar blend of fear and disbelief in an American reporter. Americans back home, if they noticed the Algerian war at all, tended to look upon it as some kind of outlandish mess that only the French could have got themselves into. Perhaps it was a kindred feeling of skepticism that kept me from actually buying the bulletproof vest. I remember asking the price. It was 43,000 francs (about $130), an amount that could certainly have gone in the expense account. But suddenly I found that in some peculiar way I couldn't believe in the whole project. Vest-less, but vastly relieved and a bit smug, I went out into the Mediterranean sunlight.
We knew so little then. Even in Algeria. The FLN in particular was a persistent mystery. How many fighting men did it have? Was it run from Cairo and mainly equipped by the Communist bloc countries, as the French, and Cold Warriors generally, seemed to think? Was there a chance that France could actually implement expensive and extensive social and political reforms, hold the FLN in check, and negotiate a new dead for Muslims in an Algeria that might remain French? Frenchmen insisted that it could be done. There was talk of “le dernier quart d'heure.” Everyone else doubted it. The American view, I recall, was quite patronizing and simplistic. The natives were hostile, ran the line of thought. Their nationalist cause was just. Separation was inevitable. Why didn't the crazy French just get on with it?
How the French did try to get on with it, and why it took them so long, is the exhaustively treated subject of Alistair Horne's new book. An English historian who specializes in French disaster—Verdun, the Paris Commune, the defeat of 1940—Horne has painstakingly, fairly, skillfully pieced together the whole anguishing chronicle of the Algerian war. From the first attack by handful of FLN terrorists in the Aures mountains in 1954, to the climax in 1962, when French soldiers, restrained from interfering under terms of the new treaty with France, often had to stand by and watch as hundreds of Algerian Muslims who had fought beside them to keep order in Algeria were butchered.
The war cost France $15 billion. It lasted seven years. It killed from 500,000 to a million Muslim Algerians and some 80,000 French soldiers and civilians. Delusions about the influence of Cairo upon the war helped edge France into joining Israel and Britain in the Suez debacle of 1956. It sent 800,000 pieds noirs ( French settlers in Algeria), finally obliged to choose “the suitcase or the coffin,” back to France as homeless refugees. It all but ruined the French army, and led to the disgrace and disbandment of the Foreign Legion. (After dynamiting its base at Zeralda, the legion garrison drove off singing Edith Piaf's “Ah, Je ne regretted rien ” as weeping crowds watched them go.) The Algerian war helped force the fall of seven French governments, and three times bought France (in 1958, 1960 and 1961) to the brink of civil war. When it began it was hardly noticed even in Paris. Before it ended, it was stirring hot international debate in the UN and broadcasting acute French embarrassment on TV screens throughout the world. Small wonder that Horne paints it as a perplexing blend of Racinian tragedy, incipient civil war, heroic colonial rebellion, and pure revolutionary terrorism of the kind that turns the stomach but often changes history.
Having, in the interim, lived through the Vietnam war, Americans are now better equipped to forgive—and find unforgettable—the French agony in Algeria. Certain somber resonances are striking. Indeed, if American leaders had understood Algeria better at the time, everyone might have been spared the whole deadly and delusive charade that was Vietnam. It is as hard for anyone who reads Horne attentively today (as it is difficult for anyone who followed the Algerian war in detail when it was going on) not to conclude that the Vietnam war was a crime (free-fire zones and foreign intervention aside) simply because it was a war that could never have been won. At the tactical level, Horne makes clear, the campaign against the FLN proved once and for all that not even a modern army can destroy or long neutralize a native guerrilla terrorist force if that force has a protected border to hide behind and regroup in.
Painful parallels extend further. By 1960 the French government had rebuilt roads, set up schools (to replace those burnt by the FLN), reorganized rural areas into small, workable administrative units with Muslims running them, made a start on land reform and helped with agriculture. In short, twenty years too late, it was transforming the countryside for the better. Such reforms were supposed to take the wind out of any revolutionary sales pitch by the FLN and so “win the hearts and minds of the people.” The work was well done (as I know from having watched some of it) with plenty of cash and courage and cleverness, by special volunteer SAS ( Section Administrative Specialisée ) officers, who were all Algerian experts and spoke the language of the villagers they were helping. If the SAS programs did not win the war, what hope could there have been for similar U.S.
Plans started in Vietnam a decade later, even had they been something more than window dressing, mainly conducted for propaganda purposes by monolingual Americans who knew almost nothing about Vietnam and were working 10,000 miles from home.
For those already reasonably familiar with the Algerian war, Horne's most notable contribution is the detail he offers about the FLN, its leadership and policies, its silence, cunning and frequent exile (into Tunisia or Morocco), above all its single-minded revolutionary ferocity. As a liberal and a historian trying to see things in perspective, Horne is amazed at, and admiring of, the FLN leadership, which managed to keep the rebellion alive on not much more than terror and tenacity (Until well after Suez, it got little from Cairo except radio bombast). As late as the fall of 1956, Horne writes, the FLN had only twenty mortars and ten machine guns.
Politically and administratively Algeria was a part of France. But seeds of rebellion had been deeply sown by French repression and neglect, the product of the myopic greed of the pieds noirs, who steadily blocked all necessary practical reform, while Paris was pursuing its mission civilizatrice in education and asking Algerian Muslims to fight in France's foreign wars. No matter what the French did, however, after World War II self-determination was inevitable. For one thing, Algerian Muslims outnumbered the pieds noirs by eleven to one and were breeding ten times as fast.
Through thick and thin the FLN kept to its single purpose. No cease fire. No accommodation. No partition of Algeria. No duel citizenship permitted to the pieds noirs after independence. The FLN wanted—and ended by getting—an Algerian nation, delivered exclusively into FLN hands.
To achieve that required atrocities against pieds noirs in order to stir reprisals, counter reprisals, until all possibility of rapprochement between Muslims and Frenchmen was put in jeopardy. Horne's laconic descriptions make one shudder, and then shudder again, at the realization of how easily the world, especially the liberal world, has come to accept terrorism as an inevitable part of political life—even to excuse it, through a peculiar double standard, when it is practiced by citizens of the Third World.
FLN policy did not only include le grand sourire, the French idiom used to describe the Algerian penchant for throat-cutting. It ran to such things as the dismembering of murdered women and placing the bodies of murdered children, not just babies, as if back in the womb . Under the direction of a tough revolutionary named Ramdan Abane, the FLN also began systematically murdering Muslims who resisted them at all, as well as any pieds noirs or Muslims who showed moderation and so might one day serve as a political bridge, as interlocuteurs valables between France and the majority of the population. Horne describes how two Algerian Muslim boys, aged thirteen and fourteen, murdered a thirteen-year-old European friend who had always treated them as friends and brothers. “But why did you pick him?” they were asked. “Because,” they said earnestly, trying to explain their idea of revolutionary terrorism in a nutshell, “ Because he played with us.”
As it became clear that France would yield, the FLN leadership grew frantic that some surviving splinter of other nationalist groups might come forward demanding a share of power. Pretending to speak “for the whole people of Algeria,” they bitterly opposed all proposals for a referendum supervised by the U.N. No shadow of “free choice,” Horne writes, was to threaten FLN mastery. The whole control of what is geographically the eleventh largest country in the world, not to mention the wealth of the Sahara oil and natural gas deposits discovered during the rebellion, was about to be theirs alone. Partly in consequence, their proceedings, even against one another, came to resemble a Chicago gang war, though the St.Valentine's Day massacre seems brisk and humane by comparison.
Challenge and response? Perhaps. But it is nearly as hard to warm up to these people as fathers of their country, as it is impossible to feel sympathy for the lunatic fringe of the pieds noirs whom Horne and history have made the villains of the piece. More surprising and pleasing in the book is the author's handling of General de Gaulle, to whom few Anglo-Saxons—and no Americans that I know of—has yet done justice. If France owes the FLN a debt, it is because fellagha (Arab guerrilla) intransigence put an end to the febrile Fourth Republic and brought de Gaulle to power.
Two scenes stick in the mind. In one the tall, gray-haired, khaki-clad figure raises its stiff, teddy-bear arms on the balcony of the Government Général building in Algiers, and before 100,000 cheering people emits those Delphic words, “ Je vous ai compris.” It was, in the peculiar circumstances, the only thing to say. Totally right. Totally politic. Totally true. How truly the old general had understood them all. The army, which thought he had come to power to be their man. The pieds noirs, who expected him to destroy French democracy so they might cling to their holdings in Algeria. The Algerian Muslims, who intuitively felt that here was a man big enough to end the war and grant independence. How methodically de Gaulle proceeded to save France from them all—and from herself!
The other image recalls the grainy visage presented the world during two brief televised messages to his countrymen and to the army when crisis in Algiers again threatened civil war. The lined and ursine face, with its close-set eyes and enormous nose. The short, direct sentences of command and explanation so entirely free of the tortured posturing that would attend Nixon's pronouncements about Vietnam, and untainted, as well, by the false simplicity that Lyndon Johnson made a mockery of as he quavered on about how “slow and steady, stays the course.” Horne records that the speech brought tears even to the eyes of people who hated de Gaulle, “including cynical foreign journalists.” Watching the TV show in a Paris bistro. “ Eh bien, mon cher et vieux pays, nous voici donc ensemble, encore une fois …” (“Well my dear country, my old country, here we are together, once again facing a harsh test.”)
De Gaulle's performance in coming to power—and afterward—was near perfection in timing and political perception. Like a Lear grown wise instead of foolish in self-imposed exile, during those years in Colombey les Deux Eglises he learned exactly how to cope with the politicians whom he had proved so ill-skilled at handling after World War II. As the 1958 crisis that brought him to power grew, he waited and waited until France had reduced itself to such a state of helplessness that even left-wing French politicians reached at to him for help, willing to accept him, and his price for returning—a new and workable constitution. “Is it credible,” he reassured them, “that I am going to begin a career as dictator at the age of sixty-seven?” Once he got to Algeria he saw, as he remarked to an aide, that “Africa is gone to hell, and Algeria with it.” Then, with extraordinary skill—and some duplicity—keeping that knowledge to himself, he did his best to save the army from folly, and to work out some arrangement with the FLN. But he was really waiting until France understood, as he had, that truly “ L'Afrique est foutue, et l'Algerie avec .”
“By waiting,” Horne writes, ”de Gaulle had come back vested, first of all, in an acceptable degree of legitimacy; and secondly he had not come as the army's man. If it were not for these two factors, it can be doubted whether the Algerian war could have ended without something like open civil war in France.” Yet just before de Gaulle's return, 500,000 leftists marched in protest in Paris. Simone de Beauvoir, whom Horne sometimes quotes with apparently unwitting irony, had “Freudian nightmares about a python dropping on her from the sky.”
The old general had now saved France for a second time. If that second time required even more skill and courage than the first, it was partly because in 1940, he had set a dangerous precedent for any soldier—the invocation of a higher duty to disobey, for the good of the country and the satisfaction of national honor. The generals who led the 1961 Algiers putsch that de Gaulle faced down drew on that precedent. Many had baser motives. Resentment. Simple ambition. The desire to win at least one war after so many losses—in 1940, at Dien Bien Phu, at Suez. Delusions that the FLN was a spearhead of international Communism. But some of the rebellious officers, especially General Maurice Challe, did what they did for reasons that seem close to pure conscience and personal honor. Their case is truly tragic, as well as instructive, and perhaps should be pondered, as Alistair Horne suggests, “ by the leaders of other modern democratic armies should they ever come to impose too great a burden on the conscience of their generals.”
Understandably, nowadays, career officers, especially generals, are not treated very well in the public discourse. They tend to be patronized or scorned either as Neanderthals or as cold-hearted careerists. Alistair Horne is too generous and too full of historical empathy for that. Challe disliked pied noirs extremists. And he knew in his heart that his project was doomed. Still he acted, because he was haunted by his “crushing moral responsibilities to the harkis ” (armed Algerians who fought for the government) to whom, in de Gaulle's instructions, he had given repeated assurance: “France will never abandon you!” “We were committed,” he told Horne in a recent interview. “We have given our promises to the Arabs who worked for us.”
If that sounds quixotic, it should be remembered that the harkis, with nowhere to hide and no one to protect them, were killed by the thousands after the peace. Perhaps more important, Algeria was the second time that French officers had been required to take upon their own private consciences responsibilities that should have rested upon their country and their government. And when the Paris government did not keep its word in Indochina, and the French pulled out, the French Army cosigned these comrades-in-arms quite literally to execution. In Algeria the resolve grew that whatever France did the army would not go back on its word again.
That way lay madness and treason. Yet in a time of situation ethics Nixonian pleadings about “mistakes of judgment,” such a conception of absolute value and honor is refreshing, whatever its dangers. De Gaulle is in his grave, having made France prosperous and reasonably stable politically. Algeria, Horne asserts, is now one of the leaders of the Third World. The war dead have long since been buried. The generals are out of jail, albeit with their careers and lives justly and forever blasted. It helps to have the evidence of history to ratify your decisions. Which may mean no more than that it helps to have what the Arabs called SW—a luck so persistent that it borders upon grace.