A Savage War of Peace (by Alistair Horne)


Algerian rebels training to use weapons in February 1958
Algerian rebels training to use weapons in February 1958 (Keystone Features / Getty Images)
Reviewed by Thomas E. Ricks
Sunday, November 19, 2006


Algeria 1954-1962

By Alistair Horne

New York Review Books. 608 pp. Paperback, $19.95

When Americans talk about the raging insurgency in Iraq, they often draw parallels with the Vietnam War, but a better analogy is probably the French war against nationalist rebels in Algeria from 1954 to 1962. That's one reason why the landmark history of that conflict, Alistair Horne's A Savage War of Peace, has been an underground bestseller among U.S. military officers over the last three years, with used copies selling on Amazon.com for $150. Indeed, "Algeria" has become almost a codeword among U.S. counterinsurgency specialists -- a shorthand for the depth and complexity of the mess we face in Iraq. Earlier this year, I referred to Horne's book while conversing with one such expert in Taji, Iraq, and got a grim nod of agreement.

Now a new paperback edition of Horne's 1977 classic has been issued, cutting the price of wisdom to a more reasonable $19.95. In a new preface, Horne makes the connection to Iraq explicit. First, he notes, the Algerian insurgents fighting to end France's colonial control over the country avoided taking on the French army directly; instead, they attacked the police and other more vulnerable targets, thereby demoralizing local supporters of the French presence. Second, Algeria's porous borders greatly aided the insurgents, who could receive reinforcements, arms and sanctuary from neighboring countries such as Tunisia and Morocco. Third, and most emphatically, he writes that "torture should never, never, never be resorted to by any Western society."

Those three parallels are provocative enough, as far as they go. But many other, perhaps less obvious points in Horne's lucid, well-organized history may do even more to deepen our understanding of the Iraq War.

Again and again, Horne wrote passages about the French in Algeria that could describe the U.S. military in Iraq. As I wrote about the U.S. Army's big "cordon-and-sweep" operations that detained tens of thousands of civilian Iraqi males in the Sunni Triangle in the fall of 2003, I remembered Horne: "This is the way an administration caught with its pants down reacts under such circumstances. . . . First comes the mass indiscriminate round-up of suspects, most of them innocent but converted into ardent militants by the fact of their imprisonment."

Like the Americans in Iraq, the French in Algeria consistently misunderstood the nature of the opposition, focusing too much on supposed foreign support and too little on the local roots of the insurgency. Horne also detected a distinctly familiar pattern of official optimism among French officials, who were quick to declare their war "virtually over" four years before it ended in their defeat.

Moreover, A Savage War of Peace draws an important distinction between torture by the police and torture by the military. The former damages mainly individuals and need not be hugely damaging to the war effort; the latter, Horne quotes a former French officer as saying, involves the honor of the nation -- as it did at Abu Ghraib and other facilities where Iraqis were abused by American soldiers in 2003-04.

Along the way, Horne offers three other comments that are not particularly encouraging. First, when considering the Bush administration's policy of having U.S. forces stand down as newly trained Iraqi forces stand up, it is worth noting that throughout the eight years of the Algerian war, more Algerians were fighting on the French side than on the rebel side -- and the French still lost.

Second, when trying to understand Iraq's current violence, it is good to recall Horne's comment that "such a simultaneous internal 'civil war' " often rages alongside a "revolutionary struggle against an external enemy."

Finally, when we hear U.S. military officers arguing that they achieved their mission in Iraq but that the rest of the U.S. government failed or the will of the American people faltered, remember Horne's quotation from a French general, Jacques de Bollardière, who was critical of his army's performance: "Instead of coldly analysing with courageous lucidity its tactical and strategic errors, it gave itself up to a too human inclination and tried -- not without reason, however -- to excuse its mistakes by the faults of civil authority and public opinion."

To be sure, there are huge differences between the two wars. Most notably, the United States isn't a colonial power in Iraq, seeking to maintain a presence of troops and settlers as long as possible. Rather, in Iraq, victory would consist of getting U.S. personnel out while leaving behind a relatively friendly, open, stable and independent government. And while elements of the French military tried to assassinate French President Charles de Gaulle for pulling out from what he termed "a bottomless quagmire," there is little fear that U.S. officers will go down that rebellious road.

But there are numerous suggestive parallels -- mainly relating to conventional Western militaries fighting primarily urban insurgencies in Arab cultures while support for their wars dwindles back home and while the insurgents hope to outlast their better-armed opponents. As such, anyone interested in Iraq should read this book immediately.

Thomas E. Ricks, a Washington Post military correspondent who has reported frequently from Iraq, is the author of "Fiasco: The American Military Adventure in Iraq."

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