THE PLASTIQUES would explode against the basement wall just before dawn those first months I lived in France. They shook the house owned by my left-wing landlord and singed the doorway with their doorway with their small charges, but never did serious damage. They were symbolic, sporadic blasts, distant echoes in the winter of 1961-62 of the savage explosion ripping Algiers daily, my introduction to the particular kind of warfare between races, cultures and nationalisms that is distinctive of our age.
The Algerian Revolution has touched American imaginations and lives perhaps more than any foreign struggle without American participation since the Spanish Civil War. It was the first foreign policy issue that attracted national attention to Senator John F Kennedy in 1958. A decate later, Gillo Pontecorvo's gripping film account of urban terrorism in The Battle of Algiers became required viewing of your black and white radicals in America hoping for their own revolution.
The war has defied a comprehensive historical treatment, in part because its passion and mysteries still live both in Algeria and France. Now, Alistair Horne has made an admirable effort at pulling the whole story together in one highly readable, toughly edited history that blends the pace and sweep of a work of fiction with a relentless pursuit of every main actor still alive and willing to talk about the war. Horne clearly enjoys operating in a kind of twilight zone between the journalistic and speculative books in war spawned earlier and the soberly written, fully sourced histories that will emerge only after another decade or more. He is a skilled English historian who writes best about painful moments in French history that the French themselves still find too close to the surface to put down in a final definitive version. Verdun, 1916, the Paris Commune of 1870 and the fall of France in 1940 are among Horne's earlier high-caliber accounts of tragedy in his second homeland.
He builds on personalities and locale rather than on the ideological or tactical military aspects of the struggle. Quoting skillfully from Albert Camus, he establishes the obsessive and indulgent fool's paradise colonial Algeria had become on the eve of the first wave of guerilla attacks in 1954 and follows the colonial regime's inevitable misreading of the uprising and its resulting spread. by the summer of 1956, a French paratrooper records in his diary that the time has passed "since the wounding of a [guerilla] was considered an event. Death now came in the dozens."
The very tactics the French adopted eventually helped the revolutionaries win. "Prison - as was to be relearnt by the French repeatedly in the course of the Algerian war, by the British in Northern Ireland and by every other mid-twentieth-cent ury regime faced with a similar insurrectionary problem - is a marvellous recruiting and trainning center," Hornes write.
Unfortunately the book is short on amplificationand analysis of the highly pertinent parallels Horne draws between Algeria and nationalist struggles elswhere in the world. It would be especially welcome in the concluding section on the Evian peace negotiations, in which de Gaulle's tactics again achieved exactly the opposite of what he sought. Horne hints briefly at the parallel with Henry Kissinger's approach in Vietnam and "perhaps by the Israelis vis-a-vis the Arab world," but does not illuminate the point more fully against the backdrop he has bulit here.
For me, there is a second shortcoming in the book. Moving his history along through quick personality sketches, Horne doggedly shows sympathy for vitually ever character in the drama, presenting us with the good qualities and justified motivation of the FLN terrorist who slits civilian throats, the OAS gunman who slaughters Arab children, the generals and paratroopers who revolts against de Gaulle. If there is a hero in this book, it is oddly enough General Maurice Challe, who acts from honor even when trying to overthrow the Fifth Republic.
The author has wisely not pretended to have penetrated when he accurately calls the secretive, surly nature of the Algerians who won the war. He sheds new light on the bloody intramural power struggle inside the revolution, but he rightly concludes that it would be naive to pretend to have a full picture of the Algerian struggle while so many of his leaders are in jail, in unmarked graves - or, in the case of the President Houari Boumedienne, in the lonely cage of power in a still traumatized nation. That story, and its true ideological meaning, remains to be written.
Algeria pointed beyond the death of classical colonialism to foreshadow the way Vietnam would end, when another great white army could claim to be able to win militarily a war that first its pepole and then, agonizingly, slowly, its politicians, bureaucrats, editors and other keepers of the institution flames would admit they could not stomach, much less support.
The war was a cauldron in which bubbled forces of the future. From it emerged the writings of Frantz Fanon and the determined, aggressive Algerian economic nationalism that was to be so influential in the 1973 oil cartel price increase and the chaotic changes in global economics that have followed. And the Algerian war hears perhaps its most painful lessons to Rhodesia, South Africa and wherever else an entrenched minority may be tempted, as the French settlers were, to destroy physically or morally the moderate center of nationalist forces in a bid to retain total power. The lesson from Algeria is that such a course ensures victory for the extremists