Alistair Horne: Shades of Abu Ghraib and the French-Algerian War





[Alistair Horne’s Kissinger: 1973, The Crucial Year is published by Simon & Schuster. His A Savage War of Peace: Algeria, 1954–62, was reissued by New York Review of Books Classics in 2006, with a new preface updating it to the Iraq and Afghanistan wars.]

The grisly subject of torture is back with us again, with fresh allegations of CIA misconduct. It is a subject which first came to occupy my thoughts when I was writing a book on the Algerian War, A Savage War of Peace, back in the 1970s. It has never left me. In the course of my researches in France, one of the men I came most to respect, Paul Teitgen, former French prefect of Algiers, remarked to me:

All our so-called civilisation is covered with a varnish. Scratch it, and underneath you find fear. The French . . . are not torturers by nature. But when you see the throats of your copains [buddies] slit, then the varnish disappears.
Teitgen was a thoroughly honorable man, and he has surely been proved a wise one since 9/11.

At the height of the French-Algerian War, good American liberals were appalled and disgusted by revelations of torture by the French army. The pack was led by then-Senator John F. Kennedy, who called for every kind of sanction against France. In the event, possibly as much as any other single factor, it was the reaction against la torture, across the world and within Metropolitan France itself, that won the war for the Algerians—though, when it came to atrocities, their hands were by no means spotless. Yet, when 9/11 struck, out of horror at what had been perpetrated, many of those good Americans who had so vigorously opposed torture as practiced by the French in Algeria stifled their qualms and at best averted their gazes from excesses committed in Guantánamo, waterboarding within the homeland or rendition abroad for other less squeamish regimes to do what was necessary. Or they more actively supported the Rumsfeld-Cheney line for the extraction of information at any cost.

The same phenomena were witnessed in my country after the murderous bombings in London of July 2005, as fear raised its head. One almost-immediate response was the shooting on the London Tube of an utterly innocent Brazilian by trigger-happy and frightened cops. A close relative of mine in England, a man whom I respect for his liberal-mindedness, now expresses himself in favor of interrogation under torture—given certain circumstances: i.e., when the authorities are convinced that it might avert a terrible atrocity. We argue vigorously. Can one trust even the finest brains in the CIA or MI-5 ever to be absolutely sure about a culprit?

I was lecturing in Camden, South Carolina, when the news of Abu Ghraib first broke. Nobody around me seemed to pay much attention. But I was appalled. It was not just my naive belief, since childhood days in the U.S. of A., that Americans simply did not do this kind of thing, but a much more chilling warning of the consequences—notably in terms of the adverse propaganda presented to the cause of Islamic fundamentalism. Now, in retrospect, I shudder to think how many lives of allied soldiers, of hostages, this one act of abuse may have caused. It was a grotesque abuse that wasn’t even torture, but done purely for personal gratification, for kicks; in a way, that made it worse, because it didn’t even have the purpose of gaining intelligence. But the insult to Islam, fanned by organs like Al Jazeera, was immense—and immediate, as I feared it would be. It was like handing al-Qaeda, free and gratis, a new and lethal secret weapon. Given the speed of modern communications, it was a weapon that would flash across the breadth of the Muslim world with the speed of light. Muslims would know that the West was fighting a dirty war—and respond accordingly.

The Battle of Algiers

By the beginning of 1957, France’s war against the Algerian rebels was entering its third year. With some half-a-million men deployed in the country, the French army was not doing well. The war had moved from the countryside, the bled, to the city of Algiers. It was a challenge (brilliantly portrayed in that classic movie, The Battle of Algiers) that was likely to prove decisive in the conflict, to whomever emerged in the ascendant. In command of the French forces in Algiers, the elite 10th Division, was a tough para (paratrooper) general, Jacques Massu, who had led troops in the 1944 liberation of Paris and seen France defeated thrice—in 1940 by the Nazis, then in Indochina and finally humiliated during the abortive Suez operation of 1956. Massu and his paras were determined that Algeria would be the end of the line of French defeats. A totally up-front soldier, when I interviewed him he made no bones about the use of torture and for much of the remainder of his life remained unrepentant, declaring torture to have been “a cruel necessity”; there had been “no other option.”

In his last year, however, then in his nineties, Massu seemed to recant, admitting that in Algiers torture had been “institutionalized,” and that it had been “the worst thing.” He had come to the final conclusion that it was “not indispensable in time of war, we could have gotten along without it very well.” Among the troops under his command was also the French foreign legion, comprised of many Germans—some of whom had served in the wartime Wehrmacht and knew a thing or two about gestapo methods, as often as not under l’occupation itself. The officers of the Légion had also served in Indochina and were equally determined not to countenance defeat yet again in Algeria—at all costs. Under Massu the city was split up into a “block-warden system,” similar to Nazi measures in wartime Paris.

So, in consequence, la torture became more or less ritualized during the Battle of Algiers, accompanied with summary executions—and the “disappearance” of the victims. One estimate puts the numbers of the latter at around three thousand by the end of 1957 alone—or approximate to the number of desaparacidos under Chile’s Pinochet. There was dark talk, in slang, of “work in the woods”; of bodies dropped out in the sea from helicopters; of mass graves; of the killing by suffocation of forty detainees locked up in wine cellars in Oran. There were suspicious suicides: such as that of a prominent young Algerian lawyer, Ali Boumendjel, who threw himself out of a window “to escape interrogation.” The comment of a French colonel in charge was that either “he had wished to die for the cause, or was deranged in his mind.”

On the statute books of France, torture—in reaction against the horrors perpetrated under the monarchy, the rack and the wheel—had, in theory, been banned since the Revolution of 1789, and Algeria had been made a full-blooded province of Metropolitan France. Given their own hideous experiences under German occupation from 1940–44, to no people was torture more abhorrent. But under the brutal circumstances that confronted Frenchmen in Algeria, including appalling atrocities committed by the National Liberation Front (FLN)—a terrorist group that was fighting this French “occupation”—against women and children as well as captured soldiers, the “varnish” had been well and truly scratched off. In an official report as early as 1955, the second year of the war, the “enhanced interrogation” which accompanied la question was defined:

The water and electricity methods, provided they are carefully used, are said to produce a shock which is more psychological than physical and therefore do not constitute excessive cruelty . . . I am inclined to think that these procedures can be accepted and that, if used in the controlled manner described to me, they are no more brutal than deprivation of food, drink, and tobacco, which has always been accepted. . . . [author’s italics]

This was not a view that would be shared by Algerians subjected to the gégène, electrodes attached to their genitals, or having their bellies pumped full of water from a hosepipe—a primitive form of waterboarding. One French writer described a procedure:

The first of tortures consisted of suspending the two men completely naked by their feet, their hands bound behind their backs, and plunging their heads for a long time into a bucket of water to make them talk. The second torture consisted of suspending them, their hands and feet tied behind their backs, this time with their head upwards. Underneath them was placed a trestle, and they were made to swing, by fist blows, in such a fashion that their sexual parts rubbed against the very sharp pointed bar of the trestle. The only comment made by the men, turning towards the soldiers present: “I am ashamed to find myself stark naked in front of you.

Shades of Abu Ghraib!..




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