My Review of “A Savage War of Peace: Algeria 1954-1962” by Alistair Horne

11854588A solidly presented look at the conflict between Algeria and France leading to the former nation’s independence in 1962, in turns fascinating and frustrating — not because of the author’s efforts, although I will list a few quibbles below, but rather because of the lessons unlearned.

In the preface to the 2006 edition, Alistair Horne relates that, at his staff’s request a copy of A Savage War of Peace: Algeria 1954-1962 was sent to U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfield in 2005. This would be around the time the Abu Ghraib prisoner abuse scandal was dominating headlines around the world, and Horne thought — at least — reviewing the French experience with torture in Algeria may prove useful. Unsurprisingly, given a propensity for arrogance that is the downfall of an otherwise brilliant mind, Rumsfield’s response was courteous but uninterested.

That the Secretary of Defense’s staff wanted him to read the book is not surprising. Much as Bernard Fall’s Hell In A Very Small Place: The Siege of Dien Bien Phu became a hot commodity in the hands of U.S. policy and military types in Washington and Vietnam during the Battle of Khe Sanh in 1968, so too was Horne’s tome mined for information that would prevent a disaster during our failure to win the peace in Iraq following the 2003 invasion.

A direct comparison between Algeria and Iraq simply can’t be made, however there are several striking similarities between the conflicts which Horne summarizes in the 2006 preface and careful readers will find for themselves throughout the text. History doesn’t often repeat itself verbatim, but some themes are universal enough that careful study by later leaders should lead to the avoidance of pitfalls.

This conflict was indeed savage, with all the hallmarks of terrorism and brutality we have become all too familiar with in this day and age: Bombings, many aimed solely at civilians in both Algeria and France; assassinations; extensive collateral deaths of civilians during military operations; and the organized torture of suspects and prisoners.

I was just six months old when the French flag was lowered for the final time in Algiers, so I found it interesting to learn more about this time period. Much was going on, from Dien Bien Phu and the Suez Crisis in 1956 (both had ramifications for the  French military in Algeria) to the building of the Berlin Wall and its concomitant Cold War fears.

Horne presents information in a non-linear way, shifting focus between the French and rebel FLN, but he carefully retraces his steps to cover bypassed events of importance. The first of three parts, which provides the exposition and context for the conflict as well as initial actions, is a bit of a slog. Once the stage is set however, the second (1954-1958) and third (1958-1962) parts of the book move crisply.

Two other quibbles I had are the frequent use of French phrases, mostly in quotes, and a muddled conclusion. It is perfectly understandable that a book on a conflict where both sides used the same language would include statements in that language, and there is certainly something to be said for using verbatim quotes in the original tongue. However, in those instances I would suggest including an English translation; I don’t speak French and it was annoying to frequently shift from the text to Google Translate to ensure something important was not missed.

The book has been revised twice (1996 and 2006) since being originally published in 1977, and the final chapter which summarizes the conflict and addresses post-war Algeria certainly bears the most obvious scars of these updates, with abrupt shifts in tone and content. It was as if instead of a complete re-write, the decision was made to simply tack on any additional information.

As a side note, it was fascinating to read the three prefaces as each provides a snapshot of editorial style for the period. The original from 1977 is quite heavy and scholarly, with numerous sub-clauses while the later revisions are successively more direct and streamlined. I’m not sure if this is a function of the author or editor, but it was interesting to me.



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