Thursday, November 20, 2008

Another war that went very wrong indeed ...

For the last couple of weeks, off and on, I've been reading A Savage War of Peace: Algeria 1954-1962 by Alistair Horne. It's monumental, over 600 pages of exhaustive detail about a viciously brutal war between European France and its long time colony, Muslim Algeria. The New York Review of Books reissued this 1977 classic in 2006 because it seemed timely in the context of a U.S. invasion of a Muslim, Arabic-speaking, country that had set off a tenacious resistance and a murderous spate of bombings of civilian targets.

By resorting wholesale to torture to find and kill Algerian independence fighters (whose hands were not clean of atrocity themselves), the France of that era violated its understanding of its own deepest values. Horne writes no people has torture been more abhorrent, morally and philosophically, especially following their own hideous experiences from 1940 to 1944. As an instrument of state, torture was expressly abolished by the French Revolution. .... Article 303 of the French Penal Code ... actually imposed the death penalty on anyone practicing torture.

But under the stress of a vicious colonial war, the historical inhibition broke down. As early in the war as 1955, a civil servant named Wuilluame produced a rationale for just a little torture.

The water and electricity methods, provided they are carefully used, are said to produce a shock which is more psychological than physical and therefore does not constitute excessive cruelty.

John Yoo, David Addington and Dick Cheney would have loved this guy. Here's an account of what the French did with their version of "enhanced interrogation techniques."

The most favored method of torture was the gegene, an army signals magneto from which electrodes could be fastened to the various parts of the human body. It was simple and left no traces. ... [Henri] Alleg, a European Jew whose family had settled in Algeria during the Second World War ...[reported] of his first exposure to the gegene, with electrodes merely attached to his ear and finger, he says: "A flash of lightning exploded next to my ear and felt my heart racing in my breast." ...Next the electrodes were placed in his mouth: "my jaws were soldered to the electrode by the current, and it was impossible for me to to unlock my teeth, no matter what effort I made. My eyes, under spasmed lids, were crossed with images of fire, and geometric luminous patterns flashed in front of them."

Alleg was a European and he lived. Many did not. A French enlisted man who found himself assigned to torture duty reported

"All day, through the floor boards, we heard their hoarse cries, like those of animals being slowly put to death. Sometimes I think I can still hear them ...All these men disappeared."

Very gradually, the people of France proper began to understand what their young men were doing in Algeria. Their horrified reaction was part of what brought down the French Fourth Republic in 1958, set the stage for the disaffected army in the colony to revolt against Parisian authority in 1962, and finally led to a rushed withdrawal from the African colony.

Alistaire Horne wrote a preface to the 2006 edition explicitly drawing out the commonalities with the U.S. experience in Iraq. In particular, he wrote about the result of France's resort to torture against its implacable foes.

In the Algerian War what led -- probably more than any other single factor -- to the ultimate defeat of the French was the realization, in France and the world at large, that methods of interrogation were being used that have been condemned under the Nazi Occupation. ...Because of the slowness of communication in the 1950 and 1960s, it took a year or more for the message about abuses perpetrated in Algeria to sink in. Now, with the Internet and al-Jazeera, one set of photos from Abu Ghraib is enough to inflame hatred across the Islamic world against the West, providing excuses for all the beheadings and atrocities carried out by al-Qaeda. ...[France and the world] learned in Algeria, that torture should never, never, never be resorted to by any Western society.

We didn't learn. At the request of some U.S military officers, Horne sent a copy of his massive study to then Secretary of Defense (War-Making) Donald Rumsfeld -- and was brushed off with a curt note.

I tend to absorb my history by reading, but there's a simpler, if not easier, way to expose oneself to some of this story: Gillo Pontecorvo’s classic film, Battle of Algiers, is available on DVD.


Darlene said...

Man's inhumanity to man. How can this despicable and fruitless practice continue? I think there must be sadists who enjoy tormenting their fellow man, because there is no other reason to torture.

sfmike said...

One of the greatest movies ever made, "Battle of Algiers." Unfortunately, the U.S. military has been torturing people since Vietnam days at least. It needs to stop, now, and the people responsible need to be imprisoned as an example for the rest of their lives.

libhom said...

This is an important historical parallel, one which is largely censored from the corporate media.

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