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Friday, August 29, 2008

A Savage War of Peace: Algeria 1954-1962

by Alistair Horne (Author)

A book review by "Doginfollow": The cover of the 2006 paperback reissue of Alistair Horne's astounding "A Savage War of Peace" boasts that the book is "on the readings lists of President Bush and the U.S. military." All I can say is, too bad it wasn't on their reading lists in 2003.
In his new preface, Horne bluntly acknowledges that the book has found unexpected relevance in today's Iraq. No matter where you stand on that conflict, you will learn something from Horne's harrowing chronicle of the Algerian struggle for independence from France in the 1950s and early 60s. In fact, if (like most of us) your view of the war in Iraq is filtered through some sort of partisan lens, Horne's book provides an opportunity to step back and take a clearer look at how others walked many hard miles in a similar set of shoes. Horne's book has it all. He sets the stage with the fragile illusions of the French and the frustrated aspirations of the Algerians. He charts the war's savage downward spiral into ever bloodier spasms of terrorism, reprisal, torture and militancy, with all the missed opportunities for compromise along the way. He seamlessly weaves military history with the diplomatic and political intrigues of the era. A distinguished British military historian of France, Horne is almost astonishingly objective and fair-minded about the conflict, even while chronicling the most ghastly atrocities on both sides.
He seems to have interviewed almost all the major players (at least the ones who survived) and earned their trust. Horne does not flinch from condemning brutality and betrayal, stupidity and cowardice; at the same time, he does not try to answer whether the French had any right to be in Algeria or whether the Algerians' struggle for independence justified terrorism. Like Charles de Gaulle, who emerges as the central figure of this drama, Horne simply recognizes that the French were swimming against a strong tide of history (decolonization). They could not be defeated militarily, but were doomed to lose the political struggle in the long run unless they could find a face-saving compromise.
Unfortunately, they came to this realization too late to salvage much from the debacle. Meanwhile--and this is where the book hits its dramatic heights--the unravelling of French will to remain in Algeria came close to tearing France apart, sparking a succession of revolts, coups, assassination plots, and terrorism from within the French military and European settlers in Algeria. Several times, the wrenching conflict threatened to engulf France itself in civil war. Horne shows that de Gaulle's great achievement was not winning the Algerian War, or even reaching much of a compromise peace, but of simply being willing to lose it and move on. It doesn't sound like much. But in the hands of a lesser statesman, France might have sputtered on for years in Algeria, unable to win and unwilling to lose, while draining its resources and destroying its own political system.
Instead, de Gaulle allowed France to extricate itself and build a proud, modern, stable and prosperous country in place of the one shaken by a series of military defeats. Horne's writing is gripping and he never loses the thread of a great story. The level of detail here may be daunting to some, and many readers will be flipping to the list of acronyms in the back to keep all the players straight. Aside from a few obvious updates, most of the book was written in the mid-1970s, and its perspective is slightly dated as a result. (For example, it is striking how few times Horne mentions the role of religion in the Algerian struggle, an omission that no future writer on the Iraq conflict will make.) Still, I would recommend this book without reservation to anyone interested in French history or the Middle East, past or present. Even the president.


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