Book Review for A Savage War of Peace: Algeria 1954-1962

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A Savage War of Peace: Algeria, 1952-1962 by Alistair Horne was recommended to me by retired Army officer and professor of international studies, Lt. Col. John Fishel, in one of my undergraduate classes called “Small Wars” for good reason: the 20th Century French war is eminently relatable to the savage wars of peace involving Western powers and Arab states that continue today.

If you are ignorant of the French war in Algeria or French history in general (as I was or am; the extent of my exposure to the war was from a memoir of a Legionnaire during that time and the famous film, The Battle of Algiers), this book is difficult at first. It took me many months to get through the background and the beginning of the war. Even so, poignant prose is generously sprinkled among the unfamiliar names and places. Passages such as the following highlight the incredible amount of research in the book:

Early on, when dressed in plain clothes [General Jacques de Bollardière] had been shocked to overhear a young cavalry officer remark, “In Algiers, now, there is nothing but genuine chaps, paras, the Legion, fine big blond fellows, stalwarts not sentimentalists.”

Bollardière intervened: “Doesn’t that remind you of anything, des grands gars blonds, pas sentimentaux?” 

The young officer replied, quite unashamedly: “If I had been in Germany at that moment, I too would have been a Nazi.”

But by the last third of the book — being now more familiar with the actors — the intrigue of the attempted coups, assassinations, and near fall of the French republic (and possible civil war and rise of a fascist state) turned this history into a legitimate page turner. What a fascinating time that most Americans are unaware of!

To me, the most important parts of this book are those that deal with French torture and how it affected the service members performing it, the French national psyche, and most importantly: the war effort. Strong parallels to American wars in Arab states continue today, from the widely publicized American experiment with torture in Iraq to current presidential candidates promising a policy of torture once again. Donald Trump would be wise to read this book.

But lessons are also to be found in the way counterinsurgency wars are fought. Even with comparatively relaxed rules of engagement, the French were still unable to neutralize the National Liberation Front (FLN) due many factors including cross border safety areas, the war’s disastrous effects on regular civilians, and the indomitable spirit of what these young Arabs were fighting for: a new way of life. The Napoleon Bonaparte quote, “There are only two powers in the world. . .the sword and the spirt. In the long run, the sword is always defeated by the spirit. . . .” is aptly applied here. Current leaders of the campaign against Islamic State would be wise to take these lessons into consideration.

I recommend this book to anyone with an interest, but I now consider it required reading for those involved in security studies in the Middle East/North Africa: students, government employees, think tankers, soldiers, etc. This one belongs in your library.

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