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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What ISIS Really (Really) Wants

AQMI_Flag_asymmetric.svgIn light of increased Islamic State (IS, also referred to as ISIS or ISIL) foreign terrorism, especially in Europe, I have seen a piece from The Atlantic titled “What ISIS Really Wants” by Graeme Wood experience a resurgence in popularity. Last week it was the second most popular article on the site, despite it being a year old. In the piece, Wood made the argument that despite foolish United States government statements to the contrary, IS really was very Islamic and must be viewed with a theological lens to truly understand and counter it.

At the time, the piece filled a vacuum in long form analysis on what was a seemingly unstoppable al-Qaida separatist group. IS had captured both significant amounts of territory in Iraq and Syria and the attention of most Americans with its beheading video of American James Foley. Americans were now acutely aware of the strength of the group that President Barack Obama had attempted to downplay by calling “al-Qaida’s jayvee team.” Wood’s piece helped provide some context for the target of a new US war in the Middle East after attempting to withdraw from the region.

The piece was controversial when published, but with the benefit of a year of hindsight, I do not think that its central argument holds up well.

IS Not Very Islamic After All

It has become evident that many of the IS rank and file, especially those performing terrorist attacks like the ones in Paris and Belgium, are not particularly pious. Ibrahim and Khalid el-Bakraoui, the two brothers responsible for the Brussels bombings, were not very religious. Nor was Abdelhamid Abaaoud, the leader of the Paris attacks, who was known to regularly drink alcohol and use drugs — activities few if any Muslim religious leaders condone.

Mohamad Khweis, an American jihadist who was recently captured by the Kurdish Peshmerga as he attempted to desert, told reporters that IS’s religious ideology was too intense for him, complaining of how he could not smoke. And two British jihadists arrested upon returning from fighting in Syria were found to have bought Islam for Dummies — indicating their relatively new appreciation for Islam.

“Wood’s piece is not mansplaining, but it comes close to something like secularsplaining: ‘Dear Muslims, allow me to explain to you your religion.’”

But it is not just low-level fighters that might not be as Islamic as Wood claims. It has been reported that some of the IS senior leadership is made up of former Ba’athists from Saddam Hussein’s regime. Since Ba’athism is a secular pan-Arabist ideology, either these leaders were closeted Islamists before, they are only recent converts, or they are fighting for IS for non-religious reasons (like a Shi’a-dominated, Iran-influenced, anti-Ba’athist government in Baghdad.)

Furthermore, the examples of pious Islamists that Wood interviewed, such as Anjem Choudhry, are not even proper IS members. While they may indeed be committed Islamists who openly endorse an IS caliphate, the fact remains that they are not living in IS territory or fighting for them, despite IS calls for their sympathizers unable to emigrate to launch attacks in the countries where they reside. On Twitter, many IS fighters chastise those who have not emigrated. I suspect that most actual IS fighters would deem people like Choudhry and his ilk to be pretenders in the same way that US military members have no great love for young Americans who profess to want to fight IS, but will not enlist.

The Obama Administration Is Right

A major point of contention from Wood is that the Obama Administration is purposely  calling IS un-Islamic not as a reflection of reality but for purposes of messaging. Because the administration does not correctly identify IS as very Islamic, it makes bad predictions. While I think the benefit of time has helped show that IS is not as Islamic as Wood thought it was, it is completely true that the Obama Administration made a conscious choice not to use “Islamic” when describing IS for political reasons — and they are right for doing so.

We must be realistic in acknowledging that most Americans would not understand the nuance in top government officials saying things like, “Yes, IS is Islamic but so are millions of practicing Muslims in the US who do not want to create a caliphate or cut off anyone’s head.”

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IS fighters from IS social media

Islamophobia is on the rise in the US and it is evident by recent murders of Muslim Americans and current Republican anti-Muslim rhetoric. Since it is the government’s responsibility to protect Americans, it does have to be careful with its messaging when discussing IS, lest it be used to fuel bigotry and a Trump rally turns into a Kristallnacht against Muslims.

Secularsplaining Islam

The last problem with Wood’s piece is that Islam is what Muslims do. If 99% of Muslims are not doing what IS does, then how Islamic can it be? It would be more accurate to describe the actions of the world’s 1.6 billion Muslims as Islamic than the relative handful of militants in Iraq, Syria, et al. performing the atrocities that make us so fearful.

When non-Muslims start making judgements on how Islamic a certain group of Muslims are, we straddle a thin line between useful thought exercise and absurdity — this is a problem with Orientalism in general. I think it would be difficult for Wood to defend his position in a room with 100 British Muslims. So when we as non-Muslims wonder about Islam, or what religiously motivates those who kill in the name of Islam, perhaps we should ask actual Muslims instead of relying solely on non-Muslim journalists.

“IS is, among other things, a youth movement.”

In feminist discourse there is a term called “mansplaining” which is used to describe a man explaining something to a woman in a condescending or patronizing way. Wood’s piece is not mansplaining, but it comes close to something like secularsplaining: “Dear Muslims, allow me to explain to you your religion.”

What IS Really Really Wants

So then what does IS really want? This is the part where I disappoint you: IS cannot “want” anything because it is not a cognizant being. When we talk about IS as an agent instead of a group of tens of thousands with varying interests we are utilizing a form of folk psychology that simplifies group complexities to make sense of the world and predict behavior.

If a group cannot truly want anything, and IS elites — from the al-Qaida in Iraq old guard to the ex-Ba’athists — are likely are not homogenous in their goals, then this line of questioning seems futile. If many of its young members were not religious before joining, then perhaps we are not fighting Islam that has been radicalized, but radicalization that has been Islamized.

IS is, among other things, a youth movement. The average age of a European jihadist has dropped from 27.7 when al-Qaida was the dominant jihadist group from 2001-2009 to just 20 years old today. As Cormac McCarthy wrote, war “endures because young men love it and old men love it in them.” What if the question is not what IS wants, but rather what do the young men (and women) joining IS want?

Instead of wondering how we can make ourselves safe from Muslims, maybe we should figure out how to assist in providing a meaningful life to a generation of Arabs both in the Middle East and Europe who have been marginalized. Young men have always willingly given their lives to save those of their countrymen. What does it say about the societies in Europe and the Arab states that tens of thousands of young people are more eagerly self-identifying with a murderous extra-legal organization in a war zone than the countries in which they reside?

“Je Ne Suis Pas Charlie” or Two Reasons We Should Reject Polarization

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(Le Huffington Post Quebec Graphic)

Today, at least two masked gunman stormed the offices of the French satirical weekly, Charlie Hebdo, killing 10 employees and two police officers in an apparently sophisticated act of terrorism performed by likely veteran fighters.

The reaction from the West has been enormous. Large protests against the brutal attack have sprung up in Paris, Berlin, New york, Amsterdam, Madrid, Rome, and Moscow among others. The rallying cry at these protests and on Twitter is “Je suis Charlie” or #JeSuisCharlie (I am Charlie) expressing unity with the victims of this murderous attack.

I understand the sentiment and the urge to unify in the wake of tragedy. Let me make it clear that I unequivocally condemn the murders of these ten citizens and the two police officers heroically attempting to protect them. However, I find the #JeSuisCharlie reaction wrong for two reasons: Charlie Hebdo’s cartoons are racist and I refuse to reflexively accept a false dichotomy fallacy.

Charlie Hebdo is purposely offensive and publishes blatantly racist, anti-religous, crudely drawn cartoons in the name of “satire”. Many of these cartoons show images of the prophet Muhammad that many Muslims find offensive because their religious beliefs prevent them from depicting people, especially the prophet. At this point I do not doubt some of my readers might be thinking to themselves, “So what? Those aren’t my beliefs. They should get over it.” Well, that’s an entirely different kind of post, but if you are okay with offending other human beings simply because they do not share your cultural values, then I think you could use some remedial training in empathy. I recommend this not to insult you but as sincere advice, because undoubtedly as globalization continues and younger generations come to age you will be left behind.

But even if you think it’s okay to purposely antagonize people on the basis of their religion, I do not think most Americans think it’s okay to promote racist stereotypes. Culturally, we have been conditioned a little better to identify these and reject them. Most Americans would not be comfortable publicly labeling themselves racist. And yet this was in a way the overwhelming reaction to today’s events. Charlie Hebdo‘s depiction of Muhammad and other Muslims (which I have decided not to republish out of principle) are very similar to Nazi Germany and modern White Nationalist depictions of Jews. They both have exaggerated noses and are illustrated as ugly by a Western cultural standpoint. These types of images promote negative visual stereotypes and are meant to dehumanize the subject being represented. Americans can easily spot and decry these types of caricatures of black people both at home and abroad, but today it seems like the racist depictions of Muslims and/or Arabs were nearly universally overlooked by the Je suis Charlie movement, including prominent, usually sensible, liberal journalists such as Vox’s Max Fisher.

“But it’s satire,” some might say. I won’t get into a definition of humor because that too is another topic entirely, but let me suggest that there’s a difference between laughing with and laughing at. Furthermore, antagonizing and dehumanizing the members of an entire religion for the acts of a few extremists, who have (needlessly) denounced those extremists—and who have been the greatest victims of those extremists—is indefensible.

So, for the simple reason that I am not a racist who makes a habit of purposely harassing, humiliating, and dehumanizing entire religions, I am not Charlie. Je ne suis pas Charlie.

That should be enough, shouldn’t it? But in times like these it never is. By saying, “I am not Charlie,” some might take that as a tacit endorsement of mass murder or censorship. And herein lies the greater problem: polarization. As simple and satisfying as it is to reduce this to an us versus them issue, the fact that the “us” in this case is a company that makes a profit promoting hate in the form of tasteless, racist cartoons should make us take pause and reassess the purported sides. We do not have to support the lesser evil. Just because a group of ignorant cartoonists who made a living promoting stereotypes were attacked by those we perceive to be our enemy doesn’t mean they are our allies. I am not “victim blaming” or an apologist simply because I refuse to glorify or honor Charlie Hebdo.

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Max Fisher, usually right, is wrong.

The reaction to today’s act of terrorism is in this way similar to the reaction to North Korea’s hack of Sony and the threats over the release of The Interview. People went out of their way to buy a movie they might not have normally been interested in because of an imagined free speech issue and/or patriotism. But if these recent attacks have made you for the first time in your life defend terrible comedy films and racist cartoons, perhaps it would be wise to step back and reassess your belief system.

The teachable moment here is that you do not have to allow cyberwar or terrorism to force you to choose a side. You can refuse to be polarized. By choosing a side you only benefit the interests of the people, groups, and corporations that side represents—not yourself. Choosing to make a statement against North Korea’s attack on the sovereignty of the United States by spending your money on a garbage film in no way benefits you. It supports a (foreign) corporation whose sole aim is to make a profit. Likewise, making a stand against terrorism on a Western country by advertising a company that makes money selling purposely inflammatory, racist cartoons aimed at inciting people against religion does not benefit you. Again, you are simply giving free advertising to a company that couldn’t care less about your well-being.

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“I am a billboard for a company that brought Syria-style warfare to my city.” (AP Photo)

What has amazed me by today’s events is how journalists have rallied around Charlie Hebdo in solidarity. The impressive thing about terrorism is how effectively it can change the behavior of people either through fear, bravado, or simple human tribalism. My Twitter feed today was filled with journalists who would never publish a Charlie Hebdo-like cartoon under their own name acting like the weekly newspaper was bravely defending freedom. Similarly, many people I have great respect for reposted the famous Voltaire quote, “I do not agree with what you have to say, but I’ll defend to the death your right to say it.” What I am left wondering is who they are defending against. The French government protects the free speech of Charlie Hebdo and undoubtedly every conceivable effort is being made to bring the murderers to justice. Free speech was not under attack today. It was the rule of law and the safety and security of people that was under attack.

So again, who in this instance is being defended against? And how are they prepared to give their life in this defense? As of this moment the identities and affiliations of the murderers have not been confirmed. But when they eventually are confirmed, will these people join in battling against them—going as far as sacrificing their lives? Will they join the French military, who is simultaneously deploying soldiers both to Paris and a carrier to the Indian Ocean to potentially join operations against Islamic State? The answers here are probably, “No.” But by allowing ourselves to be polarized and using emotional, violent language as a response to violence that is being nearly universally condemned, we almost certainly improve nothing.