My Battle of Algiers: A Memoir

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9780061205767: My Battle of Algiers: A Memoir

In My Battle of Algiers, eminent historian and biographer Ted Morgan recounts his experiences in the savage Algerian War. In 1956, Morgan was drafted into the French Army and was sent thousands of miles overseas to help quell the Algerian uprising. Once there, he witnessed—and became involved in—unimaginable barbarism that would haunt him for the rest of his life.

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About the Author:

Ted Morgan is the author of more than fifteen books, including FDR: A Biography and Reds: McCarthyism in Twentieth-Century America. As Sanche de Gramont, he was the only French citizen to win the Pulitzer Prize (for journalism). He lives in New York City.

From The Washington Post:

In the fall of 1956, while serving with the French army in the Algerian back country, Ted Morgan killed a rebel soldier during an interrogation. The man had been strung up with his hands tied behind his back, his feet hovering above the ground. "I punched him hard in the stomach," Morgan recalls. He wanted the location of the man's base camp. "I swear I don't know," the man repeated. "Then something happened to me," Morgan writes. "I was in an altered state." Over a few minutes, Morgan punched the man to death. His killing of the enemy soldier is one of the least shocking events in this grave and relentless book.

Morgan is a historian and biographer who has written about figures as disparate as Franklin D. Roosevelt and William S. Burroughs. With My Battle of Algiers, he turns his pen on himself and his 1956-57 service in the French Army, which was then struggling to put down a nationalist insurgency in France's most prized North African colony.

In his preface -- a brief, tediously obvious and unnecessary attempt to connect the dots between the battle of Algiers and the current American conflagration in Iraq -- he makes a distinction between torture that works and torture that doesn't. "It took only the 6,000 paras [paratroopers] of General Jacques Massu's 10th Division to win the Battle of Algiers, thanks to the systematic use of torture," Morgan argues. What the "untrained" and "clumsy" Americans did with torture at Guantanamo Bay and Abu Ghraib was not systematic; rather, the torture was "used in sensationalized but ineffective ways." This book is by no means a defense of torture, which Morgan insists "dehumanizes the victim and corrupts the tormenter." But by the end, his claim that torture won the fight against the urban insurgents of Algeria's capital is disturbingly persuasive.

Morgan wound up in the midst of this chaos almost by accident. After some time "wasting away at the Sorbonne," his lineage and family connections helped land him at the right school, Yale. He's the son of an American woman and a Frenchman, and his conscription papers arrived in the United States just as he was settling into his first job out of journalism school at Columbia. He easily could have ignored the call, but he didn't. Later, after a few months of fighting in Algeria's back country, the bled, he received a 48-hour pass to Algiers, where he had lunch with the American consul, a family friend. Among the lunch guests was Gen. Massu, who, upon learning that Morgan had journalistic experience (that is, a few months at the Worcester Telegram), gave him a job writing for the French Army's propaganda rag -- a sweet gig in the heart of Algiers, where he rented a civilian apartment and went to work in a suit. (His lineage also allows him to snipe at John Negroponte, a cousin on his mother's side and the Bush administration's national intelligence director, who apparently at age 4 "was something of a crybaby.")

In Algiers in January 1957, the charmed life continued for Morgan. He didn't actually have to pay for the apartment because the Frenchwoman whose family owned the building was interested in sleeping with him, not in collecting rent. (Her husband was off in the Sahara searching for oil.) For a conscripted officer, Morgan seemed to have hit the jackpot. But the serene streets of Algiers turned out not to be any safer than the bled.

During the summer of 1956, a series of brazen attacks on French civilian targets and equally deadly French reprisals set the stage for a military siege on Algiers's casbah and the escalation of violence throughout the city. The rebel Front de Libération National (FLN) had claimed that it would not kill any Europeans in Algiers as long as its men on death row were spared. But in June, the French guillotined two FLN members, and the FLN leader for Algiers, Yacef Saadi, ordered the killing of Europeans. He gave teams of men handguns, and they targeted police and guards. The colons (French settlers) responded by setting off a devastating bomb in the upper casbah, killing 60 Arabs. The FLN immediately recruited female bomb-handlers who could pass as European and move easily in and out of the casbah. The golden youths of Algiers were in danger. A series of bombings in public places began.

One of Morgan's first duties at the Army paper was to convince the people of the casbah that a general strike called for in February 1957 by the FLN would be bad for them. In fact, the strike went forward and proved incredibly counterproductive for the FLN. "In terms of the Battle of Algiers," Morgan writes, "the true importance of the strike was that it provided the paras with an opportunity to arrest thousands of Arab men in cordon-and-capture operations. They detained hundreds and quickly obtained tactical intelligence, thanks to systematic torture."

With this intelligence, Gen. Massu and his paratroop officers discovered the names and locations of the FLN leadership, its safe houses and its bomb caches. A favorite device for the torturers was the gégène, an electrical generator attached with electrodes to various parts of the detainee's body. A colleague of Morgan's told him that the torturers were paid bonuses.

But when the use of torture became public knowledge in France, support for the war in Algeria quickly dwindled. In an April 1962 referendum, almost 90 percent of voters in mainland France backed the accords that ended the hostilities and gave Algeria its independence. Morgan does a seamless job of moving his narrative from the bloody work of war to the bloody work of French domestic politics.

He's also deeply insightful about the folly of military "wisdom." His boss at the paper told him that one reason the French had to fight for Algeria was to make up for their defeat in French-ruled Vietnam. The thrashing the French received at Dien Bien Phu in 1954 was an open wound for the Army, and all armies fight as much for their past as for their future. This sounds not unlike the arguments one hears today in support of the continuation of the American endeavor in Iraq. The notion of winning for the Army or for those who have already died is highly effective for morale; it may even help recruiting. But it is no reason to start or prolong a war.

Most Westerners know the battle of Algiers through the lens of Gillo Pontecorvo's classic film of the same name, co-produced by and starring Yacef Saadi himself. The film was made in 1965, three years after Algeria became independent, and Saadi, still a handsome, burly figure, plays himself with some panache. But Morgan points out that the tortured FLN turncoat seen in the film's opening scenes giving away the location of a rebel fighter is a distortion: "In reality, it was Yacef who led the paras to his colleague." This is only one of the insider gems that the book offers.

Modern urban terrorism began in Algiers, and one result of that development was France's creation of a monstrous, chaotic, military apparatus of torture to use any means necessary to dismantle the terrorist cells. Did torture succeed in Algiers because the paras were dealing with a small population in a cordoned-off area? One wonders. Morgan doesn't offer any real answers, but he does eventually reckon with his own act of torture -- and the ripple effects on a culture and a military that practice torture. "The Algerian experience did not enrich me," he writes. "It diminished me." This memoir is a prose map of the ruin of war, a love song for a ruined city and a damaged people, and an anthem to youth, sex and vigor. War enriches no one. But Morgan's fine book will.

Reviewed by Anthony Swofford
Copyright 2006, The Washington Post. All Rights Reserved.

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