The Afghan War 2009-2012: Lessons from Algeria 1954-1960 A Review of “A Savage War of Peace

“A Savage War of Peace.” By Alistair Horne. The New York Review of Books, 1977, 1987, 1996, 2006.  Maps. Photographs. Bibliography. Index. 608 pp.

Foreign Legion in Algeria

In light of the developing situation in Afghanistan and the plan to apply the counterinsurgency techniques of clear and hold, or “the oil slick” in that country it is wise to look at other instances of this type of warfare before criticizing those about to implement the strategy.  Of course when doing this the best place to look is history, especially where the strategy worked, at least until the DeGaulle government abandoned the nearly complete military success achieved by French forces in Algeria triggering a national crisis.

Alistair Horne’s “A Savage War of Peace” is a most needed addition for anyone seriously interested in studying the dynamics of insurgency and counterinsurgency warfare; especially political and military leaders of a western nation occupying a Moslem country.  Horne’s work is important and one of the few in English that cover this subject.  The two other books in English to cover the subject, albeit only on part of the campaign is Paul Aussaresses’ controversial memoir “The Battle of the Casbah” and Ted Morgan’s memoir “My Battle of Algiers” though useful suffer from the fact that they are limited in scope to the events the individuals experienced while serving as French Army officers in Algeria. In both the author’s personal biases are readily in evidence and by the fact that they were written many years after the events in question.  Since those books are heavily dependent on the author’s memories.

Paratroops of the First Colonial Paratroop Regiment in Algeria

Horne is not limited by these factors.  Horne is a historian who served as a British Army officer assigned to the MI5 in the Middle East and later as a foreign correspondent for the Daily Mail who has written a trilogy of excellent works on the Franco-German wars: The Fall of Paris: The Siege and the Commune 1870-1871, The Price of Glory: Verdun 1916 and To Lose a Battle: France 1940. As such his account is as close to being objective as any could be in the case of writing this particular history.

Horne approaches the subject from the perspective of the broader issues that France and the Fourth Republic were facing in 1954, economic, military and psychological recovery from the Second World War, the loss of colonies, defeat in Indochina culminating in the Dien Bien Phu debacle.  Such is important when examining a military campaign as the latter do not take place in isolation of other events in the life of a nation. When the history of the US campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan are written they will have to take into account many other factors apart from the military operations.

Horne tackles the complex issues of the Algerian war in a multifaceted manner looking not only at the military issues, but the political and social issues faced by the French, the European Pied-Noir Algerians and the Algerian natives, both Berber and Arab alike.  Horne also looks at the conflict in the broader context of the Cold War, the emergence of the Non-Aligned nation movement and the rise of Arab nationalism, skillfully weaving the actions of these movements and key individuals such as Egypt’s Nasser, Khrushchev of the Soviet Union and the most influential, and President Jacques de Gaulle into the story of the Algerian conflict. Unlike other writers Horne had access to many of the individuals involved, including leaders from each rebel faction, the Pied-Noir and the French government and military.  Included in those he interviewed is Algerian President Boumedienne who had commanded rebels during the conflict and was instrumental in Algeria’s independence as well as Jacque Soustelle who had been Governor General from 1955 through 1956. These sources as well as numerous others help give his narrative a depth and subtlety lacking in the first hand English language memoirs and accounts.

Terrorism by FLN Militias and Sympathizers Caused Great Problems for the French

Horne begins his account with the story of the aborted revolt and massacre at Setif on May 8th, VE Day, 1945 and the attempt by the French government to reassert its control over Algeria. Of particular interest in this section is Horne’s analysis of the mistake of the Pied Noirs and the French government in not offering a settlement to the Algerian separatists under magnanimous terms due to the scale of the victory they had won following the Setif uprising and their security forces “decapitation” of the leadership of the various Algerian nationalist factions.  He compares the victory to that of the Israelis in the 1967 War and the political reaction of the Pied Noir to the Israelis, who instead of negotiating a settlement that could have long term effects advantageous to them from a position of strength determined to humiliate and subjugate their foe.[1] If the US military is able to reverse the situation in Afghanistan the United States and the Afghan government will need to be magnanimous to a defeated foe in order to prevent yet another repetition of another Al Qaida and Taliban resurgence.

French Paratroops Going House to House in Algiers

In examining the period before the actual outbreak of the war in 1954 Horne looks at the missed opportunities of the French to prevent it.  He also examines the development of the Algerian independence movement, especially the senior leaders of the movement; many of whom had served in the French Army during the Second World War with distinction. His portrayal of the conflicts within the independence movement, show that this was not a monolithic movement, but that each faction had its own goals which often were in conflict with other groups.  This is also the case in Afghanistan where a disparate number of ethnic, political, criminal, nationalist and terrorist groups who often are at war with each other.  Likewise, Horne’s treatment of the Pied Noir and certain parts of the French leadership examine how they too were divided at some points in regard to the ultimate plan for the relationship of Algeria to France.

Horne makes much of political mistakes and machinations of French leaders that culminated in the end of the Fourth Republic and subsequent impact on de Gaulle when he became president in June 1958.  Some mistakes that Horne explores are those committed in the immediate wake of Setif. He also examines mistakes during the revolt; such as not taking it seriously, to individuals in the National Assembly impeding the efforts of Soustelle to effect reforms and compromise between hard line factions in the Pied Noir and Moslem communities.[2] Likewise he notes how the draconian treatment of Algerian Moslems by the French Army in the early phases of the counter-insurgency effort, including the assignment of “collective responsibility” to punish communities for the actions of individuals helped alienate the populace and strengthen the insurgency.  Such was the case in the first part of the Iraq occupation and helped inspire that insurgency.  One member of Soustelle’s cabinet noted: “the cycle of repression getting ever tougher, and the rebellion ever stronger, will ruin all your efforts of pacification.”[3]

Besides political mistakes Horne examines issues in military tactics that seem to plague counterinsurgency efforts to the present time.  He describes the early application of heavy conventional forces in an attempt to defeat the insurgency.  Horne discusses unsuccessful efforts in 1954-1955 and how they not only did not destroy the insurgency but how the insurgency spread in response to the efforts.  The question: “Did ‘pacification’, for instance mean trying to regain the confidence of the inhabitants; or did it mean crushing the rebellion by whatever means available?”[4] This question is still asked today by soldiers fighting insurgencies and often the latter is counseled by those who still think along the lines of the conventional tactics of the Cold War and World War Two, which many conservative pundits are enamored with.  Horne also discusses the successful tactics of commando units used by General Challe to effectively combat the insurgency.[5]

Horne examines the attitudes of the French Army which in a sense fought the war for itself.  Armies that have fought many campaigns together often have a sense of comradeship that transcends even the loyalty that they have to their nation.  It is the understanding of a “Band of Brothers” and can be found throughout history.  When the histories of Iraq and Afghanistan are written they will certainly include the fact that many soldiers, Marines and Sailors engaged in actual combat operations fought for the men and women with whom they served more than for anything else.

The French Army felt little affinity for the Pied Noir who they often saw as only interested in their interest at the expense of the campaign.  Likewise the Army, felt little more than contempt for the French government which they felt had betrayed them. General Lorillot noted “They made fools of us in Indo-China…they screwed in Tunisia…We are being screwed in Morocco. But they will never screw us in Algeria. I swear to you. Let this be known in Paris.”[6] Instead attitudes of not losing, stopping the humiliations were animated by the feeling of anti-communism in French ranks, especially in the Elite Parachute, Foreign Legion, Commando and Colonials (Marines). The novel The Centurions and voiced the feelings of one Paratroop commander “We want to halt the decadence of the West and the march of Communism.”[7]

Horne provides a narrative analysis of the military campaigns within the Algerian War.  In particular he describes the successes of units designed to live among and better the lives of the Algerians and the SAS,[8] He describes the building of the border wall to keep weapons out of rebel hands.  He describes the “success” of units which specialized in torture,[9] which turned out to be helpful in the short run but which ultimately damaged the fabric of the Army.  Horne notes the effects of torture on soldiers who participated and how it negatively affected support of the war in France and internationally.[10] The use of torture in Algeria has parallels with Iraq. Horne notes: “one has to take into account all those factors…horror at the atrocities of the F.L.N., a determination not to lose yet another campaign, and the generally brutalizing effect of so cruel and protracted war.”[11]

The most powerful part of the narrative is the drama when French President de Gaulle was faced with the revolts of 1959. At this time the Pied Noir militias, dissatisfied with potential political settlements went to the barricades in Algiers and other major cities, assisted in some cases by Army units.  These forces again revolted against his attempts to mediate a settlement and were followed by the General’s revolt of April 1961 which nearly became a military coup in France itself.   President de Gaulle’s role in bringing these revolts to an end, without the collapse of the government or a civil war was miraculous.  Though his actions undercut the military success of the Army in Algeria which had virtually eliminated the insurgency his foresight in recognizing that France had a future not dependant on Algeria remaining French was exceptional.  The actions of de Gaulle should be studied by those who closely link their country’s future to holding a foreign country, even one that is considered an integral part of the mother country, as Algeria was to France.

Horne’s book is as timely as it was when first published, maybe more so with the current escalation in Afghanistan.  Along with works by David Galula “Pacification In Algeria 1956-1958, Bernard Fall “Street Without Joy” and “Hell in a Very Small Place,” Andrew Krepinevich’s  “The Army in Vietnam,” Brian McAllister Linn’s “The Philippine War: 1899-1902” and Ben Shepherd’s “War in the Wild East: The German Army and Soviet Partisans” Horne’s work is vital reading for military and political leaders fighting counter-insurgency operations.  Unfortunately many militaries are often enamored by high tech innovation are not often receptive to the decidedly human factors and strategies necessary to fight insurgencies until they experience frustration and failure attempting to use conventional forces and tactics to win a counter-insurgency campaign.  Effective intelligence, efforts to win the hearts and minds of the populace by protecting them, knowledge of public affairs and the effect of media on operations are all key elements of a proper counter-insurgency campaign are covered by Horne. Horne’s work reminds us that these conflicts are not won by the forces with the greatest firepower or most modern weapons. This is something that the United States and its NATO and other Allies in Afghanistan should never forget.

[1] Horne, Alistair. A Savage War f Peace: Algeria 1954-1962. The New York Review of Books, New York, NY 1977, 1987, 1996 2006. p.69

[2] Ibid. pp. 113-114

[3] Ibid. p.115  Some would later compare the attitudes of the French Army to those of the Nazis. In one point of his narrative Horne notes the attitude of an officer who saw nothing wrong with the tactics used by the Nazis in the Second World War.

[4] Ibid. p.112.  Another question noted is something that seems to be commonplace in the Iraq War ““Limited Repression” did not always make the clearest sense to a patrol of young soldiers caught in a vicious ambush.” When one reads Horne’s accounts one sometimes almost feels that he is writing about the current American experience in Iraq.

[5] Ibid. pp. 334-335

[6] Ibid. pp.175-176

[7] Ibid. p.176

[8] The SAS Section Administrative Specialise first set up by Soustelle.  These units had great success but also suffered heavy losses as their efforts were recognized as having a positive effect by the FLN and other Algerian rebel groups.

[9] Such as the 11th Shock Regiment

[10] See pp. 195-207.

[11] Ibid. p.198.


Filed under Foreign Policy, History, iraq,afghanistan, Military

2 responses to “The Afghan War 2009-2012: Lessons from Algeria 1954-1960 A Review of “A Savage War of Peace

  1. padredavidfell

    Excellent work!

  2. I would really like reading this book. I find it interesting to look back on history to find out what could have, should have been done differently. Coincidentally I just finished a book titled, “Words for Warriors” which also talks about the good/bad of the Korean and Vietnam wars. I loved this book because the author, Ralph Puckett the author, was actually there to experience what happened. He takes his own personal experiences as an experienced combat leader and trainer, and uses bad/good examples of others as well. I learn so much from these kinds of books. Can’t wait to read “A Savage War of Peace” thanks for suggesting it.

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