“The age of heroics is over.” -Jean Larteguy, The Centurions
The Algerian War was the last of the grand colonial wars, and one of the first modern conflicts between the Western and Islamic worlds. It also foretold the downfall of European settler societies on the African continent with the exodus of the pieds-noires (Algerian-born French), as would later happen in South Africa and Rhodesia. Alistair Horne’s narrative history tells the story of insurgents, bombings, and the collapse of the French Fourth Republic in readable prose. The French military, hardened after a long war in Indochina, shifted to North Africa where they battled the nationalist FLN’s insurgents.
In many ways Savage War reads like a it was written about modern interventions in Afghanistan and Iraq. Combat was savage, with mutilations of French troops by the FLN’s guerrillas and the use of torture by the French to gather intelligence. The battles, like many COIN conflicts of the Cold War and today, were not set-piece affairs but long patrols into the harsh North African bled to locate and kill the insurgents. The guerrillas had no concern The FLN also made contacts with Arab nationalist leaders such as Egypt’s Nasser, especially after the defeat of Britain and France in the 1956 Suez Crisis. Members of French far-Left were also more than willing back to the FLN, especially feminist writer Simone de Beauvoir. The tensions and mismanagement of the war led to animosity between the government and the military (already alienated by the withdrawal from Indochina)–something that has a troubling parallel in contemporary American politics.
There were attempts to reconcile the very different pied-noire and Algerian population through different programs: full integration of the Muslims into the French and Algerian government, and then a later attempt at federalizing the territory in the vein of Switzerland’s cantons, where the two groups had self-government. The projects failed however, as the radical elements of the independence movement turned to terrorism against civilians in order to achieve their goals, notably the Philipeville massacre where 123 people were killed by FLN terrorists. Again, Horne’s narrative reveals a modern parallel with the so-called Arab “Spring” of several years ago. What appeared to be a peaceful transition to Western-style democracy in Egypt, Libya, and Bahrain quickly spiraled out of control, leading to further unrest and (in the case of Libya) a failed state allowing Islamic fundamentalist terrorists a free base to operate in.
Written originally in 1977, it was not Horne’s intent to draw attention to Islamic fundamentalism. The author argues effectively that the FLN was not motivated by the kind of radical Islam practiced by ISIS, Al-Qaeda, or the Taliban, but a national liberation struggle. Nevertheless, the book offers lessons for the modern reader. The issues of combating terrorism and ideologically motivated insurgents faced by the French remain instructive. Savage War also highlights the tension between order and freedom–rule under the French or problems of stability that arise with a new nation.
Horne’s history is an enjoyable, well researched narrative that addresses the dearth of material in English on the Algerian War. Reviewing his bibliography, he synthesizes a number of French primary and secondary sources, as well as a number of interviews. While thorough, it reads as a story and not as a textbook. I highly reccomend it in companion with Jean Larteguy’s 1960 novel, The Centurions and Simon Murray’s memoir of French Foreign Legion life and action in the Algerian War, Legionnaire.