Friday, April 13, 2012

Indiscriminate Killings during Insurgencies: Servan-Schrieber's "Lieutenant en Algerie"

Alistair Horne's A Savage War of Peace (1977) is a classic account of the 1954-1962 insurgency in Algeria.  The book was reportedly read by George W. Bush and numerous American military commanders after the 2003  invasion of Iraq.  Horne himself was consulted by the president, and wrote that, "In the Oval Office last year, I was questioned intently on how de Gaulle got out of Algeria; I had to reply, 'Mr President, very badly; he lost his shirt.' Though it was clearly a disappointing response, Mr Bush replied, with emphasis: 'Well, we're not going to get out of Iraq like that.' There are several ways in which the Americans lost their shirt in Iraq, and George W. Bush could be said to have personally lost his comfy pad on Pennsylvania Avenue.

Insurgencies are difficult to generalize.  Most are specific and chaotic, inseparable from their historical context, and refuse to be neatly compartmentalized into good guys and bad guys.  Algeria was a particularly brutal war, and Horne does not back away from the grisly details.  An account which he quotes from Jean-Jaques Servan-Schrieber's book Lieutenant en Algerie (1957), echos the frustrations of regular soldiers who cannot tell friend from foe.  An old campaigner here tells a fresh-faced captain about the realities of discriminating civilians from combatants:
1960 Algerian Independence Demonstration
"Either you consider a priori that every Arab, in the country, in the street, in a a passing truck is innocent until he's proven the contrary; and permit me to tell you that if that is your attitude...you will immediately be posted, because the parents of reservists one has had killed don't like it, and will write to their deputies that you're a butcher...Or you will...consider that every Arab is a suspect, a possible fellagha...because that, my dear sir, is the truth...But once you're here, to pose yourself problems of conscience - and treat possible assassins as presumed innocents - that's a luxury that costs dear, and costs men, dear sir, young men themselves also innocent, and our own..."


Such sentiments are how insurgencies are won militarily and lost politically.  This brutal calculus of counterinsurgency exposes the attitude of distrust which creeps into the soldier's psyche when any passerby may be a potential killer.  This is one common thread to insurgencies: they are an extremely difficult psychological task for the soldiers that fight them.

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