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A Savage War of Peace: Algeria 1954–1962

A Savage War of Peace: Algeria 1954–1962 by Alistair Horne. New York Review of Books, 1987, 2006, 624 pp.

In counterinsurgency (COIN), what are we countering? To paraphrase the often repeated expression in American political culture, “It’s the insurgency, stupid!” If A Savage War of Peace teaches us one major lesson, it is not about counterinsurgency, but insurgency. Insurgency should not be looked at through the lenses of counterinsurgency beliefs and doctrines nor the plethora of publications dedicated to this phenomenon. Despite five years as one of the leaders of the Algerian insurgency (see Remy Madoui (Mauduit), J’ai été fellagha, officier français et déserteur [I Was an Insurgent, French Officer and Deserter] Paris: Les Éditions du Seuil, 2004), I have difficulty recognizing the Algerian insurgency in the cacophony of counterinsurgency generated after the invasion of Iraq.

Understanding the real, deeply rooted grievances of the people is the prime requisite to comprehending the nature of the subsequent insurgency, and this book clearly illustrates that point. In his masterpiece on the conflict, Alistair Horne traces the germ (grievances) of the Algerian insurgency as far back as the landing of a French expeditionary force in Algeria in 1830. He highlights the political, military, economic, social, religious, racial, or cultural confrontations that never abated after the invasion of Algeria, along with the accumulation of human injustices, prejudices, and passions that such frictions engendered—the insurgency incubator and pressure cooker. Thus, understanding what started an insurgency is requisite to comprehending the nature of the subsequent counterinsurgency.

The second requisite (contrary to Mao’s “the people are like water and the army is like fish,” which might have been true in Mao’s China), is an insurgency is the people. There was no army fighting the French in the Algerian insurgency nor in subsequent insurgencies. Thus the mantra, “winning hearts and minds”—isolating the insurgents from the people—is highly dubious!

Horne contends in his new preface to the 2006 edition that the repercussions of the Algerian War continue to be felt not only in Algeria and France, but throughout the world. The violent and brutal Algerian conflict “looks less like the last colonial war than the first post-modern” insurgency. It is a model in terms of geography and topography (physical dimensions, desert, plains, mountain ranges); social makeup (Arabs, tribal society, diverse ethnic groups, and/or mainly Muslim populations); open borders allowing the influx of foreign support; and a technologically advanced army fighting militarily inferior forces who must resort to terrorism and guerilla tactics. In addition to insight into the heart of an insurgency, A Savage War of Peace is also the most important book about dealing with a Muslim nationalist insurgency.

The Algerian conflict offers an indispensable understanding very relevant to the conduct of COIN operations in today’s security environment. The US Army/Marine Corps COIN doctrine confirms this link as it includes several direct citations from the Algerian War. The Marine Corps Gazette writes of Horne’s book, “There are few historical works that provide so comprehensive a treatment of revolutionary and counterinsurgency warfare, domestic and international politics, and economics and ideology.”

The Algerian insurgency also inspired a unique and impressive showcase of airpower that played more than just a traditional support role. The French successfully used their overwhelming airpower asymmetric advantage. French Air Force general Maurice Challe, commander of the overall military effort in 1959, introduced a revolutionary joint, flexible, and decentralized command and control for operational and tactical execution that was unique and very devastating to the insurgents. Allow me to vouch for its crushing efficiency as I was on the receiving end during two excessively long and horrifying months. Gen Norton Schwartz noted in remarks at the 24 April 2009 Brookings Institute forum on the Air Force’s role in irregular warfare and counterinsurgency, “[General Challe] was an accomplished Airman who understood the speed and flexibility by France’s airpower advantage, but who also understood the need for closely integrated Joint operations that leveraged the inherent strengths of ground and air forces in combined roles. He abandoned the old static system of spreading forces evenly through the theater and employed a new system one might call a ‘surge’ approach.”3

A Savage War of Peace and the Algerian Revolution have striking parallels to the Iraq and Afghan insurgencies and are very rich in insurgency/counterinsurgency lessons learned that can help us understand contemporary warfare. Soldiers, Airmen, defense experts, academics, and those interested in insurgencies must read and study this unique work.

Remy M. Mauduit

Air Force Research Institute

"The views expressed are those of the author(s) and do not reflect the official policy or position of the US government or the Department of Defense."

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