A Savage War of Peace: Algeria 1954-1962

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

The newly released edition of A Savage War of Peace reignites the searing horror of the Algerian war for careful consideration by those who seek to understand insurgency and study its global impact. Described by defense journalist Tom Ricks as an "underground bestseller" among military and political leaders, this reprint revives the illuminating and startlingly relevant lessons over 50 years after the "war" in Algeria "concluded" with that nation's independence.

Author Alistair Horne demonstrates mastery of the "historian's art" in his treatment of this difficult and complex topic. He now benefits the reader with half a century's reflection upon the subject, having begun his research as soon as possible after "the dust had sufficiently settled." The author's inquisitive mind shines through, proving indispensable in achieving such a daunting project. In Horne's own words, the sheer size, the lack of singular focus, and the multiple layers of action were "peculiar problems" in adequately covering the conflict. Given the intense passions of the actors and the devastation that left more than one million people dead, "only an Englishman" could have crafted a volume with such objectivity.

As with the previous editions of 1977 and 1996, the 2006 version is prefaced by the author with context and clarity. He acknowledges the comparison of the Algerian war with the fight against al-Qaeda and the American invasion of Iraq. There are many lessons--and warnings--for large and powerful governments attempting to confront the seemingly intractable insurgencies that continue to crop up around the world. The reader may wonder if the book's title, taken from Kipling's famous White Man's Burden, hints at a "Western man's burden" that has evolved in the postcolonial era. In three robust sections, Horne thoroughly explores invaluable primary sources and many interviews that reveal--in bloody detail--the circumstances which led to the war, influenced its execution, and haunt Algeria, France, and mankind to this day.

The book begins by introducing Algeria as a nineteenth-century colony in the French Empire and deftly sets the stage for the discontent that grows among the disenfranchised indigenous people. The French colonists--pieds noirs--grow to see themselves as the true heirs of Algeria's bounty and as the authors of its future. Tensions insidiously mount between the colons, who are citizens of France, and the economically subjugated sale race, who enjoy few of the benefits of their own labors. Opportunities for reconciliation are passed unnoticed and even squandered well into the 1940s. Finally, on VE Day 1945, as Europe ends the "insomnia" that was the Second World War, a small protest in the town of Setif turns unexpectedly violent. The subsequent cycle of reprisals and brutality on both sides sparks an unquenchable ember of Algerian nationalism that burns with growing intensity until 1954. Hearing of the French defeat by the Vietminh in Indochina, the crafty and indomitable Ben Bella decides that the time has come to stoke the blaze that will depose the French once and for all.

Throughout the book, Horne walks the reader along the sultry papyrus-lined roads next to a brilliant Mediterranean Sea that at once inspired the literary genius of Albert Camus and witnessed some of the most unspeakable acts of cruelty. On both sides, limited political control permitted escalation of violence to wanton levels. Honeymooners were murdered.

Collaborators had their throats slit or were castrated. Young Algerian schoolgirls planted bombs at milkshake stands. Meanwhile, the war-fatigued European citizenry began to hear of the atrocities, and the ensuing political spasms ultimately toppled six French governments, nearly leading to civil war in France itself. The "crescendo of violence" finally came in the Battle of Algiers, in which French paras perfected a tactical counterinsurgency campaign complete with source networks, intelligence apparatus, and torture. Despite the charisma of the recently returned Charles de Gaulle, the wounds were far too deep for anything other than a tenuous cease-fire in 1962, followed by the "suitcase or the coffin" for the pieds noirs.

Lastly, Horne explains that even though the French were expelled from Algeria, Ben Bella and his freedom fighters were unable to solve many of the core grievances in the ravaged cities, leaving Algeria to spiral in and out of violence and unrest into more recent times.

This book is unmatched in its scope and is indeed the definitive account of the war. The Algerian war is one of the most important and painful colonial upheavals in the twentieth century. The reader is left with "a very painful story sufficient within its own bounds" and many ramifications to consider for the future.

Maj Stewart J. Parker, USAF
Maxwell AFB, Alabama

"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."