SAW 7202-06: 'The French Army at War In Algeria, 1954-1962'
By Thomas E. Ricks
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, April 28, 2006; A17

QUANTICO -- School of Advanced Warfighting, Marine Corps University, Quantico. Basement seminar room; April 11-14; two hours.

Until the invasion of Iraq, the U.S. military wasn't much interested in a French colonial war in North Africa that occurred half a century ago.

Now, as the United States enters the fourth year of fighting in Iraq, the French struggle against Algerian rebels in the 1950s has become a hot topic.

In both cases, a Western power with great technological advantages confronted an Arab insurgency that relied heavily on urban terrorism but also maintained camps in the remote desert. And in both cases, the wars grew in unpopularity back home. The differences can also be instructive: While the French were fighting to stay in Algeria, for the Americans, success would be leaving Iraq as soon as possible, as long as they left behind a stable, independent government.

But the strong parallels are the reason used copies of Alistair Horne's classic history of the Algerian War, "A Savage War of Peace," have been fetching more than $100 on, with some officers deployed to Iraq poring over it and pressing it on colleagues.

They are also why 11 officers were gathered on a recent Friday morning in a basement classroom at the Marine Corps' School of Advanced Warfighting, in a red-brick building a few steps from the banks of the Potomac. There were eight Marines, one Army major, one officer from Australia and one from Italy. They were talking about Algeria, but Iraq was in the back of their minds. Six of the officers had served there, and six said they expect to be sent next year; a couple of them fit into both categories.

"It's a terrific study for those who have to go to the Iraq war," said Christopher Harmon, the university's chair professor of insurgency and terrorism, who was leading the seminar. A former congressional aide, he has written extensively on the subject.

The officers were viewing the Algerian war not as academic historians but as military professionals who may have to grapple with similar problems. The applied nature of their inquiry was underscored by the stacks of topographical maps on bookshelves and the rolled aviation maps standing in a corner.

Harmon began the session by discussing the causes of the war, the sizes of the warring sides and the sources of their strength. He also covered the political success of the Algerian insurgents at the United Nations, where they received a respectful hearing, and in their other international efforts.

The French also scored victories. Plagued by a flow of insurgents and arms from outside the country, they sealed Algeria's borders with Morocco on the west and Tunisia on the east. "It was very manpower-intensive," with 15 to 20 soldiers per kilometer (a little more than half a mile), observed a gray-haired Marine officer with a British accent. "If we were doing that on the Syrian border, I'm guessing that would suck up 12,000 guys."

Everyone in the room knew that U.S. commanders in Iraq already feel they are frequently thin on the ground, without adding a mission like that.

These officers also understand that in war, actions often carry unintended consequences. Once Algeria's borders were closed, noted another Marine, "The fight gets nastier."

Yes, Harmon said, the battle shifted into the cities, especially to the capital, Algiers, where a ruthless crackdown by French paratroopers was successful -- at least in the short run.

"Can you win the battle of Algiers without torture?" Harmon asked, provocatively.

"I don't think you can necessarily answer that question conclusively," one officer said.

Well, brutality worked in Algiers, the Australian officer said. "That's one of the benefits of torture," he said. "You don't waste time. You can just twist his nipple clamps, or whatever, get the information straightaway." The French commander carried out his mission, he said, and wasn't concerned about the consequences.

"What's the effect back home?" Harmon prodded.

Revulsion, the seminar members agreed. What's more, there was growing indiscipline in the military ranks, with a widespread disinclination among French officers to follow the orders of top civilians.

Yes, Harmon said. "There was a sickening sensation that creeped into the population. It was devastating on the strategic level. On the other hand, they were able to break up the bombing network."

The two-hour discussion was coming to a close, and Harmon pointed toward a conclusion: "One generalization about the war is that the French won it militarily and lost it politically. Is that fair?"

"It's meaningless," responded the British-accented officer, who was raised in London. Ultimately, he said, military actions must be judged by their political effects.

The Army major, who had been relatively quiet, jumped in. "That statement isn't really that important except as a face-saving move for the French," he said.

"Yeah," another officer said, "they can blame it on the politicians."

That comment seemed to touch on the spate of retired U.S. Army generals calling for the resignation of Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld.

One major noted that the French army came to believe that ends justify means. "It goes too far," he said, with some senior French officers finally "turning on their own government" and trying to assassinate President Charles de Gaulle.

Class Notes is an occasional peek into the classrooms of current and former government officials as well as Washington insiders teaching the next generation expected to join their ranks.