The Battle of the Casbah: Terrorism and Counter-Terrorism in ALgeria, 1955-1957, by General Paul Aussaresses
New York: Enigma Books, 2002. Pp. xiv, 185. Illus., glossary, index. $25. ISBN:1-929631-12-X.
It isn’t often that one gets to read a book by a war criminal who is proud of his actions. Paul Aussaresses was a French Army officer who served in Algeria from 1955 to 1957, mainly as an intelligence officer in a paratroop unit. France in those days was fighting against Algerian guerillas who commonly used terrorism against French citizens living in Algeria, and against Arabs as well. The French considered Algeria to be part of metropolitan France, not a colony, and over a million French citizens lived there. The threat of terrorism directed at French civilians was constant and the French decided that this justified the use of all available means to root out the terrorists. The use of torture to gain information from prisoners became a common French practice.
The use of torture is sometimes depicted as the work of army officers acting on their own. In fact, as Aussaresses makes clear, the French government knew and approved of the practice. Senior French officials, including Interior Minister Francois Mitterrand, who would later be elected President of France, were aware that torture and summary execution were being systematically employed by French troops in Algeria. Aussaresses is the first French officer ever to come forward and describe in detail the methods France used in the Algerian war. It makes grim reading.
Aussaresses never questioned the morality of what he did, and he is unapologetic about it now. Those who were tortured were often summarily executed afterwards. As Aussaresses puts it “The justice system would have been paralyzed had it not been for our initiative. Many terrorists would have been freed and given the opportunity of launching other attacks....Even if the law had been enforced in all its harshness, few persons would have been executed. The judicial system was not suited for such drastic conditions....Summary execution was therefore an inseparable part of the tasks associated with keeping law and order.”
Torture was not used in every interrogation, and probably not even in most of them. Often the mere threat of it would make a prisoner talk. But if he did not, Aussaresses and his men would not hesitate to use beatings, followed by electric shocks, and finally water. (Water was saved for last since it had the greatest chance of killing the victim.) Aussaresses says that “I don’t think I ever tortured or executed people who were innocent”. He also says that “Prisoners would rarely die during an interrogation.” Somehow one is not entirely convinced. Curiously, the French general commanding the division Aussaresses was assigned to decided to undergo electric shocks to “reassure his men”, though the fellows wielding the electrodes seem to have gone easy on him.
Aussaresses had extensive experience in special or unconventional operations before he went to Algeria. During World War II he parachuted into German occupied territory in a German uniform, and escaped death narrowly. After the war, he was part of what was called the Action Service, a unit of the SDECE (French intelligence) that conducted sabotage and commando operations of various sorts. The soldiers in his unit often had long experience of irregular warfare in Indochina, and even in France itself during the German occupation. They seem to have been corrupted by it.
Without a doubt the Algerian guerillas, known as the FLN, were capable of appalling cruelty. Aussaresses provides a graphic description of a massacre carried out by the FLN in Philippeville in 1955. He also includes a picture of children murdered in that atrocity. On the other hand the French occupation of Algeria was not popular, and could not be maintained without resorting to brutal and repressive means. In 1962 De Gaulle decided to withdraw French troops from Algeria. By that time 30,000 French and 500,000 Algerians had been killed.
The French had a great deal success in tracking down and eliminating FLN cells and cadre. The
Reviewer: Burke Sheppard
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