Twenty-Six Letters

Essay by Tom Gregg       June 4, 2007


"Algeria is French. Iraq is—?"

Alistair Horne’s A Savage War of Peace: Algeria 1954-62 is said to have become popular among US policymakers and military officers, and it’s easy to see why. His fascinating and horrifying history of the war for Algerian independence suggests some obvious parallels with the Iraq war. In both conflicts, the regular military forces of a Western power—France in Algeria, the US in Iraq—found themselves confronting a tenacious insurgency. In both conflicts, the insurgents employed indiscriminate terror against civilians in order to marginalize moderates and polarize the population. In both conflicts, the forces of the Western powers found themselves accused of torture and other atrocities. And in both conflicts, as it may turn out, the Western armies saw their hard-won victories in the field obviated by a collapse of will and morale on the home front.

 The similarities between Algeria and Iraq ought not to be overstated, however. A French possession since 1830, home to over a million immigrants from France and other European countries, Algeria in 1954 was an integral part of the French Republic. The existence of the pieds noirs, as Algeria’s white settlers were called, made it virtually impossible for successive governments to liquidate France’s Algerian commitment by giving the country either substantial autonomy or outright independence. The pieds noirs enjoyed the support of a powerful lobby in metropolitan France. Their slogan, “Algeria is French,” touched the nerve of French national pride, reliably silencing those who spoke the language of compromise. 

In the end, the Algerian War brought down the French Fourth Republic, returned Charles de Gaulle to power, split the French Army and provoked part of it into open revolt against de Gaulle’s government. The war’s aftermath witnessed a mass exodus of the pieds noirs from Algeria, and a horrifying massacre of France’s former Muslim collaborators by the victorious nationalists.

 The Iraq War is very different. Despite all the blather from progressives about US imperialism, oil, “Halliburton,” etc., it’s no colonial conflict. Iraq was never an American colony or even a client state. And despite the Bush Administration’s rhetoric, America’s commitment to Iraq has always been weak and wavering. Once it became clear that both the war and the reconstruction of Iraq would be costly and difficult, it also became clear that America possessed no real will to win. Plenty of people continue to display “Support Our Troops” stickers on their bumpers—but far fewer actually support the war that our troops are fighting. 

This lack of commitment derives in part from the Bush Administration’s dismal failure to sell its Iraq policy. But a strong sales effort was needed precisely because most Americans view the outside world with indifference and a touch of contempt. They certainly disbelieve in the possibility of a democratic Arab state. They accept no connection between the fate of Middle East and the security of the United States. The average American tends to regard “those people” as barbarians and fanatics who’ve been fighting one another for thousands of years. Call this what you will—bigotry, xenophobia, racism. Personally, I think it arises from simple lack of interest. Even today, America is so spacious that many of its inhabitants can and do ignore the outside world. Not even 9/11 was shocking enough in the long run to suppress this trait of our national character. “Algeria is French,” the pieds noirs insisted. But nothing, really, is American except for America herself.

 In the concluding pages of his book Horne argues that France actually benefited from her defeat in Algeria. The page, he says, was turned—the war’s end banished the political, social and economic burdens of a costly and increasingly untenable colonial commitment. Be that as it may. Yet it’s hard to see how defeat in Iraq could possibly benefit America. And defeat, due largely to lack of interest, is what we face today. 

Anyhow, A Savage War of Peace is a excellent book. Read it and judge for yourself how relevant its lessons are for the age of Islamofascist terror.


Copyright © 2007 by Thomas M. Gregg