This year we have examined how democracies function across time and space. What do they do well? What challenges put great stress upon them? Are their paths that democracies generally take that they should always avoid? Under the umbrella of these big picture questions, we begin the year looking at the French-Algerian War from 1954-62.
I chose this conflict to study for a variety of reasons:
- The conflict is a recent example of a western democratic power fighting both against and amongst Moslems
- The conflict is far enough removed from us to allow objective analysis, and to allow us to see its ripple effects
- The French dealt with many similar issues as we currently do in Afghanistan, and to a lesser extent, Iraq (such as the use of torture, attempts to win over local populations, etc.)
- The excellent movie (based largely in actual events) The Battle of Algiers is a great tie-in to our study
We introduced a few key background concepts before delving into the main events.
1. Why did France feel the absolute need to win in Algeria?
From the time of Charlemagne (or perhaps even dating back to the pre-Romanized Gauls) France was regarded as having the world’s pre-eminent military, from the Charlemagne, the Crusades, to Joan of Arc, to Napoleon. In W.W. I they fought heroically and with great determination. In 1940, however, they suffered a humiliating and shockingly quick defeat to the Nazi’s. Desperately seeking to regain their pre-war glory, they did not give up their colonies (unlike their friendly rival England). They lost again in humiliating fashion in 1954 in Southeast Asia — but they would not lose in Algeria. This was where they would prove to the world that France was still France after all.
The French began colonizing Algeria as far back as 1830, and over time millions of French had come to live there. As France’s reputation declined in the post-W.W. II years, Algeria became the place where they staked their reputation as a nation “good for the world.” France was still France after all, a bastion of liberty and democratic, western ideals. Algeria would be their proving ground. They would bring the blessings of their civilization to North Africa. They would show how Moslems could prosper in a western context. Many other European powers shed their colonial empires after W.W. II. France left S.E. Asia with their tails between their legs. They granted independence to a few other colonies. But not Algeria. Algeria would be different. Algeria would prove the validity of western ideals across cultures and the globe.
We shall see how this psychological and cultural attitude influenced how they fought
2. What is the battleground in an insurgent campaign?
As a modern “First-World” country, the French could easily outspend and outmuscle the Algerians who opposed them. The Algerians naturally quickly turned to guerilla tactics. It seems clear that the French thought that the battle was against the insurgents primarily, and so put their military foot forward almost exclusively.
Why did this fail? What is the primary battleground in an insurgent campaign? Is it the people, or is it an idea? If so, what role can the military play? What role does the government and people play? In our discussion, one student suggested that the only way France could have saved its position in Algeria was through lots of apologies for their poor treatment of them, and lots of financial and social programs to rectify the situation. In other words, was the problem a military one at all?
Well, it certainly might have been. But there is a difference between ‘strategy’ and ‘tactics.’ In large measure,* France’s problem was that their use of the military was their strategy. It was not used as a ‘tactic’ in a broader campaign.
How does an army battle an idea? As one student suggested last year, the only way to do defeat an idea is to have a better one. Did the French, in fact, have a better idea? If they did, how did they present it?
3. What happens when an army fights in disconnected way from its country’s values?
There is a great deal of evidence that French troops tortured and killed some prisoners as a matter of policy. This was done with the tacit approval of French politicians, but not the French people. As revelations of the torture emerged, the French public began to turn against the war, feeling betrayed by the army. The army in turn felt betrayed by the people. This tension between identity and actions needed resolution in some way — and the result was one successful military coup that put De Gaulle in as president, and another coup attempt that failed to get De Gaulle out of power a few years later.
Why are cultural and political values an important ‘weapon’ in a war? Under what circumstances can we depart from those values? How is a country’s identity a part of its strategy in conflict?
4. Related to #3, what should the role of the press be in a free society?
Next week we will discuss a few different options related to this question. Opinions differ. . .
- Some say the press should be an entirely objective entity, focused on presenting ‘just the facts.’ But, however much of an ideal this is, it is rarely, if ever attained.
- Others argue that the press should be an implicit supporter of the government, or the majority. This does not mean ignoring obvious truths, but it would mean using the press as a means to ‘rally the people.’
- Still others assert that the press should be oriented ‘against’ the government. That is, the press’ main function is to provide an alternate viewpoint apart from the government’s message. The government gets its chance, the press provides the people with ‘the other side of the story.’
This week we watched and discussed The Battle of Algiers. Our discussion and analysis of it will help form the basis of our own insurgency game coming up in a couple of weeks.
Here is the preview for the movie, which is also available (I believe) to watch in full on You Tube.
*France did attempt some small scale political reforms, but almost everyone viewed it as ‘too little, too late.’