Torture Didn't Work for the French in Algeria Either





Shawn McHale is an associate professor of history and international affairs at the Elliott School of International Affairs, George Washington University, and a writer for the History News Service.

"We all had the same reaction. We tried not to see it. We were shocked, but powerless. At first, revolted; by the end, indifferent. It has to be said, it's shameful." These are the words of a French soldier, Raymond Dumas, who witnessed torture during France's war in Algeria in the 1950s. They could, however, be the words of torturers everywhere and in every era.

The French case provides eerie parallels to today, when we are faced every day with new allegations about the use of torture in Iraq, Afghanistan and Guantanamo. A democracy like the United States, France has long affirmed support for human rights. Like the United States, it resorted to extreme forms of coercion as part of a war against what it called "terrorists."

France won key battles by torturing suspects for intelligence. But the bigger lesson is that it lost the war. The fact that French military leaders resorted to the extensive use of torture shows that they had lost the support of the populace at large. It is a lesson that seems to have been ignored by American leaders as they prosecute a war in Iraq.

The French use of torture in Algeria didn't happen overnight. It was a reaction to a deepening crisis in which the French military, originally looking for suspect Algerians, came to see all Algerians as suspects. A signatory to the Geneva Conventions on war, the French government nonetheless insisted that these conventions weren't applicable to the Algerian situation. Its rejection of Geneva protections, and the consequent acceptance of harsher methods of interrogation of prisoners, proved to be fertile breeding ground for torturers.

Since late 2001, because the attacks against al-Qaida and the Taliban in Afghanistan, the U.S. government has, like the French in Algeria, displayed a clear ambivalence toward the Geneva Conventions. At times it has professed adherence; at others, it has scoffed. Even the reasoning for rejecting these conventions is identical to earlier French arguments: like the United States today, the French military argued that countering terror required harsh methods.

In Algeria, concerned about countering a "revolutionary war," French generals increasingly seized authority from civilian leaders. They ran roughshod over legal protections for the population. The main opposition to French rule, the Algerian National Liberation Front (FLN), seized the initiative. But the FLN was not simply the virtuous revolutionary force beloved of the left; like many weak revolutionary forces (for example, the Vietnamese Viet Minh at the beginning of its war against the French), it too resorted to terror to achieve its aims.

In Iraq, frustrated with the rising use of terror attacks, the U.S. military has, understandably, pushed aggressively for more and better intelligence. In the process, it has ignored its own regulations against extreme forms of coercion. The French experience in Algeria should have driven home, however, the danger in linking intelligence and torture.

In Algeria, faced with the threat of the FLN, French officers pushed for better intelligence. At the end of 1956, they set up the Detachments Operationnels de Protection, autonomous military intelligence units whose primary function was to dismantle the FLN networks. These French units exploited the unclear lines of their own command authority to act somewhat independently of the rest of the military. This ambiguous command authority also allowed them to set up a vast network of detention camps in which torture was widely practiced.

When we look at Iraq today, many parallels to Algeria jump out at us: the ambivalence toward the Geneva conventions on war, the diminished civilian judicial authority over the conduct of war, the problem of ambiguously defined command authority and the creation of "extra legal" spaces in which clandestine use of coercion can thrive.

The French failure in Algeria also suggests some questions that must be asked about Iraq. The vast majority of American attention has been focused on one place: Abu Ghraib prison. But other detention centers exist. In Algeria, much of the torture took place in "temporary" or transitional detention camps, some of them clandestine. For suspects, the time between being rounded up as a suspect and officially documented as a prisoner was particularly dangerous. Suspects were often tortured; if they tried to escape, French soldiers were allowed to shoot to kill.

It is imperative that U.S. military clarify whether or not it engages in similar practices toward "suspects." In the short term, intelligence operatives can use torture to extract information that will save lives. But in the long term, the widespread use of torture destroys a population's acceptance of occupation. As Gen. Jacques Massu, commander of the army corps in Algiers, who played a leading role in the Algerian war, admitted in 2001, "Torture is not indispensable in time of war, we could have gotten along without it very well."

Torture helped the French army win the Battle of Algiers; it also helped the country lose the Algerian War. That defeat, and the role that torture played in it, is one that the United States should heed today as it confronts the crisis in Iraq.


This piece was distributed for non-exclusive use by the History News Service, an informal syndicate of professional historians who seek to improve the public's understanding of current events by setting these events in their historical contexts. The article may be republished as long as both the author and the History News Service are clearly credited.


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andy mahan - 9/19/2006

I understand the willingness to pre-convict our military of ignoring the Geneva Convention for political gain, but there is no commonality in the affirmative, systematic policy of torture instituted by the French in Algiers and the accusations of unconnected acts of potential torture by American military renegades. What say we let the investigations and trials run their course before we accept the perpetual condemnation of the military from a main stream media which daily demonstrates its less than objective intentions.

Additionally, the violence in Algiers as compared to American detention centers today is extraordinary. Very little violence is even suggested in the latter. If one wants to classify the occurrences of abugrahib as torture, they should recognize that much worse goes on in American prisons everyday. Not that one makes the other acceptable, but let's see the aberrations of abugrib in a comparative context. The whole abugrab thing is greatly overblown, similar acts by Greek fraternities rarely find their way into the American justice system. Abugraab wasn't the holocaust, it wasn't even Algiers.


andy mahan - 9/19/2006

Mr. McHale:

You may have misinterpreted my response to your article. It is simply that there are NO parallels to be explored. Systematic torture in any of the American camps has not been established. Has it? France on the other hand has a long history of violent abuses of human rights. Huh? But in the three American detention centers that you have cited, no systematic program to torture has been established. Has it? Sounds to me like the way the French handle their prisoners of war versus the way America handles their detainees is worlds apart.

I appreciate your supplementary claim that you have no intent to “convict” our troops. Yet you are discussing a charge…torture, as though it has been determined, it is just not factual and frankly, it’s silliness. Comparatively it is like exploring the “parallels” of the holocaust and the Iranian hostages of the 1970’s. By the way, I’m not buyin’ your claim that you do not intend to “convict” out soldiers. If not, what is the need for the word “either” in the title?

So, like I say, NO COMMONALITY! Why wouldn’t you wait until disposition of the trials etc.? Or compare the French murders and abuses to the Vietnam war or Korea? You know, some circumstance where the facts are established.

Sorry lefty, my statement about the fraternities, and the prisons is accurate, regardless that they might be offended.


andy mahan - 9/19/2006

Mr. McHale:

I don’t see the American policy of treatment of prisoners to be “sliding down a slippery slope.” It does not approach the French policy in the 1950’s of encouraging the military to “do whatever it deems necessary” in order to make prisoners talk. Far from it, no one is trying to justify torture. Further, as another poster has been saying there are unsettled questions of law to which the Geneva Convention does not explicitly apply. No one foresaw the possibility of global terrorism at the GC in 1949. We are in uncharted territory. In the past combatants could be defined as States with defined geographical boundaries, combatants were members of State’s armies, enemies were known, that is no longer so.

Generally, questioning those in power is good to ensure that rights are preserved. But we are so conscience of other’s rights in America that we undercut our own efforts. Our excessive interference is “sliding us down the slippery slope” to the obstruction of effective interrogation and unnecessarily endangering our citizens. We have a right to interrogate for our own safety. This hyper-concern for our enemy is being used as a weapon against us. The reality is that our enemy is not concerned with the Geneva Convention, e.g. Nicolas Berg, Paul Johnson. These people are not signatory to the GC. Why should they be afforded the benefits without having to comply with the Conventions? You may think this extreme, but I don’t think terrorists should have any protections under the GC at all. An entirely new framework should be explored concerning the handling of terrorists.

My reference to you as “lefty” might have been a little prejudice but the argument that you have essayed is decidedly “liberal.”


Michael Barnes Thomin - 6/26/2004

Again, read FM 34-52... beating doesn't get valid intel.


Michael Barnes Thomin - 6/26/2004

It seems to me that some are missing Mr. Mchale's point. He is merely suggesting that by viewing the entire Iraqi population as suspect and using torture on them (I read that something like 80-85% of those in Abu Gharib prison were taken from their homes at night off of unsubstantiated "tips", and whom are probably innocent- I believe this is against Geneva Conventions as well, that is, breaking into homes and taking people away without evidence) might not lead down a very promising road. Mr. Mchale uses the French occupation of Algeria, I think rather well, as an example of what can happen when you disregard international law because of the belief that you are not dealing with those who have "signed into it". I am all for using the Army interrogation manual (Field Manual 34-52) which is in accord with international law, but I fail to see how one can justify the raping of women and children by a means of torture to gather intelligence. Time and time again, especially in CIA manuals, they have found that beating prisoners of war as a means to gather information only leads to faulty intelligence. Nonetheless, I think that Mr. Mchale makes a sound argument- he was not saying the Abu Gharib prison abuse is the same as the French prisoner abuse in Algeria, but there are solid parallels and it can quickly turn into the same conclusion that it did in Algeria.


Shawn McHale - 6/22/2004

This is getting tedious. It is my last post on the subject.

No, I am not comparing the Americans to Massu. I am more interested in the *lessons* that Algeria provides. Historical analogies don't prove guilt. That is elementary. They only show avenues of comparison.

You insist on believing that I *am* comparing Americans to Massu. No, I am looking at the big picture in Algeria ---not just Algiers and Massu, but all of Algeria. In 1956, for example, Massu commanded one *division* albeit an important one.

If you had tried to claim, for example, that I was comparing the American generals to Salan, you'd be on firmer (but still shaky) ground. Military and civilian policy (and execution of policy) in Algeria simply isn't all traceable to Massu! Civilians were involved, Salan was involved, and so on. So why you insist on pushing a point which is somewhat irrelevant is beyond me.

What intrigues me are not the exceptional atrocities at Algiers. What intrigues me is how practices like torture and extreme coercion became widespread in Algeria. How they became institutionalized. Once again, Massu is not the puppeteer responsible for everything.

So -- I am not simply talking about Algiers, but about torture in all of Algeria. End of story.

Am I comparing France in Algeria and the US in Iraq? Well, I constantly make the comparison. But you have seemingly jumped to the conclusion that on the basis of Algeria, I convict Americans.

No: Algeria shows us the dangers of sliding down the slippery slope and justifying torture. The United States has started to slide down that slope. That we know, unequivocally, at a policy level, from statements by military lawyers, leaked info from the Red Cross, and from the administration. But that slide can be stopped before its full consequences are realized.

As for your question about stateless guerrillas: Frankly, this is a red herring. I assume that some of the individuals arrested in Iraq are stateless terrorists. If you want to argue that they do not deserve Geneva protections, go ahead. I disagree with you strongly, but you are entitled to your opinion. The fact is, however, that the vast majority in prison in Iraq are Iraqi nationals. And as I pointed out, Rumsfeld himself seems to believe -- at least some of the time -- that they deserve Geneva protections.

One last point: you seem to believe that torture works. At the very least, that needs to be examined, as there is research out there which says that it does not (e.g. see work of Darius Rejali).


Ben H. Severance - 6/22/2004

First, to Shawn McHale, thanks for a thought provoking piece. And thanks also for your skillful and respectful responses to your critics. Too few of HNN's authors engage their readers. I applaud your plunge into the morass.

Second, to McHale's critics, I think there has been some overreaction to the article. His comparison is perfectly valid, albeit imperfect, just as virtually all of HNN's various historical comparisons to what's going on in Iraq are imperfect, but still much needed. In reading McHale's article I did not think the author was condemning the Bush Administration as much as he was issuing a warning to the American public to watch the administration more closely on how it wages war. The Taguba Report and the so-called Torture Memo (compiled before the invasion as if in anticipation of questionable activities) strongly suggest that torture of some kind is an important part of the U.S. military's approach to counterinsurgency. And like the French in Algeria, an increased resort to torture may occur as the U.S. army continues to struggle with pacification. Having said this, we all must separate the military leadership from the civilian leadership. I have no doubt that the officer corps has mixed feelings about violating the rules of war; they want to protect their soldiers, but they want to maintain honor as well. I am convinced, however, that Rumsfeld and his undersecretaries have no qualms about torture or any other method for crushing terrorism regardless of whether the torture victims are Al-Quaeda operatives or just hapless Iraqi militia-civilians scooped up in a military dragnet.

Perhaps McHale's critics dislike comparisons to French tactics because they dislike France. But the Algerian story is an appropriate comparison. An occupation army fighting an insurgency that is a blend of Islamic jihad and genuine nationalism, where the insurgents lack the conventional firepower and military organization of the invader and so must employ irregular tactics, including terror attacks, and where the longer the conflict lasts the more brutal the measures become: security patrols become punitive raids; interrogation becomes torture; local resistance is seen as regional terrorism. Now, from a judicial standpoint, I agree that no American should go to jail over alleged violations of the Geneva Convention until a thorough investigation has taken place. But from a political standpoint, the American people need not await a full disclosure to render its judgment at the polls. I'd rather vote out Bush and company and then discover that I was wrong, than let his team stay in office and learn that I was right.

Unlike France in Algeria, the U.S. is purportedly building a democratic state in Iraq, and in my less cynical moments I consider this a laudable goal. But like France, the U.S. risks underming its values even as it works to promote them.


Bill Heuisler - 6/22/2004

Mr. McHale,
Are we reading the same text?
You wrote, "...comparing to Massu's Paras?" Well. . . I didn't make such a comparison, did I?

Yes you did. Your whole article was the comparison between the French in Algeria and the US in Iraq and elsewhere. In case you've forgotten, I'll quote you.

"...the U.S. government has, like the French in Algeria, displayed a clear ambivalence toward the Geneva Conventions."
"...the reasoning for rejecting these conventions is identical to earlier French arguments: like the United States today, the French military argued that countering terror required harsh methods."
"In Iraq...the U.S. military has...ignored its own regulations against extreme forms of coercion. The French experience in Algeria should have driven home, however, the danger in linking intelligence and torture."
"This (French) ambiguous command authority also allowed them to set up a vast network of detention camps in which torture was widely practiced."
"When we look at Iraq today, many parallels to Algeria jump out at us: the ambivalence toward the Geneva conventions on war...the creation of 'extra legal' spaces in which clandestine use of coercion can thrive."
"The French failure in Algeria also suggests some questions that must be asked about Iraq...."

So you compared the French and the US throughout. Or do you not recognize Massu? Reading the Geneva Conventions will acquaint you with the fact that being "nationals of particular countries" does not necessarily give fighters protected status.

"willfully misrepresents"
"Manifestly untrue"
I quoted from the Geneva Conventions. I quoted you.
So stop whining about being misrepresented. Please answer questions about how stateless guerillas in terrorist organizations should expect protection from the Geneva Convention.

Please illustrate with facts where Abu Ghreib inmates were "tortured" as defined under International Law.

Or don't bother debating your article at all.
Bill Heuisler


Shawn McHale - 6/21/2004

Andy,

I agree 100% that one should not convict the American military of a systematic policy of torture. In fact, I couldn't agree more. It is to early to know. Frankly, if it can be shown that the US did *not* have a systematic policy of torture, I couldn't be happier.

But the thrust of my op-ed was not to convict. It was to warn of the consequences of not heeding an important lesson of the past. Basically, I see the United States sliding down a slippery slope where, increasingly, it tries to justify torture. The proof, of course, is in the memos.

Your last sentence -- where you use the word "lefty" to describe me -- gets, however, at one of the problems in this discussion. People slot others in left, right, neoconservative etc. slots, and project onto them leftist, rightist etc arguments. You have assumed that I must, like many on the left, want to convict the US military of all sorts of sins.

The truth is more complex. I'm on the left on some issues, but not on others.

I suspect, in the end, that the reputations of civilians in the Pentagon and intelligence agencies will be tarnished more than the reputations of the US military. In any event, I simply believe that for many military officers, the attempt to muddy distinctions between acceptable and unacceptable forms of coercion is troubling, for the simple reason that American military officers believe in Geneva protections for prisoners of war for *themselves*.


John Stephen Kipper - 6/21/2004

I apologize for the double posting.


John Stephen Kipper - 6/21/2004

I don't especially like national character generalizations either :). Perhaps I should have written that it underscores the cynicism of the French government/legal/military system of the early 1960's. I accept your statement that the French government initiated an early investigation into the practices of French troops in Algeria. However, the fact that these investigations led to no prosecution and no punishment of the perpetrators, when they were obviously, overtly and occasionally self-admittedly guilty strikes me as eminently cynical. Does the name Dreyfuss ring a bell? How about d’Enghiem? What happened to their accusers? Nothing. I am certain that French anger over the humiliation of 1940 and the loss of Indochina must have galled (no pun left unspoken) French military circles’ conceptions of the "grand nation”" and their perceptions of glory. However, that does negate the fact the official reaction was cynical in the extreme.

It is you who are arguing equivalence here, at least by implication. I merely argue that the systematic torture in Algeria by the French Army, left unpunished by either the Fourth or Fifth Republics, is different in both kind and degree from the abuses at Abu Ghraib. After all, the American military is, indeed, charging the soldiers involved with crimes, and has, indeed, punished several individuals already. Surely, you must admit that this is a significant difference from the official French reaction.

Further, I must add that the French had much to lose in Algeria: they could lose their colony. It seems to me that the loss of 3,000 Americans in a direct attack against civilians is at least as great a threat.

Finally, the question will arise: “How far up the chain of command did the authorization of abuse rise?” We do not know yet. But, given the current American political situation, the scrutiny of the press and several NGOs, the truth of that will soon come out. And, I would predict that the guilty will be exposed; non-cynically and without national character generalizations. We shall see.


John Stephen Kipper - 6/21/2004

I don't especially like national character generalizations either :). Perhaps I should have written that it underscores the cynicism of the French government/legal/military system of the early 1960's. I accept your statement that the French government initiated an early investigation into the practices of French troops in Algeria. However, the fact that these investigations led to no prosecution and no punishment of the perpetrators, when they were obviously, overtly and occasionally self-admittedly guilty strikes me as eminently cynical. Does the name Dreyfuss ring a bell? How about d’Enghiem? What happened to their accusers? Nothing. I am certain that French anger over the humiliation of 1940 and the loss of Indochina must have galled (no pun left unspoken) French military circles’ conceptions of the "grand nation”" and their perceptions of glory. However, that does negate the fact the official reaction was cynical in the extreme.

It is you who are arguing equivalence here, at least by implication. I merely argue that the systematic torture in Algeria by the French Army, left unpunished by either the Fourth or Fifth Republics, is different in both kind and degree from the abuses at Abu Ghraib. After all, the American military is, indeed, charging the soldiers involved with crimes, and has, indeed, punished several individuals already. Surely, you must admit that this is a significant difference from the official French reaction.

Further, I must add that the French had much to lose in Algeria: they could lose their colony. It seems to me that the loss of 3,000 Americans in a direct attack against civilians is at least as great a threat.

Finally, the question will arise: “How far up the chain of command did the authorization of abuse rise?” We do not know yet. But, given the current American political situation, the scrutiny of the press and several NGOs, the truth of that will soon come out. And, I would predict that the guilty will be exposed; non-cynically and without national character generalizations. We shall see.


Shawn McHale - 6/21/2004

There you go again.

You ask "If it's not torture, then what's the point of comparing to Massu's Paras?" Well. . . I didn't make such a comparison, did I? Accusing writers of sins they did not commit is in bad taste. I *quoted* the man in a different context, though.

Since you bring it up, of course some of the prisoners in Guantanamo are nationals of particular countries. It is absurd to pretend that they aren't. That is the reason why the UK, Australia, Pakistan, France, and other countries have, quietly and not so quietly, pushed to have some of the detainees released to them. But of course, that point has nothing to do with my essay.

The idea that Geneva protections on the treatment of prisoners do not apply to Iraq is news to me. And, from his press statements, it is news to a certain Donald Rumsfeld as well.

As to whether or not I have or do not have datum [sic] on prisoners in Guantanamo: I trust you do not claim to be a mind reader.

I'm not sure it is worth debating with someone who willfully misrepresents what I write, and who makes statements about the Geneva conventions which are manifestly untrue.


Bill Heuisler - 6/21/2004

Mr. McHale,
If it's not torture, then what's the point of comparing to Massu's Paras? Polemic needs to shock, is that it?
Abu Ghraib? Your premise extends far beyond Iraq and seems to co-implicate the US with mid-fifties French in mistreatement (torture?) of prisoners after the 9/11 atrocity. But in just your second paragraph you listed Afghanistan and Guantanamo. Are you saying the prisoners in Cuba are nationals? Of what country?

Anticipating your answer, how can you cite Geneva when you have no datum on the prisoners in either place - and when Geneva doesn't apply to them in any case?
Bill Heuisler


Shawn McHale - 6/21/2004

No, I don't think it underscores French cynicism. I think it underscores that the French had so much to lose in Algeria that some of them were willing to risk all --and in the process, lost sight of values that the most of them believed in. It also underscores deep frustration with the loss of Indochina -- determined not to let Algeria go the way of that colony, they overstepped the bounds of human decency.

I don't particularly like generalizations about national character, as you can tell :)


John Stephen Kipper - 6/21/2004

OK, I'll accept your point that the French did start an early investigation. However, the fact that they did not move forward to trial and punishment, while the American Army did so quite quickly, still emphasises the differences between the two counties' approaches to torture. As a matter of fact, it underscores French cynicism.


Shawn McHale - 6/21/2004

On the second comment: no, the French were investigating long before a firestorm broke in France about torture. They just didn't do anything with their investigations.

As for the first comment: the vast majority of my essay is on Algeria, NOT Algiers. Not, Abu Ghraib is not the Holocaust, but that is a frankly ridiculous comparison. And why even bother responding to an allegation that what happened at AbuGhraib is like what happens in a Greek fraternity? I'm not sure you make fraternity brothers happy with such a comment.

The larger issue, however, is that my essay is not intended to *convict*, as you seem to believe, but to look at parallels that need to be explored.


Shawn McHale - 6/21/2004

The title is not mine. I think it is inaccurate.

Second, you seem to have read the piece hastily.

Third, your definition of acceptable behavior (e.g. humiliation) contradicts what the Geneva conventions states is acceptable and unaccceptable.

Fourth, what does it mean to say "we are at war with stateless criminals"? Surely you don't mean to imply that all of the prisoners *released* from Abu Ghairb prison are stateless and criminal, do you? you seem to believe that all of the imprisoned there were from outside Iraq, which flies in the face of reality.


Bill Heuisler - 6/20/2004

Mr. McHale,
Your assumptions are either incorrect or imperfectly portrayed. Your title overstates the case in Abu Ghreib and elsewhere. Torture is defined under International Law and the UCMJ; the term's harsh implication does not apply in nearly all the infamous pictures nor in any of the proven allegations of prisoner abuse.

Secondly, as to the Geneva Convention and applicability, you should know there are perfectly good reasons why the prisoners in question do not apply. The Geneva Convention defines applicable "prisoners of war" as (in part):

A. Prisoners of war, in the sense of the present Convention, are persons belonging to one of the following categories, who have fallen into the power of the enemy:
1. Members of the armed forces of a Party to the conflict as well as members of militias or volunteer corps forming part of such armed forces.
2. Members of other militias and members of other volunteer corps, including those of organized resistance movements, belonging to a Party to the conflict and operating in or outside their own territory, even if this territory is occupied, provided that such militias or volunteer corps, including such organized resistance movements, fulfil the following conditions:
(a) That of being commanded by a person responsible for his subordinates;
(b) That of having a fixed distinctive sign recognizable at a distance - (Uniforms or other outwardly distinguishable symbols)
(c) That of carrying arms openly.
(d) That of conducting their operations in accordance with the laws and customs of war.

Mr. McHale, unlike the French in Algeria we are at war with stateless criminals - not nationalist guerillas. If terrorists don't obey Geneva, why should we endanger our troops and mission so we can conform to a Convention that certainly doesn't apply to them? And since when are stripping, hooding and humiliation considered "torture"?
Bill Heuisler


John Stephen Kipper - 6/20/2004

To me the most striking difference is the fact that the American military was investigating the incidents long before the press, motivated by the pictures, decided to elaborate on a story that had been out for months before. It seems to me that American investigation, trial and punishment of the perpretators differs sharply from the French.

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