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  • The Battle of the Casbah: Terrorism and Counter-Terrorism in Algeria, 1955–1957
  • Daniel Moran
Paul Aussaresses, The Battle of the Casbah: Terrorism and Counter-Terrorism in Algeria, 1955–1957, trans. by Robert L. Miller. New York: Enigma Books, 2002. 185 pp. $25.00.

In 1957, French soldiers tortured approximately 40 percent of the male population of the Muslim quarter of Algiers to try to root out the terrorist network of the Algerian National Liberation Front (known to history as the FLN). This campaign, although shadowy and shrouded in euphemism, was not, strictly speaking, secret. Systematic torture in Algeria was the subject of widespread public comment at the time—one French general was relieved of his command after condemning it in the press—and it has attracted a good deal of scholarly investigation since. Several major participants, including the commanding officer in Algiers, General Jacques Massu, have written about it, for the most part unapologetically. Their frankness has been facilitated by the blanket amnesty issued by the French government in 1968, absolving all those who served in Algeria of whatever crimes they may have committed there.

Among professional scholars, the notion that widespread torture occurred during the Algerian War is no more controversial than the notion that Japanese troops brutally occupied China in the 1930s and 1940s or that Turks massacred Armenians during and immediately after World War I. But in the same way that the "rape of Nanking" and the slaughter of Armenians are still glossed over in current-day Japan and Turkey, so public consciousness in France of this dark passage in the nation's history has been distorted by systematic obfuscation and denial on the part of the government, with the perhaps predictable result, in the French case, that whenever the officially applied bandage is torn off the wound the bleeding and weeping are profuse.

How else can one explain the extraordinary indignation that has greeted the appearance of Paul Aussaresses's memoir The Battle of the Casbah? By any reckoning it tells a familiar story, albeit from an unusual point of view. Aussaresses, an intelligence [End Page 172] officer on General Massu's staff, was personally responsible for the torture and execution of dozens of suspects, including several senior figures whose deaths have long been officially ascribed to suicide. Aussaresses's book is undoubtedly the most hands-on account of the so-called "Battle of Algiers" to have made it into mainstream print, and its effect on French opinion has been galvanic. Amid much uproar, Aussaresses, his publisher, and his editor have all been tried, convicted, and fined on charges of complicity in justifying war crimes—evidently a crime in France, even if having perpetrated them is not. Aussaresses, who retired as a general, has also been forbidden to wear his uniform and was suspended from membership in the Legion d'Honneur at the demand of President Jacques Chirac (who, like Aussaresses, served in Algeria as a captain). But Chirac's government has rejected demands from human rights organizations that Aussaresses be tried under international law for crimes against humanity, on the grounds that such a proceeding would abridge French sovereignty.

The most disconcerting feature of Aussaresses's account is undoubtedly its tone, which not only is unabashed but incorporates a fine shading of Gallic sangfroid that does get under the skin, even if you know what lies ahead. This is the story of a fit, intelligent young man doing hard but important work in interesting places, a young man who parachutes for relaxation on the weekends. The story is replete with invented dialogue and unconvincing scenes in which the hero shouts down his commanding officers, slaps and humiliates underlings, and generally behaves like a character in the novels of Jean Lartéguy. Aussaresses's most sensational factual claim—that the notorious Casbah bomber Ali-la-Pointe was betrayed to the French by the leader of the Algiers rebellion, Saadi Yacef—has (unsurprisingly) been denied by Yacef himself. Absent some sort of corroborating evidence, the issue must remain unresolved. The book's value as a source on the Algerian war is therefore limited, though it is worth the attention of those who study how...