- The French Army and Its African Soldiers: The Years of Decolonization by Ruth Ginio
Ginio's The French Army and Its African Soldiers is an indispensable addition to the literature about decolonization in an area of the world critical to that process. As she notes, West Africa between the years 1945 and 1960 has attracted comparatively little attention, since, unlike in other areas of the world, independence there was not associated with war or even violence. That does not mean, however, that the army and military matters were unimportant. As this book demonstrates, the French army played a critical role in shaping the structure of colonialism, the process of dissolving colonial control, and the nature of postcolonial states in the region. It did so through policies directed at the thousands of Africans who served in the French ranks during World War II or in garrisons [End Page 506] throughout the region, as well as through attempts to prop up French colonial rule through wars in Indochina and Algeria.
Military leaders undertook reforms that were truly revolutionary in the colonial context, such as instituting the principle of equal pay for equal work, raising the pensions of African veterans to the same level as their metropolitan French counterparts, and actively interfering in matters properly the purview of civilian officials as independence loomed. Once independence became inevitable, the army took steps to shape the militaries of new African nations in ways that would continue to serve French interests. Moreover, soldiers who had served the French in uniform remained important there too, as officers and even as leaders of a dozen coups d'état in various countries during the first two decades following independence.
Readers of this journal will be especially interested in Ginio's methodology. Though largely a conventional archival history (relying on extensive work in documentary repositories in Africa and France), it also makes creative and effective use of oral interviews and personal testimony. The deep archival work alone would make the book an essential resource for students of the period and region, but the inclusion of the voices of African soldiers weaves a richer fabric and allows for greater insight. For example, Ginio's reports of individual soldiers' personal histories and of testimonies from veterans of wars in Indochina and Algeria elucidate the complex motivations, allegiances, and emotions at play as colonial subjects from one region fought to prevent the emancipation of colonial subjects from another. Thus, she highlights not only the "problematic assumptions" of observers who assume that this situation presented a "moral" quandary for the soldiers but also the ways in which the soldiers' own views about this issue changed over time—as they moved from soldiers to veterans and from colonial subjects to citizens of independent nations (136).
The book is also interdisciplinary in its treatment of psychological warfare. As Ginio notes, this aspect of modern war developed along with, and out of, the development of the modern discipline of psychology. She provides in this study an informed and detailed examination of how the French army deployed this strategy both during the Algerian War to combat enemy propaganda among African troops and in West Africa as the army worked to position itself and the French Empire, rather than independence, as the best guarantor of equality and modernity for Africans.
In the end, The French Army and Its African Soldiers illuminates the dynamics of colonialism and decolonization in new ways, by paying close attention to the role of the army and to the experiences of the African soldiers who served in it. By taking soldiers' perspectives seriously, Ginio moves beyond anachronism and stereotype to tell a story that is as complex and varied as were the events themselves. [End Page 507]