- The French Army and its African Soldiers: The Years of Decolonization by Ruth Ginio
Ruth Ginio's The French Army and its African Soldiers: The Years of Decolonization explores the complicated position of African soldiers in France's military in the middle of the twentieth century. Until now, there has been no single work in the field of French or African history that focused exclusively on the role of African soldiers in the French army during these years of decolonization. Scholars such as Gregory Mann have helped us understand the role of African soldiers and veterans in the twentieth-century French military. Yet the question remained: what specifically came after World War II for these servicemen?
Ginio's book answers this question, providing a much-needed assessment of the role of African soldiers in the decolonization process. She not only considers the part that African soldiers played in Afrique Occidentale Française (AOF), but she also looks at their service in the French army during two of the most harrowing wars of decolonization: Indochina and Algeria. In addition, she situates the French army as "a political agent of AOF" (xxi). As such, the army was often in conflict with civilian, French, and African authorities. While reflecting on the military's position, Ginio refrains from presenting African soldiers solely as "unsung heroes" of the French army" (xx). Their lives and their military service were complicated by multiple factors, from their family's social status to the racism they endured both in and beyond the army. One of Ginio's key findings overall is that "the African soldiers represented for the French military authorities a space in which French colonialism could still hope for support if they only managed to protect it from external hostile influences" (140). Through this story, Ginio explores how authorities hoped to retain the colonies in AOF even as the French empire faced serious and violent challenges from many corners of the empire.
In Chapter 1, Ginio illustrates how colonial soldiers from Sub-Saharan Africa became critical figures in the French imperial army. She highlights the service of African soldiers in World War I and World War II. Ginio sets up the role that colonial soldiers played across these global conflicts and establishes their critical contributions to the decolonization process that followed.
Chapter 2 expands further on the impact of World War II. She argues that this conflict "naturally affected the relations between the French army and its [End Page 990] African soldiers" (13). Their experiences—from time spent as prisoners of war to relations with French women to perceptions that French soldiers received better benefits—reshaped how African soldiers understood colonialism itself. Resentment over the demobilization process, which was chaotic, became a critical issue for understanding the war's impact on colonial soldiers. The aftermath of the war shaped later policies toward and relationships with African soldiers and veterans.
Chapter 3 covers a series of reforms initiated by the military to address the concerns of African soldiers returning to home after the war. The idea was to transform the colonial army while also improving relations with the soldiers who served in it. Ginio makes the argument that these reforms reflected a broader vision for AOF itself and the future of France's colonies, reflecting a "new form of colonial rule" (36). Because authorities viewed the political engagement of veterans as a threat, one goal was to gain the support of soldiers and veterans alike while thwarting attempts to challenge French control. Several of the initiatives—including that of equal pay—challenged longstanding colonial practices, thereby undermining colonialism itself.
Chapter 4 argues that the military hoped that the combination of reforms and professionalization would enable the army to confront new forms of warfare, which it did. An early test emerged with the revolt in Madagascar just after the end of World War II, where the military deployed African soldiers in repressing the uprising. Ginio then turns to Indochina. This was "the first large-scale anticolonial war in which...