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Torture in Iraq: Lessons from Algeria

by Shawn McHale on Jun 3, 2004

Shawn McHale

“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.


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.