war on the rocks

Torture in a Savage War of Peace: Revisiting the Battle of Algiers

December 17, 2014

Editor’s Note: Nearly 40 years ago, Alistair Horne wrote a magnificent book, A Savage War of Peace: Algeria 1954-1962. It tells the story of the French-Algerian War, which ended with the victory of the National Liberation Front (FLN) and an independent Algeria, a land that France had considered an integral part of metropolitan France itself. This book has often been revisited in the decades since its publication, most recently during the Iraq War, when – in 2007 – President George W. Bush invited Horne to speak with him at the White House.

One of the most powerful lessons from the book is on the issue of torture. Torture was used, arguably to great tactical effect, by the French during the war, particularly during the Battle of Algiers. Once the extent of the use of torture became public knowledge, however, it changed the debate about the war, in both France and the rest of the world. Given the ongoing debate about torture in America’s war against jihadists, reignited by the recent report on the CIA’s interrogation practices by the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, we could do much worse than to revisit what Horne wrote about the use and impact of torture during this savage war of peace. We are proud to re-print a portion of this book with the permission of New York Review Books. We hope that this elegant and haunting passage will illuminate America’s national debate on an issue that is inextricably linked to both America’s counterterrorism strategy and its core values. Our choice to re-print this passage is not an attempt to claim or even comment on any moral equivalence between France’s torture scandal and our own, but to draw attention to the common shape and form that these debates tend to take, within military and intelligence organizations and in society as a whole. This passage, from Chapter 9, begins with the death of Larbi Ben M’hidi, one of the nine original leaders of the FLN. – RE


The death of Ben M’hidi left, alive and at liberty, only Belkacem Krim out of the original neuf historiques of the F.L.N. Like an unsightly molehill, it also threw up the whole ugly but hitherto largely subterranean issue of the maltreatment of rebel suspects, of torture and summary executions; or what, in another context and depending upon the point of view, might perhaps be termed “war crimes”, and what in France came simply to be known as la torture. From the Battle of Algiers onwards this was to become a growing canker for France, leaving behind a poison that would linger in the French system long after the war itself had ended. The resort to torture poses moral problems that are just as germane to the world today as they were to the period under consideration. As Jean-Paul Sartre wrote in 1958, “Torture is neither civilian nor military, nor is it specifically French: it is a plague infecting our whole era.” But what is immediately of importance here is the influence, or influences, brought to bear by it upon the subsequent course of the Algerian war. And these were very potent indeed. It is one of the most difficult things in this world to establish the truth about torture; whether it did or did not take place, and the nature and scale of it. The plaintiff is as unlikely to tell the unadorned truth as his oppressor; for it is so superlative a propaganda weapon given into his hands. All the writer can do is to state what was claimed and admitted on both sides. Here one is aided by the fact that, among others, General Massu has come forward in the aftermath of the war and declared, in his forthright way: “In answer to the question: ‘Was there really torture?’ I can only reply in the affirmative, although it was never either institutionalised or codified…. I am not frightened of the word.” There was, he claimed, no other option in the circumstances then prevailing in Algiers but to apply techniques of torture.

It is essential to be clear about what one means by the word of which Massu was “not frightened”. In a conventional war, so-called “war crimes” generally fall into two distinct categories; those committed in hot blood—prisoners despatched out of hand on the battlefield, shot-down bomber crews lynched by enraged civilians after an air-raid; and those perpetrated in cold blood—the concentration camps. Similarly, in an unconventional war like Northern Ireland or Algeria, there are the brutalities, the roughing-up, the passage à tabac that may be inflicted immediately following the arrest of a suspected terrorist; and there is the prolonged and systematic application of physical or psychological pain expressly aimed at making a suspect “talk”, which constitutes torture as opposed to brutality. Though the passage à tabac has long existed as a police institution in France, to no people has torture been more abhorrent, morally and philosophically, especially following their own hideous experiences from 1940 to 1944. As an instrument of state, torture was expressly abolished by the French Revolution (which never practised it) on 8 October 1789, but even well before this French humanist writers had decided that it was both inhuman and inefficient. Article 303 of the French Penal Code (aiming specifically at highwaymen who had an unpleasant habit of “warming up the feet” of their victims) actually imposed the death penalty upon anyone practising torture. Nevertheless, in Algeria there appear to have been at least isolated incidents of torture even before 1954, as both Ben Khedda and François Mitterrand assured the author, and the fact of it seems confirmed by the forceful interventions made by French authorities on various occasions. In 1949, for instance, Governor-General Naegelen in an official circular ordered: “strong-arm techniques must be absolutely prohibited as a method of investigation. I am determined to punish with the utmost severity not only those members of the public service found guilty of using violence but also their superiors.” In 1955 Mendès-France declared categorically that all “excesses” “must stop everywhere and at once”, and Soustelle during his stewardship issued strict instructions that “every offence against human dignity…be rigorously forbidden”, and in his memoirs he insists that any proven cases of brutality or summary executions “did not rest without punishment”.

Institutionalise torture?

In March 1955, however, even more suggestive evidence came in a highly controversial proposal made in the Wuillaume Report by a senior civil servant quite unconnected with the police. Wuillaume opined that, like the legalising of a rampant black market, torture should be institutionalised because it had become so prevalent, as well as proving effective in neutralising many dangerous terrorists. From his researches, Wuillaume recommended:

The water and electricity methods, provided they are carefully used, are said to produce a shock which is more psychological than physical and therefore do not constitute excessive cruelty…. According to certain medical opinion which I was given, the water-pipe method, if used as outlined above, involves no risk to the health of the victim. This is not the case with the electrical method which does involve some danger to anyone whose heart is in any way affected…. I am inclined to think that these procedures can be accepted and that, if used in the controlled manner described to me, they are no more brutal than deprivation of food, drink, and tobacco, which has always been accepted….

It was a view that would not necessarily be shared by Algerians subjected to the gégène or having had their bellies pumped full of water during the Battle of Algiers. Noting how police morale had been affected by the “pillorying” of “such excesses as have taken place”, Wuillaume concluded: “There is only one way of restoring the confidence and drive of the police—to recognise certain procedures and to cover them with authority.”

Although Soustelle “categorically refused” to accept the Wuillaume conclusions, they may well have taken root already in Algeria. Citing a letter from a soldier written well before the Battle of Algiers, Pierre-Henri Simon recounts how the writer had been invited by gendarmes to attend the torture of two Arabs arrested the previous night:

The first of the tortures consisted of suspending the two men completely naked by their feet, their hands bound behind their backs, and plunging their heads for a long time into a bucket of water to make them talk. The second torture consisted of suspending them, their hands and feet tied behind their backs, this time with their head upwards. Underneath them was placed a trestle, and they were made to swing, by fist blows, in such a fashion that their sexual parts rubbed against the very sharp pointed bar of the trestle. The only comment made by the men, turning towards the soldiers present: “I am ashamed to find myself stark naked in front of you.”

But the fact that in the army torture was by no means institutionalised yet seems to be implicit in Servan-Schreiber’s Lieutenant en Algérie (1957), which, highly critical as it is of French army excesses, omits any specific reference to torture as such. By way of explaining the essential atmosphere in which torture could become institutionalised within the French army in Algeria, one needs to take into account all those factors touched upon in the previous chapters: horror at the atrocities of the F.L.N., a determination not to lose yet another campaign, and the generally brutalising effect of so cruel and protracted a war. Noting the growing indifference to the “enemy” as a human being, such a tough para commander as Colonel François Coulet himself admits that the army had come to regard a prisoner as “no longer an Arab peasant” but simply “a source of intelligence”.

Interrogation techniques

“Intelligence”, said Godard, “is capital.” Massu’s system of quadrillage and the rifling of the police dossiers was augmented by the work of a new body called the Dispositif de Protection Urbaine (D.P.U.). Created by order of Lacoste and placed under the control of that Indo-China expert on subversive warfare, Colonel Roger Trinquier, in its operation the D.P.U. carried with it sinister undertones that also could not help but recall French experiences under the Third Reich. It divided the city up into sectors, sub-sectors, blocks and buildings, each bearing a number or letter (even today the hieroglyphs can still be found painted on the fronts of houses in the Casbah). To each block was nominated a responsable, generally a Muslim ancien combattant considered trustworthy, and to this block-warden fell the duty of reporting all suspicious activities occurring within his territory. In the short term the D.P.U.—which Trinquier describes as forming “a flexible bond bond between the authorities and the populace”—undeniably produced results. It was through its information that Ben M’hidi had been caught, and, according to Trinquier, it meant that “no Muslim was able to enter the European quarters without being reported”. But in the long run it was to place the “loyal” Muslim block-wardens in a thoroughly invidious position, often resulting either in their assassination or in the end of their loyalty to France.

The numbers of Muslim suspects passing through the hands of the paras as a result of the D.P.U. and the other forms of intelligence collection ran into enormous figures, with Edward Behr reckoning that between thirty and forty per cent of the entire male population of the Casbah were arrested at some point or other during the course of the Battle of Algiers. The suspects were generally, as a matter of principle, arrested at night so that any colleagues they named under interrogation could be grabbed before the lifting of the curfew, and before they would have a chance of being warned and disappearing. A directive marked “Secret” and signed by Massu (dated 4 April 1957) ordered that: “The most absolute secrecy must be ensured on anything concerning the number, identity and the nature of suspects arrested. In particular, no mention of whatever kind is to be made to any representative of the Press.” This was designed as much to confuse the public as to what was going on as it was to heighten terror among the suspect’s entourage at the uncertainty of his fate. He would then be handed over to a Détachement Opérationnel de Protection (D.O.P.) which Massu describes as being “specialists in the interrogation of suspects who wanted to say nothing”, and would then either be released or passed on to a centre d’hébergement, where he might be hauled out for further and protracted interrogation.

At first his D.O.P. interrogators would attempt to trap him into admissions by displaying omniscient knowledge about the personalities and workings of his group. Often he would be confronted with a boukkaraor cagoulard, a Muslim with his head covered in a sack with eye-slits who had broken under interrogation and was now acting as an informer—a particular horror for the Algerians. Then, says Trinquier:

If the suspect makes no difficulty about giving the information required, the interrogation will be over quickly, otherwise specialists must use all means available to drag his secret out of him. Like a soldier he must then face suffering and perhaps even death which he has so far avoided.

And this is what happened. Because of the numbers of suspects involved, the D.O.P. “experts” often had to rely on outside help; “in certain cases”, admits Massu, “each of the regimental interrogation teams of the 10th Paratroop Division was obliged to have recourse to violence”. It was at this point, one might say, that torture became institutionalised in the army in Algeria.

Little electrodes….”

The most favoured method of torture was the gégène, an army signals magneto from which electrodes could be fastened to various parts of the human body—notably the penis. It was simple and left no traces. Massu states that he, as well as other members of his staff, tried it out on himself in his own office; what he failed, however, to note in his “experiment” was the cumulative effect of prolonged application of the gégène, as well as of all deprivation of the element of hope—the essential concomitant of any torture. Robert Lacoste also belittles the gégène; it was, he claims, “nothing serious. Just connecting little electrodes. And Massu’s paras were, after all,des garçons très sportifs!” But what the gégène was really like is vividly described by Henri Alleg (among many others) in his book The Question, which caused an uproar in France in 1958 when it first revealed the systematisation of torture in Algeria. Alleg, a European Jew whose family had settled in Algeria during the Second World War, was the Communist editor of the Alger Républicain and had been held under interrogation by the paras for a whole month in the summer of 1957. Of his first subjection to the gégène, with electrodes attached merely to his ear and finger, he says: “A flash of lightning exploded next to my ear and I felt my heart racing in my breast.” The second time a large magneto was used: “Instead of the sharp and rapid spasms that seemed to tear my body in two, it was now a greater pain that took possession of all my muscles and tightened them in longer spasms.” Next the electrodes were placed in his mouth: “my jaws were soldered to the electrode by the current, and it was impossible for me to unlock my teeth, no matter what effort I made. My eyes, under their spasmed lids, were crossed with images of fire, and geometric luminous patterns flashed in front of them.” He was left with an intolerable thirst, which his torturers refused to assuage.

Then there were the various forms of water torture: heads thrust repeatedly into water troughs until the victim was half-drowned; bellies and lungs filled with cold water from a hose placed in the mouth, with the nose stopped up. “I couldn’t hold on for more than a few moments,” says Alleg; “I had the impression of drowning, and a terrible agony, that of death itself, took possession of me. ‘That’s it! He’s going to talk,’ said a voice.” And there were the instances (perhaps less common than publicity made them seem at the time) of the tortures still more degrading of human dignity: bottles thrust into the vaginas of young Muslim women; high pressure hoses inserted in the rectum, sometimes causing permanent damage through internal lesions.

The torturers tortured

Almost as painful as the torture inflicted on oneself was the awareness of the suffering of others nearby: “I don’t believe that there was a single prisoner who did not, like myself, cry from hatred and humiliation on hearing the screams of the tortured for the first time,” says Alleg, and he records the horror of the elderly Muslim hoping to appease his tormentors: “Between the terrible cries which the torture forced out of him, he said, exhausted: ‘Vive la France! Vive la France!”’

But the humiliation was double-sided; as many other nations have discovered, torture ends by corrupting the torturer as much as it breaks the victim. The centre de tri where he was held had, says Alleg, become “a school of perversion for young Frenchmen”, and his view is shared by paratrooper Pierre Leulliette of the 2nd R.P.C. who was forced, unwillingly, to take part in the torturing. Initially, says Leulliette, the paras “tackled these methods, rather new to them, first with reluctance, and then whole-heartedly”. Based in an unused sweet factory, he recalls one big Alsatian sergeant who seemed particularly to relish his work: “With his fist, which could have strangled an ox, he would plunge in the heads of his clients, who were often choking with apprehension long before they touched the water…. He would have liked to interrogate Europeans; but they were rare….” Reactions among the paras varied: “Those who flaunted their vices embroidered on it at leisure, and found it all quite normal; the ‘humanists’ thought they should merely be shot. Very few seemed to realise that there might have been some innocent men among them.” Leulliette himself became deeply oppressed by what was going on round him in the sweet factory: “All day, through the floor-boards, we heard their hoarse cries, like those of animals being slowly put to death. Sometimes I think I can still hear them…. All these men disappeared….” Gradually, “I felt myself becoming contaminated. What was more serious, I felt that the horror of all these crimes, our everyday battle, was losing force daily in my mind.” Going on a month’s leave to Paris was like a deep breath of fresh air, and sufficient “to make me forget the suffering throughout poor Algeria. I felt ashamed. Ashamed of having been so happy.”

All these men disappeared….”

On seeing Alleg in person at the Palais de Justice in 1970, Massu comments drily on his “reassuring dynamism”, and questions, “Do the torments which he suffered count for much alongside the cutting off of the nose or of the lips, when it was not the penis, which had become the ritual present of the fellaghas to their recalcitrant ‘brothers’? Everyone knows that these bodily appendages don’t grow again!” But, once taken away, nor does life itself “grow again”, and Massu does not mention those who did not survive arrest during the Battle of Algiers. “All these men disappeared,” says Leulliette, and he admits later of having “to bury one of the suspects, who had died at their hands, in the quicklime at the bottom of the garden. There were others….” During the Battle of Algiers, disposal of the “inconvenient”, of those who died under torture, or who refused adamantly to talk, apparently became prevalent enough to gain the slang expression “work in the woods”. Courrière writes of bodies dropped out in the sea by helicopter, and of a mass grave between Koléa and Zéralda, some thirty kilometres from Algiers (though no such grave has apparently been uncovered subsequently by the Algerian government); Vidal-Naquet cites the killing by suffocation in March 1957 of forty-one out of 101 detainees locked up in wine-cellars in Oran; Lebjaoui lists the names of a series of men to whose families either Salan or Massu stated that they had been released, but who, Lebjaoui claims, were never seen again. The number of such “disappearances” may never be verified; the distinguished secretary-general at the Algiers prefecture, Paul Teitgen, put it at just over 3,000. Though Godard disputes it vigorously and arithmetically, this was to become the figure generally accepted by the opponents of para excesses during the Battle of Algiers.

There was, inevitably, a mass covering-up within the army. As “Major Marcus” in Servan-Schreiber’s Lieutenant en Algérie remarks: “The captains and the mayors lie to the generals and the prefects…when asaloperie is committed in my regiment by some of my men on an operation, do you think I ever hear about it? No. It’s covered up ‘between pals’.” The cases which did, however, lift the lid to public gaze were those concerning well-known, or at least identifiable, figures. There was the ill-explained death of Ben M’hidi, and later there was the detailed account of his own tortures by Henri Alleg. Meanwhile, following closely on the revelation of Ben M’hidi’s “suicide”, there came the radio announcement that on 23 March the prominent young lawyer, Ali Boumendjel, had thrown himself out of a window of a building in El-Biar tenanted by the 2nd R.C.P. “to escape interrogation to which he was going to be subjected”. Supporting the official statement, Salan claims that numerous incriminating documents were found in Boumendjel’s possession and that he had wished “to escape from justice”. Godard adds that either he “had wished to die for the cause, or was deranged in his mind”. Whether or not either explanation was satisfactory, Boumendjel’s death was to cause an uproar in France.

L’Affaire Audin

An even greater and more persistent outcry, however, was sparked off by the disappearance of Maurice Audin in June 1957. Audin was a twenty-five-year-old lecturer in the science faculty of Algiers University and a member of the same Communist cell as Henri Alleg. He was arrested by Colonel Mayer’s 1st R.C.P. on suspicion of harbouring and aiding terrorists and—according to Salan, who cites statements made by both the sergeant and the lieutenant in charge of him—managed to escape into the night while being transported in a jeep. Shots were fired after Audin, but no body was ever found, and the sergeant was sentenced to fifteen days’ arrest for his negligence. The official story was that Audin had made his way to Tunisia; but he has never been seen since. Courrière claims that he was “liquidated” by operatives of the 11th Shock in mistake for Alleg; Vidal-Naquet says categorically that “It was at Fort Emperor that Maurice Audin was secretly buried after he had been murdered.”

Bollardière and Teitgen protest

The French liberal conscience and instinct for humanity being what they are, however, soon powerful voices, both in Algeria and metropolitan France, were being raised against torture. One of the first was General Jacques de Bollardière—Grand Officer of the Legion of Honour, Companion of the Liberation, etc.—whose outstanding wartime career has already been noted in the previous chapter. Arriving in the latter part of 1956, he had been given command of a sector near Blida and had then been brought into the Battle of Algiers. Early on, when dressed in plain clothes, he had been shocked to overhear a young cavalry officer remark, “In Algiers, now, there is nothing but genuine chaps, paras, the Legion, fine big blond fellows, stalwarts not sentimentalists.”

Bollardière intervened: “Doesn’t that remind you of anything, des grands gars blonds, pas sentimentaux?”

The young officer replied, quite unashamedly: “If I had been in Germany at that moment, I too would have been a Nazi.”

Bollardière’s sense of outrage was further increased when approached by weeping Muslim women who told him that their sons or husbands had “disappeared in the night”, and finally he sought an interview with Massu, telling him that the orders he had been issued were “in absolute opposition to the respect of man, which was the foundation of my life”. After this Bollardière commented: “if the leadership yielded on the absolute principle of respect for human beings, enemy or not, it meant an unleashing of deplorable instincts which no longer knew any limits and which could always find means of justifying itself”. He then wrote to the Commander-in-Chief requesting to be posted back to France. On returning to France he gave voice to his indignation by writing, on 27 March 1957, a letter to his friend Servan-Schreiber for publication in L’Express, in which he pointed to “the terrible danger there would be for us to lose sight, under the fallacious pretext of immediate expediency, of the moral values which alone have, up until now, created the grandeur of our civilisation and of our army”. For this fundamental breach of military discipline the general was sentenced to sixty days of “fortress arrest”, the most severe punishment meted out to any senior officer during the Algerian war.

Just two days after Bollardière’s offence, Governor-General Lacoste received a letter of resignation from an even more influential figure: Paul Teitgen, his secretary-general at the Prefecture. Teitgen, a Catholic and hero of the Resistance, had been deported by the Gestapo to Dachau, where he was tortured on no less than nine occasions. In August 1956 he took up his post in Algiers, which carried with it special responsibilities foroverseeing the police and in which he found little that was congenial. In November he was confronted with an appalling moral dilemma. Fernand Yveton, the Communist, had been caught red-handed placing a bomb in the gasworks where he was employed. But a second bomb had not been discovered, and if it exploded and set off the gasometers thousands of lives might be lost. Nothing would induce Yveton to reveal its whereabouts, and Teitgen was pressed by his Chief of Police to have Yveton passé à la question.

But I refused to have him tortured. I trembled the whole afternoon. Finally the bomb did not go off. Thank God I was right. Because if you once get into the torture business, you’re lost…. Understand this, fear was the basis of it all. All our so-called civilisation is covered with a varnish. Scratch it, and underneath you find fear. The French, even the Germans, are not torturers by nature. But when you see the throats of your copains slit, then the varnish disappears.

With Lacoste’s handling over of responsibility to Massu in January, Teitgen found that his hands were tied. Thus on 29 March he wrote to Lacoste, offering his resignation on the grounds that he had failed in his duty and that “for the past three months we have been engaged…in irresponsibility which can only lead to war crimes”. He added that, in visits to two centres d’hébergement, he had “recognised on certain detainees profound traces of the cruelties and tortures that I personally suffered fourteen years ago in the Gestapo cellars”. He feared that “France risks losing her soul through equivocation”.

Lacoste begged Teitgen to remain at his post and keep his letter secret. Feeling that it would be better for him to continue as watchdog, rather than have no watchdog at all, Teitgen assented. As a consequence of the pressures of protest, he was permitted to retain powers of detention, which meant in theory that the paras could not hold suspects; secondly, in April a “Safeguard Committee of Individual Rights and Liberties” was instituted by Paris to investigate and redress excesses. Some moderation was achieved but, says Teitgen, torture was by no means stamped out, and in September he decided he could stay no longer. By this time, he claims, over three thousand Algerians had “disappeared”.

How effective was torture?

There remains the vital question, with much relevance to today: what did torture achieve in the Battle of Algiers? Putting aside any consideration of morality, was it even effective? Massu, with a courage that demands respect, claims that the end justified the means; the battle was won and a halt was brought to the F.L.N.-imposed terror and the indiscriminate killing and maiming of both European and Muslim civilians. He also notes that, when critics compared them to the Nazis, his paras practised neither extermination nor the taking of hostages. And Edward Behr, who could by no stretch of the imagination be regarded as an apostle of torture, nevertheless reckons “that without torture the F.L.N.’s terrorist network would never have been overcome.… The ‘Battle of Algiers’ could not have been won by General Massu without the use of torture.” Had the Battle of Algiers indeed been lost by the French in 1957, then the whole of Algeria would almost certainly have been swamped by the F.L.N.—leading in all probability to a peace settlement several years earlier than was otherwise the case.

This is certainly true of the short term, but in the longer term—as the Nazis in the Second World War, and as almost every other power that has ever adopted torture as an instrument of policy, have discovered—it is a double-edged weapon. In some of his last utterances even Massu’s chief lieutenant, Yves Godard, expressed doubts as to the efficacy of torture; especially when weighed against the emotional weapon it presented the enemy. In what seemed like an indirect criticism of his old commander, he added:

If I had carried a lot of brass, having first warned the enemy, I would have shot publicly any assassin caught in flagrante—I say advisedlyin flagrante—if within forty-eight hours he had not voluntarily handed over his secrets….

There is no need to torture….

From a purely intelligence point of view, experience teaches that more often than not the collating services are overwhelmed by a mountain of false information extorted from victims desperate to save themselves further agony. Also, it is bound to drive into the enemy camp the innocents who have wrongly been submitted to torture. As Camus declares: “torture has perhaps saved some at the expense of honour, by uncovering thirty bombs, but at the same time it has created fifty new terrorists who, operating in some other way and in another place, would cause the death of even more innocent people”. Torture, one feels, is never warranted; one should never fight for a good cause with evil weapons. Again, says Camus, “it is better to suffer certain injustices than to commit them…such fine deeds would inevitably lead to the demoralisation of France and the loss of Algeria”. In the long run, the facile tu quoque arguments, such as those offered by Massu on the Alleg case, can only lead to an endless escalation of horror and degradation. In answer to the standard plaint that Muslim intellectuals were rarely heard to protest against F.L.N. atrocities, Pierre-Henri Simon counters passionately: “I would reply—‘If really we are capable of a moral reflex which our adversary has not, this is the best justification for our cause, and even for our victory.’ ”

One of the worst aspects of the admission of torture as an instrument is the wide train of corruption that inevitably follows in its wake. In a submission to the “Safeguard Committee” of September 1957, Teitgen wrote words that would apply equally to any latter-day authoritarian regime, whether it be Greece, Chile, Spain or the Soviet Union:

Even a legitimate action…can nevertheless lead to improvisations and excesses. Very rapidly, if this is not remedied, efficacity becomes the sole justification. In default of a legal basis, it seeks to justify itself at any price, and, with a certain bad conscience, it demands the privilege of exceptional legitimacy. In the name of efficacity, illegality has become justified.

In a civilised society, torture has no more counter-productive and insidious long-term effect than the way that it tends to demoralise the inflicter even more than his victim. Frantz Fanon, the militant Martiniquais psychiatrist, cites several examples of acute, lingering neurosis induced among the tortured; a kind of anorexia suffered by the innocent who had been put tola question wrongfully; pins-and-needles and a lasting fear of turning on a light switch, or touching a telephone, in those who had experienced thegégène. But just as psychically impaired were numerous cases like that of the European police inspector found guilty of torturing his own wife and children, which he explained as resulting from what he had been required to do to Algerian suspects: “The thing that kills me most is the torture. You just don’t know what it’s like, do you?”

Louis Joxe, the man summoned by de Gaulle to negotiate the final peace settlement with Algeria, told the author:

I shall never forget the young officers and soldiers whom I met who were absolutely appalled by what they had to do. One should never forget the significance of this experience in considering a settlement for Algeria; for practically every French soldier went through it. This is something that the supporters of Algérie française never properly understood.

Simon declares that a policeman torturing a suspect “injures in himself the essence of humanity”, but for the military to resort to it was one degree worse because: “It is here that the honour of the nation becomes engaged.” Certainly the pernicious effect on the French army as a whole lasted many years after the war had ended, and many officers came to agree with General Bollardière in condemning Massu for ever having allowed the army to be brought into such a police action in the first place, thereby inevitably exposing it to the practice of torture. But could Massu, in fact, have refused? Outside the army, in Algeria the rifts created by torture led to a further, decisive step in eradicating any Muslim “third force” ofinterlocuteurs valables with whom a compromise peace might have been negotiated; while in France the stunning, cumulative impact it had was materially to help persuade public opinion years later that France had to wash her hands of the sale guerre. As Paul Teitgen remarked: “All right, Massu won the Battle of Algiers; but that meant losing the war.”

By the end of March 1957—the first month in many when no bombs exploded in Algiers—it certainly looked as if, at any rate in the short term, the battle had been won. Sickened by what they had been forced to do, and breathing deep sighs of relief, Bigeard and his paras left the fetid city for the open air of the bled once more.


Sir Alistair Allan Horne is a journalist and historian. He is the author of A Savage War of Peace.