‘A War to the Death’: The Ugly Underside of an Iconic Insurgency

April 19, 2019

Remy Mauduit, The Insurgent Among Us: My Life as a Rebel, French Officer and Desertor (Independently published, 2018).

 

History and time can obscure both the brutality and the complexity of revolutionary warfare. Historians craft digestible narratives focused on pivotal actors and actions. Those mining history for lessons about both insurgency and counter-insurgency tend to gravitate toward key strategic issues, such as the external support received by combatants on either side, fluctuating popular support for the counter-insurgency, and the strategic choices and tactics of both the rebels and the government. The messy details of brutal communal conflicts, however, often fall to the cutting room floor. Compounding the problem, accounts that come from victorious rebels normally portray their struggles in glowing terms — as noble and heroic. Massacres of civilians and rivals, internal purges, and fratricide are edited out of the retelling or glossed over.

The Algerian War of Independence, fought from 1954 to 1962, is one such conflict that is often over-simplified. It is frequently laid out in binary terms as a contest between the Algerian National Liberation Front (FLN), which was fighting for Algerian independence, and France, its colonial ruler. France, so the story is often told, won militarily but undermined its own political legitimacy by employing brutal tactics — especially torture during the Battle of Algiers. The FLN, on the other hand, prevailed through deft use of terrorism, which provoked French excess and aggressively pushed the conflict onto the world stage. In this telling, the FLN was a monolithic and popularly-backed movement — a portrayal hardened by the iconic film, The Battle of Algiers. FLN leaders, who continue to rule Algeria, carefully maintain that heroic image.

The reality, however, was decidedly different. Far from monolithic or noble, the FLN was a cauldron of leader ambitions and jealousies that precipitated brutal violence. In addition, FLN rebels ruthlessly targeted the group’s rivals and lethally enforced their control over the populace. In a series of purges, the FLN tortured and executed thousands of its own fighters and supporters.

The French side was similarly complicated. A rapid succession of French governments not only fought the FLN guerrillas, but also dealt at various points with mutinous generals, an uprising by French-Algerian settlers, and a violent challenge from the Secret Army Organization (OAS), a shadowy group that became known for indiscriminate terrorism.

An Insider’s Perspective of the Algerian War: Factionalism and Slaughter

A remarkable memoir by former FLN fighter Remy Mauduit, recently published in English, helps shatter the myths of the conflict. Mauduit paints a nuanced and sometimes unsettling portrait of the iconic FLN insurgency: in some areas enlightened and democratic, but also fractious and murderous, abandoning — in Mauduit’s estimation — the principles upon which the movement was founded. He also sheds light on the chaotic endgame that gave rise to the OAS.

If published as fiction, Mauduit could be criticized for stretching the boundaries of credibility. Joining the FLN in 1955 as a 15-year-old, he rose from a courier to become an intelligence officer and regional leader. In 1960, he was detained, tortured, and marked for execution by fellow rebels who suspected that he was a French agent — a suspicion planted by French intelligence officers. Narrowly escaping his captors, Mauduit surrendered to a nearby French unit and then voluntarily assisted the French in targeting his FLN tormentors. Accepting an opportunity to join the French Army, Mauduit was made a lieutenant and helped lead a regimental commando unit, continuing to launch attacks against his former comrades-turned-torturers. Always motivated by a vision of an independent, moderate Algeria that embraced all ethnicities, he became deeply dismayed by French President Charles De Gaulle’s decision to abandon the war and negotiate with the FLN, essentially ceding victory to the undemocratic and venal group. In frustration, he joined the OAS, intending to start an insurgency against the French and then the FLN. However, the ineptness of OAS leaders doomed his ambitions — he was quickly captured and imprisoned by the French for more than two and a half years until he was pardoned.

Mauduit claims that he wrote his memoir to convey the power and drama of insurgency. In this, he succeeds, but in the process he also exposes the factionalism and wholesale slaughter that plagued the FLN. Mauduit was aware of, witnessed, participated in, or was a victim of at least five campaigns of FLN violence that focused on targets other than the French. Some he condemned; others he condoned or even participated in.

Mauduit notes that the FLN’s 1956 Soummam Conference — which set the group’s organization, strategy, and political doctrine inside Algeria — strongly condemned FLN reprisals and massacres targeting the population. Mauduit decries this behavior as “a kind of contagion.” Yet, the “FLN’s indiscriminate attacks multiplied, bloodying Algeria” and sparking counterattacks from pied noir extremists.

The FLN did not hesitate to ruthlessly eliminate its Algerian opponents, whether they fought with or against the French. Mauduit labels the FLN’s fight with the Messalists — a separatist party that had refused to join the FLN — as a “civil war” that “did not stop until the Messalists were exterminated or forced to rally to the French.” Mauduit claims that 10,000 were killed and another 25,000 wounded in the conflict, which raged in both Algeria and France. Mauduit also describes the FLN’s destruction of a communist separatist effort, whose activities the FLN found to be “troublesome.” “We wanted to destroy this tiny inconvenience,” according to Mauduit. The “Red Resistance” was ultimately eliminated when a local inhabitant, encouraged by the FLN, reported the group’s location to the French.

Mauduit also claims to have taken part in targeting an Algerian self-defense group whose leaders, purporting to be nationalists, had duped genuine nationalists into working on the French side. Sparing the group’s rank-and-file, the FLN dispatched the leaders “with a bullet to the head close to a charnel-house where they were piled on top of each other…” In another episode, Mauduit narrowly escaped being sucked into a conflict between Arabs and Berber natives of the Kabilya region of Algeria that erupted in the FLN’s Sahara wilaya (guerrilla zone). In an effort to consolidate his personal control over the region, a local FLN commander was attempting to exterminate the Kabyles, as well as numerous FLN cadre and fighters who he viewed as a threat. Mauduit, learning of the scope of the atrocities this particular commander was overseeing, escaped, dramatically fleeing on horseback across the Sahara to report the fratricide to his superiors.

The most vivid section of Mauduit’s book deals with his arrest and torture at the hands of his fellow insurgents. Mauduit was one of thousands of FLN members who were suspected of treason because of their French education. French intelligence sparked and stoked the purge by skillfully leveraging the paranoia among certain FLN leaders and the group’s proclivity to use torture and execution to enforce discipline. Thousands were killed. “One of the great human butcheries of the Algerian War,” according to Mauduit.

Mauduit was one of the very few to avoid execution — he knows of no others — and his description of his weeks of torture makes for grim reading. Yet, his narration offers important insights into what insurgents often do to their own. Mauduit’s is the only FLN fighter account of the FLN purge, as far as I have been able to ascertain, making the book a worthy addition to the thin literature on the anatomy of insurgent purges (see, for example, this account from the Philippines).

Mauduit survived torture without succumbing to the temptation to make a false confession, as so many of his fellow fighters did. As a result, he became a life-long opponent of torture, a practice he came to view as not just immoral but counter-productive.

The Evolution of an Insurgency

Beyond the internal violence that punctuated his time in the FLN, Mauduit’s account of the evolution of the group as an insurgency is worthy of study for those interested either in the FLN specifically or in insurgencies more generally. Mauduit was uniquely positioned to understand this evolution, joining shortly after the FLN’s insurgency was launched. His roles in the insurgency, first as a courier and then as a rising leader, put him into contact with many of the group’s founders and leading lights. Many of Mauduit’s observations often contradict the established FLN narrative; for example, his claim that the FLN made a strategic mistake by engaging in the 1957 Battle of Algiers. He acknowledges the deep damage done to France’s reputation stemming from its army’s abuses in Algiers. However, he claims that without the FLN’s terrorist attacks and the subsequent urban battle that ensued, Algiers could have served as the revolution’s political, intellectual, propaganda, and financial center. Instead, according to Mauduit, Algiers “became a forbidden zone for the FLN… and it stayed that way until independence.”

Mauduit writes about the FLN’s realization early on that the population would not reflexively support the insurgency. This forced the movement to change its strategy to focus on mobilizing the Algerian people, politicizing them, and then turning them into a weapon against the French. The FLN’s methods were essentially coercive. As the FLN proselytized the population, it deployed sticks alongside carrots: The rebels “forgave past errors but slit the throats of recidivists like sheep.” Mauduit also admits that the FLN launched attacks intended to provoke French and European settlers to counter-attack native Algerians as a ploy to rally the people to the insurgency’s side. He is frank in his appraisal of the FLN’s methods: “Today I ask myself if the people had really chosen to make war despite the perversion of the colonial system. The population is driven into all of these conflicts; does anyone ask their opinion? They are forced to fight, which was the case in Algeria.”

The author’s appraisal of the FLN’s methods is no doubt colored by the venal turn of the insurgency that ended — in his view — in tyranny: “the memories recounted in this book trace the stages that corrupted a people’s revolution against a colonial system.” From his insider’s perspective, Mauduit describes the resentment that built up as the FLN leaders living in relative comfort in Tunisia and Morocco essentially abandoned the guerrillas, failing to supply them. Mauduit makes it clear that this abandonment was at least, in part, owed to those leaders’ opposition to the Soummam conference that placed the guerrilla leaders inside Algeria above those living outside the country. He describes the process as a coup de état that hijacked the FLN: “[The leaders outside of Algeria] began a war without mercy against … the ‘chartists,’ the followers of the Soummam Platform.”

Mauduit describes internal struggles for leadership as the real weakness of any insurgency. Yet, he makes no specific recommendations for how counter-insurgency efforts can best exploit that weakness. He does, however, critique the French counter-insurgency, noting France was slow to appreciate the challenge that the FLN represented and relied too much at first on counter-productive sweeps and pursuits. He also argues that France’s repression of the Algerian population, including collective punishment, “became our best recruiting agents and we intensely exploited each act of repression.”

The narrative is rich with insights and is apparently augmented by some subsequent research, which reveals one of the books weaknesses. Although Mauduit provides numerous footnotes to explain developments and terms to readers unfamiliar with the conflict, he does not reveal how he knows certain details about events to which he was not a witness. Readers are left to ponder where Mauduit’s insights come from and whether his they are affected by the bias of an unnamed source.

Mauduit describes The Insurgent Among Us as an “account of an average man thrown into an extraordinary situation.” The tale, however, refutes Mauduit’s modesty. The Algerian Revolution was indeed extraordinary, and the detail, literacy, and unique perspective with which Mauduit relates it will help a range of readers to understand the nuances — often bloody — of this iconic conflict.

 

Lincoln Krause is a retired intelligence officer who served in the U.S. Army, the Defense Intelligence Agency, and the Central Intelligence Agency. He is currently an adjunct professor of political science at High Point University. He previously taught in the Security Studies Program of Georgetown University’s Walsh School of Foreign Service.

Image: Wikimedia Commons