Understanding Insurgency and State Response
Does Historical Context Matter?
Author: Joey Wang
Joey Wang is an Engineer with the United States Missile Defense Agency
Published in: The RUSI Journal, Volume
153, Issue 1 February 2008 , pages 56 - 61
Conquered in 1837, Algeria spent the next 125 years under French rule until it
was granted its independence in July of 1962. Until that time, the relationship
had largely been one of conflict, interspersed with periods of tenuous peace.
The conflicts over this time, however, were driven as much by factors outside
of this relationship as developments within it. By the end of the Fourth
Republic, the series of humiliations suffered by France would virtually become
the cornerstone of French Algerian policy, upon which the brutal cycles of
violence would be based.
Historical Context of the Two World Wars and the Fourth Republic
While nationalist sentiment certainly existed in the nineteenth century, the
spark that ultimately ignited the Algerian independence movement occurred in
the city of Sétif on 8 May 1945. On that day, an independence movement
triggered a French response that included naval gun fire and aerial
bombardments resulting in thousands of Muslim casualties. That same day is
remembered for a much greater event: VE Day, the day of Nazi capitulation.1
Nonetheless, Sétif would eventually be as deeply etched into the French social
and political psyche as Vichy France, and would be the catalyst for a cycle of
violence that continues to haunt France to this day. Indeed, France's role
during the Second World War would provide a significant historical context for
the manner in which France prosecuted the war in Algeria.
The French Army emerged from the ashes of the Second World War as an acutely
traumatised institution. Inventor of the 'democratic army' and the levée en
masse, it had basked in the glory of the Marne and Verdun under Pétain,
Weygand, and Gamelin.2This glory, however, would prove to be more bane than
boon when the next war began. For France, the eventual allied victory rang
hollow, given the humiliation of June 1940, and that France's actual
contribution to allied victory had not been commensurate with its
size.3Historically depoliticised, 'Moi, je suis militaire; je ne fais pas de
politique' was the hallmark of the military.4Throughout the 1930s and 40s
however, the military became increasingly politicised. With the political
upheavals of the Fourth Republic, Ministers of National Defence were constantly
changing. This resulted in a great deal of institutional warfare between
high-ranking officers as each sought to 'hitch his horse to the right wagon,
his career to the right minister'.5Since the politicians of the Fourth Republic
held more sway than ever before on promotions and commissions, this power was
used to ensure that the military hierarchies reflected the politics of the
tripartisme. Consequently, the politicians wasted no time in using the generals
as pawns in their ministerial games.
The politicisation of the military created a 'number of dichotomies old versus
new, socially liberal versus socially retrograde, metropolitan versus colonial,
total war versus guerrilla war strategists, nationalist versus Europeans,
Gaullists versus anti-Gaullists, and so on.'6
The war in Indochina would have a profound impact on the psyche of the army.
Arriving relatively soon after the humiliation of 1940, Vichy, and the 'immense
national psychological difficulties facing de Gaulle and his army leaders at
the end of the war', France had been a nation deeply divided between the
Gaullists and Pétainists. But over the course of the next seven years, this new
conflict would serve to unify the army and create a new esprit de corps.7
For France, there was no question that it would emerge victorious in Indochina.
After Dien Bien Phu, however, theories were rife as to how a socially,
economically and technologically superior society could have been so humiliated
at the hands of such a socially, economically and technologically backward
society. This arrogance was, in fact, the very cause of a series of
miscalculations by the army, and which played directly into Giap's hands, the
result of which was a fifty-six day barrage and 13,000 dead defenders. This was
a defeat that shook the army to its core.8Yet, many in the army believed that
they were betrayed by 'Communists, leftists, [the Prime Minister]
Mendès-France, and an opposition press.'9
Dien Bien Phu, and indeed Indochina, would lead the army to view the
politicians of the Fourth Republic with utter contempt, and 'forced them to
draw some bitter conclusions.' First and foremost was that, having 'pledged
itself to protect the loyal, pro-French Vietnamese minorities', and then
leaving them to suffer their fate, demonstrated the politicians' promises to be
hollow. Second, was that this conflict was not strictly about military control
of territory. Rather, it was a war for people's hearts and minds; a political
conflict, and one which the Communists were far better prepared to fight than
the French, for they understood that in political conflicts, military
engagements were only a component of a larger engagement. Third, was the belief
that the United States was beginning to supplant the French empire. With the
independence of Tunisia and Morocco, these conclusions were codified; 'the
French flag was being hauled down', and 'the French empire was rapidly and
La guerre révolutionnaire
The French Army, in re-examining and remaking itself in light of this recent
series of humiliations, concluded what the Communists had known all along: the
use of la guerre révolutionnaire was a war not only for the conquest of enemy
armies and territory, but of ideology, of subversion, and for the hearts and
minds of the population. Given the failures of Indochina, la guerre
révolutionnaire was the new catechism, and Algeria would be the new crucible in
which these principles would be tested.11
De Gaulle was able to tersely sum up the fact that 'Algeria is costing us .more
than she is worth to us'
To an army that was already suffering from an inferiority complex, the fact
that it could be decisively defeated at the hands of ' Asiatics traditionally
considered inept and even unfit to bear arms' was deeply disturbing and
required a great deal of introspection and soul searching. 'The Indochina war
was studied, dissected and analysed, and the lessons applied to Algeria.'12
This analysis led to a number of different views. One, provided by General
Navarre, was that 'The true reasons for the defeat in Indochina are political
ones.' Clearly, for the French army, the legacy of the grande muette (mute) was
beginning to sound like the grande bavarde (gossip). With frustrations
mounting, the army began to lose its traditional inhibitions and began speaking
out on issues of doctrine, politics, and a scandalised regime.13
One of the leading strategic thinkers of the time, General Lionel Max Chassin,
suggested in the journal Revue Militaire d'Information in 1954 that:
It is time for the Army to cease being the grande muette. The time has come for
the free world, unless it wishes to die a violent death, to apply certain of
its adversary's methods. And one of these methods - probably the most important
- resides in the ideological role, which, behind the Iron Curtain, has been
assigned to the Military forces.
Later, he expanded on these ideas:
What can the Western nations do to avoid the accomplishment of Mao's plan for
world conquest? We must oppose a struggle based on subversion with the same
weapons, oppose faith with faith, propaganda with propaganda, and an insidious
and powerful ideology with a superior one capable of winning the hearts of
The central theme was that revolutionary warfare was not the occupation of
territory. Rather, it was gaining the support of the population such that even
when defeated in battle, soldiers can be recruited immediately and the conflict
can be sustained indefinitely. If this is accomplished, 'orthodox military
tactics' cannot defeat the revolution.15
Operationally, this meant the army was soon dispatched to the task of
'pacification'. In addition to military operations, they also built roads,
schools, organised new communes, and looked after the sick.16The problem with
this policy was that it was carried out in a somewhat haphazard manner, and the
indigenous population never knew what to expect from the French. It could be
schools and roads on one day, and bombings the next.17
Politically, however, these pronouncements were treading on dangerous ground,
for they turned civilmilitary relations on its head. It meant that in
revolutionary warfare, political activity had to be subordinated to the
military effort. In essence, 'in the midst of la guerre révolutionnaire civil
administration is too important a business to be left in the hands of the
functionaries.' It also meant that in this kind of war, the political aspects
required the unqualified support of the government in the metropole, a lesson
learned too well from Ho Chi Minh. The conclusion was that in la guerre
révolutionnaire, every activity needed to have military utility; politics
needed to be translated into a combat weapon, as was the task of pacification.
The fact that the army could conduct torture on a massive scale while building
schools and roads and raising the standard of living of the indigenous
population was precisely because this strategy had been cut loose from any
political moorings. The fact that it was morally abhorrent was irrelevant. The
only yardstick against which all these tasks were measured was whether or not
it was effective. In addition, the institution itself was in turmoil. The
deterioration of relations between soldiers and the French civilians, the
privileges of rank deteriorating compared to 'the horde of civil servants' and
low salaries all served to exacerbate the difficulties in fighting la guerre
It is important to note that up to the Fifth Republic (1958-), the French Army
had been at war for approximately eighteen years. Beginning with the
humiliation of 1940, they had lived through Cao Bang, Dien Bien Phu, Suez, and
Sakhiet-Sidi Youssef; all of which had been contributing factors to this new
strategy. Consequently, these sentiments were not developed overnight, nor were
they taken lightly. Rather, they eventually felt themselves to be an
institution that constantly had to suffer the consequences of the actions of
the politicians. It felt that the institution had become a 'victim of
vacillation, indecision, and mismanagement by successive governments in Paris'.
'Gradually the military command started to deplore the system they served' and
came to several conclusions: first, that perhaps the best weapon against
political abuse was political orientation second, the army must never again be
placed in a position where it was liable to become divided against itself; and
third, the sellout in Indochina would not be repeated in Algeria.19
By the end of the Fourth Republic, the French-Algerian conflict was as much
about the political conflicts within France as it was about its conflict with
Algeria. For the Army, the conflict had a number of grave impacts on the
military psyche, given that Algeria had 'become a part of the "sentimental
geography" of the French Army.' The most salient was the intense soul-searching
that it provoked in the aftermath, especially after the Barricades Week
(January 1960), and the subsequent military coup in April 1961. It raised the
questions of loyalty and commitment, the core values of any military. La guerre
révolutionnaire and, at least in some respects, the improvements in the
indigenous population's social welfare, were manifestations of the Army's
honour. For the part of the Army that was not politically 'activist', 'de
Gaulle's formulas of negotiation and self-determination' was difficult to
The series of humiliations suffered by France would virtually become the
cornerstone of French Algerian policy, upon which the brutal cycles of violence
would be based
Another factor was that the army had become divided against itself (especially
in the Algiers sector). Given that it shared a sense of solidarity not only
with the settler community, but also to the larger cause of l'Algérie
Française, the army was susceptible to the 'Algerian intoxification', or what
would otherwise be known today as 'going native'.
Finally, there was a division in the senior military staff between the
subversive aspects of this new war, 'la guerre subversive', and classical forms
of warfare. 'Massu was a convert to this doctrine.' However, the fact that this
was not shared by other senior commanders such as Challe, Crépin, and Gambiez
clearly showed that la guerre révolutionnaire did not have unqualified support
across the senior commanders.20
In the end, any tactical victories the army achieved fell victim to the weight
of its own successes. The nature of La guerre révolutionnaire was so
repressive, so brutal in its conduct, that any tactical successes ultimately
were completely undermined by strategic imperatives such as the ignominy of the
use of torture. Ultimately, it not only turned an indigenous population, which
at times was lukewarm at best, against France, but also provoked a public
outcry within the French citizenry itself and put the entire issue of l'Algérie
Française into question. In addition, it played directly into the strategic
objectives of the Front Libération National, which had: first, systematically
planned to target both the domestic and international audience (Muslims, the
United Nations, and the French population, respectively) vis-à-vis the
widespread use of torture; and second, wanted to accelerate the repression in
the hopes that this would tarnish France's image.21
After its conquest in 1837, the French policy in Algeria virtually set the
stage for its own humiliation. The policy was 'a deliberate destruction of the
country's national identity and indigenous social system' which had been based
upon Algerian society's needs. The wholesale confiscation and dispossession of
tribal lands completely disrupted the agrarian communities as well as the
nomadic population.22These pogroms reduced the indigenous population of nearly
6 million in 1830 to 2.5 million by 1852.
There were a number of core tenets that formed the colonial policy. First and
foremost was subjugation. The belief that the indigenous population should be
completely dominated was shared both in the metropole and by the colonial
government. Second was the belief in assimilation, which had many supporters
among politicians and white colonists. However, this had very limited
implementation, and only a small number ever became naturalised Frenchman.
Third was the idea of autonomy, implemented after Tunisia and Morocco were made
protectorates and retained their own rulers. However, this policy always
ensured that this administration was 'more advantageous to the central
government than to the native governments.'23Consequently, any laws it did pass
granting any degree of autonomy to the local districts were so laden with
clauses protecting the European settler communities that it amounted to little
more than 'lip-service to the "Algerian personality"'.24
This policy, summed up by the Minister of War in 1843, was necessary 'in order
to sanction, to consolidate and to simplify the occupation we achieve by
arms.'25The violent uprising in the Kabylia in 1871, which was brutally
suppressed, continued with others such as Sétif, and Philippeville right up to
the day of independence in 1962. 'This colonial policy resulted in the virtual
destruction of traditional institutions of Algeria.'26
Events in France, indeed the world, had moved inexorably beyond the era of
colonisation and into the Cold War
To be sure, the conquest of Algeria was brutal. However, inasmuch as one might
be tempted to vilify France, it is worth noting that this was, in fact, still
the age of colonisation and, among colonisers, France was more the rule than
the exception. In this historical context, Algeria was simply one of a number
of settler colonies such as Rhodesia, Kenya, the Congo, and South Africa.
Colonisation was not a novel concept. However, it was not until the nineteenth
century that colonial powers were able to penetrate deep into the African
continent thanks to the industrial age and the concomitant advancement in
military capabilities.27As 'an integral aspect of Europe's rapidly advancing
industrial superiority', Africa not only represented a vast frontier ready for
their appropriation, but also a huge reservoir of cheap labour for white
industry. One could call the late nineteenth century settler coming to Africa
as a 'fully developed capitalist man.'28
In the end, the historical context of France cast a long shadow over state
action in Algeria. However much one would like to believe that this was a
peaceful co-existence of mutual benefit, the fact of the matter is that this
relationship was one hundred and twenty-five years of turbulent peace
interspersed with periods of brutal violence. Even a cursory study of this case
renders a chimera the prospect of l'Algérie Française for the long term.
Clearly, the political/military legacy of France had the most impact in terms
of state action. The legacy of the Third Republic continued into the Fourth
Republic, and the myriad political parties created incoherent policies, a
sycophantic military and completely undermined the core values of the
institution: order, discipline, loyalty, commitment, and above all, neutrality.
By the end of the Fourth Republic, the French civil-military dynamic, plagued
with mutual suspicion and disdain, cabals, dissent, and outright mutiny, was so
dysfunctional that it would have been difficult to see how it could have fixed
the Algerian problem without fixing itself first. That there were possible
Organisation de l'Armée Secrète objectives of not simply fomenting mass
insurrection, but of overthrowing the government in the metropole, installing a
rightist regime, or even secession from France, should make manifestly clear
just how corrupt the institution had become.29Indeed, the mere creation of the
OAS should be evidence enough; having been created by military officers such as
Generals Salan and Jouhoud and a host of colonels such as Lacheroy and
It was not until the arrival of the Fifth Republic, that France, led by de
Gaulle, finally saw the situation for what it was and cut Algeria loose. Events
in France, indeed the world, had moved inexorably beyond the era of
colonisation and into the Cold War. In this, prestige and the restoration of
French power lay not in sentimentality, but in looking beyond the dissent, the
riots, and the coups, and at the cold calculus of costs, benefits, and risks.
De Gaulle, who was 'totally absorbed in the comprehensive problem of restoring
French power', was able to tersely sum up the fact that 'Algeria is costing us
.more than she is worth to us.'31It was time to revisit the policy that brought
France to greatness in the first place; raison d'état. Surely, Richelieu must
have smiled from above.
French exceptionalist policies expropriated Algerian lands, and discriminated
against the indigenous populations socially, financially, and politically
If the political/military factors were paramount, the social and cultural
factors played nearly as important a part in State action. French
exceptionalist policies expropriated Algerian lands, and discriminated against
the indigenous populations socially, financially, and politically. For the
Algerians, they ultimately realised the great chasm between 'their ideal as
French citizens, constantly preached but never practiced, and the grim everyday
realities around them.'32Some scholars have argued that:
Algeria entered into the struggle to become independent from France not because
some mysterious spirit of nationality swept North Africa, but because 124 years
of French rule there had failed to establish the links, either political or
economic, which could have integrated the local population with the
Prior to the Blum-Violette Bill, Maurice Violette had warned in a speech to the
national assembly in 1935:
'Take care lest the nation of Algeria, undoubtedly through your fault, should
find that it has no country of its own. The Algerians are seeking one and they
ask that it be France. Give it them, or failing that they will make one of
The bill was still-born.
From a perspective of historical context, the case of France and Algeria offers
many lessons for understanding the determinants of state action and response.
For France, the military humiliations in June 1940, Dien Bien Phu, and Suez
virtually set the stage for its Algerian solution and would lead it to find a
military solution to what was fundamentally a political problem. Attempting to
turn military dross into political gold, it won its battles, but ultimately
lost l'Algérie Française.
The army was susceptible to the 'Algerian intoxification', or what would
otherwise be known today as 'going native'
For Algeria, living in deprivation and being deprived of any political
opportunity ultimately led it to seek its independence from France. Unable to
engage France militarily, it chose to wage a war of terror while accelerating
the repression and further erode France's image in world opinion. The conflict
was, in fact, actually becoming somewhat of an embarrassment for the US since
it was supplying France with military equipment to be used for NATO. However,
France was using it against Algeria.35This explosive mixture of military and
political strategies fueled the cycle of violence until France finally lost its
History is replete with lessons of states that have chosen to ignore the
complexities and nuances of both their own history and the history of those
they seek to subjugate. These lessons should be heeded, lest they become
lessons for future students of strategy.
1. Alistair Horne, A Savage War of Peace: Algeria 1954-1962 (New York: New York
Review of Books, 2006), p. 23.
2. George Kelly, 'The French army re-enters politics 1940-1955', Political
Science Quarterly (Vol. 76, No. 3, 1961), pp. 369, 372.
3. Edward Behr, 'The French Army as a political and social factor',
International Affairs (Vol. 35, No. 4, 1959), p. 441, see also Kelly, Op cit.,
in note 2, p. 375.
4. Kelly, Op cit., in note 2, p. 374.
5. Kelly, Op cit., in note 2., p. 379.
6. Kelly, Op cit., in note 2., pp. 376, 377, 379.
7. Behr, Op cit.,in note 3, pp. 440, 441.
8. Horne, op cit., p67-68.
9. Behr, Op cit., in note 3, pp. 441-442, see also Kelly, Op cit., in note 2,
10. Behr, Op cit., in note 3., pp. 441, 442.
11. Behr, Op cit., in note 3., p. 442, see also Kelly, Op cit., in note 2, p.
12. Bernard Brown, 'The army and politics in France', The Journal of Politics
(Vol., 23, No. 2, May, 1961), p. 263.
13. George Kelly, 'Algeria, The Army, and the Fifth Republic (1959-1961): A
Scenario of Civil-Military Conflict, Political Science Quarterly (Vol. 79, No.
3, 1964), p. 337.
14. Kelly, Op cit., in note 2, p. 385.
15. Brown, op cit., p. 263.
16. Behr, Op cit., in note 3, p. 442, see also Brown, Op cit., pp. 265-266.
17. Edward Behr, 'The Algerian Dilemma', International Affairs (Vol. 34, No. 3,
18. Kelly, Op cit., in note 2, p. 383.
19. Ibid., p. 381, see also Brian Crozier, 'France and Algeria', International
Affairs (Vol. 39, No. 4, 1963), p. 311.
20. Kelly, Op cit., in note 2, pp. 390-391.
21. Lou DiMarco, 'Losing the Moral compass: Torture and Guerre Revolutionnaire
in the Algerian War, Parameters (Vol. 36, No. 2, 20060, pp. 66-67, see also
CINEASTE, Summer 2004, Interview with Saadi Yacef, pp. 33, 34.
22. William Andrews, French Politics and Algeria: The Process of Policy
Formation 1954-1962 (New York: Appleton-Century-Crofts, 1962), pp. 4-5, see
also Laabas Belkacem, 'Poverty Dynamics in Algeria' (Kuwait: Arab Planning
Institute, June 2001), p. 5.
23. C A Julien, 'From the French Empire to the French Union', International
Affairs (Vol. 26, No. 4, 1950), p. 488.
24. Behr, Op cit., in note 17, p. 289.
25. Kenneth Good, 'Settler Colonialism, Economic Development and Class
Formation', The Journal of Modern African Studies (Vol. 14, No. 4, 1976), pp.
26. Belkacem, Op cit., p. 5.
27. Good, Op cit., p. 599.
28. Good, Op cit., pp. 603, 604
29. Martha Crenshaw, ed., Terrorism in Context (Philadelphia: Penn State Press,
2005), p. 502.
30. Martha Crenshaw, ed., Terrorism in Context (Philadelphia: Penn State Press,
2005)., p. 500.
31. Christopher Harrison, 'French Attitudes to Empire and the Algerian War',
African Affairs (Vol. 83, No 326, 1983), p. 92, see also Kelly, Op cit., in
note 13, p. 340, Charles de Gaulle, Memoirs of Hope: Renewal and Endeavour (New
York: Simon and Schuster, 1971), chapter on Algeria.
32. Behr, Op cit., in note 17, p. 284.
33. James Cooke, review of 'The French Stake in Algeria, 1945-1962' L'Algerie
Politique: Institutions et Regime', The International Journal of African
Historical Studies (Vol. 12, No. 4, 1979), p. 725, see also Jonathan Gosnell,
The Politics of Frenchness in Colonial Algeria: 1930-1954 (New York: University
of Rochester Press, 2002), p. 134.
34. Behr, Op cit., in note 17, p. 283, see also Horne, Op cit., p. 37.
35. Horne, Op cit., p. 335.