Shades of Abu Ghraib

Shades of Abu Ghraib

Mini Teaser: The grisly subject of torture is back with us again. A look back at the dark days of de Gaulle's struggle to hold onto Algeria reveals consequences that echo loudly in our newest fight to retain what it means to be civilized.

by Author(s): Alistair Horne

What it was really like for the less sportifs victims was vividly described by Henri Alleg, one of the Jewish settlers in Algeria, in his book The Question, which profoundly shocked France when published in 1958. On his first subjection to the gégène, with electrodes attached merely to his ear and finger, Alleg records "a flash of lightning exploded next to my ear and I felt my heart racing in my breast."

On a further, more powerful application, "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."

Put to the water torture, in his mouth was placed a hose, with his nose stopped up: "I had the impression of drowning, and a terrible agony, that of death itself. . . ."

The depth of degradation came with the sexual abuses of young Muslim women, while almost worse were the screams of the other suspects; Alleg recorded the horror of one elderly Algerian 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!'"

Of all the apologists for most extreme measures against the Algerians whom I interviewed was a doctor-a doctor no less-who immigrated to Paris after the war. Quite one of the nastiest men I have ever met, he boasted to me till the small hours of one morning of his activities; of how he would tend his pied noirs (slang for the French settlers in Algeria) in his surgery in the morning, and then "go out in the evening, and blow off the legs of a few FLN." (When, under pressure from a British libel lawyer, I asked him to confirm his remarks in writing, he promptly disavowed them.)


YET NOT everyone was to become an apologist. Slowly, dissent and discord would rise. General Jacques de la Bollardière, a distinguished senior officer, highly decorated for his courage during World War II and sentenced to death in absentia by the collaborationist Vichy regime, was one such voice. In Algeria, de la Bollardière was outraged to overhear a young cavalry officer commending Nazi practices. He protested to Massu against the policy of torture, requesting to be posted back to France. There, in March 1957-the year of the Battle of Algiers-he wrote a powerful letter to L'Express, a journal which, under Jean-Jacques Servan-Schreiber, who later became the head of the Radical Party in France, had already become the voice of protest against the war. He pointed eloquently 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 till 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 "fortress arrest," the most severe punishment meted out to any senior officer in the Algerian War to date.

About the same time as this, however, Governor General Lacoste received a letter of resignation from an even more influential figure, Paul Teitgen, the prefect of Algiers. Teitgen, whom I quoted at the outset of this article, had himself been a hero of France's wartime Resistance, deported by the gestapo to Dachau, where he was tortured on no less than nine separate occasions. A Communist, Fernand Yveton, had been caught red-handed placing a bomb in the Algiers gasworks where he was employed. But a second bomb had not been discovered, and if it had exploded and set off tanks containing vast quantities of gas, thousands of lives in the densely inhabited city might have been 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. Teitgen described to me vividly how he had agonized over his dilemma:

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. . . .

In March 1957, Teitgen offered his resignation, writing, "for the past three months we have been engaged . . . in irresponsibility which can only lead to war crimes." In the course of his duties he had visited two detention centers where he had recognized on detainees "profound traces of the cruelties and tortures that I had personally suffered fourteen years ago in the gestapo cellars." He feared that "France risks losing her soul through equivocation."

Teitgen and Bollardière were not the only voices raised against the institutionalization of torture in Algeria. Gr adually, and progressively, feelings of outrage were being aired in France. But because of the slowness of communication-there was no internet and only primitive TV-it was a lengthy process. As the full story emerged, it hit the country like an avalanche. La torture may have won a transient victory in the Battle of Algiers in the intelligence it produced but, in the longer run, coupled with protests abroad, it lost the war for France. And the eight-year war ended as a total defeat-on the scale of Vietnam.

As a point for the record, back in 2005, at the suggestion of Rumsfeld's staff, I left in the Pentagon a copy of A Savage War of Peace for the secretary of defense. To save a busy man leafing through all six hundred pages, I sidelined certain key passages which I felt relative to the debate about Abu Ghraib that was then under way-and particularly regarding its potent propaganda danger in the Arab world at large. I received a flea in my ear, couched in inimitable Rumsfeld terms: "As you well know, we do not torture. . . ." I put to him my fear, and how swiftly substantiated it was, that-whereas, in the Algerian War, the impact of torture only hit headlines slowly-because of the speed of modern-day communication, the effect of Abu Ghraib would be instant, and devastating. It was.


WAS TORTURE ever effective? The experience of the gestapo and Sicherheitsdienst in occupied France would indicate the opposite, as suspects would concoct any story to stop the torture; more recently, one can recall a heroic John McCain; when asked under torture by the Vietminh to give the names of his squadron, he blithely trotted out the names of the Green Bay Packers' offensive line. What might it be expected to achieve with an Islamic suicide bomber, already dedicated to martyrdom?

As far as Algeria is concerned, one could almost rest one's case with the experiences of Paul Teitgen. Yet even Massu's chief practitioner of the acquisition of intelligence in the Battle of Algiers, Colonel Godard, was later to admit, "There is no need to torture. . . ."

That superb writer, and great humanist, Albert Camus (himself a pied noir) declared:

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.

He would add: "it is better to suffer certain injustices than to commit them," while-with poignant accuracy-he predicted that "such fine deeds would inevitably lead to the demoralisation of France and the loss of Algeria."

How Americans might have wished that Donald Rumsfeld and his CIA allies could have read these words before Guantánamo, or Abu Ghraib!

The poisons in the system left by torture persisted long after the war itself had ended. Lingering, and pernicious, neuroses were found among its victims. But also the torturers themselves suffered-and continue to suffer. There were numerous cases, such as that of the police inspector found guilty of torturing his own wife and children, who in defense claimed it came in consequence of 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?"

The high dignitary sent by de Gaulle to negotiate the final peace settlement, Louis Joxe, told me: "I shall never forget the young officers and soldiers whom I met who were absolutely appalled by what they had to do."

That was back in 1962.

Meanwhile, in contemporary France, in psychiatric wards, still today many cases are being treated of those called on to inflict torture during a war of now fifty years past. All the evidence indicates that it ends by corrupting the torturer as much as it breaks its victim. Even de Gaulle, speaking to a brave woman who had also been subjected to torture as a leading member of the Résistance, Germaine Tillion (she died only last year, aged one hundred), confided to her that the horrors of abuses in Algeria had persuaded him of the need to end the war: "This proves that one must talk," he said.

Image: Pullquote: Abu Ghraib was like handing al-Qaeda, free and gratis, a new and lethal secret weapon.Essay Types: Essay