A Savage War of Peace by Alistair Horne

 

A Savage War of Peace is the best book ever written about the September 11th attacks and the subsequent American war in Iraq; which is extraordinary, because it was written decades ago and is about the French war against the FLN in Algeria in the 1950s.  But there is no author I know of who goes inside the mechanism of terror as effectively as the British francophile Alistair Horne: examining the action and reaction of bombings and roundups, horrific attacks and gruesome repression, with an eye not towards the easy moralizing that George W. Bush offered up after the September 11th attacks but the strategic implications for the apolitical masses caught in the middle who are the real targets of terrorism.

Before the Iraq war, the Pentagon famously screened the Gillo Pontecorvo film The Battle of Algiers, which is also about the French-Algerian struggle (and another favorite of mine that I wrote about here), for its insights into how to defeat terrorism.  This was a discouraging sign, because the French failed in Algeria.  In fact, the film’s genius is that it shows just how persuasive the strategy of repression and overwhelming force can appear even as it is failing — an irony lost on the brain trust running the Pentagon.  One hopes that more meaningful would have been gained if they’d handed out copies of A Savage War of Peace, which breaks down the French failure in such specific detail that it might have been possible to learn from their errors.   Alas, no: apparently Bush loved this book and even invited Alistair Horne to the White House, but it seems that the true lessons of the French-Algerian war did not come up in their dinner conversation.  This is a unfortunate because during the first two years of the Iraq war I followed developments on the ground in the pages in this book and the mapping of events was so close that it was almost possible to say what month and year we were in of France’s struggle in Algeria.

When the former New York Times executive editor and prominent liberal hawk Bill Keller recently came out with a mea culpa about his earlier support for the Iraq war, I wrote of his continuing inability to understand how terrorism works: “The Iraq war bled us dry at a great cost in resources and lives and demonstrated not the reach of our power but its limitations.  And that, really, is the goal that terrorism — anywhere, in any form, against any target — is trying to achieve: it compels overreaction that drains the superior power of its force and radicalizes a moderate population alienated by the collateral damage of that overreaction.”  That is just me paraphrasing Alistair Horne’s description of the FLN strategy in Algeria, but Keller and the other liberal hawks would have done well to read A Savage War of Peace before setting off in support of a war that was the archetypal blind, senseless, vengeful overreaction to tragedy.  In fact, they’d do well to read it now — and for Bush to re-read it, in light of subsequent events — because many of them still don’t understand the terrorist strategy laid out in its pages.

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Click here to read my thoughts on the tenth anniversary of the September 11th attacks, which has more about the way in which terrorism effects a jiujitsu move to use the superior power’s strength against itself.  Or here to read excerpts from my journals on that day as I stood on a street corner in downtown Manhattan watching the towers collapse.  Or here to see the full list of my posts on the Middle East.

 

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