Fifty-five years ago, an independence movement launched a terrorist campaign to chase the French from Algeria after 130 years of colonialism. The French responded with a mixed conscript and volunteer army that hadn’t recovered from losses in Indochina (Vietnam).
The French government mandated national military service for its 20-year-old young men through the end of the twentieth century.
Graduate of Yale and Columbia Journalism School, Ted Morgan recounts his service to the French army in his memoir, My Battle of Algiers (Smithsonian Books, 2005). Morgan (born Sanche de Gramont) came to the United States at age five, when his father worked at the embassy in Washington, D.C. until Gabriel de Gramont enlisted to defend France in the drôle de guerre of 1939-1940 and died during a training exercise. His father’s death created in Morgan “an aversion to causes, however noble,” which attracted him to the observer’s platform of journalism since “this was where it all led, the patriotism, the commitment, the compulsion to get involved—to a wooden cross in an English cemetery.” Yet when the French government called him to conscription at the age of 23, while working in Massachusetts, his father’s death compelled him to serve: “Avoiding conscription would betray a debt of honor owed to a man who had served and died for a free France, even though the war in Algeria was a question mark, while his war had been a just one.”
Morgan takes us through officer’s school, into the rural areas of Algeria, and introduces a varied cast: the soldiers from other colonies fighting for a France that isn’t theirs, the career soldiers who came from the war in Indochina, the colonials settlers with their stereotypical mindsets, and legendary figures like General Jacques Massu, who led the French in the Battle of Algiers.
The book at times reads like a soap opera, particularly when Morgan serves as lover to his married landlady. His artistic temperament and taste for philosophy comes through when he describes visiting the army-sanctioned traveling brothel or his detached telling of his first kill.
Morgan’s view possesses many layers as he seeks reconciliation with the effects of colonialism and how one people could subjugate another. The book offers many musings, but as with life, never offers definite conclusions but merely a historical summary.
Who should read: anyone interested in the interplay of imperialistic powers and terrorism, history and military buffs, Francophiles, writers.
Rating: 5 out of 5 stars