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November/December 2017

Dirty Wars: The French in Indochina and Algeria

CPA Media - Pictures from History/GrangerIn 1949 the SS Oyannox, carrying two battalions of French Foreign Legionnaires, pulled out of Oran harbor bound for Saigon. “The Oyannox moved very slowly away from the quay,” wrote former legionnaire Michael Kaponya. “The band was still playing, and a few Arabs were sitting in the shadow of buildings, glancing expressionless over to our ship. We passed the last point of the quay, on which an Arab boy sat fishing. He stood up and shouted something we were unable to hear and gestured several times the act of cutting one’s throat. This was the last we saw of Algeria.”

It wasn’t supposed to be that way. Unlike its neighbors Tunisia and Morocco, which were French protectorates, Algeria was part of the French nation. In 1830, incensed that the Algerian Dey Hussein III had struck its arrogant ambassador with a fly whisk, France seized control of Algeria. Colonists quickly followed. Known as pieds noirs, they grabbed the best and most fertile land, drained the swamps, and introduced European technological innovations to “make the desert bloom.”

While the pieds noirs were citizens of France, most of them actually were of Spanish, Italian, or Maltese descent. The vast, indigenous Muslim population—a mix of tribal and racial stocks, primarily Berber and Arab—had a much more equivocal relationship with the state, their second-class status clearly institutionalized.

But Algeria, the French and the pieds noirs insisted, “Ici, c’est la France.”

Bogged Down in War

By 1954 France had been bogged down in a war in Indochina for eight years. It was an intensely unpopular war in France. There were no set-piece battles, just the grueling frustration of guerilla actions. Those stationed in Indochina received little support from the French citizenry, who vilified the effort as the “dirty war.”

In response to antiwar sentiment in France, the government disallowed the use of conscripts in Indochina and relied upon mercenary troops. The most celebrated was the French Foreign Legion, established in 1831 and composed primarily of non-French troops and French officers. The largest percentage was German, many escaping Nazi pasts. Some sought adventure and discipline, while others simply needed to escape.

CPA Media - Pictures from History/GrangerIn addition, there were the French Union Forces, later reorganized into the French Expeditionary Corps, which welcomed Frenchmen but were primarily composed of Southeast Asian and African men from French colonies—including Senegalese and troops from Tunisia, Morocco, and Algeria. Many were organized into special units of the colonial army, such as the riflemen of the Algerian Tirailleurs. Some 30,000 North Africans were serving in Indochina in July 1953.

French Indochina was divided into five administrative districts: Cambodia, Laos, Tonkin, Amman, and Cochin China. On March 8, 1949, the French agreed to unite the last three as the State of Vietnam under Emperor Bao Dai. The Elysée Agreement, however, resolved almost nothing.

Unlike the Viet Minh, who remained focused on taking control of the land and its government, French objectives changed and shifted in the course of the war. Originally intent on retaking its Indochina colonies, by 1949 it had cast itself as defending those territories—and the world—against communism. Indeed, in Jean Lartéguy’s famous novel, The Centurions, one character remarks ruefully, “Only the French found themselves facing the whole Communist machine on their own.” Having built a foreign policy of working through alliances, France felt uncomfortably alone in Indochina. And later, in Algeria, she found herself very much alone.

Eventually, there would be massive infusions of American materiel. But even this, the French complained, came late, was subject to congressional review and vagaries, and was often postponed due to the demands of the Americans’ own war in Korea.

What’s more, France tried to fight a war on the cheap. Established after the conclusion of the Second World War, the Fourth Republic (1946-58) was committed to “Europe First” and to rebuilding the nation after the destruction of the war. Its economic reconstruction and social programs (including the institution of social security) were impressive. A war in the Far East wasn’t a high priority and swallowed up a disproportionate amount of Marshall Plan funds intended to help rebuild the war-ravaged nation. In addition, the government was weak and easily unbalanced—and, in fact, changed hands twenty-one times in its twelve-year existence.

An unwillingness to fund the war resulted in troops not being properly outfitted, and by mid-1951 many Viet Minh units were better armed than the French. During the Quang Trung offensive in 1952, for example, French troops were shocked to learn that the Vietnamese had 57mm recoilless rifles—while they did not.

There was never more than tepid support for this war half way around the world. Opposition, especially by an ascendant French Communist Party, made funding the war effort increasingly difficult. The use of napalm especially horrified the French public. Eventually, bowing to domestic and international opprobrium, the government restricted its use.

In responding to the guerilla war, the French army made extensive use of paratroopers, first introduced during World War II. Parachuting into battle, the men were able to move quickly through the countryside. As an extension of this effort, the French Expeditionary Force largely “pioneered the use of helicopters for airmobile and search-and-rescue operations in Indochina,” historian Alexander J. Zervoudakis wrote.

“The problem was that funds for large purchases of helicopters were very difficult to garner, and the row between the air force and the army as to who was to operate them effectively prevented their large-scale use. However, the doctrinal and operational foundation for their use was established during this conflict. These ideas were implemented in Algeria, where the right equipment existed in large numbers, and airmobile operations became routine.”

French commanders, nonetheless, continued to seek that one big battle that would knock out the Viet Minh. They finally decided to lure the enemy to Dien Bien Phu. “Psychologically,” Alistair Horne wrote, “there was no more devastating defeat ever inflicted on a Western regular army by a colonial ‘resistance movement,’ and it was to have far-reaching repercussions in Algeria.”

By the time the 54-day siege ended on May 7, 1954, 13,000 defenders had died. Several thousand were taken prisoner and force-marched to POW camps, where they were subjected to abuse and re-education. During the entire conflict the Viet Minh took 39,888 prisoners; 29,954 never returned. “Some of the best officers and NCOs in Algeria,” Zervoudakis wrote, “were men who had witnessed the full horror of the Viet Minh prison regime.”

The defeat at Dien Bien Phu was a military and political disaster. The government of Joseph Laniel immediately fell, and he was replaced by Pierre Mendès-France. “If you ask me to sum up in one word my policy,” Mendès-France told the Chamber of Deputies, “I will make peace.” In fact, he promised peace in thirty-three days.

It had been a brutal, bloody conflict. In the end, 77,000 French troops were dead or missing.

The French officer corps returned from Indochina unheralded and dispirited.

Launching a Revolution

Not so their North African counterparts. Their experience in the Far East had taught them that imperial forces were not invincible. Ironically, the Algerian neuf historiques first met to plan launching the Algerian war for independence on the same day that the fall of Dien Bien Phu was announced. “The impact on the Algerians, many of whose kinsmen had been fighting alongside the French in the besieged camp, was electric,” Horne wrote. “Employing subtlest techniques of psychological warfare, the Viet Minh suggestively quizzed the Algerians captured there: ‘Since you are such good soldiers, why do you fight for the colonialists? Why don’t you fight for yourselves and make yourselves a country of your own?’ Suddenly this unbelievable defeat deprived the glorious French army of its baraka, making it look curiously mortal for the first time. Wild rumors exaggerating the defeat began immediately to take root at home in Algeria.”

©Kryn Taconis/Magnum PhotosThe Algerians launched their war less than six months later, on All Saints Day 1954.

The leadership of the Front de Libération Nationale (FLN) had learned from their experiences in Indochina. “Most of the leaders were men of simple learning,” Horne wrote. “There was a paucity of well-read intelligentsia; few, like Boumedienne, had university education, and they tended to be indoctrinated in Islamic rather than Marxist thought. Essentially inward-looking, the FLN leaders as a whole do not impress one as having been well read on revolutionary practice and theory; if they had absorbed the techniques of the Viet Minh, it was through the direct experience some had had as members of the ill-fated French forces in Indochina.”

The Algerian leadership was austere, hyper-masculine, and focused on one goal: independence. They didn’t care about economic opportunity, equality, or the pursuit of happiness. They never wavered from their goal; they were unconcerned about the means.

The French military was battle-hardened. “Few armies in the world,” Le Monde reported, “possess a generation of officers who have fought so much.” And yet, the success rate wasn’t impressive. Defeat by the Germans had been followed at Dien Bien Phu by defeat at the hands of the Vietnamese.

The French rationalized that they hadn’t been defeated so much by the Viet Minh as by world communism. Now, the officer corps believed, they were facing that same menace closer to home: This was a battle they must win. But while Indochina cemented the unity of the officer corps, it also isolated the Army from the French nation—a condition exacerbated in Algeria by the fact that it was never clear if it was a civil disturbance or a war. Public support remained weak, and war was never declared.

At first, the military’s approach was heavy-handed, bringing massive fire power to minor skirmishes. But they quickly began implementing lessons from Indochina and deployed many helicopters—and even referred to the Algerians as “les Viets”—but often with the same frustrating result.

©Kryn Taconis/Magnum Photos

“If we go through a village in the daytime, the rebels come back there that night,” paratrooper Pierre Leulliette wrote in his memoir about his service in Algeria. “If we camp in one for the night, they are back in it next morning, a few hours after we have left. All they want is to make fools of us and to prove to the Arabs that they can’t be caught, and that even an army will never be able to force an engagement on them unless they want it.”

The Algerians kept to Mao’s three-stage approach: initially, just survive; then, as you gain strength and numbers, harass and hide; only later, on your own terms, attack. FLN flash attacks were brutal and gruesome. Dead French soldiers were often found with their throats slashed ear to ear, their penises cut off and shoved in their mouths.

Reporter Herb Greer quoted an FLN official after a particularly brutal French reprisal in which women were killed: “Voila, we’ve won another battle. They hate the French a little more now. The stupid bastards are winning the war for us.”

The Dirty War

The Viet Minh had employed terror in controlling the population, but its use of terror was calculated, intentional, and regulated. One knew that certain activities had ominous consequences. The Viet Minh also banked on the fact that, in comparison, French terror would be irrational and confusing, based on anger and frustration. The Algerians tried to implement a similar policy. When, for example, in 1956 the French government belatedly attempted a modest land-reform program, every peasant who accepted land was found lying in his new field with his throat slit.

©Nicolas Tikhomiroff/Magnum Photos

But the Algerians couldn’t maintain the discipline of the Viet Minh. With a long history of vendettas, revenge killings, and intertribal and interracial conflict, the FLN fell on Algerians as well as French, settling old scores and reviving old disagreements. In particular, however, the FLN was intent on destroying the competition. That is, they wanted to deny the French the possibility of having any “responsible others” with whom to negotiate. In short, as one official put it, the FLN wanted to “neutralize the little Algerian Bao Dais.” So the moderate opposition had to be destroyed.

It was a ferocious policy, and one that has yet to completely play out. After the war ended and the pieds noirs fled to France, the victors turned first on French sympathizers, then on political rivals. Thousands were slaughtered. It is estimated that more Algerians fought on the side of the French than with the FLN. But French President Charles DeGaulle insisted upon putting Algeria in the past, denied Muslim allies entrance into France, and abandoned them. In fact, when the slaughter began, French troops were ordered not to intervene.

The French military, obsessed with the belief that they had to win, quickly abandoned the moral high road, and increasingly turned to terrorism. Waterboarding and electrical shocks to the face or genitals were standard practices. Thousands were slaughtered, many plowed into mass graves, others dumped by helicopter into the Mediterranean Sea.

Although in theory they were there to protect the Muslim natives—and many Muslims fought alongside the French—increasingly the distinction between friend and foe diminished. “Once you’re here,” a soldier remarked, “to pose yourself problems of conscience—and treat possible assassins as presumed innocents—that’s a luxury that costs dear, and costs men, dear sir, young men themselves also innocent, and our own.”

French torture reached its high point with the 1956-57 Battle of Algiers, during which Arab sections of the city were cordoned off, and more than 30 percent of the male Muslim population was arrested. Many disappeared, seized during the curfew hours, were tortured relentlessly, then shot.

“Was there really torture?” Gen. Jacques Massu asked rhetorically. “I can only reply in affirmative, although it was never institutionalized or codified…. I am not afraid of the word.”

The Battle of Algiers destroyed entirely the FLN leadership in Algiers, and crippled the organization throughout the nation. It had been an unrelenting pursuit and resulted in a stunning victory for the French. But it was a pyrrhic victory that resulted in the massive alienation and radicalization of the Muslim population. The Battle of Algiers, some have suggested, was the victory that lost the French the war.

©Nicolas Tikhomiroff/Magnum PhotosThe French army grew increasingly frustrated and angry, and recognized that they were not receiving the support of the French people or government. One policy, which rounded up Algerian peasants into “safe villages,” was as repugnant to the French people, still reeling under memories of concentration camps, as it was to the Algerians, who were forced to relocate far from their farms and livelihoods under the surveillance of soldiers.

It had, indeed, become “la sale guerre”—another dirty war.

The army began to fear they were being sold down the river and that the politicians had turned against them. An attempted coup tried to reverse that course, but only resulted in the further deterioration of

the might and influence of the military. Alistair Horne, in his grand history, A Savage War of Peace, concluded:

DeGaulle “suffered from the lesson not learned by Kissinger in Vietnam, or perhaps the Israelis vis-à-vis the Arab world: namely, that people who have been waiting for independence for a century, fighting for it for a generation, can afford to sit out a presidential term, or a year or two in the life of an old man in a hurry; that he who lasts the longest wins; that, sadly, with the impatience of democracies and their volatile voters, the extremist always triumphs over the moderate.

“As [DeGaulle’s] disillusion grew, so did his resolve to liquidate the war with all speed.”

Huu Ngoc & the Re-education
of Algerian POWs

Vietnamese scholar Huu Ngoc, ninety-nine years old by Western counting, is a retired North Vietnamese People’s Army major. However, he did not fight with a gun. Huu Ngoc has always navigated streets with his far-sighted eye and read texts with the page held three inches from his near-sighted eye.

Instead of combat with guns, Huu Ngoc fought with his mouth.

In 1950 the Democratic Republic of Viet Nam (DRVN) government called up adult men to join the army. By then, the French had re-occupied areas in the Red River Delta, where Huu Ngoc chaired the Nam Dinh Province Resistance Cultural Committee.

Huu Ngoc hiked several hundred kilometers from Nam Dinh to the Viet Bac Northern Liberated Zone in the mountains. As an army officer, he supervised the Section for Re-Education of European and African Prisoners of War. At that time, the DRVN kept POWs at local Tay and Nung ethnic-minority houses in what were called “prisons without bars.”

Huu Ngoc remembers sitting with three POWs in a house on stilts. “One POW was French,” he says. “One was an English former officer who had served in the Royal Air Force, and one was German. We were chatting about anything and everything. I was speaking three foreign languages in the same conversation.”

The French Far-East Expeditionary Corps and the French Foreign Legion included nearly twenty different nationalities. Although many Vietnamese fought with the French, colonial administrators generally sent nationals from one colony to police other colonies. Thus, the French sent Vietnamese to Syria and to countries in Africa, and they posted Africans to Vietnam. Many soldiers fighting on the French side in Indochina came from North Africa, in particular from Algeria, which the French administered as part of France.

Huu Ngoc and his colleagues organized lectures and printed training materials on nationalism to persuade POWs—particularly those from French colonies—that they had been helping the French in an unjust war.

According to Huu Ngoc, the Vietnamese periodically released their “best students” to organize within French ranks. Accompanied by Vietnamese guards, the released POWs hiked by night through the mountains in what Huu Ngoc calls “convoys”—sometimes ten, sometimes twenty, sometimes even sixty POWs—until they reached a French military post. Before dawn, the Vietnamese guards withdrew into the jungle, leaving the POWs behind. French post commanders awoke to find unexpected reinforcements.

Before long, the French military realized that the released POWs were nationalist plants organizing within their ranks, so they sent them home. The French, the Viet Minh believed, thereby exported Vietnamese nationalist organizing skills to Algiers.

Huu Ngoc is quick to credit Vietnamese President Ho Chi Minh with this re-education initiative. While living in Paris during the early 1920s, Ho and other nationalists from French colonies published a French-language newspaper, Le Paria (The Outcast), with its masthead in French, Chinese, and Arabic.

“In addition to our training sessions, the released POWs living in prisons without bars had assimilated knowledge of our strategy, tactics, and locations,” Huu Ngoc says. “We trainers worried the released POWs would give the French important information, but Ho Chi Minh believed in the prisoners’ humanity.”

Huu Ngoc’s Viet Nam: Tradition and Change, edited by Lady Borton and Elizabeth Collins (Ohio University Press, 2016), is considered one of the best English-language books on that country.




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