Deja Vu All over Again: Algeria, France, and Us

Article excerpt

Knowing history can indeed help us avoid being "condemned to repeat it" though as often as not only by making new, more interesting mistakes. But how can we explain a case of two peoples who seem compelled both to remember and relive an experience they would much rather forget?

Barely three decades after fighting one of the bitterest of all colonial wars, France and Algeria are again embroiled in conflict. The rhetoric in both countries constantly recalls what some now term "The First Algerian War", but even while they deplore their plight they cannot help falling into familiar roles: the Algerians in a fratricidal civil war, the French supporting a discredited regime to avoid a still worse alternative. With bombs set by Algerian Islamists exploding across the country and armed soldiers patrolling the streets of Paris, France's drift toward a deepening confrontation will continue along the path of least resistance. As it does so, America will have to be deaf to appeals to avoid in a new crusade against resurgent Islam. There are indeed lessons to be learned from the first Algerian War that may yet help us to keep out of the second, but learning them requires confronting something even more intractable than the vaunted "Green Peril": our own ingrained attitudes toward Arabs and Islam.

Most Americans first learned of the Algerian conflict when Islamist rebels hijacked an Air France jetliner last Christmas Eve. Many were then surprised to learn that at least thirty thousand people had been killed there since a military regime seized power three years before; that if the rebels were to win, hundreds of thousands of refugees were expected to head north for Europe; and that the French government therefore considered Algeria -- not Bosnia or nuclear testing -- to be the gravest problem it faced.

More Searing Than Vietnam

An introduction to Algeria must begin with its nearly eight-year war for independence, when perhaps as much as 5 percent of its population was killed while another 10 percent fled the country when peace came in 1962. The Algerian War is often compared with America's Vietnam War. In both cases Westerners marshaled superior military power and prevailed on the battlefield, only to lose the political struggles at home and abroad. French and Americans each talked about winning "hearts and minds", but found in the end that their own hearts were not in it. Both suffer from historical "syndromes" that differ in their symptoms but are alike in the stubborn persistence of their effects.

Yet as important as Vietnam has been for America it hardly approaches what Algeria has meant for France. Imagine, to begin with, that Saigon was four hundred miles from San Francisco rather than eight thousand. Suppose that South Vietnam was another constituent state of the union, no different from Alaska or Hawaii, in the same way that Algeria was constitutionally a part of France. Add a million American settlers. Then we might begin to see why this was a very different war, much worse even than the one we are still recovering from. But even then it would surely beggar the imagination to believe that, after our erstwhile bitter enemies had made themselves into a Westernized elite, lost democratic elections, and confronted a new insurgency, we would promptly become their main backers -- sending arms and advisors, and assuring billions of dollars in aid each year. French diplomacy is often thought to be unprincipled and pragmatic to a fault, but it is not usually considered perverse. Why is it then that France risks reprising one of the most miserable episodes of its recent past?

History never actually repeats itself -- though, as one historian has suggested, it sometimes rhymes. Before considering the uncanny similarities between the first and second Algerian Wars we should stress the differences, starting with how each began.

Before the All Saints Day uprising in 1954, the French appeared to have their Algerian departements well in hand, subverting through stolen elections even the limited democracy allowed the Muslim majority. …