Native Sons, West African Veterans and France in the Twentieth Century

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Native Sons, West African Veterans and France in the Twentieth Century. By Gregory Mann. Politics, History, and Culture, a series from the International Institute at the University of Michigan, George Steinmetz and Julia Adams, editors. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 2006. Pp. viii, 5 illustrations, 4 maps. $23.95 paper.

The banners are faded now, the uniforms moth-ridden, and the survivors few. But for over half a century, locally conscripted or recruited African troops from countries like Mali were a linchpin of France's overseas empire. They fought in two world wars, were used to put down disturbances in Africa in the interwar years, and served under the French flag in Algeria, the Levant, and Indochina. Possibly their numbers totaled 300,000 soldiers and at least 50,000 of them died in the two world wars, yet their relationship with France was always ambiguous, as Gregory Mann amply demonstrates in this carefully researched and lucidly written volume.

Heralded in July 14 oratory in France, Mali, and elsewhere for their loyalty and bravery, most African veterans had to repeatedly appeal for their small pensions. Even then, the pensions were usually a fraction of those received by white French soldiers. It was a sordid tale of promises betrayed, French bureaucratic ineptitude, and a longstanding "blood debt" reneged on. Mann, whose oral interviews and archival research took him to both France and francophone Africa, and who teaches African history at Columbia University, tells the story dispassionately, making the reality of the veteran's plight all the more searing.

This imaginatively structured and written story is almost two books. The opening and closing sections represent a tour d'horizon of social science theory as it might fit on a social group like the tirailleurs Sénégalais, the generic term used for the French African soldiers. The middle chapters begin with a detailed account of two Malian soldiers and their extended families in San, a key crossroads town in southern Mail not far from the Burkina Faso border. Mann has a jeweler's eye for local detail. San is "covered with the dust of activity, not lassitude" (p. 24) and is "not a place where people go," it is "a place where people stop" (p. 28). Elsewhere he describes the trois poches, "big men" dressed in the three pocket leisure suits favored by francophone African wheeler-dealers. With economy of language and compassion, Mann also writes in places of how the returned veterans held on to bits of uniforms, pants, buttons, and hats, as signs of their former status.

The author's attempt to move beyond traditional military or veteran's history and introduce additional dynamics is an approach historians of Africa are only beginning to explore. First, there is the complex issue of clientage, exchange obligations, and the mechanisms through which they were carried out, and the residual impact of slavery. …