Thursday, May 07, 2009

Review: Torture and the Twilight of Empire: From Algiers to Baghdad by Marnia Lazreg

Torture and the Twilight of Empire: From Algiers to Baghdad, by Marnia Lazreg, is an eloquent plea to end torture. Professor Marnia pursues a historical, anthropological and philosophical inquiry into France's use of torture in its war against Algerian independence from 1954-1962.


The most important thing to understand is that France's use of torture and terror "was about France and her internally contested history and identity, which inescapably included the empire." (p. 23) The counterinsurgency's main purpose was to deny a political identity to the Algerians, and torture, which represents the greatest level of control of one human being over another, allowed the French the quickest, most efficacious justification of French control of Algeria. Algerians could not be allowed to challenge the French people's self-image.

The author describes methods of torture and state terrorism. Torture began with undressing the captive. After some beating, including slapping (which some in the U.S. today don't want to classify as torture), electrocution of genitalia and other sensitive areas of the body would begin. Torturers would also perform "castration" through twisting of the male genitalia. Other techniques included rape with objects, forced sitting on bottles, solitary confinement, near starvation, truth serum and sleep deprivation.

Yet the bulk of the narrative describes the various justifications and experiences of torture. Military theorists studied and taught competing theories of why torture was necessary in counterinsurgency. Anthropologists explained why torturing Algerians was prudent or beneficial. Church clergy and military chaplains found doctrines which allowed torturers to seek forgiveness and communion. Politicians could decry the evils of communism, Pan-Arabism and Pan-Islamism.

Torturers came in all shapes and sizes. Some Algerian (Muslim), some pied-noirs, some conscripts, some veterans of IndoChina, some committed, some bored. Some were educated, some were not.

It was advised that only non-sadists should be allowed to conduct and witness torture. How humane.

Often, when a prisoner's interrogation was complete, he was "sent for wood," a euphemism for summary execution and disposal.

Torture occurred in fixed urban locations, in countryside outposts, or in structures appropriated by mobile military intelligence teams. It took place at all times of day, but night was preferred as the prisoner's fear at night was greater.

French veterans of the Algerian war often remember their first torture session. The captors' laughter was "a constant feature of torture séances." Witnesses noted the unique smell created by the combination of sweat, excrement, urine, blood and the dampness of the chamber ignited by electricity. The screams of the victim seemed to intensify this odor.

A primary justification for torture was its alleged information-gathering (intelligence) value. Another justification was that it would purge the (corrupted, infected) French-Muslims (Algerians) of their non-identification with France. The concentration camps included hygiene lessons in the French manner in between torture sessions.

Chapter 6, Women: Between Torture and Military Feminism, is a fascinating look on how the French military used the rhetoric of the feminist movement to practice torture, especially on women. The French military established the Equipes Médico-Sociales Itinérantes (Mobile Socio-Medical Teams) to
"make contact with women," that is to say, "to know, inform educate, organize and guide them" in preparation for their acceptance of the "most French solution to the Algerian problem." (p. 147)

... the method used by the EMSI during their "meetings" with women combined thematic lessons on topics such as hygiene, child rearing, and housekeeping (while listening to music) as entry points for propagandist discussions of key political issues focused on the military conception of the war. For example, lessons on body hygiene (seen as easily achieved because "a bar of soap is not expensive") involved discussions of the "myth of Algeria's independence," France's achievements in Algeria, her benevolence, and civic rights--all of which were contrasted with a description of gender inequality among native society. Using a system of punishment and rewards, the [Adjointes Sociales Sanitaires Rurales Auxiliares (Auxilary Rural Social and Health Workers-ASSRA)] withheld children's clothes and other enticements from women deemed unclean and thus unreceptive to French norms. The strategy equated acceptance of continued colonial rule with adoption of French customs and lifestyles. ... In villages and towns, the ASSRA were given step-by-step instructions on how to make women remove their veils. Fighting veils was on a par with getting rid of "flies," "ticks," and "lice." (p. 148)

Yet, the success of this well-orchestrated campaign targeting women was dubious. The women's "circles" sponsored by the EMSI reported that the women they attracted preferred romantic movies to propaganda films about the war they were told to watch. The women also demanded to "sing in Arabic, and when they did, they sang fellagha songs!" (p. 150)
The French military was so obsessed with the campaign against the veil that, when it took over the French government in May of 1958, it held unveiling ceremonies of Algerian women in major cities before the international press.

Of course, when it came to military operations, both reconnaissance and reprisal, the French military treated women as part of the Algerian population it needed to terrorize and suppress. When the military entered the village, soldiers regularly stole jewelry and chickens and acted, as instructed, like "lords of the manor."
Rape sessions were called "strip tease"; rapists committing collective rape "go through" the victims as through a field, or "play." A former paratrooper distinguished between rape as a tool of torture for securing intelligence, and "rape for comfort." In the various urban torture centers women were routinely raped, especially at the famed Villa Séseni in Algiers. The women who survived the war use the code word "torture" among themselves to mean "rape," a term that covers all degrading experiences, as they continue to feel the trauma of having been violated but are unable to come to terms with it, not only because of shame and fear of opprobrium, but aso because of the everlasting and indelible memory. It was not infrequent that women were picked up during roundups for the purpose of being raped and were selected according to their looks and age.
Despite the rhetoric of support for women, the French were only interested in "breaking down existing networks of solidarity mediated by women." In the end, the French military before independence and the National Liberation Front (FLN) after independence deprived women of "recognition as a self-willed human being fighting for a cause he strongly believes in." (p. 168)

The author includes an excellent chapter on the position of the Christian Church on antisubversive war. Official church positions ranged from approval to feigned ignorance to vague condemnations. None was effective in ending the war. One non-official group of Catholics openly supported the war as an anti-Muslim, anti-Communist, anti-leftist counterrevolution/crusade.

Another excellent chapter compares Sartre's, Camus's and Fanon's positions on the war. Fanon's belief that the violence of the colonized directed at the colonizers heals psychological wounds colonization inflicts on the colonized makes it seem like insurgencies are a psychological problem rather than a political and economic problem. Camus never overcame his pied noir identity to recognized that colonialism had a role to play in the war. He could both condemn and excuse torture on philosophical grounds, but his partisanship prevented him from having a strong voice regarding the Algerian War of Independence.

The last two chapters discuss the American apologists and advocates (see Elshtain below) for torture in the so-called Global War on Terror.

The book is available from Princeton University Press.

Supplemental resources:
P.S. I had heard about the U.S.-operated School of the Americas/Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation, whose graduates have frequently been implicated in war crimes and government takeovers, but I did not realize that many Latin American military officers also studied at the Ecole Supérieure de Guerre in Paris. (p. 19-The reference is to Escadrons de la mort by Marie-Monique Robin, pp. 168-9.) I'm in the middle of reading The School of the Americas by Lesley Gill. Maybe I can put a review up here and compare.

P.S.S. I also condemn all the torture inflicted by others besides France and the United States.

P.S.S.S. Professor Marnia has a book coming out in September 2009 entitled
Questioning the Veil: Open Letters to Muslim Women. Given my big stack of unread books and my personal commitment as a man never to talk about this issue, I'm hoping someone wiser than me can review this as soon as it comes out.

2 comments:

Ayman H Fadel said...

I just watched Apocalypse Now Redux. One of the major additions to this movie is a stop at a French plantation near the Cambodian border. There, the French basically, in front of Martin Sheen's character Captain Willard, argue about the French Empire. Many reviewers did not like this scene, but I think it makes a lot of sense (aside from the oddity of a French plantation surviving) after reading Professor Lazreg's book. See DVD Savant review and D.K. Holm at DVD Journal and Roger Ebert.

Ayman H Fadel said...

Just watched Torture on Trial on LinkTV. It's an effective 30 minute indictment of the US's ongoing torture policy in the so-called "war on terror."