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
Angel Ackerman is a recovering journalist having spent the first 15 years of her career as a reporter and editor. Thanks to her experience in weekly and daily newspapers, she can write about anything from prostate cancer to concrete houses with school board and municipal meetings in the mix. She serves as the president of her local public library’s board of trustees and on the board of Greater Lehigh Valley Writers Group, where she has twice served as president. She holds a bachelors degree in English and French from Moravian College and will complete a bachelors in International Affairs from Lafayette College in spring 2013. For fun, she writes paranormal fiction set in the Paris high fashion world. Her family includes one sweet and gorgeous little girl, her creative but absent-minded husband, three cats and a tortoise, who also thinks she is a cat. Occasionally she runs away from home to exotic locations like Paris, or Tunis, Tunisia, thanks to a friend with frequent flier miles. Yet, if you’re looking for her, you can probably find her in the local Target café where she’s worked since she got sick [literally] of professional employment.
Good work, informative essay.