US Hawks Owe More to the French Than They Realize

PARIS – The kind of torture inflicted upon Iraqi prisoners by the U.S. army followed methods France used during the Algerian war of independence in the late 1950s, several French historians and journalists say.

Both the U.S. and the French armies had obviously studied Islamic traditions in order to devise torture methods aimed particularly at Muslims, they say.

"It is obvious that the U.S. army has been applying in Iraq knowledge the French army picked up in Algeria in the late 1950s," historian Claire Mauss-Copeau told IPS.

Mauss-Copeau, professor of Maghreb history at the University of Sorbonne in Paris, referred particularly to the pictures taken in the Iraqi prison Abu Ghraib showing U.S. soldiers intimidating naked Iraqi men with dogs, or inflicting sexual harassment.

"Such humiliations are terrible for a Muslim," she said. "In Muslim tradition, dogs are seen as impure animals. And nudism, especially of men before women, is the worst form of humiliation."

Muslim scholars too speak of the shame around nakedness. "To be exposed naked before other men is itself a big humiliation for a Muslim," one scholar said. To be photographed naked before women is a shame words cannot express, he added.

Journalists who covered the Algerian war have found similarities between French military doctrines and the U.S. army conduct in Iraq.

"As I saw the photographs taken by U.S. soldiers in Abu Ghraib which shocked the world a few weeks ago, I immediately knew that I had seen comparable documents in Algeria in the 1950s," journalist Jacques Duquesne told IPS.

Duquesne, senior editor with the French weekly L’Express, covered the Algerian war of independence (1954-1962) fought between the French army and the National Liberation Front (FLN), the Algerian independence guerrilla movement.

The French army resorted to extensive torture and summary executions in a fruitless effort to break the freedom movement. France accepted Algerian independence in 1962 under Gen. Charles de Gaulle.

"In Algeria, the French army widely employed what our soldiers called la gegene, electroshocks in the genitals," Duquesne recalled. "The photos from Abu Ghraib could have been taken in Algeria."

The French military campaign in Algeria was seen by many as the first experiment in anti-guerrilla warfare, and it influenced U.S. army methods in Vietnam and in Latin America.

Marie-Monique Robin, TV journalist and producer of a documentary on the French hand in counter-insurgency operations in South America in the 1970s points out that French generals who had fought in the Algerian war went on to teach at U.S. military academies.

"Gen. Paul Aussaresses, the second highest French officer in Algeria in the late 1950s, and responsible for most of the tortures, taught at Fort Bragg between 1960 and 1963," Robin told IPS. Fort Bragg is the headquarters of the U.S. Army special operations command, the military unit specializing in psychological warfare, including torture.

Aussaresses also taught at Argentinean and Brazilian military academies during the early 1970s. Some years later, the armies of those countries launched Operation Condor, a coordinated campaign to exterminate opponents of the right-wing dictatorships.

Aussaresses has publicly admitted that during the Algerian war French officers used the term "death squads" to describe clandestine military units given charge of torturing and executing Algerians considered to be terrorists.

"Torture was efficient," he said in a book titled Algeria: Special Services 1955-1957 published in 2001. "The majority of people crack and talk. Then, most of the time, we killed them. Did this pose problems of conscience? I have to say, No. I was used to those things."

In 2002 a French court fined Aussaresses 8,000 dollars for making these statements. The army also stripped him of all honors and banned him from wearing the military uniform in public.

An amnesty in 1962 covering crimes committed by the French army in Algeria means that the tortures and summary executions Aussaresses and his death squads carried out will never be punished.

The U.S. army recently showed some experts a film The Battle of Algiers on the French anti-guerrilla campaign in the Algerian capital in 1957.

The film made by Italian filmmaker Gillo Pontecorvo in 1965 with support of the Algerian government is fictional but shows the growth of the urban guerrilla war against French colonialism with hard realism. The script was by leading FLN activist Saadi Yacef who was imprisoned in France.

Pontecorvo showed how the French army increasingly employed torture, brutal intimidation and summary executions to crush the FLN.

But such methods only brought the French army a Pyrrhic victory. They discredited the French Army, and strengthened the independence movement.

The Battle of Algiers was shown to some 40 military officers and civilian experts at the Pentagon last year. They were urged to analyze the core issues raised by the film on the launching of a brutal war in an Arab society.

The flier inviting guests to the Pentagon screening declared: "How to win a battle against terrorism and lose the war of ideas. Children shoot soldiers at point-blank range. Women plant bombs in cafes. Soon the entire Arab population builds to a mad fervor."

The flier goes on to say: "Sound familiar? The French have a plan. It succeeds tactically, but fails strategically. To understand why, come to a rare showing of this film." It showed also how the U.S. forces may have won the combat but lost the war.