Donald Trump Needs to Read This Book

I am a huge fan of the works of Alistair Horne and would generally recommend any of his books to anyone, but there is one book in particular that our presumptive Republican nominee needs to read. That book is Horne’s excellent work on the French Algerian war, A Savage War of Peace. I myself recently picked it up and started going through it, and the startling relevance of the story of this conflict – which has been largely forgotten by modern Americans – immediately jumped out at me.

The French-Algerian War is the story of how a rebel force with less than 10 machine guns, a few hunting weapons, and less than 300 people grew into a force that eventually not only defeated France militarily and pushed them out of Algeria, but also nearly toppled the French government in the process. There is good evidence that the Front de Libération Nationale (hereinafter, “FLN”)’s blueprint against the French has been the model for Muslim insurgencies ever since 1962, from the Palestinians to ISIS.

The reason Trump needs to read this book – or at least SOME book about the French-Algerian war – is that his anti-terrorism playbook is eerily similar to the playbook the French implemented in Algeria, and which the FLN were able to easily turn against the vastly superior French army. Respond to terror attacks with indiscriminate force. Engage in reprisals against the families and community members of terrorists. Use torture. Respond to brutality with more brutality.

Not only did these tactics not work for the French, but they served as marvelous propaganda tools for the FLN to recruit new soldiers to their cause.

Although the French-Algerian war is generally considered to have begun in 1954 with the FLN’s declaration of independence for Algeria, the seeds of the Algerian revolution were sown in 1945 in the small town of Seitif. On V_E day, there was a parade planned in Seitif, ostensibly to commemorate the sacrifices of Algerian troops in the brutal Italian campaign of WW2. However, Muslim troublemakers mixed in with the crowd, and when French gendarmes attempted to restore order, a full scale riot broke out.

The rioting Muslims quickly overwhelmed the vastly outnumbered French security forces and commenced to terrorize the local Pieds-Noirs to an alarming degree. By most reckonings about 150 Algerians of European descent were killed and an additional couple hundred were either injured or had their property seized or destroyed.

The French responded to this outrage in exactly the fashion Trump might have advised – with a series of brutal, disproportionate, and largely indiscriminate reprisals. French troops descended on the area of Seitif with overwhelming force, conducting summary executions in the street. Nearby villages suspected of housing participants in the Seitif violence were subjected to extensive aerial bombardment and/or shoreline bombardment.

It should go without saying that this method of response not only exacted revenge on those who participated in the Seitif atrocities, but also a humongous numbers of innocent bystanders instead. According to Arab estimates, the French killed as many as 60,000 Muslims during the course of the Seitif reprisals, although this number is probably an exaggeration. The official French number placed the total dead around 1,400 – almost ten times as many as the number of Pieds-Noirs who were killed, but also almost certainly too low an estimation. Most historians place the number killed in the Trumpian French reprisals at around 6,000.

This show of bloody, disproportionate force had the effect of temporarily pacifying the Muslim countryside, but it planted the seeds of a revolution that would cost untold numbers of dead Frenchmen AND Algerians. The temporary pacification achieved by the disproportionate reprisal was by far outlasted by the smoldering resentment among the Muslim population for whom Seitif became an eternal rallying cry.

Between Seitif and the actual start of the war on November 1, 1954, the French could have forestalled the revolution and kept Algeria for herself with any number of liberalization reforms that would have permitted the moderate Muslims – of whom there were many – to maintain a political foothold in Algeria.

However, the Pieds-Noirs were acutely aware of the fact that they were outnumbered by the native Arab population and that the problem was getting worse, for the simple reason that the Arabs were reproducing and the Europeans were not. Accordingly, they adopted a political posture that was bitterly opposed to any reform that granted the Muslims any additional power or freedom whatsoever.

As a lobbying force, they took captive 20 or 30 members of the French parliament; not enough to take control of parliament by any stretch, but during a period of time when parliament was otherwise bitterly divided between various leftwing factions were fighting for power (with the specter of de Gaulle hanging over them all), the Pieds-Noirs lobby became strong enough to topple the government back home, and they used this power with ruthless effectiveness to quash anything that might have lessened their disproportionate hold on power in Algeria. They became adamant rabble-rousers on their own and used the power of the borderline violent demonstration to repeatedly bend the French parliament to their will. Nonetheless, their unwillingness to accept any change in their own position relative to their numerical strength was no doubt a significant contributing factor to the start of the war, and its continuation.

If you can’t also see the parallels between this political reality and the forces that brought Trump to power, then I can’t spell it out any clearer to you.

When the war finally began on November 1, 1954, the FLN was but one rival group competing for political supremacy among the Muslim population in Algeria. They were a small organization, horribly equipped, and without significant training. But they were not without a plan. First, after announcing their revolution with a loud (but largely militarily ineffective) series of attacks on All Saints’ Day, they counted on two forces to swell their recruitment numbers: the inevitable overreaction by the French army a la Seitif, and the reign of terror they planned to impose on their own populace. On both fronts, they were wildly successful.

First, they set about liquidating their own local opposition, including the local Communist party in in Algeria, and convincing other revolutionary groups in Algeria to get on board with the FLN or face liquidation (through gruesome means) themselves. They also focused their initial attacks not on the well equipped French military but rather – in a precursor to modern-day Iraq and Afghanistan – on the local Arab police forces, who were brutally decimated such that they became fearful and unable to do their jobs. As a result, the Algerian population came to live in absolute fear and the belief that the French government was incapable or unwilling to provide them peace and safety. French collaborators and moderate Muslims who preached political compromise were likewise terrorized and often killed brutally. The end result was that any local voices of compromise or reason were either snuffed out or silenced.

They were helped in this regard by the predictably disproportionate response from the French military. A wildly disproportionate response had worked (so far as they knew) in response to Seitif; why could it not work again? The French army adopted as policy a doctrine straight out of Trump’s playbook, the concept of “collective responsibility.” If a given area or village was suspected of harboring FLN operatives, they were all subject to punishment (including death) and confiscation of property. Far from actually serving to help eliminate the FLN, the bitterness generated by this policy was the greatest propaganda tool the FLN had at their disposal, such that in the span of a year, the FLN’s ranks grew from a few hundred to over 6,000.

At every step along the way, the French military responded to the steady escalation of violence with rhetoric and action straight out of the Trump playbook: meet force and brutality with even worse force and brutality. Although the FLN was all too ready to torture and abuse French troops, they had absolutely no compunction about using torture reprisals for their propaganda effect; which they did with wild success. The FLN’s plan, which they worked to perfection both in Algeria and in metropolitan France, was to politically destroy the moderates on both sides until nothing but the polar extremes remained. And at every step during the incipient stages of the war, the French army followed advice that could have come straight from the mouth of Donald Trump, and thus found themselves further enmeshed against an army that grew larger and more fanatical despite their best efforts.

Once this was accomplished, they knew it was but a matter of time until they achieved victory, since as a matter of sheer numbers, they outnumbered the French in Algeria by a more than 8-to-1 margin. Even though the French had better arms, equipment, and training, they knew they could win a war of attrition if only they were dedicated enough, and they were willing to use terror on their own people and population to ensure that local dedication did not flag. They were so effective at eliminating the political middle, in fact, that when de Gaulle finally concluded that Algeria must be granted her independence to avoid the ongoing crippling of the French military and budget, he nearly fell victim to a military coup from his own generals who refused to accept that Algeria should or could be let go.

Trump, for all his bluster, doesn’t have a particularly subtle or agile intellect. In fact, he shows little or no evidence of being smart at all, and struggles clearly to grasp basic public policy concepts. To such a person as Trump, there is an elemental appeal to the strategy he is proposing. We have a bigger hammer than the Muslims, therefore it must be that the only reason we are losing is that our leaders have lacked either the musclepower or the testicular fortitude to swing it as hard or as often as they should. If they bomb us, we should bomb them back harder. If they torture us, we torture back, only harder. And so on and so on.

The only problem is that there is now a better than decent sample size – including Algeria, the Soviet war in Afghanistan, Iraq, and our war in Afghanistan – that these tactics do not work and in fact only serve to exacerbate the problem further. Success in the Muslim world does require the willingness to apply an iron fist at times, but even more it requires the application of force with intelligence and subtlety. The moderates must be nurtured and above all physically protected both from collateral damage and from reprisals by their own radical countrymen. And special care must be taken to be conscious of the one area where radical Muslims clearly have us outclassed and outgunned: producing propaganda that is damnably persuasive to otherwise non-violent Muslims to join their cause.

An all out total war on the world’s Muslim population is a horrible idea that will only make the United States less safe, not to mention cause needless bloodshed in the Muslim world. But Trump’s policies – insofar as they even deserve to be called policies – will undoubtedly put us on that track in the name of appearing “tough” and “smart” even though they are the opposite of both.

I know, after all this time on the campaign trail, during which Trump has shown no willingness to educate himself on even the most rudimentary policy details, that it is a bit much to ask to hope that Trump will take it upon himself to learn about a topic so esoteric as the French-Algerian war. But what he should realize is that the radical Islamic enemy that we face has learned all about it and is using it as a blueprint against us, and only a fool refuses to learn about his opponents’ playbook when it is offered up to him.