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Fight or Write: A Journalist in Algiers

December 1, 2010

Fight or Write: Ted Morgan’s War in My Battle of Algiers

The author of My Battle of Algiers: A Memoir offers a unique perspective on the culmination of French colonialism occurring in Algeria since 1830. With the city of Algiers and its surrounding areas becoming war zones and battlefields, the battle of Algiers marks the birth of modern day terrorism. The brilliance and irony of this memoir is how baraka, or luck, seems to follow the author, Ted Morgan, as he eventually is able to serve in the French army through the education and training he receives at Yale University and the skill set he acquires as a journalist writing for the Worcester Telegram in Worcester, Massachusetts.

After four months of service as first an officer and then a platoon leader, Morgan is recruited as a staff writer by one of his superiors to help launch a weekly publication in Algeria called Réalités Algériennes whose aim is to spread French military propaganda among the Algerian and Arab community, primarily in the Casbah. This helps pave the way for Morgan who subsequently continues to write and becomes a historian. In a sudden twist of fate, Morgan’s story shifts from his experiences as a soldier to somewhat of a war correspondent having much access to military intelligence. The genius behind Morgan’s memoir is that as a journalist in Algiers, he becomes “the historian of the moment” (Morgan, 30).

The definition of war given by Ted Morgan in his book My Battle of Algiers: A Memoir, specifically on page 261, is not inexorably true. The elements within Morgan’s passage summarizing war that can be disputed are: (1) “wars are fought on moral credit,” (2) “the loser declares bankruptcy,” and (3) “the victor takes possession and the vanquished are dispossessed” (Morgan, 261).

In the first four months of serving in the French army, Morgan kills two male Algerian rebels on two separate and unrelated occasions. The first rebel is beaten to death while held captive after being tortured by several other officers while the second is shot during combat that ensues in the bled, or Algerian countryside. Morgan refers to the emotional turmoil he experiences from killing the first time as an “inner disfigurement that [he’s] had to live with” ever since (Morgan, 92). The second time he kills a man, Morgan is “shaken by a wave of relief at having fired first” as a result of his “reflex [being] half a second quicker” (Morgan, 99). Morgan further emphasizes: “In a war, the difference between life and death [is] a matter of timing and luck” (Morgan, 141).

Anyone who is not willing to risk their life can easily understand how Morgan, would rather comply with military duty by agreeing to work as a journalist versus risking his life and killing any further while serving as a soldier. As a result, Morgan is able to salvage his principles by “[remaining] uninvolved, an observer rather than a participant” (Morgan, 31). This ideology is what initially leads Morgan to journalism school at Yale University. Although he writes for the French army longer than he actually fights as a soldier, Morgan’s experiences and opinions relating to the battle of Algiers are not to be minimized. His honesty and morality are certainly not to be questioned as Morgan clearly admits to homicide twice. At the very least, Morgan regrets killing the one defenseless Algerian POW.

Armies fight wars on more than just moral credit. Morgan makes this point as a soldier, journalist, and individual. However, it is not that simple. This would never be the point of view of the politicians or collective army involved. It is obvious that “[an army] cannot fight a guerrilla war with humanitarian principles” (Morgan, 84). Unfortunately, in the process, innocent civilians are injured and slaughtered continually, and many times in guerilla warfare, it just seems like neither party is winning. Many times army soldiers go to war out of a sense of obligation to their country and their fellow comrades and do not necessarily agree with the politics surrounding the fighting. In this sense, soldiers definitely compromise their political beliefs as well. The general consensus among the French soldiers going to Algeria proves this: “Why hang on to a piece of real estate four times the size of France, most of it desert and mountains, where repressive treatment of the native Arabs [has] led to a rebellion?” (Morgan, 52). Furthermore, Morgan’s “true nature of war [is one where] your declared enemy is not your only enemy,” and this also helps support the argument of how politics and bureaucracy also play roles in why and how wars are fought (Morgan, 79).

As the battle of Algiers reaches an end, the initial core members of the FLN are either killed or arrested and tried. At this point, the French army is under the impression that the FLN is completely dismantled. One would think that the FLN, having lost the battle of Algiers, would announce the worth of its organization as lacking in value, or being bankrupt as Morgan suggests. This never occurs. Instead, the FLN manages to reorganize as the OAS (Organization of the Secret Army) in less than a year after the battle of Algiers, and surprise attacks continue to occur in response to the French. The FLN initially loses, but the movement survives, restructures, and the Algerians continue to fight for their personal liberty and the liberty of their country. The loser of the battle of Algiers does not declare bankruptcy.

The French army misjudged in thinking they could win. Similarly, Machiavelli suggests this of the Veienti and Tuscans in The Prince when they attempt to conquer the Romans: “This shows how apt men are to deceive themselves . . . in deciding upon what course they are to take, and how frequently they lose where they had confidently hoped to win” (Machiavelli, 371). In terms of Algiers, it is difficult to fight someone on their turf and win when they are successful in fighting back as a result of having a much better understanding of their land and geography. In this regard, the Algerian rebels are ruthless, and this upsets one of the French platoon leaders: “They’ve got goat blood. I sent a couple of men up, but they didn’t get far” (Morgan, 81). Needless to say, Algerian rebels maneuver through the Algerian terrain much better than the French soldiers.

An Algerian FLN member would simply not agree with Morgan’s quote on morality, bankruptcy, and victory. As members of the FLN and the OAS, the Algerians would never win their freedom and control of their country if they would: (1) worry about morality, (2) declare bankruptcy after losing the battle of Algiers, and/or (3) allow the French to take complete possession of Algeria.

If morality plays a role, the FLN and the OAS would never rebel. There is no room for principles or integrity when indigenous people seek liberty from their oppressors. Any FLN or OAS member would justify their behavior as fighting fire with fire. They may have to take a little time to reorganize, but they will not capitulate.

Declaring political or military bankruptcy after losing the battle of Algiers would not have been an option to the FLN or the OAS. If so, Algeria may never have been liberated, at least not in 1962. Furthermore, Algeria was not willing to participate in helping the French maintain a static socio-political, military stance. It seems as if the only sure-fire way the FLN and the OAS could be stopped is through annihilation. The rebels would agree that they would have to be completely destroyed in order to cease fire. This makes sense as they clearly and continuously risk their lives for the sake of freedom. The FLN never declares bankruptcy, and this persistence only helps them in their quest for what they know is rightfully theirs.

The Algerians become dispossessed as a result of colonization and not war. On the contrary, the French eventually dispossess themselves by liberating Algeria thus implying a declaration of bankruptcy on their part. This only proves that the victors do not always take possession. It should be noted that the lack of government in France at the time helped Algerians win their freedom. How could the French have managed to govern Algeria when they could not even govern France?

It is almost impossible to summarize wars in a nutshell. The flaw in Morgan’s quote is that wars are dynamic and not static, as he suggests. One could argue that Morgan’s point of view applies to wars in a superficial and general sense and is not necessarily specific to Algeria. In retrospect, wars associated with colonization seem senseless. This is especially true in the case of the France and Algeria. It is unfortunate how the French continue to deprive Algeria of its rightful freedom yet liberates it in the end.
In terms of those who actually fight a war, Morgan reasons: “The sad thing is that those who [do] the fighting will not be those who take power” (Morgan, 161). It is unfortunate how the French government utilizes their military by manipulating and exploiting them only to liberate Algeria five years later in 1962.

This hardly seems like the victor taking possession, or the vanquished being dispossessed. On the contrary, the Algerians remain in Algeria and eventually gain control of their country which currently operates as “a constitutional republic with a democratically elected government” (Wikipedia). This will only benefit the Algerians and as suggested in The Republic of Plato, democracy will yield “a greater variety of individuals than under any other constitution” (Plato, 280).

The one unequivocal truth about fighting in a war that Morgan affirms is: “In wartime, there’s a Hyde in every Jekyll” (Morgan, 169).

Works Cited

Machiavelli, Niccolo. The Prince and The Discourses. New York, New York: Random House, Inc. 1940. Print.

Morgan, Ted. My Battle of Algiers: A Memoir. New York, New York: HarperCollins Publishers. 2005. Print.

Plato. The Republic of Plato. New York, New York: Oxford University Press. 1945. Print.
“Politics of Algeria.” Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation, Inc., 1 Sept. 2010. Web.
1 Dec. 2010.

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