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Book Review: The Question by Henri Alleg

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Within months of the invasion of Iraq, the Pentagon held a special screening of the film Battle of Algiers, supposedly to show how and why France failed in its struggle against Algerian urban guerilla warfare and terrorism. Later, others wondered about the film's depiction of torture and its impact on American policy in light of Abu Ghraib and the practice of "rendition." Now comes a written work that made the French aware of what was happening in Algeria. Sadly, the book may remain all too relevant today.

The Question, released for the first time in the U.S. in nearly 50 years, details the arrest and torture by the French military of Henri Alleg, a French journalist living in Algiers. Alleg, a Communist who supported Algerian independence, shocked the French nation. The slim volume was written in 1957 in an Algiers prison four months after the torture ended, smuggled out of prison and published in France the next year. It was the first book to be banned in France for political reasons in two centuries. It retains its power today.

This new release contains the original text and the original preface by Jean-Paul Sartre. It adds not only a foreword and introduction by Americans who have written on U.S. policies and Guantanamo Bay, but also a new afterword by Alleg.

The methods used on Alleg were brutal. In his first session alone, Alleg is electrically shocked on various parts of his body, including his genitals; waterboarded; beaten; and various parts of his body, including his groin, are burned. When he is finally taken to a cell, he is thrown into it with his hands handcuffed behind his back.

On my knees, I moved towards a mattress against the wall. I tried to lie on it on my stomach but it was stuffed inside with barbed wire. I heard a laugh behind the door: "I put some barbed wire inside the mattress."

With passages like these, Alleg portrays how, whether by mindset or acclimation, those conducting the torture seemed to become immune to it. Thus, when Alleg later is tortured some three floors underground, one of his main persecutors wants him gagged. But it's not because Alleg's screams might be heard. Rather, Alleg is gagged because his torturer finds the screaming of his victims "disagreeable." Similarly, when Alleg is later taken to the infirmary, the doctor does not tend to his wounds but, rather, supervises the administration of "truth serum."

Yet Alleg also shows how effects spread further than the victim or interrogator. He writes of a young paratrooper who came into his cell and praised those in the French Resistance who died from torture rather than reveal information.

I looked at this youth with his sympathetic face, who could talk of sessions of torture I had undergone as if they were a football match that he remembers and could congratulate me without spite as he would a champion athlete. A few days later I saw him, shriveled up and disfigured by hatred, hitting a Moslem who didn't go fast enough down the staircase. This [clearing center] was not only a place of torture for Algerians, but a school of perversion for young Frenchmen.

Sartre also takes note of this. He points out that rather than wondering if they would talk if their fingernails were pulled out, the question facing the young military men became, "If my friends, fellow soldiers, and leaders tear out an enemy's fingernails, what will I do?" It is this aspect of such practices that really becomes the ultimate question and makes The Question more than a story about the French military in Algeria.

Alleg's new afterword says French specialists in "muscular interrogation" provided training to governments around the world, including Latin America, South Africa and the United States. Likewise, a new introduction by James Le Sueuer, a history professor who has written on the French-Algerian conflict, states that French officers who oversaw the use of torture and summary executions in Algeria trained U.S. military personnel on counterinsurgency theory and France "actively sent its professional torturers as official military advisors to the American military." The reports of the use of sleep deprivation and waterboarding in interrogations in Iraq and Guantanamo Bay and the Abu Ghraib photos seem familiar enough to some of the techniques Alleg describes that they may speak to an Algerian legacy.

Yet it is doubtful The Question will stir in the U.S. what it did in France. Unquestionably, some of the book's impact came from Alleg being a French citizen being tortured by the French military. Similarly, Alleg was a journalist, not a combatant or terrorist who posed a direct threat to the French military or the public. As such, his situation is far different from that of someone who may possess knowledge of upcoming attacks, which seems to have been the focus of the U.S. debate on interrogation practices. Moreover, since Alleg's book is far from the first to detail barbaric treatment of prisoners and certainly not the last, it provides a sad commentary on mankind and human nature. Still, as Alleg points out, it is important that citizens know what is done in their names.

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About Tim Gebhart

Tim Gebhart is a book addict living in Sioux Falls, S.D., where he practices law to provide shelter for his family, books and dogs.
  • http://philobiblon.co.uk Natalie Bennett

    This article has been selected for syndication to Advance.net, which is affiliated with newspapers around the United States. Nice work!

  • Lumpy

    This review made me yearn for the clarity of vision of those who fought against the coomunist insurgency throughout europe which was the bitterest legacy of WW2.

    Don’t blame the french government or the torturers. Blame Alleg and his fellow travellers and his masters in the Kremlin whose victory was thwarted by these heinous acts in service of the greater good and ultimately saving millions from lives of slavery and torture.

    Make no mistake. The cold war was a very real war for survival all over the world.