Germaine Tillion: War and Peace
How One Ethnographer Taught an Enduring Lesson to the French Military
In 1962, the French people were slapped awake from a century-long rêverie of emerald lagoons, azure skies, and seaside patios. After a grueling eight-year fiasco involving terrorist attacks, tortures, indiscriminate killings, and tens of thousands of lives lost on both sides, Algeria was lost to France.
Unlike her other possessions in Africa, France didn’t treat Algeria as an outright colony; it was integrated as a department of France, who sent millions of settlers — known as pied-noirs — primarily to metropolitan Algiers, where they would produce many figures in the arts and literature, like Camus, Derrida, and Senac. Perhaps this is why parting with Algeria was much more painful than the loss of Indochina, which was, militarily at least, under much more humiliating circumstances for the French. The topic of Algeria remained taboo in France throughout the 20th century.
The Algerian fight for independence was initiated by the National Liberation Front (FLN), and was supported by many Arab and African states. It was a war that epitomized the anti-colonial conflicts popping up across Africa and Asia, defining the 1960s as an era where the final nail would be hammered into the coffin of European imperialism. Much of the fighting was in the streets and casbahs, the characteristic block houses of native Algerians. Combatants often blended with the population, who enthusiastically took part in bombings and assassinations. The consequence of guerrilla tactics and their heavy use of civilians was that there was no distinguishing between combatant and non-combatant. Torture and summary executions were common; the primal law of the human mind (kill or be killed) overruled the conventions of warfare. The French, whose modern navy blockaded the port city of Algiers, whose powerful aircraft dominated the skies, whose expertly trained paratroopers could fall anywhere, anytime — were eventually sent home, tail between legs, by a disorganized force fighting with little training and smuggled weapons.
Later on, lessons from the Algerian front proved invaluable to other powers who foresaw a future colonial war. The United States was one of them. David Galula, a French intelligence officer who served in Algeria, was invited to Harvard University as a lecturer where he drafted a manual on counterinsurgency warfare. This manual is studied in military academies across the world to this day, and the modern U.S. Army Counterinsurgency Manual is largely identical to Galula’s original work.
While Galula’s concise, matter-of-fact writing style reminiscent of a military bulletin may be popular in defense academies, it is the anthropologist Germaine Tillion’s work which should really be required reading at the war college. Galula stresses in his manual that the real battleground in a guerrilla war is the mind of the population. Tillion, a member of the French Resistance during the Second World War and a celebrated ethnographer, proved that true attention to people can not only win wars, but prevent them outright.
While the French in Algiers still sipped pastis on the terraces, Tillion took several trips to Algeria, the first of which took place in 1953 on the eve of the uprising in Algiers. Through her observations and interactions with the local Arab, Berber, and pied-noir populations, Tillion painted a realistic scene of Algeria, published in 1957. It was a scene from which many French authorities preferred to look the other way. In the magnum opus recollecting her various excursions, l’Algerie en 1957 (published in English as Algeria: The Realities), Tillion uncovers the motives behind the uprising, by then nearly three years into the conflict; in doing so, she uncovered the effects of 130 years of colonialism on a nation- a term which is referred to by the work in question, in one word, as ‘pauperization’ (chlochardisation).
The value of Tillion’s work was uniquely grounded in biological phenomena in relation to demographics, including the Malthusian problem and the then-new concept of biological evolution in relation to social factors of education and progress. Says Tillion, “The sudden and unprecedented increase in population, the simultaneous dwindling of resources, the collapse of the economy, and contact with the heartbreaking superiority of foreign techniques are rocking to their foundations the archaic civilizations that have been subjected to this combined offensive.” Tillion’s was not wholly a social work; it was a scientific report of social, economic, and biological conditions- conditions which in the military sciences constitute a consequential part of strategy.
““All-that-France-has-done-in-Algeria” and “All-that-France-hasn’t-done-in-Algeria” form together a sort of explosive compound, to the destructive force of which our accomplishments contribute no less powerfully than our misdeeds”
In 1955, Tillion established ‘Social Centers’ where the native Algerian population would be connected to opportunities for vocational training and higher education. Much of her effort would be hindered by the mutual distrust that overtook both sides as the conflict wore on. Tillion would spend the war years meeting with FLN leaders to attempt to end the urban violence which claimed the lives of many innocents — including young girls and boys. She also denounced the extreme torture methods of General Aussaresses in gaining confessions and information from FLN prisoners, and was successful in appealing to President De Gaulle to pardon many of the insurgents from execution.
Through her research and activism, Tillion brought a new perspective to the study of military science, which involves looking less at urban warfare tactics or paratrooper logistics and more at social patterns among the population and taking the initiative to meet their needs. While figures from both sides of the conflict — the likes of De Gaulle, Aussaresses, Ali La Pointe, Saadi Yacef — have made it into military curriculums and popular films, Tillion has not become main character in the Algerian saga. It’s about time she does.