A saucy war memoir with lessons for today's world
A French journalist writes of life as an officer in Algeria.
Ted Morgan, the only French citizen ever to win the Pulitzer Prize, claims in My Battle of Algiers that he was drawn to journalism after reading a phrase from Camus: "The journalist is the historian of the moment." But he later confesses that he had always been a snoop.
The high- and low-minded blend perfectly in this extraordinary war memoir which masterfully combines primary-source history with a touch of picaresque devilry in the storytelling.
From the opening lines, the journalist-turned-soldier- turned-journalist/Frenchman turned-American-turned-Frenchman makes it clear that he is not relying on his pedigree or past successes to give meaning to this memoir of war. The story he has to tell has relevance of its own in today's world, he argues. "The systematic use of urban terrorism as we see it today began in Algiers in 1957." The Iraq war is resonant throughout.
Born in Paris, Sanche (short for Saint Charles) de Gramont, grandson of a French duke and the son of an air attaché killed on a bombing mission against the Germans during World War II, grew up in Washington, D.C., studied at the Sorbonne, attended Yale, and later enrolled in journalism school at Columbia University. After graduation, he took a job as a reporter for the Worcester (Mass.) Telegram and promptly changed his name to Ted Morgan (an anagram of de Gramont - it was easier for the typesetters to spell). He worked there for a year before being drafted into the French Army in 1956.
Not wanting to dishonor his late father's name, he flew to Vernon in France to attend officer training school. Even with a reputation as a rouspeteur (griper), he earned his single bar and forage cap and was shipped to Algeria to join the 1st Regiment of the Colonial Infantry.
Arriving in the Algerian bled (countryside), the reluctant lieutenant is given the job of transportation officer.
When one of the platoon leaders is killed, Morgan takes his place. Soon he and his mostly Senegalese (and Muslim) infantrymen (pejoratively referred to as l'armee poubelle or the garbage pail corps), are carrying out bouclage et ratissage (search and destroy) missions against the fellaghas (rebels) with limited success. Atrocities abound on both sides.
Morgan has a knack for capturing the essence of his characters with just a few quick strokes, like a sketch artist at the state fair. My favorite is Boris Dourakine, "a burly lieutenant with thick blond brushed-back hair, a handlebar mustache, heavy-lidded blue eyes, and a face as round and rosy as a Bayonne ham." (Dourakine, a veteran of Indochina and an anarchist, was the officer whom Morgan was sent to replace. He had been shot in the back by his own men.)
In the second part of the memoir, Morgan heads to Algiers with a two-day pass in his pocket. It is there that his high-society connections pay huge dividends.
The American consul is an old friend of the family and he invites Morgan to lunch. At the consul's residence he meets General Jacques Massu, the most powerful man in Algiers, "a giant lumberjack - a bony face, beaklike nose, a black mustache, a granite jaw - a face made to order for a warrior in any period of history."
Discovering that Morgan is a journalist, Massu relieves him of his combat duties and enlists him as a propagandist for the Army's new weekly newspaper, Realities Algeriennes.
In the final chapters, with the infamous Casbah as a backdrop, Morgan describes his "Second Battle of Algiers" as he snoops the labyrinthine alleyways, sets up rendezvous with sources, and dodges terrorist bombings. There are far too many names and dates and political connections to keep track of, but the tension still mounts.
Before his tour is done, Morgan aids and abets a deserter (a fellow officer from his days at Vernon) and has an affair with a kinky rebel collaborator who likes to play hard-to-get. The DST (the French FBI) pick Morgan up and interrogate him as a result of the latter. (They never do find out about the former).
In the end, however, he is finally cleared of the charges and sent home.
Four years later, in 1961, he returns to Algiers as a foreign correspondent for the Herald Tribune. "But that's another story."
For Morgan, "My Battle of Algiers" is above all a lesson in historical repetition: "Iraq is turning out to be the worst foreign dilemma America has faced since Vietnam, just as Algeria was the worst for France since Indochina."
Only a writer as masterly and mischievous as Ted Morgan could make such a lesson so readable.
• Richard Horan is the author of "Life in the Rainbow" and "Goose Music." He teaches composition at the State University of New York at Oswego.