Review: Torture and the Twilight of Empire


Clara Ponce De Leon

Originally published in The Evergreen Review Issue 116 in 2008.

Marnia Lazreg, Torture and the Twilight of Empire
(Princeton University Press, 2008)
Review by Clara Ponce De Leon, translated by Juana Ponce de Leon

With the Bush administration still in power and the torture of prisoners in Iraq, Afghanistan, Guatanamo and in secret CIA jails in Morocco, Jordan, Egypt and other countries still a burning issue, Torture and the Twilight of Empire, by sociologist Marnia Lazreg, comes at an opportune moment. Her book traces the long arm of torture to mid-twentieth century conflicts and the war in Algeria, specifically, which, in turn, sheds light on the unfortunate modern political landscape.

In March 2008, Bush vetoed legislation that prohibited the use of “harsh interrogation techniques” on supposed terrorists – an euphemism to hide the use of torture. In May, “Where is the Outrage Over Torture?” – an article by Robert Scheer published in The Nation – comments on a recent and detailed report from the Department of Justice that speaks of the complicity by the United States in the use of torture.

Princeton University Press, which published the book, refers to the book as “nothing less than the anatomy of torture – its methods, justifications, functions and consequences.” Lazreg argues that torture as a preventive measure or punishment for “subversive acts” – a theory of it developed in the 1950s by French veterans of other lost colonial wars – is a logical consequence of a new form of “subversive” war, waged not by traditional armies but guerrilla groups or popular armies, and points to the difficulty of defeating them even by technologically superior forces. Lazreg sees Algeria as the testing ground for revolutionary wars in Africa and Latin America.

In the chapter titled “From Algiers to Baghdad,” Lazreg points to the similarities – not accidental – between the conflicts in Algeria and present-day Iraq, both nations with a majority Muslim population. She argues that the war in Algeria has been not just a “source of information” for the United States, but a source of inspiration, adding that the Pentagon uses the film The Battle of Algiers as a training tool.

The fight between the National Liberation Front (FLN) and the French forces, the systematic use of torture as a “weapon of war” and the state of terror it creates – unique to the colonial domination and the subjugation of the people – are key elements of the book. Lazreg is unrelenting in her description of the mechanisms and techniques of the torture used by low-level officials and police, who have been trained in centers specializing in subversive war and anti-guerilla techniques, like France’s Camp Jeanne D‘Arc.

She identifies the theory of “revolutionary war” taught at L’Ecole Supérieure de Guerre in Paris to foreign students, one in four from Latin America, with the so-called Doctrine of National Security taught in countries like Brazil, where it was “used in preparation for the military coup of 1964.” Most Latin American governments adopt the doctrine used in Algeria, as well as its rhetoric of “pacification,” rich in euphemisms and dialectic acrobatics with which they seek to legalize it and make it acceptable to the people as a necessary evil for reasons of state, and as a patriotic duty to safeguard the Empire. Its use devastated the continent and gave rise to the dictatorships in the Southern Cone and Central America in the 1960s and 1970s. It is the same reasoning used by J.F. Kennedy in his attempt to counteract the influence of the Cuban Revolution in Latin America in 1961 and 1962.

Lazreg’s sources are interviews with former soldiers, confessions of past torturers, archival material, war diaries, and victims’ testimonies, as well as books penned by generals and historians. Commentary on torture by influential intellectuals, including Jean-Paul Sartre, Frantz Fanon and Albert Camus, is also cited.

“The Christian Church and Antisubversive War,” a chapter that focuses on the role of the Christian church and religion in the Algerian war – Catholic France against the Muslim insurgence, which the Catholics consider part of an inferior culture – is a sober reminder of the deep roots of the psychology that shapes the war on terrorism now waged by the United States and the Western world. The author cites prelates and archbishops, who wrote in the Christian press, both condemning and approving the use of torture, depending on their political leanings. She points to the French church in Algeria and its dependence on the French government – its prelates got their salary from the Department of Defense, in violation of the separation of state and church and compromising the church’s independence in taking a position on the war. An independent Algeria also would mean that the church would have to give back the mosques it turned into churches, along with other properties appropriated by France.

Torture and the Twilight of Empire is so dense with information that at times it is difficult to penetrate. However, Lazreg provides new insights on the influences of the war in Algeria. Her deliberations on the use of torture and the psychological toll it takes both on its victims and the torturers allows us to understand better subsequent conflicts, the revolutionary and counter-revolutionary developments in Latin America, and today’s Iraq War.