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"Individual human lives count little for me, including my own. I was tough on my enemies, but also on myself." Related Gully Coverage

A Bloody Ramadan In Algeria
Hundreds of deaths in the ongoing civil war.

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Vietnamese children at a grave site for villagers who were killed during a Navy SEAL raid 32 years ago in the Mekong Delta. Richard Vogel

The Secrets of War

by Kelly Cogswell

MAY 8, 2001. As Americans try to digest the news that the much-admired former Senator Bob Kerrey led his Navy SEAL commando team in a massacre in Vietnam thirty-two years ago, France is being rocked by evidence of atrocities committed by their military during Algeria's war for independence.

In his just published book, "Special Services 1955-57," General Paul Aussaresses, now 83 years old, admits to having personally tortured and summarily executed members of the Algerian liberation movement, and ordering massacres of civilians.

Unlike Kerrey, who says memories of his part in the killing of unarmed women and children in Vietnam at times made him feel deeply depressed, even suicidal, General Aussaresses coolly claims he's not troubled by what he did as a high-ranking military officer, and coordinator of the French intelligence services during the Battle of Algiers in 1957.

In a May 2 interview published in the Parisian daily Le Monde, he said, "The situation was explosive. There were threats of bomb attacks on all sides. I needed information, to gain time, and I couldn't afford to hesitate. Torture is very effective. Most people break and talk. Afterwards, for the most part, we would finish them off. Individual human lives count little for me, including my own. I was tough on my enemies, but also on myself."

More importantly, he said his actions were justified because he was operating with the full knowledge and backing of the French government.

In a statement issued by his office on May 4, French President Jacques Chirac said he "is horrified by General Aussaresses' declarations and condemns the atrocities, torture and summary executions and murders." Chirac urged that the general be stripped of the Legion of Honor.

I suppose that taking away the medal would be just, and it would be just, also, if General Aussaresses were brought to trial for war crimes and crimes against humanity, as Amnesty International wants.

In the United States, there should be an investigation into both Kerrey and his commander, Captain Roy Hoffmann, whose gung-ho demand for kills paved the way for disaster. In fact, the whole Vietnam war should be reexamined battle by battle, order by order.

But investigating these past acts is less about bringing individuals to justice, than considering the future. We need to address the basic questions: Can democracy or justice be imposed by violent means? And are the long-term results of state-sponsored and liberation movement violence and terrorism different from each other?

In some ways, there is not much difference between the U.S.-backed paramilitary in Colombia, which routinely massacres suspected rebel collaborators, and the liberation movements of Northern Ireland or the Basque region which put bombs in cafes and post offices in the hopes of winning outright independence.

Violence becomes a habit. Remember Afghanistan? In the United States' zeal to fight the Evil Empire, we helped give birth to the horrific Taliban. The French refusal to loosen their colonial grip in Algeria, and their brutal retaliation to nationalist resistance entrenched widespread violence there. And violence is not a spigot you turn on and off.

The French have been gone for decades, but the Algerian government, and the Muslim extremists who oppose it, regularly use everything they learned and practiced during the war for independence: murder, kidnapping, assassination, torture, and terrorism. The government has silenced the press, and most recently shot a student demonstrator in the Berber region of Kabylia. Brutal crackdowns on resulting riots have led to the death of over 40 protesters.

Meanwhile, Muslim extremists, during one weekend in Ramadan, machine-gunned 15 students in a boarding school, and opened fire on a civilian bus, killing another 15. They routinely massacre villagers, slashing their throats at night.

Algerian violence, though, is not just a colonial legacy. It is also human history, a testament to the fragility of compassion when it is up against the logic of expediency. No one ever argues that killing is inherently good, just that it's necessary. The stories of both Kerrey and Aussaresses remind us what military minds don't yet understand. That the ends don't justify the means, but are created by them.

Related links:

For the 1999 Amnesty International Report on Algeria.

For the Economist article Thinking the Unthinkable: Will the truth behind the appalling brutality of Algeria's long civil war ever be known?

For the dissident Algerian Movement of Free Algerian Officers.

For Complete Coverage Africa

For Complete Coverage U.S. Politics

In Depth

Africa Emerging
News, opinion, politics from Algeria to Zimbabwe.

Bush Plus
U.S. politics and the Bush administration All about George W. Bush, Dems, Greens, GOPs, and the morass of U.S. politics.

From global warming to gay-trendsetting. Includes headlines, politics, and news from beyond.

From global warming to gay-trendsetting. Includes headlines, politics, and news from beyond.

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