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My Battle of Algiers

Ted Morgan

Collins, 284 pages, $32.95

Learn from history? That's a good one. Even when politicians claim to be one-upping their predecessors, you get something like the war in Iraq -- George W. rushing in where his father feared to tread.

So the lessons from Ted Morgan's war in Algeria five decades ago may escape those who prefer their own doom. Didactic isn't his style in any case, even as he describes the official French policy of torture that gives Algeria priority on the history curriculum. As an Americanized Frenchman conscripted into a brutal war against Islamic nationalists, Morgan was well-placed to comprehend this disaster-in-the-making -- painfully recounted in Gillo Pontecorvo's 1965 film The Battle of Algiers. But his story is told at a much more personal level, where a love of pleasure isn't inconsistent with a day job spent inflicting pain.

Ted Morgan, a prize-winning biographer (of Churchill, FDR and William Burroughs, an alternative Yalta) started life with the aristocratic name of St. Charles "Sanche" de Gramont before anagramming his surname into something more recognizably American. An aura of privilege hovers over him in these breezy memoirs, even as he's negotiating his odd passage from diplomat's kid studying journalism at Columbia to French officer leading his Senegalese fighters to the army's mobile brothel. He's the kind of warrior who hooks up with the top French officer in Algiers while dining with his old family friend, the U.S. consul, and parleys his connections into free lodgings with a wealthy, bored housewife who immediately becomes his lover -- to the strains of Charles Trenet's La Mer, no less.

That's some battle. Algiers obviously had its moments, even as the insurgents shifted their headquarters from the lonely countryside to the crowded Kasbah, laying the foundation for modern urban terrorism by planting bombs in the capital's cafés. But Morgan at this point had also done his share of killing and absorbed his commander's conscience-clearing rule: "You cannot fight a guerrilla war with humanitarian principles."

So inhumanity became the norm, and Morgan deftly illustrates how the system persuades itself that it works, even as it comes apart. His own muddled role in Algeria is just as telling. He ends his war writing propaganda while filing a truer version to a U.S. paper, helps a deserter escape and is interrogated (with a minimum of torture) for suspicious contacts with the enemy -- all to the strains of Piaf's No Regrets, one imagines.

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