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Strategy of Imperialism

Lydia Pelot-Hobbs
Date Published: 
October 01, 2008

Torture and the Twilight of Empire: From Algiers to Baghdad
By Marnia Lazerg
Princeton University Press, 2007

While the US's use of torture under the “war on terror” has become more visible to the general public, this visibility has shamefully not garnered the amount of public outcry as deserved. One key reason for the lack of mass outrage is the widespread belief that torture is rarely employed by the US military, and when it is utilized it is only in dire circumstances. In her new book, Lazreg draws the connections between the US use of torture in the “war on terror” and the use of torture by the French military in the Algerian War. Lazreg shatters the myth that acts of torture are isolated incidents, and documents that such acts are central to military strategy and the creation and maintenance of an imperial identity.

One of the strongest parts of the book is the documentation of how the French colonial State employed a slow and nuanced strategy to produce a fully militarized society as a means to erode civil liberties. Such a move was fundamental in the State’s ability to obtain implicit public support for the torture against Algerian revolutionaries. One of the first steps in this process was manufacturing a sense of panic and fear among colonists and politicians in Algeria and France. This tactic was helped by the pre-existing Christian white supremacist imperialist culture that marked Algerians as inherently dangerous and other. Such oppressive ideologies, coupled with the disproportionate and fear-mongering publicity over the attacks of Algerian revolutionaries against French colonialists, enabled the military to coerce and manipulate public perception into believing they needed a militarized colonial state for their safety. Furthermore, it was not only the State that became militarized, but the military became politicized in such a fashion that it was no longer possible to distinguish between military and political decisions. They were one and the same.

Lazreg argues that this consolidation of power was a strategic move that gave room for sweeping changes such as the creation of internment camps, heightened surveillance of the populace, and expansion of the military justice system. It also allowed for the expansive use of torture. Torture was a tool utilized to strike fear both in revolutionaries and the general public, to obtain information, and to brainwash and pacify combatants. Lazreg reminds us that the French use of torture was completely intertwined with their larger imperialist goals. Torture was exercised to “facilitate mind alteration for the purpose of securing loyalty to colonial rule.” According to the ideas of French psychoanalysts, Algerians (particularly Muslims) were of an inferior psychological standing and needed to be reconditioned to obtain the healthy psychological condition of their colonial counterparts. This imperialist logic was used in torturing victims not only to gain information, but also to see who could be mentally reconditioned as a colonial loyalist. Those individuals who could be successfully brainwashed would be sent back into their communities to build stronger support for colonial rule.

Imperial identity

Moreover, the author makes sure never to forget the highly gendered and sexualized aspects of torture. She argues that sexualized violence continues to be one of the least acknowledged acts of torture, despite its ubiquity in the torture chamber. Used against both female and male victims, it exerts power in unique ways. Because women are so often sublimated into notions of homeland, and the nation, the torturers’ rape of them was not simply an individual act, but a punishment against the entire Algerian nation’s revolt. Sexual assault as a method of torture was not only an expression of patriarchy and white supremacy, but was also used to assert Christian hegemony over Islamic religious traditions. One example of this was torturers slowly stripping Muslim Algerian women to challenge the religious coverings of women. Furthermore, Lazreg illustrates that male victims were emasculated in the process of sexualized torture both literally and figuratively. Because of the queer nature of these acts, they were kept hidden beyond other acts of torture, lest they sully French white masculinity. Sexualized violence was always used to physically and psychologically break the victims.

Lazreg is also deeply interested in both the psychological processes of empire and torture. She spends a significant amount of her book teasing out the ways that torture was used not only as a means to terrorize Algerian nationalists against revolting, but also as a method for soldiers to exert their own imperial identity. White supremacist Christian ideology assumed that the victims of torture were inherently inferior. It was precisely through acts of torture that torture worked to create an inferior colonial subject: broken and psychologically maligned. On the other hand, the torturer is able to reassert his power over colonial subjects through the act of torture at the very moment when that power is being challenged. For the torturer, torturing reassured themselves of their inherent superiority and power.

While this book is aimed primarily at an academic audience, and becomes jargon-y at times, it is useful for anyone trying to understand how current US politics are part of a global historical legacy of empire. Lazreg’s work artfully argues that we must understand the ways torture is used – not only as a tactic of war, but also as a strategy of imperialism.