The Extraordinary Life of David Galula

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This article was originally published by the Small Wars Journal in September 2016.

Thanks to a sequence of fortunate accidents around 2005-2006, the world discovered the intellectual legacy of David Galula (1919-1967). Since then, two books and one monograph restituted the story of his life or vast segments of it. Although some went into a fascinating level of detail, none of these, in my view, are an easy read for a non-military audience. A minimal awareness in terms of war studies is needed to really capture what they had to say. Besides, the French-speaking readership is still far from hearing about Galula. These are the two reasons why I decided to tell the story of Galula’s life – in French.

Writing a book about David Galula amounts to recounting the story of a paradox (many of them actually). On the one hand, there is a consensus on him being the founding father of counterinsurgency, a groundbreaking theory in modern military affairs. Galula was a self-made man in various aspects; born into a relatively modest environment, he rose to positions where no one expected him to, in virtue of his faith and social background. He traveled the world and exerted the full scope of his talents in a diversified career ranging from diplomat, author and secret agent to infantry officer. Many influential people liked him and very few voiced any opposition or hostility at his respect. Yet, Galula’s legacy went silent after his premature death in 1967. During forty years, neglect and bad luck buried Galula’s unorthodox and stimulating contributions to the art of war. Neither book royalties nor a military pension were enough to keep his widow from having to look for a job to make a living and raise their only child. Galula is still mostly unheard of in his home country, France.

Anyone who reads Pacification, his most personal book (full of anecdotes concerning his 2-year tour in Algeria), falls in love with the character. At least this is what happened to me. As a Moroccan Muslim, I was happy to dedicate six months of my life researching the journey of a Jew who spent most of his boyhood in my country.  Tired of hearing only about mistrust between Arabs and Jews, I decided to tell the story of an honest man who managed to make his personal life as fascinating as his intellectual journey. May his example open the eyes of those who wonder how to build oneself a meaningful existence, one in which they can make a difference without relinquishing their ideal nor escaping duty.

Galula is the son of an era in which North Africa (from Cairo to Marrakesh) was a cosmopolitan land, open to a relative pluralism where people from different creeds and cultures (such as Greeks, Italians, Spanish, Maltese, Corsicans, Berbers) lived under the same authorities. Galula grew up in the booming Casablanca of the 1930s where colonialism was synonym of access to elite education and social progress (at least for some groups of people). No doubt that the indigenous Jewish community of Morocco was the biggest winner of the French presence, as it flooded the educational system with its brightest young men and women. Galula grew up in a context where France and its colonial project meant something to a native Jew of North Africa without financial or political assets besides his own determination and natural talents. Therefore, it is no surprise that Galula remained loyal to France even after his Vichy government stripped him of his citizenship and expelled him from the military for being a Jew (1941). Years later, he risked his life defending the sovereignty of France in Algeria during the nationalist insurrection (1954-1962). He is the splendid fruit of the pre-war French Republic that rejuvenated its elites through academic excellence. Serving the French cause was not a shame for Muslims neither, at least before 1945. Thousands of Moroccans, Algerians and Tunisians volunteered to help France expel Nazis from its homeland. My grandfather participated in the liberation of France and fought the Germans in Provence in September 1944 (Galula fought in the same theatre concomitantly).

On the outset of my research, I thought Galula was a nice guy, but unlucky. I saw in him a man who failed to achieve what his natural talents had qualified him for. Galula must have been a victim of red tape, he was too straightforward and ethical to avoid being crushed by petty intrigues. He had to immigrate to the USA to get someone to hear what he had to say. I was dead wrong. Galula’s life is no tale of a (splendid) failure.

On several occasions, Galula, a mere captain of the French Colonial Infantry, was allowed to maintain direct and longstanding contacts with the highest ranking officers of his time: Général Ely (Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff), Général Blanc (Inspector General of the French Ground Forces), Général Salan (Algeria Theater Commander) among others. His active self-promotion campaign saw him recruited by the État Major de la Défense National (EMDN), a French equivalent of the US National Security Council.

The French Army always kept Galula in high esteem. He underperformed rank-wise partly because he did not fight in the First Indochina War (1948-1954). Instead, he was posted in Beijing and Hong Kong as military attaché. Therein lies perhaps one of the most fascinating facts about Galula: from age 25 to 35, he chose exotic assignments that kept him far from the hot spots (Indochina, Suez Canal, NATO Europe). Galula had a tendency to explore the fringes of the system. This may have to do with him being born in a French colony and in a marginalized community (North-African Jewish). He may have felt compelled to serve his country from the outside both geographically (Asia, Algeria) and from the conceptual point of view (studying counter-insurgency instead of nuclear dissuasion).

For sure, he was not a maverick nor a “marginal man” as defined by Chicago sociologists Robert Ezra Park and Everette Stonequist. Yet, he endured the consequences of flying in the face of orthodoxy. He was not able to follow a linear career path because he had so many sweet spots: he wrote great books (including 2 novels), he was able to convey elaborate ideas in a limpid fashion, he perfectly understood how to drive over 100 men in a vicious colonial war and performed nation building efforts without much doctrinal nor material help from his government. In my view, had he been more focused on a core competency, he may have achieved a more rewarding life (at least with regard to money and recognition).

Galula was in competition with too many talented people. France in the 1950s and 1960s had a superb military and administrative apparatus fueled by extraordinary individuals, many of them ambitious and well-prepared.

In Algeria, where Galula served from 1956 to 1958, the Army lined up legends like Massu and Bigeard. The civil branch encompassed extremely talented officers, such as Paul Delouvrier who devised and implemented in record time a holistic plan to raise Algeria from under-development (Le Plan de Constantine). Surrounded by so many “big guns”, Galula had to do something different and going the counter-insurgency path was definitely a necessary, however bold gamble.

Although Galula perfectly understood the step-by-step approach to pacifying Algeria, he did not grasp the essential aspects of the rebellion led by FLN (Front de Libération Nationale). To a certain extent, anti-communism and the Cold War context may have blurred his vision of the human terrain in Algeria during the 1950s.

In 1954 – the year the war started – Algeria was closer to Apartheid South Africa than to Kenya or Malaya. It was home to 1 million Europeans (the so-called Pieds Noirs) and 9 million Muslims. The former lived à la française in administrative units very similar to the communes of metropolitan France. The latter – when they weren’t crowded into a big city – lived in immense districts (some measured 30 by 20 miles and included up to 80,000 people) manned by no more than a dozen French civil servants (including police forces). The Muslims had access to virtually no schools, no healthcare and no government jobs. In Algeria, two civilizations living in different eras were staring at one another. In such conditions, the war was not a classic colonial war, it was a struggle between different peoples willing to live on the same land. A civil war between competing groups holding opposing visions of the future of the country. The maintenance of the status quo (what Galula fought for) was doomed from the beginning; colonial rule was no longer a valid solution. In 1959, General De Gaulle – the French president – called for a solution based on a federal organization for the Algerians safeguarding the security and interests of the different ethnic groups. In this scenario, the Algerians govern themselves by themselves but remain in “union étroite” with France for matters related to education, defense and economy. The plan would have had a chance to succeed, provided two conditions were met: (a) a minimum level of trust between Muslims and Europeans; (b) the availability of indigenous elites (of all sides) willing to enter the political arena.

The first prerequisite was shattered in the early months of the war when the FLN cynically instructed Muslims to massacre their French neighbors in the most horrendous way. The black days of August 1955 in the villages surrounding Philippeville shocked every European in Algeria and prompted communities to separate. Subsequent reprisals further alienated friends and colleagues.

Unlike South Africa and other former British Dominions, the Pieds Noirs never sought emancipation nor autonomy from France. Their local elites were just happy living under French rule as long as Arabs were maintained at the periphery of the system (i.e. no right to good land nor have a say in politics). Thus, they relied entirely on the Army to eradicate the FLN and champion l’Algérie Française. The more De Gaulle leaned toward giving self-determination to the Algerians notwithstanding their ethnicity, the more the Europeans pressed the Army to resist his agenda. Some high-ranking officers decided to topple De Gaulle (among them Salan, the former French top soldier in Algeria): the failed coup of 1961 was a major landmark in French modern history.

On the Arab side, the moderates were systematically expelled or killed by the hardliners (FLN).  Also, the old tribal structure – the one that helped France rule the country for 130 years- was terrorized and sometimes physically eliminated by the insurgency. To succeed, the rebellion drew on religious drivers to mobilize the population and demoralize the tribal chiefs who stood by France. As usual in insurrections, “drivers” are triggered through persuasion and terror. The fighters called themselves mujahideens and often punished with flogging the Muslim civilians who did not respect the duty of prayer.

The French Army pacified Algeria for “nothing”, they had no political instruments to help them build a new Order.  The military eradicated the rebels and won back the control of the population but they had no appealing cause to promote. They lacked the politicians and indigenous elites to make the case for somehow convincing arguments.

Despite violence and disorder, the French State did a splendid civilian-military job. The Sections Administratives Spécialisées (S.A.S) delivered administrative services, social assistance and local development projects. They were staffed mainly by civilians and run by junior army officers (commonly called Képis Bleus or Blue Caps). Protection was provided by a mixed force made of professional soldiers and Muslim militia men. Each SAS covered up to 15,000 inhabitants. At the end of 1961, they were 700 S.A.S operating in Algeria. It is hard to find examples in Modern History of a similar assistance program by which a people reach out to another in the middle of a war opposing both. Yet the grassroots results delivered by the SAS had no chance to fuel a nation-wide dynamic for the lack of available elites. The French cause – the one of gradual emancipation of the Algerians without severing all ties with France- was orphaned. It lacked leaders, both Muslims and Pied Noirs, willing to embody it at the risk of their own lives.

What can a soldier do if he realizes that military victory will not translate into political triumph and lasting peace? Maybe Galula was right to pacify his district of Kabylia without thinking too much about the vacuum (of legitimacy) hovering over the whole pacification enterprise. Others crossed the Rubicon and entered the political realm via open rebellion against De Gaulle.

Galula lived an extraordinary life because he never escaped duty and never squandered an occasion to demonstrate his talents. He may have climbed the ranking files faster if he had acted in one way or another. Yet, his legacy still captivates people fifty years after his death. All this makes him a great man. For all these reasons, one does not need to love War Studies to become interested in Galula; all it requires is a little bit of political awareness.

Driss Ghali is an author who writes in Portuguese and French. He won the Concours Général in 1998, has been published by the New York Times and has written two novels.

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