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The Question Paperback – September 1, 2006

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Editorial Reviews


The Question by Henri Alleg
Within months of the invasion of Iraq, the Pentagon held a special screening of the film Battle of Algiers, supposedly to show how and why France failed in its struggle against Algerian urban guerilla warfare and terrorism. Later, others wondered about the film's depiction of torture and its impact on American policy in light of Abu Ghraib and the practice of "rendition." Now comes a written work that made the French aware of what was happening in Algeria. Sadly, the book may remain all too relevant today.
The Question, released for the first time in the U.S. in nearly 50 years, details the arrest and torture by the French military of Henri Alleg, a French journalist living in Algiers. Alleg, a Communist who supported Algerian independence, shocked the French nation. The slim volume was written in 1957 in an Algiers prison four months after the torture ended, smuggled out of prison and published in France the next year. It was the first book to be banned in France for political reasons in two centuries. It retains its power today.
This new release contains the original text and the original preface by Jean-Paul Sartre. It adds not only a foreword and introduction by Americans who have written on U.S. policies and Guantanamo Bay, but also a new afterword by Alleg.
The methods used on Alleg were brutal. In his first session alone, Alleg is electrically shocked on various parts of his body, including his genitals; waterboarded; beaten; and various parts of his body, including his groin, are burned. When he is finally taken to a cell, he is thrown into it with his hands handcuffed behind his back.
     On my knees, I moved towards a mattress against the wall. I tried to lie on it on my stomach but
     it was stuffed inside with barbed wire. I heard a laugh behind the door: "I put some
     barbed wire inside the mattress."
With passages like these, Alleg portrays how, whether by mindset or acclimation, those conducting the torture seemed to become immune to it. Thus, when Alleg later is tortured some three floors underground, one of his main persecutors wants him gagged. But it's not because Alleg's screams might be heard. Rather, Alleg is gagged because his torturer finds the screaming of his victims "disagreeable." Similarly, when Alleg is later taken to the infirmary, the doctor does not tend to his wounds but, rather, supervises the administration of "truth serum."
Yet Alleg also shows how effects spread further than the victim or interrogator. He writes of a young paratrooper who came into his cell and praised those in the French Resistance who died from torture rather than reveal information.
     I looked at this youth with his sympathetic face, who could talk of sessions of torture I had
     undergone as if they were a football match that he remembers and could congratulate me without
     spite as he would a champion athlete. A few days later I saw him, shriveled up and disfigured by
     hatred, hitting a Moslem who didn't go fast enough down the staircase. This [clearing center] was not
     only a place of torture for Algerians, but a school of perversion for young Frenchmen.
Sartre also takes note of this. He points out that rather than wondering if they would talk if their fingernails were pulled out, the question facing the young military men became, "If my friends, fellow soldiers, and leaders tear out an enemy's fingernails, what will I do?" It is this aspect of such practices that really becomes the ultimate question and makes The Question more than a story about the French military in Algeria.
Alleg's new afterword says French specialists in "muscular interrogation" provided training to governments around the world, including Latin America, South Africa and the United States. Likewise, a new introduction by James Le Sueuer, a history professor who has written on the French-Algerian conflict, states that French officers who oversaw the use of torture and summary executions in Algeria trained U.S. military personnel on counterinsurgency theory and France "actively sent its professional torturers as official military advisors to the American military." The reports of the use of sleep deprivation and waterboarding in interrogations in Iraq and Guantanamo Bay and the Abu Ghraib photos seem familiar enough to some of the techniques Alleg describes that they may speak to an Algerian legacy.
Yet it is doubtful The Question will stir in the U.S. what it did in France. Unquestionably, some of the book's impact came from Alleg being a French citizen being tortured by the French military. Similarly, Alleg was a journalist, not a combatant or terrorist who posed a direct threat to the French military or the public. As such, his situation is far different from that of someone who may possess knowledge of upcoming attacks, which seems to have been the focus of the U.S. debate on interrogation practices. Moreover, since Alleg's book is far from the first to detail barbaric treatment of prisoners and certainly not the last, it provides a sad commentary on mankind and human nature. Still, as Alleg points out, it is important that citizens know what is done in their names.
(Tim Gebhart 2006-08-22)

“I read The Question in one quick sitting, riveted. It packs a tremendous punch today. It ought be required reading in all the military academies and issued to all DOD employees GS-11 and above.”—David Levering Lewis
(David Levering Lewis)

"[A] noble and in a sense ennobling book, the dominant impression it leaves is one of a progressive and finally an almost total degradation, a degradation both of persons—except for the tortured, the outlawed—and of social institutions. The Question is far more than an account of atrocities, however spectacular."—The Nation
(The Nation)

"Even more extraordinary is the manner in which [Alleg] tells his story: in its studied calm, its refusal to give expression to hatred, it nearly reaches a level of serenity and thus increases its effectiveness. This book not only might have shocked the conscience of France . . . it should disturb the conscience of all men."—French Review
(French Review)

About the Author

Henri Alleg is a journalist living in Paris and the author of many works in French. Jean-Paul Sartre was one of the most influential writers and existentialist philosophers of the twentieth century. Ellen Ray is the coauthor, with Michael Ratner, of Guantanamo: What the World Should Know. James D. Le Sueur is an associate professor of history at the University of Nebraska–Lincoln. He is the editor of Mouloud Feraoun’s Journal, 1955–1962: Reflections on the French-Algerian War (Nebraska 2000) and the author of Uncivil War: Intellectuals and Identity Politics during the Decolonization of Algeria, Second Edition (Nebraska 2005).

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Product Details

  • Paperback: 74 pages
  • Publisher: Bison Books; Bison Books Ed edition (September 1, 2006)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0803259603
  • ISBN-13: 978-0803259607
  • Product Dimensions: 5.2 x 0.2 x 8 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 5.6 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.6 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (11 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #248,814 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

9 of 9 people found the following review helpful By Jack Cade on February 3, 2009
Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
Henri Alleg (who has also collaborated in a 3 vol history of the Algerian War) is a hero. Unlike most French and Algerian Communists he supported the FLN without reservations and was willing to suffer the consequences usually reserved for the Arab militants--consequences which had their origins in Nazi concentration camps but were refined by the likes of Salan, Challe, Massu and others. The Gen-gene and other methods of peruasion (which I suspect are still used by our current rulers and I mean Obama not simply Bush) makes waterboarding look like watersurfing.
Read Alleg's book! Watch his interview in the splendid new Criterion 3 DVD set of "The Battle of Algiers" Listen to his interviews which are online.
Would that Alleg's complete history of the war were translated into English. Alastair Horne --an honorable man of the moderate right (I think he would agree with that description) has written a detailed history of the war--by far the best book about the war in English.
A final and personal note: My father--a man of no politics was stationed in Algeria uring WWII. He was there before the massacre at Setif and watched some of it in horror. The French racist brutality toward the Algerian people so branded him that he never set foot in France and discouraged others from going. Alleg's description of his own experiences really is a shorthand for the ratissages and rattonades that our current regime now indulges in. Horne's book begins with a preface denouncing torture--I wish that his book had gone into more of its horror; nevertheless I salute him. Read Horne and read Henri Alleg I beg you.
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8 of 8 people found the following review helpful By Jose C. Tejeda Jr. on May 2, 2008
Format: Paperback
The Question is, without doubt, the single best argument against torture under any circumstances. It is a brutally true and personal account of a man caught up under the circumstances beyond his control during the Algerian War of Independence. It was a time when the French, desperate to maintain control over Algeria, had allowed its army to use torture in order to obtain information about its main insurgent enemy, the FLN (Front Liberation Nationale). The author literally puts the reader into his shoes, and one can literally feel the pain of electric shock, the suffocating hell of water boarding, or the miserable mind warping experience of truth drugs.

In wars such as the current GWOT (Global War on Terror) as well as in Algeria, there is always the temptation by politicians to use acts like torture in order to gain an advantage over an insurgent enemy. However, make no mistake. Just as the revelations of torture had undermined the perceived legitimacy of the French cause in Algeria, the same danger also exist in today's struggle in the GWOT.

Regardless of one's opinion on the matter, one must read this simple book in order to gain an understanding of what a torture victim goes through. The book is beautifully written as well as brutally honest. One can easily read it in a day.

Finally, it is important to keep in mind that there is no politics in this book. It is just an account of the hard reality of man's inhumanity against man.
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5 of 5 people found the following review helpful By Michael I. Goldman on March 24, 2008
Format: Paperback
If you are interested in what exactly waterboarding is, and the physical and moral impact on victim and torturer, you need to read this book.
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Format: Paperback
This is a short book, and it has a reason for being short; Henri Alleg
penned it on brown wrapping paper while still in prison, and had it
smuggled to France for publication. In The Question, he recounts how
he was tortured by the notorious Paras (the elite paratroop division
of the french military in Algeria) because he, as a communist,
supported the cause of the Algerian people. Aleg is taken to the
'centre de tri' after he is captured. He is beaten, water boarded,
savagely electrocuted, and burnt in sensitive places with fire. All
the while, his torturers want the names of the people who helped him
go into hiding, and provided him with safehouses. Although Alleg makes
it very clear in the beginning that he would not answer any questions,
even the simplest ones, the torturers keep on, with the hope that he
will break down at some point.

The episodes of torture described by Alleg are blood-curdling.
Especially his experiences with the electric shocks made me clench my
teeth with sympathy for his pain. The longer lasting effect on the
reader, though, stems from the way the french soldiers, only fifteen
years after their nation's experience with fascism, practice a racist
kind of fascism themselves, even telling Alleg at one point that they
are worse than the SS themselves. The torturers are not acting solely
to gather information, of course. They are acting out of their racism
and hate towards someone who dared to side with the "wogs" although he
was a Frenchman himself. This becomes clear from the way the torturers
talk to Alleg, and how they treat the Algerian prisoners even
worse. The experimental truth serum pentothal is also used at some
Read more ›
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The importance of this book cannot be understated. From a counterinsurgency perspective, it addresses the very large part of the war effort, which is the extraction of information from suspected and confirmed insurgents through interrogation. All counterinsurgency efforts are confronted with such an endeavor. Often, the government fighting the guerrillas resorts to the use of physical torture to acquire critical information about their enemy. This work is a graphic description of why such widespread employment of torture in fact has the opposite effect. Physical torture undermines the legitimacy of those employing it and is the fodder for further resistance and recruitment of new fighters. Although this work addresses the French effort to maintain their colonial conquest of Algeria in the 1950's and 60's, the lessons here echo across history and to modern times. Bottom line, those who employ physical torture of their captives are most likely doomed to fail in their counterinsurgency efforts and will be treated accordingly when they are captured, thus intensifying the wheel of violence and inhumanity. Overall, this is a superb book and required for anyone interested in the topic of counterinsurgency and counterterror, either in reference to Algeria or the post- 9/11 conflicts.
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