Sixty-one years ago today, on April 25th, 1961, France detonated an atomic bomb at the Centre Saharien d’Expérimentation Militaire (CSEM, the Saharan Military Test Centre) near the village of Reggane, approximately 1500 kilometers southwest of Algiers. The Algerian War was in its seventh year and negotiations for a peace agreement between France and the Front de libération national (FLN, the National Liberation Front) began soon after, in May. Eager to become a member of the “atomic club” of nuclear weapons states, along with the U.S., the Soviet Union, and Britain, France had committed to developing its own force de frappe (strike force) in the years after the Second World War. A “French bomb” demanded French bomb “tests,” and spaces of empire, first in North Africa, then in the Pacific, became the preferred locations for these experiments with destruction. Built in the late 1950s, the CSEM was fully equipped with an airport, roads, research and housing facilities, and a firing range.
Gerboise Verte was the last in a series of four French atmospheric detonations in the Sahara that began with Gerboise Bleue on February 13th, 1960. That first bomb had a blast yield of 70 kilotons, four times the size of the one the U.S. dropped on Hiroshima on August 6th, 1945. The codenames all referred to a type of desert rat, and the first three followed the colors of the French flag: Gerboise bleue, Gerboise blanche (White Jerboa) on April 1st, and Gerboise rouge (Red Jerboa) on December 27th, 1960. Gerboise Verte came in the spring of 1961, during the “Generals’ putsch,” also known as the “Algiers putsch,” when four French army generals staunchly opposed to Algerian sovereignty initiated a coup d’état. The histories of the war and the “French bomb” were entangled. After these initial aerial tests, France detonated 13 more bombs underground, further south in the Hoggar Mountains, 11 of these on the other side of Algeria’s independence in July 1962. A clause in the Evian Accords (signed on March 18th, 1962) had granted France the right to maintain its nuclear testing facilities until 1967, but the program moved to the Pacific atolls of Moruroa and Fangataufa in 1966.
Often referred to as a “failed” test, Gerboise verte was neither as powerful, nor as spectacular, as the French detonations that preceded it. The weakest of the atmospheric tests in Algeria, its blast yield amounted to less than one kiloton, far below the six to 18 projected for that device. Despite these disappointing results from the French military/scientific perspective, the story of Gerboise verte has been told again and again, by officials who were involved in planning and approving the test; by veterans who served at the CSEM at the time; and by scholars who have examined the history and long-term legacies of France’s nuclear weapons program in Algeria. In the past several years, a number of more (and less) fictionalized French accounts have also appeared: a chapter of a graphic history, a novel, an episode of a popular TV show, and an award-winning short film. These aesthetic and literary projects connect to this history in different ways, with a range of apparent intentions and senses of responsibility when it comes to making visible the details of this complicated past. And while art can certainly do what it wants, how these creative interpretations take up, represent, or remain accountable (or not) to those harmed by this history can have varied effects, bypassing, addressing, or perpetuating that harm.
The timing of Gerboise Verte and the details of the operation, including its aim to experiment on military equipment and personnel in addition to “testing” the device itself, have made the operation an especially compelling episode to revisit and reimagine. Historians have been drawn to the ways that political rather than scientific concerns may have determined how and why Gerboise verte happened exactly when it did.  On 21 April, backed by military and civilian supporters, Generals Maurice Challe, Edmond Jouhaud, Raoul Salan, and André Zeller sought control over Algeria’s major cities and an end to negotiations with the FLN that might lead to the kind of Algerian sovereignty President Charles de Gaulle had, by this time, indicated as a way out of the conflict. While the rebellion lasted only five days, the drama of these events sent a panic throughout French political and military circles in Algeria and in the so-called “metropole.” Shortly after the upheaval began, De Gaulle declared a state of emergency granting him full and extraordinary powers that lasted for several months after the attempted coup.
Bruno Tertrais argues that, despite sub-optimal weather conditions and concerns about a lack of sufficient prep time, the crisis of the “Generals’ putsch” pushed decision-makers at Reggane to move forward with Gerboise verte on April 25th, more quickly than they otherwise would have. Scheduled for an upcoming detonation well before these events, Gerboise verte figured in discussions of potential threats posed by the putsch. What details concerning the bomb (its size, exact location, etc.) did the Generals and their supporters have? What if they were to get their hands on the device? What if they gained control of the nuclear test site at Reggane? In the days leading up to the test, the leadership at CSEM received conflicting directives from Paris and Algiers (then under the Generals’ control) about proceeding with or holding off on the detonation. The insurgency’s spread also generated uncertainty about the allegiance of the large number of military personnel stationed on-site. Tertrais concludes, however, that there is no evidence to support claims made by some scholars that the scientists at Reggane adjusted the device to reduce its blast yield for strategic reasons, or that the putschists and their supporters had any serious intention of seizing the bomb and/or the test site. The “timing of the test was at least partly political,” but the nuclear risks of that moment should not be exaggerated.
A curious detail in the pre-detonation security plan has made Gerboise verte even riper for dramatic retelling. In a move Tertrais describes as “more of a Mel Brooks parody than a James Bond movie,” the bomb’s “physics package” (its plutonium core) was not transported as part of any official convoy; instead, it made its way from Reggane to the firing range in Hamoudia in a Renault 2CV. That’s right, a 2CV. As another scholar suggested after reviewing Tertrais’ analysis, “it would make a great movie…now if only some producer would option it.” While the actual distance the key bomb component traveled was only about 50 kilometers, urban/desert legend has it that a fully assembled device, casing and all, made the epic journey from the Port of Algiers to Reggane in this small French passenger vehicle.
Decades later, it was this inflated version of events that became the plotline for an entire episode of the ARTE satirical comedy series Au service de la France in 2018. In “Elle est pas verte Gerboise verte” (Green Jerboa is not green), a French security agent, who first considers, then reconsiders supporting the putsch, breaks into a warehouse in Algiers in April 1961 with his trusty Algerian sidekick, Mokhtar. They find a crate labeled “Gerboise verte,” load the bomb onto the roof of a 2CV, and proceed to roadtrip it, along with the agent’s commanding officer and a small turtle, from the Algerian capital through the desert to CSEM in Reggane. Along the way, the car gets stuck in the sand, then breaks down, the turtle dies, and they end up dragging the bomb behind them on camelback to the test site. The episode ends with a special effects explosion, complete with a fiery mushroom cloud, one certainly more spectacular than the original. Goofy in every way, this small-screen version of events is nevertheless a contribution to a developing public and political memory of this difficult past. Naming the operation and linking it to the attempted coup, it is one of the very few popular cultural representations of France’s nuclear imperialism in Algeria, and of Gerboise verte in particular. At the same time, framing these events in farcical terms, the show empties this history of its violent and ruinous impact. A narrative premise and a prop, this “French bomb” in Algeria becomes the explosive punchline of a 34-minute joke.
The coincidence of the “Generals’ putsch,'' along with other, admittedly quirky, details, only partially explains the attention that Gerboise verte has received in the years since 1961. The operation was also significant because it involved the deployment of soldiers as subjects of the experiment itself. Neither sufficiently informed about, nor protected from, the dangers of these detonations, French soldiers, Algerian workers, communities of civilians in the vicinity and throughout the region were, in effect, potential/eventual victims of all the nuclear tests France conducted in the Sahara. But the plans for Gerboise verte included exercises specifically designed to assess the performance of soldiers engaged in combat during a nuclear attack. On April 25th, 1961, France knowingly, even deliberately placed these soldiers at considerable risk. The study of their exposure to harmful radiation (about which French officials were not completely naïve at the time) was an expressed military/scientific objective of the operation. Close to 200 men participated in these macabre war games. Some waited for the explosion in trenches they had dug in proximity to the firing range, then went “over the top” shortly after the detonation. Others stationed in tanks (brought in from Germany) received orders to drive into the epicenter of the blast. All this to assess how they–both materiel and soldiers– would fare under such conditions.
The circulation of French soldiers’ testimonies and (sometimes leaked) French government and military archival sources, along with years of advocacy on behalf of victims and their families by groups like the Association des Vétérans des Essais Nucléaires (AVEN, the Association of Veterans of Nuclear Tests), have since exposed this “secret” of Gerboise verte. Journalists and documentary filmmakers such as Larbi Benchiha have also played important roles in the culture and politics of disclosure around this history more broadly, raising public awareness of acts and events that the French state and military obscured for decades.These sources are especially valuable for their inclusion of interviews with Algerians who worked at the Saharan test sites and/or resided in those areas affected by fallout and radiation in the shorter and longer term. Some of this work has, understandably, focused on Gerboise bleue, the first, largest, and most familiar of the atmospheric explosions. Another detonation that has received particular attention is Béryl, an underground test in May 1962 during which containment of the blast failed. Contaminating the area, the incident exposed a number of those present (among them two high-level French ministers) to significant amounts of radiation. While the growing collection of cultural representations of this past includes both film/TV and literary works by artists and authors of Algerian and African origin such as Benchiha, the novelist Djamel Mati, or the Tuareg poet Hawad, French voices and experiences have tended to dominate, particularly in the historical and memorial field surrounding the events of 25 April 1961.
Christophe Bataille’s L’Expérience is a 2015 French novel focused on Gerboise verte. In this brief, complicated book, a French veteran looks back with remorse and resentment on his service in the Sahara and his participation in “the experiment.” Bataille researched the French nuclear weapons program, and the experiences of soldiers used as cobayes (guinea pigs) for the “grandeur” of France. A narrative at once documentary and fictional, the book is another source that has helped to effect a return to and excavation of this repressed history, one with the potential for reaching a wider, non-academic audience.
Another, more recent, French cultural “text” in this vein is Loïc Barché’s 2019 short film, L’Aventure atomique(The Atomic Adventure). Nominated for a César award in 2021, Barché’s film won the Grand Prix du Jury at the 2020 Unifrance Short Film Awards at the Cannes Film Festival. According to the film’s information page at Punchline Cinéma, in addition to its screening at festivals internationally, L’Aventure atomique has been viewed one million times in over 90 countries via Unifrance MyFrenchFilmFestival site.
The film opens mid-action as a group of young French soldiers in the back cab of a military transport, one Algerian Muslim among them, are hollering at each other and fighting over a photograph: the image of a girlfriend. This quick, rowdy exchange, with all the requisite expressions of sexual inuendo and bravado, is interrupted when the transport doors open. The soldiers fall silent as their senior officer, their Captain, an older man, climbs in. A loudspeaker outside counts down: “T minus one minute, 59 seconds, 58…” The soldiers, dressed in tan and brown protective suits (a revision of the white suits military personnel wore at the time), pull on helmets of heavy canvas with clear visors. They wait, breathing heavily, closing their eyes, looking uneasy. When the countdown is complete, a flash of blinding light comes through a small hole in the transport’s tarp, flooding the scene. Then come the thundering sound and intense vibrations of the bomb’s aftershock. In a few moments, relief sets in. The detonation was successful, and they are still alive. Fade to white with a simple title in black: “Algérie, 1961.”
Spilling out of the truck, the group of six soldiers, accompanied by a scientist from the Commissariat à l’Énergie Atomique (CEA, the French Atomic Energy Commission, established in 1945) get busy recording radiation levels as the mushroom cloud of Gerboise verte rises and then dissipates in the distance. Along the way to ground zero, the characters joke, sing, dance, and take photographs, as the sweet, playful sounds of Carl Orff’s “Gassenhauer” accompany them. They check on animals left in cages near the site of the explosion. They collect readings and film from charred and melted mannequins, men, women, and children, some dressed eerily like the soldiers themselves. The Captain confronts the scientist about radiation levels well above those predicted, and the dangers facing his men. The scientist remains calm, detached. He is devoted to the mission, to the advancement of knowledge and the ideology of progress it represents, whatever the costs. They are, every one of them, subjects of this nuclear experiment.
The mood darkens as the dissonance, sharpness, and unease of compositions by György Ligeti and Salvatore Sciarinno sound out a mounting anxiety and fear. The transport is stuck in the sand, one of the soldier’s uniforms rips, exposing his skin to the elements, and the Captain notices the wind blowing the toxic cloud towards the group, rather than away from it. None of this was planned. The Captain orders his men to dig in the sand, and to bury themselves under the surface until the air clears. The scientist protests, urging the team to complete the mission, even threatening them with charges of desertion. The Captain drags him into a shallow pit, and covers him. With his men safe, the aging officer removes his own helmet, and wanders into the haze around ground zero. When the others emerge from their sandy beds, a bit like zombies from graves, the Captain is nowhere to be seen. Their comrade with the torn pant leg has died from radiation sickness. The Muslim soldier offers a quiet prayer in Arabic next to the body. The film’s end credits appear as the remaining men set off on their way back to the vehicle that awaits them in the distance.
In interviews about the film, Barché has described his own interest in the events of April 25th, 1961 as a way of exploring the idea of progress, returning to France’s mythic Trente Glorieuses (Thirty Glorious) from 1945 to 1975. It was during these postwar decades that the nation experienced a demographic and consumer revolution and committed itself to a new, technological modernity, particularly in its pursuit of nuclear energy and weapons. In this historical episode, the filmmaker saw an opportunity to revisit the past as a way of posing questions about technology and ideology in the present.
The characterization of France’s nuclear program after 1945 as an “adventure” was and remains a recurrent trope, one that captures the nation’s determination to assert its strength and independence in the wake of war, and in the face of certain forms of imperial decline, as well as the era’s profound enthusiasm for the promises of scientific exploration and innovation. Indeed, L’Aventure atomique is the title of more than one book devoted to the history of nuclear energy and weapons in France during the postwar era. Barché has claimed his own use of it to be “ironic.” He has also insisted his L’Aventure atomique “is not a historical film.” While the director did a great deal of research, “read every book on the subject” and even “managed to find a report on the mission that had been classified for a long time,” the film “was never meant to be a faithful reenactment of what happened.” The doubled distance the filmmaker claims, from both the historical events themselves, and from the habit of framing France’s larger nuclear project as an “adventure” is intriguing in its ambivalence. Barché's cinematic project was/is one steeped in both history and adventure from start to finish, from the “Algeria, 1961” of its opening titles through to the ways the director and his collaborators have described filming and production: the intense camaraderie, the extreme weather, the beauty and challenges of the desert (echoing the experiences of soldiers at the time), and the recreation of the spectacle of the atomic explosion itself, how to make it “beautiful, menacing,” giving it a “mythological dimension.”
The stories that have been told about Gerboise verte that I have discussed here are all renditions that center on French perspectives and experiences. Au service de la France does this as parody, sending up the absurdity of the era’s politics and preoccupations, and the mythologies that spun out from them. But it makes only passing mention of the exposure of French military personnel or Algerian civilians to radiation that was such a important aspect of this historical episode. At the end of the show, after assuring the bomb’s safe delivery to the test site, the characters stand in the desert to watch the detonation they have made possible. Dressed in protective gear, they look on as the bomb’s mushroom cloud rises in the distance. Removing his protective goggles, the commanding officer beckons/orders his companions to move towards ground zero with him. When they hesitate, he assures them that there is no danger and forges ahead. A humorous reference to the soldiers of 1961? Perhaps. Bataille’s novel resides on the darker side of this history, excavating the psychology of the veteran’s complicity and victimization, his struggles with memory and death. Finally, Barché’s short spirals from a band of adventuring brothers to the fission of that solidarity in the sweltering heat and toxic air of national and imperial grandeur. All the while, the film is caught up in a deep aestheticization, of the desert, of the bodies and movements of its central characters against this stunning “backdrop,” and even of the bomb itself, its destructive power and noxious output providing opportunities for dazzling shots, haunting and spectacular effects, evocative couplings of moving image and sound. And in each of these representations, the Algerian perspective is peripheral, when it figures at all. Despite its crucial place in a nuclear imperial campaign that left a lasting, painful legacy for Algerians, Gerboise verte is almost always narrated from France’s point of view as a chapter in the history of French science and technology, of Franco-French political conflict, of French military decisions and victims, and a French society reflecting on itself.
[The author would like to thank Brian Connolly, Muriam Davis, Meghan Roberts, and the Jadaliyya editorial team for their helpful feedback and suggestions for revision.]
 Roxanne Panchasi, “‘No Hiroshima in Africa’: The Algerian War and the Question of French Nuclear Tests in the Sahara,” History of the Present 9.1 (Spring 2019): 84-112.
 For a recent comprehensive investigation of the Pacific tests, including declassified documents, data analysis, and visualizations, see the Moruroa Files, a website developed jointly by the Science and Global Security Program at Princeton University, Disclose, and Interprt, as well as Sebastien Philippe and Tomas Statius’s Toxique: enquêtes sur les essais nucléaires français en Polynésie (Paris: Presses universitaires de France, 2021).
 Bruno Tertrais, “France, the Algerian War, and the April 1961 Nuclear Test,” Nuclear Weapons Security Crises: What Does History Teach?, Henry D. Sokolski, Bruno Tertrais, eds. Strategic Studies and Institute and U.S. Army War College Press, July 2013: 25-64.
 Pierre Billaud, “L'opération GERBOISE VERTE (engin R1, 25 avril 1961), Souvenirs d'un pionnier de l'armement nucléaire français (accessed 13 April 2022).
 See for example, André Bendjebbar, Histoire secrète de la bombe atomique française (Paris: Le Cherche Midi, 2000), 325-330.
 Charles de Gaulle, “Conférence de presse du 11 avril 1961,” Paris, France (accessed 13 April 2022).
 Maurice Vaïsse, Comment de Gaulle fit échouer le putsch d’Alger (Paris: André Versaille, 2011); Pierre Abramovici, Le Putsch des généraux: De Gaulle contre l’armée, 1958-1961 (Paris: Fayard, 2011).
 Bendjebbar, 326; Tertrais, 32.
 See Donald G. Brennan, “The Risks of Spreading Weapons: A Historical Case,” Arms Control and Disarmament, vol. 1, 1968; and Leonard S. Spector, Going Nuclear (Cambridge, MA: Ballinger Publishing Company, 1987), pp. 25-33.
 Tertrais, responding to Brennan and others, 39-45.
 “La Gerboise n’est pas verte,’ Au service de la France, Season 2, ep. 6 (ARTE, 2018).
 See Jean-Francis R., “Témoignage…”; Bruno Barillot, Les Irradiés de la République: les victimes des essais nucléaires français prennent la parole (Paris: Editions Complèxe, 2003); Jean-Philippe Desbordes, Les Cobayes de l’apocalypse nucléaire: contre-enquête inédite sur les victimes des essais français (Paris: Express Roularta Editions, 2011). In 2010, the French daily, Le Parisien obtained a confidential report, “TOME I: La Genèse de l’organisation et l’expérimentations au Sahara (C.S.E.M. et C.E.M.O)” including detailed information about the deliberate exposure of military personnel to the effects of Gerboise verte. The full text of the report is available via the website Observation des armements (accessed April 13, 2022). See also “Les Cobayes,” ch. 2 of Albert Drandov and Franckie Alarcon’s graphic history, Au nom de la bombe: Histoires secrètes des essais atomiques français (Paris: Editions Delcourt, 2011). 14-23.
 See Benchiha’s films, Vent de sable (24 Images, 2008), 57 mins; L’Algérie, De Gaulle et la bombe, (Aligal/France 3, 2010), 52 mins; and Gerboise Bleue, directed by Djamel Ouahab (Kalame Films, 2009), 90 mins.
 Louis Bulidon, Les Irradiés de Béryl (Paris: Thaddée, 2011); Vive la bombe!, directed by Jean-Pierre Sinapi (Raspail Production, 2006), 90 mins. The incident also features in the Ouahab film cited above and A(t)home, directed by Elisabeth Leuvrey (Les Ecrans du Large, 2013), 56 mins. Gérald Tenenbaum’s novel, L’Affinité des traces (Paris: Editions Héloïse d’Ormesson, 2012) also centers on this incident.
 See Djamel Mati, Sentiments irradiés (Alger: Éditions Chihab, 2018 and Hawad, Sahara: Visions atomiques (Paris: Éditions Paris-Méditerranée, 2003).
 Christophe Bataille, L’Expérience. Paris: Grasset, 2015. The book’s title can be understood as holding a double meaning as “The Experiment” and “The Experience.”
 I discuss Bataille’s novel, alongside other literary works in “Radiation Affects: Three Novels About French Nuclear Imperialism in Algeria,” Fiction and Film for Scholars in France (now Imaginaries) 2.1 (January 2021).
 Christophe d’Yvoire interview with Loïc Barché and producers Lucas Tothe and Sylvain Lagrillère, Académie des Césars (Académie des Arts et Techniques du Cinéma, 2021), 11 mins.
 See Bertrand Goldschmidt, L’Aventure atomique (Paris: Fayard, 1962); Charles Ailleret, L’Aventure atomique française (Paris: Grasset, 1968); and Pierre Billaud, La Grande aventure du nucléaire militaire française (Paris: L’Harmattan, 2016).
 “‘L’aventure atomique’ de Loïc Barché,” Bref cinéma, 26 February 2020 (accessed 13 April 2022).
 Loïc Barché quoted in Cédric Lépine, “Entretien avec Loïc Barché, réalisateur du film L’Aventure atomique,” Médiapart blog, 19 February 2021 (accessed 13 April 2022). The report Barché mentions is presumably the one cited above, in nt. 14.
 Barché quoted in Lépine.
 Access to archives pertaining to the test, the radioactive remains of France’s former nuclear sites, and compensation for Algerian victims remain contentious issues in 2022. See the sources notes above, as well as Benjamin Stora, France-Algérie: Les passions douleureuses (Paris: Albin Michel, 2021). On the environmental legacies of the tests, see Jean-Marie and Patrice Bouveret, Radioactivity Under the Sand (Heinrich Boll Foundation, 2020).