Back in 2002 or so, many of us got a laugh or two from an Internet chain mail entitled “French military history”, which provided a less-than-illustrious look at the military history of France, stretching from Agincourt to the Maginot Line to the sinking of the Rainbow Warrior. The e-mail even anticipated the obvious rebuttal, “What about Napoleon?” with the explanation that Napoleon wasn’t French, but rather, Corsican and therefore didn’t count as an example of exceptional French military leadership.
Jokes about the French Army have been a running gag for American comedians for years. The Onion’s “Our Dumb Century” features mock headlines from wars throughout the 20th Century, with the phrase “France surrenders” listed in conjunction with every war from the First World War to the War on Poverty. Most recently, I heard that one of the latest South Park episodes features Cartman, wielding a toy lightsaber, menacing a number of French sailors. Indeed, one of the best ways to insult someone’s manhood in the US is to insinuate that they are, indeed, at least partly French.
For example, I was making a point on counter-insurgency (“COIN” to us COINdinistas) recently to someone who still hadn’t fully grasped the realities of the art of eating soup with a knife. I mentioned that the objective of COIN wasn’t to kill as many insurgents as possible, but rather to protect as many of the local population as possible. You see, many of the principles of COIN argue against the indiscriminate use of force. With that said, there are a few Soldiers who grew up longing for clash of tanks on the Fulda Gap who see COIN as, well, something less than a “real man’s war”. Some react to the often paradoxical COIN principles such as “the more force is used, the less effective it is”, and “sometimes doing nothing is the best reaction” by accusing COIN practitioners of being, well, honorary Parisians.
Funny we might equate many of these principles with the French, though. If you open the US Army’s Counterinsurgency Field Manual, you’ll find that the book makes ample reference to a counter-insurgency campaign waged by a young company commander named David Galula in the country of Algeria. Galula came up with the novel idea of focusing on protecting the population against insurgents from the Algerian National Liberation Front, rather than attempting to simply inflict as many casualties as possible on the NLF in decisive battle. Galula was credited with achieving success in controlling his particular sector, and was invited to speak at American War Colleges about his experience in counter-insurgency warfare.
One more thing: I should also mention that the bespectacled David Galula was a captain in the French Army. Indeed, many of Galula’s principles were incorporated into the US’ new COIN doctrine, which was important in re-establishing security in Iraq during 2007, and is currently being applied by NATO in Afghanistan today. Galula’s writings are now recommended reading throughout the US military.
Just don’t expect everyone to suddenly admit that we’re taking lessons from the French military. Maybe the joke’s on us, this time.