I was working in Sao Paulo, Brazil, when America invaded Iraq. My Brazilian friends were amused and confused, seeing this invasion as another example of America’s hubris and international meddling. One business associate saw a silver lining in my country’s folly. Maybe they will keep their noses out of South America for the foreseeable future.
My Brazilian friends had fun with the U.S. anger against France for not supporting the war. It seems like only yesterday there was a movement afoot to boycott French wines and cheeses and to change the name of French Fries to Freedom Fries. It was also an opportunity to repeat all the old bromides about French troops running away from battle. Did you hear the one about the Maginot Line in World War II?
We should be careful about dismissing all French insight about the nature of unconventional war, the warrior ethos and counterinsurgency. I just read a treasure of a novel, “The Centurions” by Jean Larteguy, about the French experience fighting in French Indo China (Vietnam) and North Africa (Algeria). Larteguy was a French paratrooper before becoming a war correspondent and novelist. The characters in his book are imaginary, but the scenes, emotions, and codes of military conduct are all too familiar. General David Petraeus had apparently read the book before taking command of American troops in Iraq. The novel was translated into Hebrew for Israeli paratroopers who revered Larteguy.
“The Centurions” was published in 1961, after the French has been defeated at the Battle of Dien Bien Phu. American pilots were already clandestinely involved in this fight by resupplying from the air the besieged French defenders. I don’t know how many politicians, military offices and academics had read this novel before President Johnson committed 500,000 American to the Vietnam War, but they would have learned some important lessons from the Viet Minh (Vietnamese Communists) about unsymmetrical warfare where battle lines are fluid, war is everywhere and civilians are usually in the middle of this conflagration. This is the world we are facing today in Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere, not the fantasy front and rear battle lines we hear about from so many politicians today.
“The Centurions” begins after the fall of Dien Bien Phu with French prisoners are being marched to Viet Minh prisons camps for re-education. The various characters, mainly officers, reflect sardonically on their defeat and gradually begin to understand the discipline, stoicism, and bravery of the enemy. The various conversations are about tactics as well as psychologies. Just how did the scrawny Viet Minh manage to disassemble and carry large artillery pieces up steep mountains then reassemble and position in such a way to encircle the French defenses? How did the French command fail to imagine this was even possible?
One of the French prisoners says that “It’s through the coolies they got the better of us by means of that vast horde swarming through the elephant grass with their baskets balanced on their shoulders.…These thousands and thousands of coolies trotting along the trails were invisible to our aircraft ….It wasn’t only terror that kept them going.” It was something deep, something real inside of man.
A French paratrooper muses that he would like two armies: “one for display with lovely guns, tanks, little soldiers, fanfares, staffs, distinguished and doddering generals and dear little regimental officers …an army that would be shown for a modest fee on every fairground in the country.
The other would be a real one, composed entirely of young enthusiasts in camouflage battledress, who would not be put on display but from whom…all sorts of tricks would be taught. That’s the army in which I’d like to fight.”
These quotes frame the battle that takes place in Algeria after the French prisoners are released and subsequently take their Vietnam experience to the uprisings in Algeria. Here the novel explores the French warrior class and their growing estrangement from their own countrymen and the so-called civilized rules of military engagement.
This is an old theme with contemporary implications. Those who call reflexively for bigger armies, more planes and naval vessels haven’t read their military histories. We live in a world of ISIS, medieval alignments, systemic lone wolf threats, the collapse of central authorities, and gangs “battling for primacy over a confused and violent landscape.”
“The Centurions” is a very modern novel because it mirrors an American military empire that has been scarred in Vietnam and Iraq and a citizenry that is largely removed from what our fighting men and women face. The novel is a reminder that asymmetrical warfare represents our contemporary fate and we’d better be ready for it, psychological, ethically and militarily.