Another good story from France’s war in Algeria, featuring our hero, Charles DeGaulle. DeGaulle, who had been in self-imposed political exile since 1946, came back into power in 1958 via a major political flareup concerning Algeria and the messy war therein. The army had been threatening a coup over a feared political sellout in Algeria, and the politically weak and fragmented Fourth Republic mostly wasn’t able to do much to prevent such a thing from coming to pass should the Army try. DeGaulle cleverly played the Army against the Fourth Republic, and visa-versa, and wound up being granted the presidency with near-dictatorial powers for the next six months while he and his colleagues rewrote the French Constitution, and established the Fifth Republic.
During that same time, DeGaulle vigorously prosecuted the war against the Algerian rebels fighting for an independent Algeria. Current scholarship holds that DeGaulle believed at the time that he could more successfully prosecute the war than his predecessors, and he did, for about his first year or so, and in doing so he would solve the Algeria problem sufficiently to address other, closer to his heart problems of modernization of France. DeGaulle, who played his cards very close to his chest his entire life, and whose speech ran towards delphic utterances, has always been a difficult subject to read, so we don’t know at what point in his first 18 months in office he decided to end the war and liquidate completely France’s deep and long-standing presence in Algeria. Certainly by late 1959 the scent of surrender and retreat was in the air and quite detectable to anyone with reasonably functioning political antennas, which the French Army officer corps’ members most certainly had. DeGaulle faced the problem of how to sell French Algeria down the river without provoking a mutiny in the French Army against him. After all, the French Army fighting in Algeria had put its heart and soul into the war effort and the maintenance of Algeria as an integral part of France. Furthermore, it had seen Algeria as the chance for it to redeem its quite bruised honor after the defeats of 1940 and 1954. Additionally, the Army had swallowed and digested, badly, a great deal of its own propaganda about how it alone was standing up for Western Civilization against the rising tide of Islamofascism headquartered in the den of Nasser’s Sovietized Egypt and so on. Plus, the Army’s successes against the FLN since DeGaulle’s ascension had convinced them that victory was in the air in the very near future, finally, at last, after five years of war.
Five-Star General DeGaulle understood the Army as an institution and the minds and hearts of its career soldiers better than any French leader since Napoleon. DeGaulle realized that he couldn’t convince the Army of the need to quit Algeria, they had too much of themselves invested in Algerie Francais, but he understood that he could neutralize the Army’s tendencies towards open revolt with a mixture of diplomacy and misdirection. DeGaulle’s immense personal prestige, from his Free French days, combined with his great instinctive understanding of how the military really wants to be ordered to do things gave him the appropriate tools to defuse a mutiny, to keep the Army on board, to make the Army swallow the bitter pill of another defeat, a defeat that he most rightly saw was necessary for the Army and France’s long-term benefit. DeGaulle went off on a series of trips to visit the Army in Algeria, and meet with the junior officers out in the field at their officer’s messes, in what came to be called le tournee des popotes.
DeGaulle and his political entourage helicoptered from one out in the far bush military encampment to another to meet with the young officers there. (Very selective and controlled) Press coverage showed DeGaulle listening intently as the officers importuned him, many with great passion, about the importance of winning the war and maintaining Algerie Francais. Occasionally DeGaulle would respond with some Delphic utterance or another, but mostly he, in his five-star general’s uniform, just listened to the captains and majors, and nodded at the appropriate times.
DeGaulle’s entourage were mostly civilian political operators, and this was their first trip to the pointy end of the war, their first encounter with the young field officers on their own turf, in their own element. They were most all unprepared for the depth of passion and intensity and belief in Algerie Francais they found in les popotes and most were all deeply impressed by what they heard and saw there. DeGaulle had clued them all in to his plans to quit Algeria, and they were all in accord, but what they saw and heard in Algeria had them wondering. On the flight back to Paris, one of the braver political operatives nerved up and came up to DeGaulle and started to sound him out about what those officers had said and how maybe they had a point or two that maybe we ought to consider. DeGaulle cut him off quickly, waved his hand, and said: “L’Armee ne voyait pas plus loin de la bout de la plus pres djebel”.* Trans: The army can’t see any further than the top of the next hill.
And that’s the truth of the military. Their understanding of this world of ours, and the people in it, is blinkered and short-sighted. It has always been so. There really isn’t that much advice the military can usefully give the rest of us about what we should do about the problems we face in the future in this world of ours because they know so little beyond the battlefield.
Nobody here in the US has DeGaulle’s understanding of the Army and its profound lack of long-distance vision. Our press doesn’t, and Congress doesn’t either. Our political operatives, like DeGaulle’s, are too impressed with the stars flashing on crisp-pressed uniforms and what les francais call la gloire. It doesn’t do us any good, particularly now, when President Obama, who has no firsthand experience in the military and no measurable academic knowledge of it either, has to depend on political advisors who are no wiser, and probably a good bit less, than Charles DeGaulle’s were back in 1959. Unless Obama wises up, and gets a new set of advisors, or comes to a really rare place of understanding and strength of will, we are going to be following the policy prescription stupidities of McChrystal et al, because neither he nor they know any better. And we will suffer for it. We won’t be as fortunate as France, with no DeGaulle to save us from our stupidity and short-sightedness. C’est dommage.
*Actually, DeGaulle being DeGaulle, he used some much more formal and obscure verb tense construction, which I may have known once but do no longer, so I’ve instinctively transferred it into the present conditional. Je regrette.