Hard to put it simply, but perhaps (Groucho) Marx can help. ‘Why, a child of five could understand this’, he would exclaim, gesturing at the staff map. A pause. ‘Fetch a child of five.’ What would that prodigy make of the sight of France, battling in Africa – Mali, Mauritania, Burkina Faso, Niger, Chad? First, that a civil society for which the death of two soldiers on manoeuvres is a national trauma, meriting an emotional ceremony and a presidential address, has reached the point where waging war anywhere has become unthinkable. In 1914–18, a thousand killed at the Front was a good day; ten thousand in a single offensive, a bad one. Today, for the first time in two centuries, France is governed by a generation with no experience of civil, colonial or world war. For these young managing directors, soldiers are civil servants, held to accountancy principles. When nothing is worth the loss of life – and life, therefore, worth nothing – better assign them to less dangerous tasks: psychological – patrolling the city; technological – robotization or cyberwarfare, most urgent of all.
Yet a nation, like an individual, inherits certain repetition compulsions from its past – ‘uncontrollable processes’, as Freud put it in Beyond the Pleasure Principle, as a result of which the subject unconsciously but deliberately places himself in distressing situations, thereby repeating an old experience, but without recalling it. The subject, by contrast, is under the strong impression that the situation is fully determined by the circumstances of the moment. For France, one of those amnesiac processes is known as ‘Foreign Ops’. This is an unvarying drama, composed of three phases.
The first is euphoria. Not conflict but intervention, pacification or ‘regional stabilization’ is at stake. Initial success swells the optimism. The operation appears to make good sense, for it targets the same enemy everywhere: a conquering, multifaceted ‘ism’ – communism yesterday, terrorism today. That communist countries could come to blows – the USSR against China, Vietnam against Cambodia – should have been sufficient proof that this was not a homogeneous entity. Terrorism even less: no Comintern or Manifesto, and the practitioners can equally well set about exterminating each other (Shiites versus Sunnis, for example). To take the adjective for the noun is to mistake the subject; to forget about national, religious or tribal factors. The discourse serves to conceal a complex reality behind a simplistic abstraction: a textbook definition of ideology.
The ‘ism’ simplifies the process of selling the military operation to public opinion. The expert, the adventurer and the intellectual affirm the consensus. The first, a retired military type, will talk tactics, logistics, last-minute reinforcements (the ‘surge’). The second, a worldly, well-travelled sort, will evoke on his return from the conflict zone the suffering but also the hard-won virtues of the intervention. The third, a blowhard, will speak in capital letters about values and the West (to the point of transmuting Taliban into ‘freedom fighters’ and jihadis into admirable rebels). Heading this trio is the Commander in Chief – the most dangerous of all, because the occupant of the presidential palace knows nothing of the regions where the shooting takes place; his compass is the latest opinion poll and he thinks – if he thinks – in the very short term: about his re-election.
A more helpful trio would be the ethnographer, the historian, the geographer; regional specialists, not opinion-makers. The risk with these over-prudent scholars would be to see too clearly the mounting complications – the entanglement of traditions, tribes, climes, faiths. Thus, for example, the brilliant invasion of Libya was undertaken without consulting specialists on the country, nor even the French Ambassador to Tripoli, an eminent Arabist. A telegenic ignoramus served as expert opinion.
And so, with the best of intentions – responding to a cry for help, reacting to an atrocity – these valiant interventionists find themselves among populations of whose history, language, religion, cuisine and family structures they know nothing. Armed missionaries are not loved, and the natives know well enough that Robocops descending from the skies will leave again one day; after which will come the settling of scores (another reason to be careful). On paper, the ‘human’ of ‘human rights’ has no memories, no gods, no attachment to the soil. On patrol, there will be some surprises.
Robert McNamara, Defense Department overseer of the Vietnam War, drew up a balance sheet 27 years later. Effectively, he said, we knew nothing of Vietnam and its people. We were not in our own country and we could only lose this war of independence, despite our formidable military superiority. The domino theory proved false (if Vietnam falls, so does the rest of Asia). But no history lessons were learned. McNamara’s later candour did nothing to prevent his country imperturbably following suit in Somalia, Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria – same line, same bitter outcome. There is good reason to think that France, at the appropriate scale – 5,000 troops, not 500,000 – intends to take up the burden (though with the decisive logistical support of its big boss leading from behind). With one notable difference: in France, the military-industrial complex pales beside what Pierre Conesa, former Defence Ministry official, has dubbed the military-intellectual complex. It’s a longstanding paradox: civilians with no experience of battle tend to be more zealous warmongers than the military themselves.
The second phase is despondency. Things get off to a good start, given the overwhelming disproportion of forces – mastery of the skies, the seas, the cities; spy satellites, drones, etc. – and the chest-thumping President has seen his popularity soar. But soon afterwards, amid general inattention and indifference – people have other fish to fry – the intervention force is bogged down in a war of attrition, with its victims and its blunders. An appeal is made to the allies, who jib at it, despite the humanitarian support of the UN, for only an empire can smoothly cobble together an ‘international coalition’. It is beyond France’s means.
The next big idea is training local forces, so that those we have come to save can bail out their saviours. There will be talk of Vietnamizing, Afghanizing, Sahelizing, etc., the outcome, of constructing an ‘Iraqi’ or ‘Malian’ army. This is the hour of nation-building, under the direction of a foreign occupation. Result: corruption, desertion, double-dealing, listlessness. The supposedly brand-new local army, charged with protecting the protectors, fails to render the expected service. It is seen from the start as an auxiliary force and thereby discredited. Anti-occupation sentiment spreads among the exasperated population, erupting in protests. In the metropolis, questions begin to be asked – at first cautious murmurs, then voiced aloud. What’s the point of all these deaths, all this sacrifice, for such ingratitude? All these millions spent far away when there is such a crying need for them at home?
The third phase, then, involves covert preparations for returning home. It starts with an official denunciation of the ‘cowardly advocates of a pull-out’, heedless of the dire consequences that will ensue; because, of course, there is no negotiating with terrorists. This is the obligatory prologue to the opening of secret talks, soon made public. But it is already late and there is little to discuss other than the modalities of a – hopefully, honourable – retreat, which rarely include the fate reserved for local recruits. The West houses an invasive species, but one which has the knack of waving goodbye, in Kabul or Tripoli alike, without worrying about what will follow (the USSR in Afghanistan was no exception to the rule).
With good reason: coming to remedy disorder, the intervention leaves chaos in its wake. The page will be turned without a word being said. ‘How can a 100-to-one ratio of conventional forces result in failure every time?’ is the question not to be asked, the critical balance sheet to avoid – allowing the same process to be repeated the following decade, with other presidents, moralists and humanitarians, as if there had never been a precedent.
What then, should the West stop defending its interests, its businesses, its citizens? Tear up its defence agreements, abandon its dependents? Here a realist à l’américaine could whisper a few words of advice to such epigones. There are two ways to proceed: a knock-out punch – aeroporting in and out, commando-fashion; and/or an entrenched ground camp, as in Iraq. This solves nothing in the longer term, but it limits the damage. A cynicism with little honour, to be sure. But in asymmetrical warfare, where superior intelligence racks up stupidities, it is pointless to dream. The Bridge of Arcola – seizing it was Napoleon’s glory – is and will remain beyond your reach.
Translated by Ros Schwartz
This article was originally published in Le Figaro under the title «La France du XXIe siècle face à la guerre, l’éternel retour des mêmes erreurs»
Read on: Perry Anderson, ‘The Centre Can Hold’, NLR 105.