Military History, the French Surrender Monkey Smear and Current Alliances

Blogging through the latest volume of Foucault lecture has been interrupted as I went to a conference in Dundee (Scotland) and got back to Istanbul in time to start getting ready for the new semester. I will both be dealing with my topic at the conference and getting back to Foucault soon. In the meantime (and this will connect with what I was talking about at the conference, though my conference talk was a great deal more abstract and general in its concerns, as is appropriate at a philosophy conference), I’m turning a recent Facebook post, and some internet browsing, on topics fairly new to my blogging of military history and current military affairs.

Now I’m offering a comparatively refined post, compared with the Facebook post (I can be found on Facebook easily, I can be ‘followed’ and I am happy to accept all friend requests which are not scams) on France’s place in military affairs, now and in the past, by way of reaction to the thoroughly contemptible and ignorant ‘surrender monkey’ insult thrown at France by parts of the American right at the time of the Second Persian Gulf War, i.e. George W. Bush’s invasion of Iraq, which France declined to support.

In some ways this seems a very old story now, as France is at present just as much of a military partner of the US as the UK is, and is possibly a more useful ally for the moment. Nevertheless, I think the topic is of continuing relevance with regard to national and nationalist rewriting of history, the presentation of countries as having a character, and the way understanding of history is taken up by and influences political debate.

We have seen in a very crude way how historical assumptions are used in political debate, and the historical-political narratives in circulation still underestimate the degree to which a Franco-American partnership has been important and the degree to which Britain’s relation with the US, while distinctive, is not the only major US partnership in Europe, now or in the past.  This of course is relevant to my recent long series of posts at Notes On Liberty (all reblogged here recently so just go down the list of recent posts and you’ll be there quickly)) on the inadequacy of seeing Britain, as part of the Anglosphere, distinct from continental Europe for reasons which include its supposed unique global role for a European country, in partnership with the USA.

A leading US military historian counters the ‘French surrender monkey’ nonsense.

In a video posted on YourTune of a talk given at the US Army War College,  Michael S. Neiberg, now a Professor at the US Army War College, explains the role of the French Army in defeating Germany in World War One, focused on the Second Battle of the Marne, which he argues was the real beginning of the end for the Kaiser’s army, and which was mostly French soldiers (including colonial forces from Vietnam and west Africa).

This position is  in contrast to the more frequent emphasis placed on the the slightly later Battle of Amiens, a more British centred campaign. Neiberg is  very sober, serious and careful in his presentation of the history, but clearly intends to counter the ‘surrender monkey’ insult from the Second Gulf War period, and look at how it has roots before the Iraq War. During that war, Jonah Goldeberg who is still treated as a heavyweight conservative thinker with authoritative views, turned a good joke in The Simpsons (Season Six, Episode 22, Groundsman Willy calls the French ‘cheese eating surrender monkeys’) into a very nasty journalistic-political meme as a substitute for a genuine discussion of exactly how good an idea the Bush invasion of Iraq was.

In Neiberg’s account It was during the thirties that the British and Americans tended to promote a downplaying of the French role in World War One and the influence of the French army on the US army, the US army in fact in WWI and the 20s completely admired and copied the French army on Neiberg’s account, though they were a bit slow to understanding why headlong offensives driving straight at Berlin were not realistic in WWI.

Neiberg suggests that the ‘surrender monkey’ attitude is then reinforced by a failure to understand how the extreme suffering of World War One, much greater than that of Britain or the US which did not suffer occupation or any fighting at all in their homeland territory, affected French morale when the Nazis achieved a strategic breakthrough in 1940. It is interesting to compare and contrast Neiberg, Professor at the intellectual apex of the US armed forces (and whatever else you think about the US military you would be very foolish indeed, Jonah Goldberg foolish, if you didn’t recognise there are some really seriously smart people in the US officer corps and educational institutions), with overrated bloviators like Goldberg.

The evidence is clear against any narrative in which Anglosphere Britain as superior to and excluding of a European Britain. And even despite the American turn away from France in the 1930s, WWII US tank design was strongly influenced by the French. If you are at all interested in that kind of thing, and I recommend becoming interested in that kind of thing in order to have a full grasp of the role of both violence and technology in human society, try comparing the Char B1 Bis and S35 Somua on the French side, with the US M3 ‘Lee’ or ‘Grant’ and the M4 ‘Sherman’. And the Leclerc tank now is better than the Abrams M1A2 (along with earlier variants)!

As a coda to the above, it is well worth looking at Step Up To Support France, an article by three members of the Atlantic Council including a former US assistant secretary of state for defence, arguing for Nato to buy the two Mistral helicopter carriers that France was contracted to sell to Russia before Russian soldiers entered Crimea and parts of eastern Ukraine, since France cancelled the contract at considerable cost, creating a good opportunity to compensate France for an action to the benefit of the Atlantic alliance, as well as increasing Nato’s central military capacities.

France has also gained status in the US for its actions in northern and western Africa, particularly Mali, against fundamentalist terrorists. For me, the current actions against ISIS, and similar movements, along with the current build up of military forces and co-operation to deter Putin from further interventions in politically weak parts of the post-Soviet sphere are the necessary and justified side of Nato, and a broader Atlantic alliance in which non-Nato members such as Finland and Sweden are increasing co-operation. Of course co-operation against ISIS could be said to be trying to clear up a mess created by earlier neoconservative adventurism, which France rightly resisted, and has its risks, but the chaos created by ISIS is affecting Europe now and it is not possible to treat the issue as something beyond the European sphere which can be ignored.

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