A FRENCH SOLDIER’S VIEW OF US SOLDIERS IN AFGHANISTAN
And they are impressive warriors! We have not come across bad ones, as strange at it may seem to you when you know how critical French people can be. Even if some of them are a bit on the heavy side, all of them provide us everyday with lessons in infantry know-how. Beyond the wearing of a combat kit that never seem to discomfort them (helmet strap, helmet, combat goggles, rifles etc.) the long hours of watch at the outpost never seem to annoy them in the slightest. On the one square meter wooden tower above the perimeter wall they stand the five consecutive hours in full battle rattle and night vision goggles on top, their sight unmoving in the directions of likely danger. No distractions, no pauses, they are like statues nights and days. At night, all movements are performed in the dark – only a handful of subdued red lights indicate the occasional presence of a soldier on the move. Same with the vehicles whose lights are covered – everything happens in pitch dark even filling the fuel tanks with the Japy pump.Here we discover America as it is often depicted: their values are taken to their paroxysm, often amplified by promiscuity and the loneliness of this outpost in the middle of that Afghan valley.
And combat? If you have seen Rambo you have seen it all – always coming to the rescue when one of our teams gets in trouble, and always in the shortest delay. That is one of their tricks: they switch from T-shirt and sandals to combat ready in three minutes. Arriving in contact with the enemy, the way they fight is simple and disconcerting: they just charge! They disembark and assault in stride, they bomb first and ask questions later – which cuts any pussyfooting short.Honor, motherland – everything here reminds of that: the American flag floating in the wind above the outpost, just like the one on the post parcels. Even if recruits often originate from the hearth of American cities and gang territory, no one here has any goal other than to hold high and proud the star spangled banner. Each man knows he can count on the support of a whole people who provides them through the mail all that an American could miss in such a remote front-line location: books, chewing gums, razorblades, Gatorade, toothpaste etc. in such way that every man is aware of how much the American people backs him in his difficult mission. And that is a first shock to our preconceptions: the American soldier is no individualist. The team, the group, the combat team are the focus of all his attention.
The foremost motive that the British, Austrians, Prussians, Russians and lesser powers publicly gave for declaring war was that Napoleon couldn’t be trusted to keep the peace. As one British member of Parliament put it, peace “must always be uncertain with such a man, and…whilst he reigns, would require a constant armament, and hostile preparations more intolerable than war itself.” That may have been true during his imperial period, but this time around Napoleon’s behavior suggested that the Allies could have taken him at his word.
He told his council that he had renounced any dream of reconstituting the empire and that “henceforth the happiness and the consolidation” of France “shall be the object of all my thoughts.” He refrained from taking measures against anyone who had betrayed him the previous year. “Of all that individuals have done, written or said since the taking of Paris,” he proclaimed, “I shall forever remain ignorant.” He immediately set about instituting a new liberal constitution incorporating trial by jury, freedom of speech and a bicameral legislature that curtailed some of his own powers; it was written by the former opposition politician Benjamin Constant, whom he had once sent into internal exile.
Napoleon well knew that after 23 years of almost constant war, the French people wanted no more of it. His greatest hope was for a peaceful period like his days as first consul, in which he could re-establish the legitimacy of his dynasty, return the nation’s battered economy to strength and restore the civil order the Bourbons had disturbed.
“Incomprehensible day,” Napoleon later said of that fateful June 18, admitting that he “did not thoroughly understand the battle,” the loss of which he blamed on “a combination of extraordinary Fates.” In fact, it was not incomprehensible at all: Napoleon split his army disastrously the day before the battle, put his senior marshals in the wrong roles, failed to attack early enough in the morning, didn’t discern that the Prussians were going to arrive in the afternoon, launched his major infantry attack in the wrong formation [incorrect] and his major cavalry attack at the wrong time (and unsupported by infantry and horse artillery), and unleashed his Imperial Guard too late. As he told one of his captors the following year: “In war, the game is always with him who commits the fewest faults.” At Waterloo, that was undoubtedly Wellington.
If Napoleon had remained emperor of France for the six years remaining in his natural life, European civilization would have benefited inestimably. The reactionary Holy Alliance of Russia, Prussia and Austria would not have been able to crush liberal constitutionalist movements in Spain, Greece, Eastern Europe and elsewhere; pressure to join France in abolishing slavery in Asia, Africa and the Caribbean would have grown; the benefits of meritocracy over feudalism would have had time to become more widely appreciated; Jews would not have been forced back into their ghettos in the Papal States and made to wear the yellow star again; encouragement of the arts and sciences would have been better understood and copied; and the plans to rebuild Paris would have been implemented, making it the most gorgeous city in the world.
Napoleon deserved to lose Waterloo, and Wellington to win it, but the essential point in this bicentenary year is that the epic battle did not need to be fought—and the world would have been better off if it hadn’t been.