The French have been making war with varying fortunes for over fourteen centuries. Over that span, they have won stunning victories and suffered spectacular defeats. The names Agincourt and Waterloo are household words to the English-speaking peoples; the names Castillon and Fort Dusquesne less so. Jena and Rossbach, Rocroi and Vitoria, Tours and Crecy, the Marne and Blitzkrieg, the list of triumphs and disasters rolls on and on. While success has many fathers and failure is an orphan, the paternities of Charles Martel, Turenne, Conde, Vauban, Davout, and de Gaulle are incontestable.
Military leaders do their utmost to learn from history, but these lessons are often more than simply unhelpful, they can be deceiving. The past is our only measure of the future, and it should be consulted, but with the greatest caution, and never taken for a reliable guide. Those who fail to learn from history often overcome those who cleave to it. Technology changes. The soldiers of the Napoleonic Wars were gorgeously appareled because they blasted away at one another at close range with wildly inaccurate muskets. The splendor of their uniforms fortified them in these appalling encounters and these peacocks were less likely to break than their dowdier foes. A weapon with a rifled barrel that can be loaded quickly (by the standards of the nineteenth century musket) meant the appearance of the sharpshooter and the disappearance of these dazzling hussars, cuirassiers, and grenadiers. Fortified and entrenched positions were inexpugnable during the First World War and the Somme, Passchendaele, and Ludendorff’s final desperate offensives tore apart generations to gain only a few miles of blasted moonscape. In the next war, Eben-Emael has fallen and Panzers are roaring across these same battlefields.
Such wildly unequal results are not exclusive to French arms. The descendants of Gaius Marius and Scipio Africanus surrendered in the thousand to bemused Tommies in North Africa. In War and Peace, Prince Bolkonsky, unwilling to concede the greatness of Napoleon as a general or the might of his Grand Armee, sniffs that he won all his great victories over mere Germans. Cortes and less than seven hundred Spaniards overthrew the Aztec Empire. The Soviet juggernaut hurled itself against tiny Finland and shattered. Hitler reviewed this miserable performance and learning the lessons of the past, was confirmed in his contempt for the fighting qualities of the Russian peasant, and this gave him the confidence he needed to gamble on conquering the Soviet Union within a few months.
It can be puzzling to understand how the few can overcome the many, or how one army can slaughter another with almost no losses. The most obvious and tempting explanations are cowardice and ineptitude. Yet the members of our species are nearly identical in genotype, phenotype, neurology physiology, psychology, and temperament. For an entire nation to collapse is the result of special circumstances and wherever these pertain, in whatever age and to whatever nation, defeat is certain. To face something strange, baffling, and frightening can break a people’s will to resist. Whether it’s iron men mounted on monsters, or Heinz Guderian’s panzer divisions, shock, terror, and confusion will drive all before them.
The other main reason a people don’t fight is that they don’t want to. Soldiers who have no wish to leave their own country and plunge into a strange land will falter in the attack. These same troops may fight to the death in defense of their own soil. Subjects who feel that they are fighting for rulers who don’t care about them, and for reasons that have nothing to do with them, will flee or surrender at the first opportunity. The Czechs, Hungarians, Italians, Serbians, and Romanians conscripted into the armies of the Austrian Empire were no match for patriots fighting for their own motherland. There is a reason the Austrian Hapsburgs compiled such a dismal military record and why they gained their ends through diplomacy and marriage rather than force of arms. The poor, unheard, neglected, and disenfranchised will never be fervid to fight for oil, sugar, or empire.
The causes of crushing, humiliating defeat are baffling, and they are also fleeting. Most Americans are aware of the French collapse before Hitler’s legions in 1940. They had tanks as good as those of the Germans but didn’t group them together into strike forces. They didn’t trust their impregnable Maginot Line sufficiently to let the fortifications fend for themselves. They discounted the possibility of a German onslaught through the Ardennes forest. When the enemy was racing toward their capital, they neglected the most basic measure of blowing up their gas stations. Their mistakes were many and these led to their own conquest and occupation. France fell and moated England was left to ponder the magnitude of the disaster and the reasons for it. They, and their American allies returned to liberate France. Americans never seem to tire of reminding the French of this deliverance or sneering at their humiliation. There is no profit in this but there is great peril. You can hardly call a man a coward and then be surprised when he hates you.
From the American Revolution to the entry of the United States into the First World War, the bitterest animosity prevailed between the US and Great Britain. The English were a feared and hated enemy. They are now a trusted and treasured ally. Perhaps no such conciliation is possible between the United States and France. Perhaps the two nations are too dissimilar for there to be any real understanding or friendship between them. The two countries may never be friends, but in this world, they must be allies. They share too many enemies. The United States and France are two of the important, most powerful, and most regarded examples of modern republics. Tolerant of dissent, suffering all faiths, orientations, and beliefs, upholding the rights of all their citizens, they are a beacon in the darkness and a vision of what is possible. Government of the people, by the people, and for the people has not only rivals but inveterate and violent enemies. For now, the most obvious and dangerous are a backward, belligerent, and nuclear Russia, and the theocratic and savage Islamic State. Should these be tamed or succumb, there will be others to take their place. It is regrettable but the world is a dangerous place, and it will probably always be a dangerous place. The taunting of the French should be stopped, not only because it’s petty and ungracious, but because no nation, no matter how powerful, can afford to spurn an ally.