In Praise of Cowards

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“Rien ne saurait interrompre les actions généreusement bienfaisantes de la France en Indochine.” (Nothing can stop the generous good works of France in Indochina [Vietnam].)

~ Indo-China Governor-General Pierre Pasquier, 1930

A joke made its way around the Internet following the train bombings in Madrid:

“In response to the terrorism events in Madrid, the French government announced a change in its alert status…from ‘run’ to ‘hide.’ If the threat worsens, the French may be forced to increase their level of security, declaring a move to ‘surrender’ or ‘collaboration’ status as events develop.”

One of the many conceits Americans permit themselves is that they bravely face up to the world’s terrorist menace, while others — most notably, the French — cower in fear.

Elsewhere, in the International Herald Tribune, comes a letter to the editor in which the writer takes issue with an apparently widespread report that John Kerry is worried about looking “too French” and that this is a sign of “weakness” in the eyes of the lumpen voters.

We stop still in our tracks. We hold our breath. There must be a price to be paid for such arrogant dumbo-ism. But Americans are ready to believe anything — if it flatters them.

Anyone who has ever cracked open a history book couldn’t help but know that French history is drenched in blood. When it came to butchering each other, what the Gaullic tribes didn’t know about it probably wasn’t worth knowing. And then, there were the wars with the Romans…and with the English…and religious wars…and wars with between princes…between kingdoms…wars for no reason. Weakness? Cowardice? A group of Norman French fighters no bigger than a small-town police force invaded and captured all of England. Bonaparte took on all of Europe…and almost beat them all.

General Marbot records an incident in the campaign against Russia in which a group of French soldiers is cut off from the main force, but visible from the Emperor’s commandpost. Realizing that they could not expect reinforcements, the brigade sent a message to Bonaparte — ‘We, who are about to die, salute you.’ Then, they fought to the last man.

Later this month comes the anniversary of the Battle of Camerone. Napoleon’s nephew sent troops to Mexico in the 1860s. In the action surrounding the siege of Puebla, a group of 60 French foreign legionnaires was cut off and confronted by an army of 2,000 Mexicans. The Mexican commander asked for a surrender. Instead, the French vowed to fight to the last man. Trapped in an inn, the soldiers had nothing to eat or drink. Then, the Mexicans set the place on fire.

“In spite of the heat and smoke,” explains a report on the Internet, “the legionnaires resisted, but many of them were killed or injured. By 5 pm on April 30, 1863, only 12 men could still fight with 2nd Lieutenant Maudet. At this time, the Mexican colonel gathered his soldiers and told them what a disgrace it would be if they were unable to defeat such a small number of men. The Mexicans were about to give the general assault through the holes opened in the walls of the courtyard…[they] once again asked Lieutenant Maudet to surrender. Once again, Maudet scornfully refused.

“The final charge was given. Soon, only 5 men were left around Maudet; Corporal Maine, legionnaires Catteau, Wensel, Constantin, and Leonard. Each had only one bullet left. In a corner of the courtyard, their backs against the wall, still facing the enemy, they fixed bayonets. When the signal was given, they opened fired and fought with their bayonets. Luitenant Maudet and 2 legionnaires fell, mortally wounded. Maine, along with his 2 remaining companions, were about to be slaughtered when a Mexican officer saved them. He shouted: ‘Surrender!’

“‘We will, only if you promise to allow us to carry and care for our injured men and if you leave us our guns.’

“‘Nothing can be refused to men like you,’ answered the officer.”

And this spring also marks the 50th anniversary of the Battle of Dien Bien Phu. Writer Graham Greene visited the French just before the shooting started. He found them well supplied — with 48,000 bottles of wine. But after the Vietnamese terrorists captured the airstrips, the French were cut off and doomed. Still, they held out — hoping a diplomatic solution could be found. It did not come.

After a 56-day siege, French general de Castries radioed his superior in Hanoi: “I’m blowing up the installations. The ammunition dumps are already exploding. Au revoir.”

“Well then,” came the reply, “au revoir, mon vieux.”

After the fall of Indo-China, the French renounced their “civilizing mission” foreign policy. Now, it is America that tromps over the planet, claiming to make the world a better place.

But when it comes to blockheaded bellicosity and desperate courage, Americans have nothing to teach the French.

In comparison to Napoleon’s grand campaigns, America’s early wars were piddling, tawdry affairs. Its wars against the Mexicans and Spaniards, for example, were more sordid than glorious. Even its Revolutionary War was merely a minor engagement in comparison to the Napoleonic wars, and only won because the French intervened at a crucial moment to pull Americans’ chestnuts out of the fire. Here, we quote Charles W. Eliot’s history, in which he describes how the patriots had fallen “into a condition of despondency from which nothing but the steadfastness of Washington and the Continental army and the aid from France saved them.”

In WWI, the French battered themselves against the Germans for two years — and suffered more casualties than America had in all its wars put together — before Pershing ever set foot in France. Again, in WWII, Americans waited until the combatants had been softened up…before entering the war with an extraordinary advantage in fresh soldiers and almost unlimited supplies.

Americans have no history. Probably just as well. The French, on the other hand, have too much. Practically every street in Paris reminds them of a slaughter somewhere. Upon the Arc de Triomphe, Les Invalides, and dozens of other piles of stone, the names of towns in Germany, Spain, Italy, Poland, Russia…or North Africa…are inscribed. Each one marks the deaths of thousands of French soldiers — gone early to their graves for who-remembers-what important national purpose. Every town in France, even the most remote and forlorn little burg, has at its center a pillar of granite or marble — with the names of the men whose bodies were torn to bit by flying lead or corroded by some battlefield disease. A whole race of orphans grew up after WWI…and special seats on the subway were designated for those “mutilated in war” including thousands of “sans gueules” — men who had had their jaws blown away and yet survived, too horrible to look upon.

The French have had enough of war — at least for now. Let them enjoy a well-earned cowardice. We will get our chance.

Bill Bonner [send him mail] is the author, with Addison Wiggin, of Financial Reckoning Day: Surviving the Soft Depression of The 21st Century.

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