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When France declined to join the United States and Great Britain in the Iraq War, restaurants began renaming french fries on their menus and the phrase “cheese-eating surrender monkeys” started showing up on Internet blogs. The phrase apparently originated on the television comedy show The Simpsons. Its meaning? Well, the French certainly make, and eat, a lot of the world’s finest cheese. The monkey part is evidently the sort of thing the character Homer Simpson says on the show. The word surrender, though, is the interesting element of this cultural catchphrase, and it reflects an attitude about the martial qualities of the French nation.

For baby boomers, who seem to focus on World War II and Vietnam when it comes to war history, Germany’s quick conquest of France in 1940 is often seen as something of a mystery. Why didn’t the French fight harder? Are they not a martially robust people?

Looking back into French history, the lesson is the opposite. Otherwise, Islam would already rule Europe. In 732 at the Battle of Tours, 300 miles south of Paris, the Franks were on their own. A millennium later there was a gentleman named Bonaparte, who mobilized his country and took on the world. The eminent British military historian J.F.C. Fuller writes, “As a strategist, Napoleon has never been excelled,” and “among the world’s great autocrats and conquerors, Napoleon has but two compares— Alexander the Great and Augustus. The warrior spirit of the one he shared to the full, as he did the administrative abilities of the other.”

It would have been preposterous for anyone to call the armies and generals who triumphed at Jena and so many other epic battles “cheese-eating surrender monkeys.” The legacy of Napoleon led the French, in Alistair Horne’s phrase, “to think of themselves as the warrior race of Europe.”

The recent record, of course, has not been one of la gloire. The French did not persevere in Indochina, and they pulled out of Algeria despite having won that war. And these events followed their iconic humiliation beneath the tracks of Hitler’s panzers.

So what happened? Did the French martial DNA mutate into something else? Not on the evidence. France suffered militarily not so much from a loss of spirit, but because its generals embraced, with typically French passion, faulty doctrine. The country’s history over the last 150 years does not evince a lack of soldierly élan. Indeed, the French army can be said to have suffered, repeatedly, from an excess of it. The failures have been strategic and intellectual, which makes them infinitely more interesting and worthy of study than the image suggested by a cartoon character on a TV show.

A string of French losses began in 1870 with the Franco-Prussian War. French armies were besieged, as was Paris. Europe was again transformed, this time by German ascendancy on the continent.

Afterward, the French army faced two urgent tasks. It needed to study and learn from the immediate past, and it needed to look to and prepare for the future. The lesson it took away from the Franco-Prussian War was that it had lost from a dearth of offensive spirit and a reliance on fixed fortifications. The answer for how to deal with the new and increasingly bellicose power on its border followed almost syllogistically—by regaining the old Napoleonic belief in the offensive.

French military doctrine, then, became a quest to recapture the spirit of the past, when the furor Gallicae of its armies made Europe tremble. Soldiers were trained to crave bayonet assaults, and generals were taught the doctrine of offensive à outrance. “The French army, returning to its traditions, henceforth admits no law but the offensive,” was the way the Field Regulations of 1913 summed up training and doctrine. These were put to the test the following year, with catastrophic results.

France lost some 300,000 men in the first month of World War I. Its troops attacked and attacked again in desperate frontal assaults and were cut down remorselessly by machine guns well short of bayonet range. The war in jeopardy, they were saved by German blunders that led to the Battle of the Marne. But in that terrible month, what did not happen to the French army is one of the great feats of military history—it did not disintegrate or collapse as many armies would have, and as its enemy believed it had, or certainly would, with one more small push. Instead, the French army maintained its coherence and conducted a fighting retreat until its leaders recognized an opportunity and attacked, this time successfully.

But, sadly, not decisively. The war ground on. And the French army continued to fling men at machine guns to sustain the spirit of the offensive. When forced on the defensive, as at Verdun, it defended to the last man and counterattacked to retake any lost ground no matter how tactically worthless. Élan was not enough, and when it ran out along the Western Front in 1917, half the divisions in the French army mutinied when ordered to press a hopeless offensive.

The army, which had fought splendidly, was broken by a deeply flawed doctrine.

France was among the victor nations of World War I. But the war had discredited, beyond any salvation, the doctrine of the offensive. The generals, thinking they had learned the lessons of trench warfare, rewrote doctrine. The new thinking was defensive and relied on fixed fortifications, which became, infamously, the Maginot Line.

The new doctrine was as wrong for the next war as the old doctrine had been for the last. German generals had studied the last war, too. Defeat had, perhaps, sharpened their instincts. They saw the future in tanks and the return of mobility to the battlefield. France had tanks—more of them than the Wehrmacht, in fact— but French doctrine called for them to be assigned to infantry divisions and deployed piecemeal. The Germans concentrated their armor in the dreaded Panzer divisions. This time around, at the end of a month, France was beaten.

The French military experience of the last 150 years, then, is not one of soldierly ineptitude but of intellectual failure. They never got the doctrine right.

Well, almost never. The exception was in Algeria, and U.S. General David Petraeus has studied this lesson in victory and hopes to adapt it to the counterinsurgency operation he leads in Iraq.

In 1956 the French were on the verge of losing their colonial war in Algeria when Colonel David Galula formulated a doctrine for fighting the insurgents. He employed his new doctrine successfully in the mountains with soldiers under his command, and General Jacques Massu embraced them during the Battle of Algiers, a French victory. By 1960 the war in Algeria, waged according to Galula’s doctrine, was ostensibly won.

It was, of course, lost politically in France and around the world, partly in reaction to stories regarding the use of torture by the French army. Galula, incidentally, did not endorse torture and considered it counterproductive. Still, both he and the French army experience in Algeria were largely forgotten. A film about the conflict, The Battle of Algiers, became an underground classic, and though it ends with the French having pacified the city, it makes it plain that the insurgents’ ultimate victory was inevitable.

Galula’s book Counterinsurgency Warfare: Theory and Practice has enjoyed a strong renaissance of late, particularly at the Pentagon and places like the RAND Corporation, where Iraq is the topic. The book has become essential reading for this generation of military thinkers, and Petraeus translated many of its lessons and insights into FM 3-24, the U.S. military manual on counterinsurgency warfare.

It is almost beyond ironic that if the U.S. succeeds in Iraq, it will owe a debt to military doctrine established by those “cheese-eating surrender monkeys.”


Originally published in the August 2007 issue of Military History. To subscribe, click here.