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One morning early this summer a young French officer of the 1st Foreign Legion Parachute Regiment was asked why he had not participated, as had the rest of the unit, in the rebellion last April when strong elements of the French Army joined five retired generals in an abortive attempt to seize power in Algeria. "Because," he snapped, "I did not have the honor to be asked to join."
There you have an idea of the way the French Army has been closing ranks ever since the nerve-racking days last spring that shook it as it has never been shaken since it fell apart before a superior German force in 1940. For the officer was not speaking casually but in reply to a prosecutor's question at the trial of his superior, Major Elie Denoix de Saint-Marc, who had been taken to Paris to face military justice for his part in the uprising. The young officer was polite; he was firm, he was defiant, as were many other officers who testified in the post-rebellion trials that began in late May and ran into August. Other military witnesses, whether or not in the moment of crisis they had remained loyal to the state, were equally polite, equally firm, and, though not defiant, in almost every instance were sympathetic to the defense.
What kind of an army is this where the loyal and the disloyal stand shoulder to shoulder? Is it just closing ranks for its own protection, for its own survival, in the hope it can iron out its differences, in the conviction it can restore to the fold the sheep that have wandered? Or are there more dangerous implications here? Are the wandering sheep enticing the loyal?
During the trials that ended recently, long or short prison terms were handed down to General Louis Nicot, acting commander-in-chief of the entire French Air Force at the time of the plot; to General Pierre Bigot, commander of the air force in Algeria; to retired General Maurice Challe who led the rebellion; to retired General André Zeller, a distinguished name in French military circles; and to a number of colonels, majors, captains and lieutenants, among them some of the finest combat men in the army. What have we seen and heard in the course of these trials?
We have seen a state that could not prepare its case properly because there was lack of coöperation on the part of loyal and disloyal officers alike.
We have seen loyal officers who, after the insurrection, resigned their commissions or their commands in protest at the manner in which the purge of the disloyal was conducted; they considered it exceedingly severe.
We have seen some loyal officers decline to testify for the prosecution, and others who, though they put in an appearance in court, talked and acted more like witnesses for the defense.
We have heard General Gambiez, the loyal commander-in-chief in Algeria at the time of the revolt, plead for the acquittal of disloyal officers who caused his arrest: "Rendez-moi mes en-fants"-"Give me back my children."
We have heard five officers accused of having arrested a loyal officer and heard the loyal officer refuse to say whether in fact he was arrested, as the government contended, or just accompanied to another village under escort, as the defense insisted.
In short, we have witnessed a series of extraordinary trials that may well cause us to wonder whether, under the circumstances, we have any right to use words like loyal and disloyal, except in a limited sense; and what we hear outside of the courtroom in conversation with senior officers who remained faithful to General de Gaulle and the Fifth Republic does little to dispel the doubt from our minds. During the rebellion, after the rebellion, before General Challe's trial and after his conviction, one heard the same remark from the loyal and the disloyal: "J'ai beaucoup d'estime pour le général Challe"-"I hold General Challe in high esteem." This of an outstanding soldier who, because he disagreed with de Gaulle's policy for Algeria, retired from active service, flew secretly from France to North Africa, seized the over-all command he once had held and won over to his banner of revolt a large part of the strategic reserve, which was formed of professional soldiers, the élite of the army. This of a senior officer who had permitted the arrest of top military and civilian officials who opposed him. But this, too, of a man who, rather than allow blood to be spilled, had surrendered himself to military justice. He got 15 years.
All in all, it is a weird, complicated story that can be explained only by the fact that, although most Frenchmen question General Challe's judgment and his right to act as he did, few question his patriotism or the patriotism of those who followed him. Certainly the prosecutors did not. They introduced no evidence tending to prove that the rebellious officers had any intention of marching on metropolitan France, of unseating de Gaulle and destroying the Fifth Republic. However skeptical some of the prosecutors may have been, they were compelled to accept the protestations of all defendants that their only objective was to seize power in Algeria so they could win the war by military means over the Moslem National Liberation Front, the F.L.N. On occasion, they even asked for lesser prison terms than the government wished; often they submitted in writing a demand for long sentences, then orally, in obedience to the dictates of their own consciences, declared they believed such sentences excessive. The military courts agreed.
There were, of course, other mitigating factors besides the motives insisted upon by the defendants. They had never fired a shot or ordered a shot to be fired. They had served long wartime years in Indochina and Algeria. They had been promoted and decorated repeatedly for bravery.
Take the case of Major Elie Denoix de Saint-Marc, acting commander of the 1st Foreign Legion Parachute Regiment. He was 39 years old when he went on trial. He had been 20 years in the army, 15 of them with the Foreign Legion. At 21 he had been arrested by the Gestapo for wartime resistance and sent to the concentration camp at Buchenwald. He stood before the tribunal in full dress uniform, with white gloves, with decorations he had won in France, Indochina and Algeria, wearing the green beret of a Foreign Legion paratrooper. His story was brief: In the early years, the army's mission was clear-to defeat the enemy in Algeria, to maintain the integrity of the territory and to promote social justice and social equality. In the process of carrying out this mission, thousands of soldiers died and "tens of thousands" of Moslems sought the army's protection from F.L.N. terrorists and guerrilla bands. Then, one day the army was told it had a new mission, that Algeria might have to be evacuated. "We cried," he said. He recalled Indochina and pledges to the native population-"The army will protect you; the army will remain." He recalled the day the army moved out, contrary to its pledged word and the word of the French government of the period, leaving behind loyal Indochinese to the mercy of Vietminh rebels. He could not let the same thing happen in Algeria where once again the army had sworn it would not abandon friendly Moslems, where once again the government in Paris had pledged its word. "You can ask anything of a soldier," he cried out, "even his life; but you cannot ask him to deny himself, to contradict himself, to lie, to cheat, to perjure himself. I would rather die before a firing squad in the ditch at Vincennes."
Another officer who had led his troops into Algiers on the night the Challe rebellion broke out was Battalion Commander Guy Robin. His father was born in Algeria; his grandfather was born there. He stood before the court wearing the red beret of a French paratrooper. "I had to choose," he said, "between the two imperatives of my profession-between discipline and honor. I chose honor." He joined Challe and captured the Palais d'Été, home of the French Delegate General, Jean Morin. There was no firing; "We went in with arms slung over our shoulders." He admitted everything; he denied nothing. He held his head high. "When on another day, out of uniform, barred from the army, I stand before my children [he has eight], I will be able to give them nothing to assure their material future, but I will be able to pass on to them my honor; it is unsullied."
As these officers talk we begin to have an understanding of the forces that divide the French Army and of the more powerful forces that draw it together; we begin to see why so many officers who remained faithful to the Fifth Republic respect and sympathize with those who did not.
Essentially, we are dealing here not with one army but with three armies, separated by background, experience and temperament. There is, first of all, the traditional army-the army of military families, of St. Cyr graduates, of staff officers, the army that for generations has been loyal to the state whatever the state or however much it may have disagreed with the state-the army which by and large was loyal even to Pétain in the wartime years when General de Gaulle was calling France to a higher loyalty. These officers, with many notable exceptions, come from the higher income brackets of society; you will find them in positions of command, in the upper echelons of military organization.
Second, there is what is known as the technical army, a different type of officer, a different type of man. Generally speaking, he is an engineer or a soldier concerned with the less conventional aspects of modern warfare. He is a student; he comes most likely from a middle-class family.
Finally, there is the militant army, composed of more than half the professional officer corps. He is a first-class combat soldier, a company or battalion commander, perhaps a regimental commander, with a background something like that of Major de Saint-Marc-out of nothing, into the wartime resistance movement, a born leader of men, a battlefield commission, years of combat in Indochina and Algeria. He is a fighter, an activist. His fundamental loyalty was not to the Fourth Republic nor is it to the Fifth, but to his own concept of France and of what France ought to be. A combat man, he has a combat man's distrust of staff officers and his own idea of how modern war should be waged. Let others talk of men, money and munitions, of atomic and thermonuclear bombs; he believes in psychological warfare, in revolutionary warfare where nothing can be accomplished by military means until the army has won support of the civilian population. The Challe plot was planned and in large measure carried out by the most active officers in the militant army.
To be sure, the lines between these three armies are not firmly drawn. There were St. Cyr graduates like Challe himself and General Bigot in the April insurrection; there are St. Cyr graduates in the militant army as there are men in high staff and command positions who came out of the maquis and for many years led combat men into battle. But to describe how three armies exist in one helps to explain the different kinds of men we are dealing with and suggests the nature of the struggle that goes on within this force where all wear the uniform of a soldier of France.
So much for the forces that divide them. Now for the forces that draw them together. The most powerful among them is the conviction that, regardless of differences of opinion and experience, the unity of the army must be preserved, that whatever the provocation the army must never fire on the army; for only the army stands between France and revolutionary Communism. It is for this reason that during the four-day rebellion only one man was killed, and his death was listed officially as accidental. It is for this reason that those who remained loyal to the state refrained from carrying out orders from Paris which directed every officer, every man, to put down the uprising by force of arms if necessary. It is for this reason that the loyal did not testify against the disloyal. A second force that draws them together is the common conviction that it was the army, the army united, that brought down the Fourth Republic, because it was planning to abandon Algeria as it had abandoned Indochina; that it was the army, the whole army, that put de Gaulle into power in the belief that the Fifth Republic would fight on to military victory; finally, that de Gaulle and the Fifth Republic have betrayed the trust the army placed in them. A third cohesive force is the feeling that somehow the army is cut off from de Gaulle and the civilian population in metropolitan France, that metropolitan France let it down in Indochina and is now letting it down in Algeria.
Why this feeling that General de Gaulle is betraying Algeria, betraying the army? It is not entirely because he preaches self-determination, speaks of an Algerian Algeria and negotiates with the F.L.N. There are two additional reasons. One is that de Gaulle revealed his Algerian policy piece by piece over the years. In 1958 he appointed Challe commander-in-chief and for 16 months waged offensive war against the F.L.N. wherever he could find it. In 1959, with the F.L.N. broken and largely concentrated in Tunisia and Morocco, he proposed self-determination. In 1960 he went further to propose an Algerian Algeria, independence for Algeria, an Algerian republic. "My men," says Colonel Guiraud, commander of the 1st Foreign Legion Parachute Regiment who was absent on leave at the time of the uprising, "did not know what they were fighting for any more; they were ready to die but they were torn apart by the thought that they might not be able to honor the oath they took to stay and win."
The second major reason the army thought de Gaulle was betraying it is as follows: One day last March secret orders went out from Paris saying that preparations were to be made for a unilateral cease-fire. It was explained that when negotiations with the F.L.N. opened at Evian, France would urge an end to the fighting by both sides, but that if this were refused, France would stop fighting anyway. At least this is the way the army understood it. General Bigot, air force commander in Algeria, says he asked General Olié, commander-in-chief of the French General Staff, how far de Gaulle intended to go at Evian and that Olié replied he did not know. "I will tell you this, then," he told Olié, "if you think I am going to welcome Ferhat Abbas at one of my airfields, you had better get yourself another man." It was Bigot who sent the plane from Algeria to bring Challe from France.
De Gaulle, of course, did nothing like what the activists feared he planned to do; nor can it be demonstrated, after the subsequent talks with the F.L.N. at Lugrin, that he has any intention of settling the Algerian conflict to the complete satisfaction of the F.L.N. or of permitting the destruction of the European population in Algeria and the Moslems who are loyal to France. To begin with, the unilateral cease-fire which went into effect on the eve of the Evian talks did not mean the army was no longer at war. The army still mans the eastern barrage on the Tunisian frontier and the western barrage on the Moroccan border; it retaliates when attacked. The army still hunts down F.L.N. guerrilla forces whenever they strike on Algerian territory. The only thing it does not do is to seek out guerrillas before they strike; otherwise there is no change from the state of affairs that existed before the unilateral cease-fire. In the second place, there is strong reason to believe, despite what army activists may think, that de Gaulle has no idea of turning over Algeria to the F.L.N. He is a shrewd politician who faces an extraordinarily difficult political problem; and he keeps his own counsel. There is, however, a pattern in what he has said and done since he came to power in 1958, obscure though it may have appeared to be at times: a military offensive against the F.L.N. in the first year, followed by hopes for an independent Algeria, mingled with toughness in negotiation at Melun, at Evian and at Lugrin. At no time has he ever exposed every card in his hand; in no single speech, on no one occasion, has he told the whole story. He may have done so in private, for his most intimate associates say that what upset him the most about the April rebellion was that Challe was a participant and that Challe knew, if no one else knew, precisely where de Gaulle was going and how he intended to get there. "Knowing that," one of de Gaulle's closest collaborators says, "how could Challe possibly have believed de Gaulle would betray Algeria, would betray the army?"
What he told Challe we do not know; but what he told the army as a whole, what he told European and Moslem Algerians, we do know; and it was not enough. As a consequence, the gulf between himself and the army widened, as the gulf widened between the army and homeland civilians who had not fought in Algeria, who had taken no oath to remain there, who in fact were quite ready to accept an Algerian Algeria run by the F.L.N. or anyone else. This fear, this gulf, conditioned the army; it led to the April revolt, which the army as a whole could understand even if it hesitated to join or thoroughly disapproved. Those who disapproved did so for many reasons: some out of personal loyalty to General de Gaulle, others because they thought it had not been properly planned, a number of them because of objections to the use of the Foreign Legion in what should have been strictly a French affair, and many because they believed the aim was to upset the Fifth Republic, as Paris claimed, rather than just to win in Algeria, as Challe insisted.
The short life of the uprising need not convince us that with its collapse the entire cancer has been exposed and subsequently removed. The problem remains of an army that thinks for itself, of an army that is not entirely an instrument of the state, of an army disturbed in mind and body. But we may believe that the problem is recognized on all sides and that slow, painful steps are being taken to solve it.
On the government side, four steps were taken. First, it was recognized that there could be no massive purge without destroying the army, which the state sought to preserve. For this reason there were no death sentences, except those passed in absentia on three retired generals-Salan, Jouhaud and Gardy-and five colonels. These eight men are still in flight and for them the death sentences are more of a warning than anything else; for, when caught, they still have the right to trial. It was also in order to prevent a massive purge that the army, through military courts, was permitted to judge most of the disloyal officers; and the sentences the military courts passed were exceedingly light. So were the sentences of the special high court, except perhaps in the case of Major de Saint-Marc; almost the entire Paris press considered that he should not have received ten years in prison while other officers of similar rank were let off with suspended sentences. A major step taken by the government in its effort to handle the army was the transfer to France of one parachute division and the announcement of plans for the transfer of three more. The thought here was to give the army another mission, to take its mind off Algeria, to remind it of the Berlin crisis and the role it will have to play in anything that may develop in Europe. A third major step was to adopt a tough attitude in negotiation with the F.L.N. at Lugrin. And a fourth, however unintentional it may have been, was de Gaulle's reaction to Tunisia's efforts to force France out of Bizerte before it is ready (one is tempted to say able) to go. The speed and the massiveness of his response were welcomed by the army, the navy and the air force. A display of weakness might well have led to the military coup d'état or civil war that French observers talk so much about.
And what is the army itself doing to meet its problems? It is difficult to say. It has accepted the limited purge ordered by the government. It has agreed to return four divisions to France. It has obeyed the so-called unilateral cease-fire. Still, a gulf remains between the state and the army, a gulf which perhaps only time can narrow. Decolonization, however necessary and desirable, is a difficult, frustrating, often demoralizing process for an army that is trained for other missions. It is especially frustrating for the French Army in view of the collapse of 1940, the withdrawal from Indochina, and the six-year fight to save for France an Algeria that has been a part of the empire for 130 years-that is to say, since Andrew Jackson was President of the United States. Finally, the April rebellion has left deep scars; and one scar remains from a wound that was scarcely apparent at the time.
It concerns the relationship between the "contingent"-the drafted men doing their years of military service-and the professional army. After the uprising collapsed, it was said, often wrongly, that one reason for failure was the refusal of the "contingent" to rally to Challe's banner against de Gaulle and the Fifth Republic. The "contingent" did not rally, nor was it asked to rally; and the incidents where it played any role whatsoever were few and far between. Nevertheless, since April the "contingent" has acquired a personality, a sense of its individuality; it believes in large measure that the fact it did not rally against de Gaulle means more than it really does. This myth is significant. For even though the "contingent" actually did little in April, its current belief that it did much must stand as a constant warning to the officer corps that another time the drafted men may act as the civilian population at home would want them to act.
Whatever we may say of it, however, this army is not a beaten army. It is in trouble, in serious trouble, but it has some of the finest combat regiments in the world today and it believes in itself. Only time will show what else it believes in.