I thought it might be interesting, in light Patrick Bury’s post and in keeping with my tortured thought process about this subject, to look at how soldierly sacrifice is regarded outside Britain. Last Wednesday Admiral Christophe Prazuck wrote this opinion piece in Le Monde. Its title is simple: L’armée, la démocratie et le sacrifice d’un soldat (The Army, democracy and the sacrifice of a soldier.) And its message appears simple, too:
On the morning of 14 July, Petty Officer Benjamin Bourdet, of Jaubert commando, was killed in combat in the province of Kapisa, in Afghanistan. Throughout the day, we heard the comments of our citizens, and some of them esteemed that the sacrifice of Benjamin Bourdet, like the other French servicemen killed the day before, was useless.
This judgment is unbearable and erroneous. It is unbearable for the marine commandos that I command, the servicemen engaged in the theatres of operations and it is unbearable for the families and loved ones. It is erroneous: it proceedds from a confusion between the political objectives of a war and the sense of military engagement.
This distinction is commonly heard in the U.S.where bumper sticker aphorisms such as “Hate the war, not the warrior” abound. How does that sentiment play out in France? The Admiral continues:
A marine commando killed in combat does not die for Afghanistan, human rights or strategic interests. He dies for France. A French soldier who dies in combat always dies for France, no matter the location where he lost his life. The value of his sacrifice is not linked to the political objectives pursued. (My emphasis).
And so we see that, unsurprisingly, the sentiment in France is not so different to that of the Anglosphere. After all, Rupert Brook—himself a navy man, who died on a French hospital ship in the First World War—believed that wherever an English soldier falls, “there’s some corner of a foreign field/That is for ever England.”
Fair enough. But how does that sentiment go down with the French out of uniform? Conducting a very unscientific browse through the comments made in Le Monde, we can see a range of reactions:
“And in the final analysis, when the soldiers turn to him [the Admiral] to understand the sacrifice of their comrades, his words will be quickly written: deaths for the proper functioning of democracy!”
“To sacrifice his life for an inept political objective is to commit not only an error, but a fault. “France” never asked for blind obedience from its soldiers; on the contrary, they are supposed to be citizens with a critical sensibility.”
“The proper thoughts of soldiers can only be technical, not ‘political’.”
“And what concerns me is that I voted for a president who promised our troops to leaveAfghanistan(‘we have nothing to do there’). A military that obeys, obeys who then? Someone who was elected to leaveAfghanistanor someone who reneged on his mandate? In the end, he obeys someone who has reneged on his mandate. That is the problem.”
I want to highlight one aspect of the argument here that is particularly interesting to me and that is the idea of a technical/political divide. On this, Western thinking is clear. For example, in Book One of On War Clausewitz clearly states that “the political aims are the business of the government alone.” Later, in Book Eight, he states that “In no sense can the art of war ever be regarded as the preceptor of policy.”
Is it possible—or even desirable—to neatly parse war into such tidy pigeon holes? Samuel Huntington says yes. His concept of ‘objective control’ of the military asserts that the military must focus on the business of conducting war and stay out of any kind of political discussion. This would prevent them from being tempted to influence any such discussion. The military’s primary mission is to stick to its functional imperative: fighting wars.
Morris Janowitz, on the other hand, believed that the best way to have a subordinate military was to ensure that it was ‘in tune’ with the prevailing social and political mores. The military should remain in step with the expectations of the population, attuned to its societal imperative, the object of ‘subjective control’, whereby the military officer corps foreswears political interference, because they understand that to be socially unacceptable. While his method might be different, the end result is the same.
At first, it seems that Admiral Prazuck is in accord with this. He believes that soldiers have nothing at all to do with—have absolutely no point of view on—the policies that they execute. He goes beyond other explanations of ‘why men fight': some have claimed that men fight for ideas (like freedom or human rights), or for their comrades. Prazuck denies this, though. His men fight for France.
But this raises ethical issues, surely. If we move our focus away from the level of the individual soldier, it is legitimate to wonder where ‘political neutrality’ ends and where it crosses a line into some form of ‘just following orders’. This is a dilemma with which the German Army had to grapple, when faced with the Nazi policies of the Second World War. The Turkish military has done so as well, in its perceived role as guardian of the secular Attaturkian state. Similarly, the Thai military has also assumed a ‘role’ as defender of the monarchy.
In America, there is an attempt to square the circle: The US military swears to ‘support and defend the Constitution of the United States’ rather than any particular policy of a sitting government, but, at the same time, pledges allegiance to ‘obey the orders of the President of the United States.’
Here the academic literature is caught in a cul de sac from which it is difficult to escape. Writers such as Jacques van Doorn and Harries-Jenkins did great work (in the 1970s) relating to military legitimacy, its bases, and its modes of expression. They claim that the military must work for the government and not the nation, per se. It cannot see itself as ‘above politics’, the defenders of an ideal. Because if they do, they preserve a role for themselves to intervene in politics. What happens when some elected politician ‘gets it wrong’? What should the military do?
Peter Feaver, in his book Armed Servants, is clear here: “Regardless of how superior the military view of a situation may be, the civilian view trumps it. Civilians should get what they ask for, even if it is not what they really want. In other words, civilians have the right to be wrong.”
With this in mind, we need to reexamine the perspective adopted by Prazuck. He states that French soldiers fight—and ultimately, die—not for le gouvernement, but for La France—the idealized nation, the embodiment of an ideal that goes beyond even concepts like ‘the rights of man’. What does that mean? What is La France? Is it an eternal, unchanging thing, or does it evolve, and if so, how? Who interprets that myths and the lessons of what The Nation is? What happens if, as a French soldier, I realise, as the rapper Sinik does (with some help from James Blunt)
Que la France n’est pas si belle, ma prof d’histoire a menti (that France is not so beautiful, my history teacher lied)
And here the comments of readers of Le Monde illustrate nicely the dilemma. One reader believes that soldiers should not obey blindly, but rather that they should use their critical faculties. Fine, fair enough, but how does that work in practice? The debate on this point his heated. Should a general speak out, providing his ‘advice’ to the people and the politicians or simply ‘salute and shut up’? (See this argument played out in the American case here.)
Another Le Monde reader highlights how the military becomes caught up in the vagaries of politics, even if it tries to ‘just do what it is told’. As the politician ‘flip-flops’ his way through office, the solider ends up in the unenviable position of where he “obeys someone who has reneged on his mandate. That is the problem.”
And so, society provides the soldier with several imperatives. On one hand, we want soldiers to have a point of view or at least an orientation: we want them to believe in liberty, human rights, the rule of law–otherwise they would not function properly within the political framework of Liberal Democracy. We must want them to understand these things, because we ask them to teach it to others: at home, when we ask them to conduct training for militaries from other countries in need of political development (like at the US ‘School of the Amigos’); and abroad, when we send them to mentor and advise fledgling militaries and even governments. At the same time, though, we want them to ‘soldier on’ regardless of what their goals might be. Just do it, we tell them: “Theirs not to make reply, Theirs not to reason why, Theirs but to do and die”, as Lord Tennyson implored.
I have no simple answer, dear reader, none at all. I agree with Prazuck when he says that to claim that French soldiers die in Afghanistan in vain is unbearable for the families. But, at the same time, I cannot see how dying for the Nation, but not the political objectives of the State, is possible. What I am trying to come to grips with, here and in my research, is the real link between politics and war. Prazuck’s opinion piece illustrates just how complicated that link can be.