The Army, Democracy and the Sacrifice of a Soldier: the view from France.

 

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.

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35 thoughts on “The Army, Democracy and the Sacrifice of a Soldier: the view from France.

  1. But, at the same time, I cannot see how dying for the Nation, and not the political objectives of the State, is possible.

    Maybe this is parsing a little too much, but I’d suggest that the soldier serves the nation through willing obedience to the duly-constituted government. The very root of representative government is that selected individuals are granted responsibility for matters of state, even matters of life or death. (To give a particularly poignant example, a bunch of people’s credit card bills are going to skyrocket if the numpties here in Washington can’t sort out the debt limit in short order. It may not be life and death, but it’s close.)

    If they choose to wage inadvisable or unjust war, it’s to the public and their political opponents to seize that responsibility back. (Illegal war is left to the military to oppose, at least in our system.) But the soldier, through deference to that republican ideal and the principle of civilian lead, pays his due to the nation. One government goes, another one comes, and the soldier still goes to die.

    In representative government, the political objectives of the State (the government) are the will of the Nation.

    Of course, this is much more complicated in non-representative and/or non-constitutional government…

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  3. Patrick says:

    Great piece and thanks for pushing the debate forward with some really interesting and probably unanswerable questions.
    Couple of thoughts though:
    1/ It feels to me like Admiral Prazuck is clutching at straws. We don’t sign up solely to train, fight and die for the abstract concept/collective memory of our respective nations’ glory. There is something incredibly 19th century about that being the goal. I would hope the human race and in particular military/civilian understanding of war has advanced since then, but it seems I might be wrong. I’ve just got back from the Douaumont cemetery Pruzack holds up as the epitome of the military ideal. There are over 15,000 dead young Frenchmen in that hilly field. Yes, the French flag fluttering forlornly over them tries to remind us what they died for. Yes, nationalist sentiment helped sustain the French effort in Verdun. Yes, military victories and defeats become sagas in the wider myths of nation-states… but does this matter to the dead?
    Verdun became key in France’s conception of itself because France wanted it to become key; they had lost a lot of soldiers for practically no gains, and they needed it to be worth something. When you stand in Douaumont surrounded by all those crosses, the lasting impression, given the political and strategic context of Verdun and even WW1, is ‘what a waste’. Here I’m reminded of Johnson: ‘Patriotism is the last refuge of a scoundrel”. Scoundrel is far too harsh a term for Admiral Pruzack, who is a military commander looking for a reason for the sacrifice of his men in Afghanistan when, due to the political and strategic context there, and just like in Verdun, there simply isn’t any.
    2/ This leads on to ways and means. The Afghan war was originally conceived and communicated (albeit not that well) as the military part of a wider strategy for targeting AQ, rebuilding Afghan etc etc. Most wars that the West commits its armed forces to tend to have political and strategic goals, clear or not, that the military tries to turn into a reality through its missions. Thus the best result is when clear objectives are set and the military achieves them with acceptable loss. If the goals cannot be met (unrealistic, political timeframe etc etc), or if the losses are unacceptable in striving for them, a senior military commander’s duty must first be to his men, next to the state/government/glory of the nation that he and they all serve anyway. Military careerism, positivism, conservatism, the civil-military nexus and obeying orders all distort this duty somewhat and make it easier to shy away from it, but why is it that some of the best 20th century generals not only protected their men as best they could, but also stood up to their political masters? It is obvious after a week in rural Afghanistan that you cannot fix that problem, the generals are not stupid men, why did they allow themselves to be persuaded? I know what my hunch is…

  4. Great write up. This is a topic I spend a lot of time on in my head, but rarely get anywhere with.

    To me, this is more evidence of a civilian-military divide, that goes beyond any one nation. Professional soldiers feel removed from their society (which, they are) and deep down inside, only want their countrymen to honor their service (which they often don’t).

  5. Ed Smith says:

    Very good article, focusing on the vital questions.

    To take up one point:

    The advantage of extoling an abstract, patriotic concept like France as the primary reasoning for death in any war, is not to square the circle for the politician, family member or citizen. It is for the next potential recruit.

  6. Eamonn says:

    Cracking piece.

    Dying for the Nation rather than the political objectives of the state indeed seems absurd, but is only an extension of the general absurdity of the nation state, the idea that we have deep common bonds with and duties towards millions of other people in a defined territory It is, however, an absurdity we all seem very much attached to and those who haven’t got a nation state of their own seem very anxious to get one

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  8. Gunrunner says:

    To clarify;

    “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.’ ”

    Servicemen do not swear allegiance to a person or a policy. They swear to support and defend the Constitution. They do not swear to support and defend a policy.

    In accordance with the Constitution, the president is the lawful Commander in Chief of the military. Therefore, in accordance with the Constitution, they follow orders of the CinC.

    Policy has nothing to do with the military’s Constitutional obligation to support and defend.

    Policy is something politicians do, not the military, and policies change and the military faithfully executes. . . as long as the policy is Constitutional and orders legal.

    There is nothing about supporting or not supporting policy in any US military oath.

    Allegiance is to the Constitution, not a person, office or policy, as you can clearly see (for officers):

    “I, _____ (SSAN), having been appointed an officer in the Army of the United States, as indicated above in the grade of _____ do solemnly swear (or affirm) that I will support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign or domestic, that I will bear true faith and allegiance to the same; that I take this obligation freely, without any mental reservations or purpose of evasion; and that I will well and faithfully discharge the duties of the office upon which I am about to enter; So help me God.”

    Basically, servicemen serve the CinC, the CinC makes policy, if the policy requires military action and such action is Constitutional and backed with a legal order, servicemen act on their oath.

    As you can see, there is no circle to square.

  9. Ed says:

    The US Constitution, its interpretation, meaning and implementation are all changeable and all policy.

    • Ed (the real one) says:

      Dear Fake Ed,

      Please avoid confusion by choosing a nom-de-plume.

      Love,
      Ed (the real one)

  10. This is a touchy topic. I must say that “pro patria mori” doesn’t make sense in France. through all the interviews I conducted with French servicemen I have never had any clear definition of “France”. The question about the idea of “France” was raised by the soldier’s code saying in its article 1 something like : serving France, the soldier is entirely devoted to it, at all time and everywhere.
    Serving France is here just a concept: France can be the government, the Nation, values, history, the idea of France … a mix of all those elements … Then if one could consider dying for France as values, history or even an idea of France, one would certainly die for the government. Just think about this: Admiral Prazuck speaks about democracy. OK. In democracy (in the way we understand the word in France) the military is a tool in the hands of statesmen themselves being civil servants of the people. That is why in the Constitution it is written that “the Parliament authorize the declaration of war” (art. 35). This mean that the military is a tool for the people through its representatives. Now that war is forbidden by international law (art. 2.4 of the UN Charter), there is no longer any filter and all military operations are decided by tehe executive. Do I have then to accept dying for a government which does not respect basic principles of democracy? What if the next President would be an extremist? Am I supposed to obey orders and all orders?
    I do believe that obeying orders is part of the job … as long as those orders are not “flagrantly illegal” and that these orders make sense for the good of the Nation. I do believe that advising satesmen is also part of the job and especially at Admiral Prazuck level. There is a moral (as well as a legal) responsibility for leaders not to risk the lives of their subordinates just because they have been asked to. I guess it is a narrow and outmoded way of thinking about obedience.
    Soldiers accept the idea of dying if it makes sense and if they can trust their hierarchy. If the hierarchy fails in its advisor role, then trust collapses.
    Those guys who died in Afghanistan deserve our respect. They have done their duty and sacrificed their lives but also those of their families. I think there is no doubt we must be grateful for that. The very problem is not here, but in the way the hierarchy plays its role in advising statesmen.

  11. To echo Gunrunner, isn’t there a similar parallel for the British Army with the oath actually being to the Sovereign rather than the government? While it hasn’t been an issue for some time, in that case, unlike the American one, it is possible for the government and Sovereign to disagree about policy. Granted, plenty in the United States will argue about interpreting the Constitution, but the concept to which officers swear allegiance won’t give orders that conflict with the Commander in Chief. If you want further background, Hew Strachan’s “The Politics of the British Army” covers this topic at length from the UK perspective.

    • Charles says:

      Being Australian, my affirmation was to the Queen, Her Heirs and Successors, according to law – but of course our representative and Commander in Chief is the Governor General. Nothing mentioned about the constitution for us, and the GG has no real active function other than being able to deny the commonwealth’s wishes to deploy us (naturally the GG does have more powers than this, but doesn’t necessarily exercise them). I would understand the British, New Zealand and Canadian forces would be similar.

  12. Patrick says:

    I’m with Ed here. “War is the continuation of policy…” Failing policy = failing war. Oaths to constitutions and constitutional monarchs are very abstract if you ask me. In reality we pledge allegiance to our political masters and the political system that elects them. In doing so we place our trust in that system and in them. If they repeatedly make poor decisions this trust becomes questioned and then I think it is the duty of senior commanders to articulate this at the possible expense of their careers. On this, what is the position of the Bundeswehr? No expert, but I believe they have a history of standing up to their politicians in this regard?

    • Gunrunner says:

      “In reality we pledge allegiance to our political masters and the political system that elects them.”

      In the US. The Constitution is what we pledge allegiance to. Not a political master. The Constitution is our “political master.”

    • Patrick says:

      Roger that Gunrunner. I’m not pretending to be an expert on your Constitution, but what about changes/amendments to it? Its not a definitive document, its malleable and it changes with the times, just like policy. I get the vague wording of the oath and the legal context, and as you said yourself “servicemen serve the CinC, the CinC makes policy, if the policy requires military action and such action is Constitutional and backed with a legal order, servicemen act on their oath”. My problem arises if the policy that is the basis for military action is flawed… therefore bringing into question the political role of the military…

    • Gunrunner says:

      Understood and I get your point.

      Regarding the problem “if the policy that is the basis for military action is flawed… therefore bringing into question the political role of the military…”

      Good question.

      Legal orders are the key. Is the order constitutional and legal? If so, there are no political issues at play. The decision to employ the military may be flawed, but as long as the order is legal and Constitutional, the military salutes sharply and executes. Contrary to Hollywood and other ill-informed tin-foil hat wearing kooks, the military understands they are an instrument of national policy and are not makers of US policy. However, this is not the end of the discussion.

      The military has an advisory role when it comes to military issues, we can all agree, and we all agree that it is civilian leadership, constitutionally elected, that makes political choices—flawed or not.

      The military does find itself in flawed political situations. In those cases, the military advises on military options, processes, means and methods to implement the flawed policy, and oft-times quietly, forcefully but never publicly, tells the political leaders the situation is difficult or unwise because the “political” goal is militarily unattainable or attainable only at a high military cost. The politicians make the call if the political gain is worth the military risk. Sometimes they choose unwisely.

      Fortunately, we rarely have nightmare scenarios that cause the military to publicly challenge the CinC over political issues, and when that happens (MacArthur, Patton, for example), they are rightfully removed quickly. The US does not tolerate the military intruding upon the political domain.

      Nonetheless, resignations over political issues happen all the time (Gen Fogleman, among other not-so-notable men). Those quiet resignations are respected and appreciated, as the argument is “taken outside” the military and the military remains clear of any political entaglements and bloodletting.

      The Constitution does change but it is a difficulet and cumbersome process, requiring the House and Senate to pass a proposed Amendment and then it is sent to the 50 states for ratification. The president cannot veto a Constitutional Amendment (this fact makes Obama threatening to veto a balanced budget amendment laughable).

    • Patrick says:

      Cheers for that Gunrunner.
      It does make it sound all clear and simple, which, of course in one sense it is. In another it is the opposite though I’m sure you’d agree… Politcised former generals ( and generals one could argue) on boths sides of the Atlantic, inter-service politics, careerism, safe-guarding reputations etc etc all play a part in how the military actually articulates itself if it judges a specific long-term high-investment mission to be suspect, would you agree?

    • Gunrunner says:

      Indeed. . .that is why there are so many former general officer commentators on BBC, Fox News, NBC, CBS, ABC, etc. . . there are more than a few that after retirement become political animals championing their political agenda, and that is unseemly to me. It hurts their credibility as they are now seen as nothing more than a political commentator with a military bent.

      To me they should limit their opinion to the “military” side of a political issue, and if by doing so the military cost is weighed against the political gain and found wanting, well, that is okay, but at least they made the argument honestly.

      But that’s just me. . .

    • Gunrunner says:

      Yes, aware of that.

      Regarding the quote you provided, it is missing the first part and reads in its entirety; “I, (NAME), do solemnly swear (or affirm) that I will support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic; that I will bear true faith and allegiance to the same; and that I will obey the orders of the President of the United States and the orders of the officers appointed over me, according to regulations and the Uniform Code of Military Justice. So help me God. ”

      Oath to the Constitution, first, then to the officers above him as long as the orders are in accordance with regulations and law. Enlistment oath does not swear allegiance to a person, but an ideal (Constitution) and a position (officer)

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  14. Max in Paris says:

    French foreign legion motto is: “Legio Patria Nostra”.
    “The Legion is our Homeland”.
    Soldiers need to lean on a more stable and reliable support than politics and politicians (on a moral not legal point of view).
    About german nation divided into two countries, general de Gaulle said in the sixties: “communism will pass, Germany will not pass”.
    Governments pass, nations endure.

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