What a 1963 Novel Tells Us About the French Army, Mission Command, and the Romance of the Indochina War

September 20, 2017

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For several years I have been studying and writing about the French Army’s approach to expeditionary operations and, more generally, how it fights differently from Americans. This summer in Paris, a French Army general handed me a missing piece of the puzzle. “If you want to understand us,” he said, “you need to read Pierre Schoendoerffer’s novel, La 317e Section (The 317th Platoon).”

Two days later, another general said exactly the same thing. I started asking around, and indeed Schoendoerffer’s works are an important cultural reference for many French Army officers. Their affinity for the late writer and filmmaker turns out to be emblematic of how they see themselves. Schoendoerffer’s work both informs and reflects an operating style rooted in the French Army’s collective memory of the colonial wars and its aristocratic past.

Schoendoerffer can be described as a French Sebastian Junger, with echoes of Jack London and Joseph Conrad. He served in the First Indochina War as a combat photographer and, among other things, parachuted into the besieged bastion of Dien Bien Phu. There, he filmed the battle before being taken prisoner along with the other survivors. After the war he made a career of writing books and making movies primarily about men at war in Indochina.

La 317e Section, published in 1963, was Schoendoerffer’s first novel. It tells the bleak story of a French second lieutenant, Torres, who escapes with a few French non-commissioned officers and a platoon of Laotian infantrymen from a remote outpost as it falls to the Communist Viet Minh. They fight their way through the rainforest in a desperate attempt to reach another distant outpost that almost certainly had fallen as well. Torres is ill and exhausted as he trudges forward with the weight of his men’s lives on his shoulders. His stoicism never falters. He strives to the end to make the best of an ever-worsening situation. Also, he repeatedly chooses nobility over pragmatism and cannot resist a beau geste — a noble or beautiful but otherwise meaningless act — when extreme prudence should be his watchword.

Torres’ situation was a microcosm of the problem of Dien Bien Phu, if not the entire Indochina war: His ragtag force was too small, and it operated at or beyond the extreme limits of France’s ability to provide support. From the beginning, the reader suspects the story is unlikely to end well. Similarly, one cannot read histories of Dien Bien Phu or Indochina without a sense of impending doom, not just because the historical outcome is known, but also because in retrospect, it is easy to see what French commanders could not or would not recognize or admit: the futility of it all.

A French Army major I had asked about the book (and who confessed that he had “watched and read Schoendoerffer two dozen times”) suggested that La 317e Section remained a reference for aspiring officers because of Torres. They see something of themselves in how neither Torres nor his subordinates question the purpose of the war. The book is about “a bunch of guys who do what they do because they believe it is right,” the major said. There is also, he added, “an obvious sense of fatalism through the story that is very influential in the officers’ culture.”

France’s military history and its associated literature do not lack examples of fatalism or stoicism. World War I in particular was a testament to both. They are constant themes, for example, in Henri Barbusse’s 1916 novel, Le Feu (The Fire). Yet the appeal of Torres and Schoendoerffer’s Indochina is much greater. One reason could be that World War I was about heroism on a mass scale as opposed to individual actions. The hero of that war (and of Barbusse’s book) was the “poilu,” the mud-encrusted and largely faceless everyman who fought in the trenches and never yielded. Torres’ story is more romantic, and recalls a past when young officers were able to play leading roles in relatively small yet dramatic tales of action.

That past has deep roots in France’s colonial history. For much of the past two centuries, France effectively had two armies: a large garrison-based metropolitan force that focused on countering first Germany and later the Soviet Union, and a smaller force with a largely colonial vocation. The latter consisted of the Foreign Legion, the Troupes de Marine (which became a part of the army at the turn of the 20th century), and a diverse array of regiments recruited abroad among the European settlers and indigenous peoples of France’s once-vast empire. These formations attracted different kinds of officers than the big metropolitan army did. These were men who sought adventure and were relatively indifferent to risk. Many chafed at the more rule-bound and conservative culture of the big continental force. Colonial service, after all, often promised rapid promotion and quick glory, but it was also more dangerous. Malaria, yellow fever, and other diseases were prevalent in French colonies. France’s colonial operations tended to be low-budget, small-footprint missions that placed junior officers very much like Torres in positions of considerable authority and responsibility: Like naval captains at sea, they were on their own with no ability to communicate with headquarters and little to no chance of being bailed out if things went awry. To succeed or even just to survive, they had to be smart and take the initiative. Some were and lived to tell the tale and even had spectacular careers. Others were not and paid the price.

Service in the metropolitan army was more prestigious until the second half of the 20th century, when the colonial force came to predominate even as decolonization, the losses at Indochina and Algeria, and the political scandals that came along with the Algeria War unfolded. France retained many of its colonial regiments that form the core of the French Army’s expeditionary capabilities and are its most prestigious units. Today, for example, the top graduates of France’s military academy, Saint-Cyr, usually flock to these regiments rather than those left over from the metropolitan force. Officers from these units, moreover, have a disproportionate presence among France’s general officers and its military’s highest leadership.

Another important aspect of French Army culture is a historic divide, dating back to before the French Revolution, between the Army’s professional branches such as the artillery and the engineers, and the aristocratic branches, chief among them the cavalry. Siege warfare, for example, was historically a matter of method, planning and careful incremental progress. It was a science. The aristocrats, in comparison, had a taste for risk-taking, for audace (audacity) and élan (often translated as rapid movements or thrusts). The ideal was to land a decisive blow in a bold, dramatic, and fast action that won the day with style. As one retired French Army colonel told me:

The French military ethos attaches more importance to courage and beau geste than to victory. The greater the difficulties, the greater the courage to face them. At the end, we prefer “magnificent losers” to “ugly victors.”

The French Army’s culture helps it excel at expeditionary operations, particularly in austere environments. French officers revel in roughing it. It also lends itself to what is known as subsidarité, or what the U.S. military calls mission command. This is the practice of communicating general objectives — an intent — to subordinate officers and leaving them to use their own wits and initiative to figure out how to achieve those objectives. In the colonial units, mission command was a basic requirement. Today, while it is not exclusive to the French, they take it farther than most, farther even than the U.S. Army, according to the French officers I’ve talked to. French doctrine on leadership speaks at length on how to command and how to give orders, explaining that mission command “rests on the initiative accorded to subordinates, their intellectual discipline, and their responsiveness to attain the goal fixed by the superior echelon.” A separate field manual describes mission command as enabling officers to seize opportunities as they present themselves: “It is audacity encouraged by subsidarité that permits seizing opportunities.”

To a large extent, the French have embraced mission command out of necessity, today as well as during the colonial era. Mission command enables small armies to make the most of limited resources, in part by empowering the commanders of lower echelon units to act independently. The French military, moreover, often isn’t big enough to win through sheer numbers or firepower, so it favors maneuverability and speed, which mission command enables. French military culture is therefore compatible with and helps them be good at a way of operating that pragmatism mandates anyway. In a way, identifying with or romanticizing figures like Torres prepares young French officers for the challenge of commanding and being responsible for their troops even in the most difficult circumstances. It is what they sign up for.

The advantage that mission command gives the French can be seen in Operation Serval, a 2013 intervention in Mali in which a relatively small expeditionary force was able to achieve a great deal in part by disaggregating into small forces, each given responsibility for conducting separate operations. The strategy boiled down to audacity and élan: The plan, as outlined by French Army briefings and the memoir of Gen. Bernard Barrera, Serval’s commander, was to win quickly by conducting a series of fast, bold movements over great distances designed to deny the enemy the initiative and prevent it from ever organizing a proper defense. This required projecting small subordinate units far, far forward into the Malian wilderness, where they were required to operate at or beyond the extreme limits of France’s ability to support them. The forward French units were often out of parts and on the brink of running out of ammunition, fuel and, water. At one point, nearly 200 infantrymen were shoeless because the glue holding their boots together melted in the heat, which fluctuated between 100 and 120 degrees.

The French also had too little medical and fire support — too few helicopters to evacuate the wounded, too few beds to handle them, too few attack aircraft available, and too few artillery pieces. Some of what the French did was highly risky, such as pushing into the Adrar des Ifoghas mountains, the redoubt of the Islamists. The French officers I’ve spoken to about Serval think the Islamists never imagined the French would dare fight them in the Adrar. But the French accepted the challenge, resulting in a series of intensely violent clashes and close quarters combat fought by soldiers carrying full loads in blazing hot temperatures. France lost three men in the fighting in the Adrar, and a total of nine by the time France declared Serval over in the summer of 2014. (France’s ally in the fighting in the Adrar, Chad, lost several times more, including 23 killed in the Adrar in a single day.)

Speaking with French officers who participated in Serval, one cannot help but conclude that they loved it, not despite the hardship but because of it. Barrera, who mentions one of Schoendoerffer’s Indochina novels in his mémoire, appears to have been having the time of his life. He and his subordinates maneuvering and fighting in Mali’s extreme climate were living their Torres moment, albeit in a desert instead of Indochina’s sodden jungles. Serval was, moreover, an opportunity for the French Army to indulge in the kinds of warfare many of its members had only dreamed of, particularly after years of relatively static warfare in Afghanistan. French Army briefings on Serval trumpet the “return of Airland Maneuver in Depth.”

A key difference, of course, between Barrera and Torres is that the real-life commander’s story has a happy ending. He got almost all his men home safely and afterward marched with them down the Champs-Elysées. It helped that the enemy in Mali was nowhere near as capable as the Viet Minh. And while Barrera took big risks, he was not reckless. Throughout his book he describes weighing the risks associated with going ahead with various operations in the face of short supplies and inadequate fire and medical support. Sometimes he preferred to wait for more support to become available before initiating an operation. In addition, the French practice of entrusting junior officers with considerable authority and responsibility also translates into encouraging young leaders to think for themselves and push back if they believed they were being told to do something needlessly risky. The French major familiar with Schoendoerffer told me that “the most ‘mission-commandy’ thing I did in Afghanistan was tell my battalion ops chief that I would not do something because it was excessively dangerous, pointless and stupid.”

What can other militaries learn from this experience? French Army culture is relevant for armed forces interested in becoming more expeditionary, learning how to be effective at mission command, or simply making the most of small forces. However, the risk is great: Among other things, French mission command requires placing a lot of trust in young officers and preparing them as best one can to be worthy of that trust. Napoleon Bonaparte allegedly once said that the key to success is “the art of being at once very audacious and very prudent.” In the language of contemporary French Army doctrine:

Keeping the initiative is unthinkable without the commander giving evidence of audacity. He has in effect to maintain ascendancy over the enemy. This requires taking reasonable risks that permit one to impose one’s action on the adversary.

Barrera and his subordinate officers got that balance right, at least this time. But not everyone can be as good, or as lucky. Indeed, Bonaparte also reportedly thought being good was not enough. Rather, an officer had to be lucky as well. Barrera certainly had that going for him. To read the history of Serval is to read a long list of things that might have gone wrong but did not. Barrera’s forbears in Indochina may not have been as good and were certainly not as lucky. Regardless, the more willing a force is to go out on a limb and court disaster, and the more it embraces mission command, the more crucial it is to train its officers not just to think for themselves but also to have audacity and prudence in equal measure. French officers insist that their Army does these things particularly well, better, they tell me, than the American Army.

The French way of warfare clearly has its place in what might be described as a colonial-type conflict, such as in Mali. However, it is less clear how the French would fare in a more conventional conflict, in which mass, “volume”, or raw firepower might be more critical. This was part of the problem at Dien Bien Phu, where men as gallant as Torres and all the real-life colonials who, like Schoendoerffer, volunteered to parachute into the besieged base fell to the superior numbers and greater firepower of the enemy. Audacity did them little good when what they needed were bombers and heavy artillery. Mission command, moreover, is only an asset in certain circumstances. Barrera, in his mémoire, says he consciously dialed-up mission command in Mali because he saw its appropriateness. In other situations, as French doctrine itself states, more direct command and control can be a better choice.

The American way of warfare, which French officers have described to me almost scornfully as scientific and “like an industrial project,” emerges as safer because it is less dependent on the ability of commanders to walk the tightrope that the French seem to relish, and more reliant on resources and firepower. Indeed, these are what saved the besieged Americans at Khe Sahn from suffering the fate of the French at Dien Bien Phu. But not everyone has the resources to fight the American way, and French officers, in particular Afghanistan veterans who worked closely with U.S. forces and enjoyed the fire and logistical support that came with it, have told me that they do not regard the American approach as necessarily any better. The U.S. military, after all, lost its Indochina war as well. Indochina serves as a reminder that absent a winning strategy, even the most valiant of beaux gestes or the application of enormous resources can be as empty of sense as the travails of young Lt. Torres.

 

Michael Shurkin is a senior political scientist at the nonprofit, nonpartisan RAND Corporation.

Image: Stanley Karnow via Wikimedia Commons

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