Meet France’s War Philosophers


For the French, the shock of the terrorist attacks of 2015 came not just from the horror of the events but also from the realization that their nation was indeed, as then-President François Hollande told them, at war with ISIL. Of course, France had been fighting Islamist groups on several fronts for a while. It rushed a brigade to Mali in 2013 to fight al-Qaeda affiliates, prompting Le Figaro to note that for once the French government was using the “g”-word, i.e. guerre (war), rather than resorting to euphemisms. The next year, France extended its mission in Mali to the entire Sahel region (Operation Barkhane), and commenced operations in Iraq and Syria against ISIL (Operation Chammall). France had also been waging a clandestine war against al-Qaeda affiliates in the Horn of Africa for several years, and French forces fought and died alongside American troops in Afghanistan. The attacks of 2015 brought war home, not just because of the carnage on French soil, but because the government deployed, as part of Operation Sentinelle, roughly 10,000 soldiers charged with protecting “sensitive” places including airports and tourist attractions, kosher restaurants, and synagogues.

To come to terms with being at war, the French have turned not just to the usual public intellectuals and commentators, but also to a relatively rare breed in France: what might be called national security pundits. A number of these are associated with France’s small but healthy ecosystem of think tanks, which benefit from government support, and whose researchers sometimes slip back and forth between their institutional homes and government service. There are two thinkers, however, who stand out both because of their public prominence but also because they marry the best of France’s intellectual traditions with serious military credentials. Gen. Vincent Desportes and Col. Michel Goya draw on careers focused on the study and practice of war and share a grimmer and more Hobbesian vision than what one normally encounters in French public debates. This in and of itself makes them appealing guides to the dark world in which the French now find themselves. Desportes and Goya are also unusual in a country in which military officers are expected not to speak in public or share their views openly, a legacy of the Algiers Putsch of 1961. After some army officers attempted to overthrow President Charles de Gaulle and establish a military junta, all sides thought it best if the military said as little as possible.

Indeed, Desportes allegedly ruined his career in 2010 when, in an interview in Le Monde, he criticized American strategy in Afghanistan and the French strategy of following the Americans. This earned him the wrath of then-Minister of Defense Hervé Morin. In a May 2016 editorial in Le Monde, Desportes excoriated former Prime Minister Alain Juppé for insisting that officers “shut their mouth or leave.” More recently, he has been unsparing in his criticism of France’s new president, Emmanuel Macron, for his handling of the military and “incompetence.”

For Americans, Desportes and Goya provide precious insight into the perspectives of some of the best minds of the French military, a military that counts as America’s most active and capable ally. French officers are all the more worth listening to because they are assiduous students of the American military and the American way of war. They offer the well-intentioned yet sometimes biting criticism that can only come from a close friend. Desportes and Goya posit that Americans are right to believe that “hard power” remains indispensable, and that policymakers should not be shy of ordering their military to spill blood and risk spilling their own blood. They also express serious reservations about how Americans fight wars, and what they see as the U.S. military’s “cult” of high technology.

Vincent Desportes

Desportes is a retired armored cavalry officer. Like all French general officers, he graduated from France’s equivalent of West Point, Saint-Cyr, and rose through a system that rewards intellectual prowess and eloquence along with leadership skills. He also graduated from the U.S. Army War College and served as a defense attaché in the United States. One of his last official duties in the French service was directing one of the French Army’s preeminent internal think tanks, the Centre de Doctrine et d’Emploi des Forces, which among other things combines some of the functions of the U.S Army’s Training and Doctrine Command and its Center for Army Lessons Learned.

Desportes presents a dark worldview in his many published essays and interviews as well as in his most important recent work, France’s Last Battle: Letter to the French Who Still Think They are Defended, written and published between the January and November 2015 attacks. His starting point in that book and throughout his writing is that the world is dangerous, and France must have the capacity to act militarily and unilaterally: “It is time to return to the hard reality of the world to understand the limits of international solidarity and, therefore to restore our national defense capacity.” One reason, he argues, is that France’s future is anything but assured. “It is not because France ‘was,’ that France ‘will be,’” he writes. Moreover, France’s military power is, to his mind, the only reason why France matters.

Desportes’ skepticism of internationalism reflects three concerns. One is that countries with different interests cannot always be expected to support one another. Referring to the 1998 Steven Spielberg film about the Normandy invasion, Desportes insists in France’s Last Battle that Private Ryan is a myth, and France cannot expect Americans to once more sacrifice their own to save it.

The second is the sense of complacency the general thinks multinational commitments foster. NATO has its uses, Desportes writes in the book, “but the organization has become from now on more dangerous than it is useful, for it gives Europeans a false sense of security, a good excuse for renouncing their own means of defense.”

The third concern is the Americanization of the French military. Anyone familiar with NATO militaries can testify to the spread of the U.S. military’s profound influence. Take, for example, the wide use of American military definitions, terms (buzzwords), tactics, and doctrines. Any force operating in a coalition with Americans must follow American norms, and even without Americans present, NATO militaries often fall back on those norms as a common reference.

Desportes disapproves for a number of reasons, among them his distaste for the American way of war and American strategic culture, which, he argues, fetishizes technology and prevents strategists from grasping the fundamentally political nature of most conflicts. Americans, he says, confuse war with a technological duel. They build weapons for weapons’ sake. A case in point he offers is the so-called “transformation” or the “revolution in military affairs,” the American idea that digital networking technology matched with precision munitions was revolutionizing warfare and offered the United States a major advantage over its opponents. He cites the U.S. military publication Joint Vision 2010, which is shot through with enthusiasm for high technology, as a prime example of the U.S. military’s religious “credo.”

Desportes regards the American way of war as intrinsically flawed and, in any case, too expensive for France to follow. It necessitates equipment so costly that those without America’s deep pockets are forced to slash their forces to pay for new, up-to-date items, creating something of a death spiral for militaries that already are cutting their size because of budget cuts. French and other allied forces are becoming exquisite — meaning, in this case, highly capable and very expensive — but rare. This is a problem because, Desportes insists, numbers matter and most conflicts require controlling space rather than simply locating and attacking the enemy. Controlling space requires “volume.” The result is a French military that can prevail in a battle but cannot win a war.

Cutting budgets to finance “American-style” fighting is also problematic because it results in gaps in French capabilities, which oblige France to rely even more on American help. Indeed, France’s reliance on the United States to conduct its military operations (the United States routinely provides aerial refueling, heavy airlift, and intelligence) gives Washington a de facto veto power over many French military activities. There is plenty of precedent: The United States used its ability to throttle back support to the French military to limit French action in Indochina, Sinai, and Algeria as well as on a number of occasions in Africa. Diminished capabilities also translate into diminished resiliency and overall operational coherence. Desportes compares “transformation” with the Maginot Line, the cost of which, he says, forced France to cut back on a number of capabilities that reduced the force’s “operational coherence” and gravely weakened the whole. For Desportes it is clear that the American way of war does not work for Americans, either: They lose their wars.

Desportes backed Hollande’s decision to declare war on ISIL and its eventual deployment of military forces to Iraq and Syria, but he argued for a larger commitment than what Hollande was prepared to make, and he preferred to focus on Africa instead. Invoking Colin Powell’s Pottery Barn doctrine (you break it, you own it) during testimony before the French Senate, he explained that because the United States “broke” Iraq and “created” ISIL, it should take the lead in dealing with ISIL. France, however, “broke” Libya and has a direct stake in Africa, where it can leverage its comparative advantages. If it were up to Desportes, France would have a much larger military — big enough to win, and big enough to fight in a French way rather than follow the American lead — and then point it south.

There is in Desportes’ thinking, one should note, more than a little of Powell’s other famous rule, his “Powell Doctrine.” This can be summed up by the classic American dictum “go big or go home.” Hence Desportes’ critique in his infamous Le Monde interview of Obama’s approach to Afghanistan and the decision to “surge” U.S. forces there. “Everyone knew,” Desportes asserted, “the number should have been zero or 100,000 more … One does not do half-wars.”

Desportes is also a strident critic of Operation Sentinelle, which he regards as a gross misuse of the military and a waste of resources. Soldiers are simply not suited for what amounts to police work and patrolling city streets, he says. Time and money spent on Sentinelle is time and money not being spent preparing for the kind of conflicts for which France’s armed forces are intended. All the soldiers on French streets, moreover, are unavailable for duty elsewhere. Sentinelle, for Desportes, bespeaks a failure to understand what militaries are for and their continued relevance in today’s world. He argues that “soft power only works if you have hard power,” and France is not investing in the kind of hard power he believes it needs to secure its safety and have a voice in the world.

Desportes’ argument for hard power and his dismissal of multilateralism — essentially, nice but dangerous if relied upon — contrasts sharply with many European leaders’ repeated calls for their nations to pool their military resources, which in most cases would imply giving up some national capabilities or autonomy of action. The Dutch have even gone so far as to hand their airmobile brigade to the German Army, where it is part of Germany’s rapid reaction force, and are now integrating a mechanized infantry brigade into a German Panzer division.

Perhaps of greater interest to an American audience is Desportes’ critique of America’s way of war and its obsession with high technology. Still, it seems clear that the technology he is leery of is impossible to dismiss now that it is here, even if its benefits remain unconfirmed. Can a military that aspires to hold its own in a war against even the Russians afford not to invest in high technology? Interestingly, for the French military the answer appears to be “no.” It is moving ahead with high technology as it pursues modernization. The French Army, for example, is well into a program known as SCORPION, which resembles the failed American Future Combat Systems and features a family of state-of-the art armored vehicles and other gear that plug into a massive new computer network. On the other hand, the French approach to netcentric warfare is comparatively more modest in its ambition, and modest about the expected benefits — in a way that perhaps reflects Desportes’ skepticism. The French appear to be moving toward something of a middle ground between Desportes’ view and the kind of breathless enthusiasm one might have found in the Pentagon in the early 2000s.

Another problem with Desportes’ writing is that for all his criticism of the American way (they lose their wars), it is seldom clear what alternatives he has in mind. How might France have fought differently in Afghanistan had it possessed the means to fight its way? Desportes does not really answer that question, although one can infer that he might have elected not to fight at all if there were insufficient resources and no clear path forward. Again, one is reminded of the Powell Doctrine.

Michel Goya

Goya served as an infantryman in France’s Marines, a part of the French Army that in the 19th century was part of the Navy and has consistently had a colonial vocation and expeditionary focus. Unlike Desportes, Goya rose through the ranks after serving as a sergeant and won a place in a school that commissions former enlisted men and NCOs. Goya served in the 1990s with French forces in the Balkans, but at the end of his active duty career he took an academic turn as a research director at the Centre de Doctrine et d’Emploi des Forces and its sister organization, the Institute de Recherche Stratégique de l’Ecole Militaire, another of the French defense establishment’s preeminent think tanks.

Like Desportes, Goya has advocated an “Africa First” strategy, and the two are largely in agreement on most issues. But whereas Desportes favors broad strategic-level brush strokes, Goya revels in the details of historical case studies, which he presents on his blog “La Voie de l’Épée” (The Way of the Sword) and in published anthologies such as his 2011 Res Militaris. He is particularly fascinated by how soldiers, combat units, armies, and nations respond to the shock of combat, and how they adapt as threats evolve. Goya believes success at war depends on certain human qualities: It is an article of faith for him that armies that encourage smart leaders to adapt and improvise can prevail over larger and better-equipped forces. Thus, for example, in Res Militaris he argues that the scrappy Free French units that fought alongside the British in Libya in 1941 greatly outperformed larger and better-armed French units who fought in France in 1940 because the Free French leaders adapted and improvised. They used their weapons in novel ways and finding tactical solutions to threats that had brought the bigger French units to grief.

Goya, like Desportes, is sharply critical of American conduct in Afghanistan, and his critique should be required reading for those who wish to understand that war’s course. But his most thought-provoking analysis is of Israel’s war against Hizballah in 2006 (which Desportes also often cites). Goya wants to know how a large and technologically superior military failed to defeat a much smaller enemy. The problem, he argues, was ultimately psychological. First, Israel had failed to prepare its soldiers for the shock of combat. Its leaders also failed to accept that war would require losing soldiers, so it held back from a ground assault and stuck to its faith in air power — with the result that they let civilians targeted by Hizballah’s missiles bear the brunt of the war while protecting the troops (Goya worries that France is doing the same thing today in its fight against ISIL, noting the disparity between the number of French civilian casualties and military casualties). He also argues that Israeli leaders had so committed themselves to transformation and the American way of war that they could not recognize the disconnect between the capabilities they had acquired at great expense and the real world. The technology quickly revealed itself to be almost worthless, Goya suggests, and Israeli leaders could not adapt.

Goya compares the American way of war in its American or Israeli iterations with a distinctly French way of fighting, one embodied by his own arm of the French Army, the Marines. It was and is normal for France to dispatch small Marine formations to hotspots and expect junior officers to handle dangerous situations by relying on their own resources and wits.

The result, Goya writes, is a “comprehensive approach” that focuses on paying attention to the human environment and interactions between troops and local populations rather than relying on brute force. Comparing French and U.S. conduct in Afghanistan and other theaters, Goya describes Americans as less agile — with lower-echelon commanders less empowered to act and adapt on their own, and much more reliant on firepower. The American way, he writes, is safer, but except for those rare conflicts in which destroying enemy combatants is in fact the key to victory, it doesn’t usually contribute to winning wars. The French way seeks to encourage adaptation, especially at the lower levels, with the “deciders” closer to the fight, and it is less fixated on destroying the enemy with firepower. It is also cheaper, although perhaps costlier in soldiers’ lives. His view of command is consistent with the French Army’s embrace of mission command, which involves empowering subordinates to figure out for themselves how to achieve their objectives, and doing so with the kind of resource constraints to which French officers are accustomed.

Goya has repeatedly expressed frustration at France’s (and Europe’s) inability to marshal the resources required to fight and win against ISIL, and to accept the financial and human costs a real war would require. Soon after the March 2016 bomb attacks in Brussels, for example, he penned a riposte to the usual flurry of statements such as “Je suis Bruxelles” or “Je suis Charlie,” instead declaring “Je suis la Guerre” (I am war). More recently, in a piece entitled “The Phony War: Update,” Goya set his sights on France’s two counter-ISIL operations: Sentinelle, the homeland security mission, and Chammal, the air and ground campaign in Iraq and Syria. Regarding Sentinelle, Goya is downright hostile to a military operation that has brought about the death of less than a dozen terrorists but at a staggering cost in terms of labor, money, and the time the Army might otherwise be spending training. “It is not certain that the will of the Islamic State has been particularly affected,” he writes. On the contrary, “it is probable that it is happy about the existence of this operation.” Goya seems to prefer that politicians accept the risk that removing troops from the streets of France might result in more civilian deaths. This is war. Here, one finds also an echo of his interest in the psychology of war: Goya repeatedly insists that policymakers should both understand the “true” meaning of war and prepare the public for its real cost (i.e. soldiers coming home in coffins).

If Sentinelle is too big and pointless, according to Goya, Chammal is too small and too ill-adapted to its stated objective of eradicating ISIL. He notes that the forces France deployed were meager:

Two training groups, a group of special forces, a squadron of fighter-bombers that sometimes is reinforced by naval aircraft … and a battery of four 155mm canons … Voilà, this is all France is capable of committing to a total war (because let’s recall that the two adversaries want to bring an end to each other).

He continues:

Let’s say it clearly: One isn’t really looking to destroy [ISIL] but rather to “contribute a little to the destruction” [of ISIL], knowing full well that most of the work is being done by local forces on the ground, and that we are only responsible for about five percent of the coalition airstrikes.

Goya is bothered not just by the meagerness of France’s effort but also by its unwillingness to accept risk. France needs to be willing to risk having its soldiers get killed rather than seeking to spare soldiers at the expense of civilian lives. Basically, by sending only a few soldiers out of concern for their safety, one ends up killing more civilians both directly and indirectly. Directly, because aerial bombardment, however careful one is, invariably kills civilians, and indirectly, because by opting not to conduct a ground campaign, one is opting not to bring the fight to a rapid end. The result is that “this war is thus the first in our history where the human losses are almost 99 percent civilian.” Goya adds: “It is always surprising that we have gone to war without wanting to make war.”

Goya’s message to the French boils down to the old Roman adage, “If you want peace, prepare for war.” He seeks to dispel illusions that hard power and recourse to arms are less important in today’s world. He elaborates a vision of a French way of warfare, insisting that it offers greater promise than the American way because, essentially, it bets on the intelligence and creativity of its young commanders rather than technology and firepower. Of course, as with Desportes, it is hard to know how France might fight in Afghanistan differently if it could fight as it pleased, or how it might fight Russia differently in the event of a war in eastern Europe.

It is hard to gauge how much influence Desportes and Goya have on French public opinion, but it is at least clear that they have earned a relatively large audience thanks to their writing and frequent media appearances. The mood, moreover, has changed. Hollande in 2015 announced that he would grow the French Army for the first time since the Algerian War, formally calling a halt to defense cuts — moves Desportes and Goya applauded while reserving doubts about what comes next. Macron has also promised to boost the defense budget, although it remains to be seen to what extent he makes good on this promise. Meanwhile, interest among young people in joining the military soared in 2015, and France does not appear to have problems meeting its recruitment goals, which says something about young French people’s view of the military and the idea of fighting. Polls indicate that the public holds the military in high regard and strongly supports France’s overseas operations.

For Americans, the two French thinkers’ arguments in favor of hard power borders on the self-evident, as the American public tends not to question large defense budgets or the need for military interventions. The seriousness with which Desportes and Goya take warfighting, however, makes their views on how it should be done particularly valuable. They believe in the need to fight, and they believe that one should fight to win, which in turn raises questions about when one should fight, and how. While they certainly do not criticize the United States for being willing to fight, they see significant problems in the American way of war and agree that the French should avoid emulating it. Their deeper message, however, is one that the leaders and publics of both countries should heed: the need to be honest about what war is and what it requires.


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

Image: French Army