The Insurgent Counter-Insurgent: The French Army’s Hero and Some Truths About Modern Warfare
While any large body of individuals is likely to have a similarly large number of heroes, there is one name that comes up in conversation with French Army officers more than any other: Hélie Denoix de Saint Marc. This is, at first glance, a surprising choice: the Foreign Legion officer is associated with two major defeats (in Indochina and Algeria) as well as the attempted coup d’état in 1961 known as the Algiers Putsch, which earned him a prison sentence. And yet Saint Marc and the books through which so many French Army officers have learned his story — most prominently Laurent Beccaria’s biography Hélie de Saint Marc and Saint Marc’s own Mémoires: Les champs de braises — are spoken of with reverence. One major I spoke to referred to the two books collectively as “the bible.”
Saint Marc lived an extraordinary life, to be sure. But his story also contains important lessons about modern warfare and counter-insurgency warfare in particular, the work of training local forces (security force assistance), and the imperative of aligning military means with realistic political objectives.
Hélie (pronounced “ay-lee”) de Saint Marc was the son of a wealthy and devoutly Catholic provincial aristocrat with royalist political leanings. He grew up in the 1920s and 1930s in a milieu that many French refer today as “Vieille France,” or “Old France” — a label more than a few French officers apply to themselves. Only 18 years old when France fell to Germany in 1940, Saint Marc joined a resistance network supported by a British intelligence service and worked for it until the Gestapo arrested him in 1943 and deported him to the Buchenwald concentration camp. He spent the remainder of the war there and in a nearby slave labor camp that few survived. At the end of the war he was so sick that the S.S. left him for dead when they evacuated the camp. The U.S. Army found him in time and nursed him for two months before he has healthy enough to return home.
Back in France, Saint Marc enrolled in the French Army’s military academy, Saint-Cyr. After graduating, he chose to serve in the Foreign Legion. The Legion famously recruits foreigners, but they serve under French officers. The Legion in the late 1940s and early 1950s was an interesting choice for a concentration camp survivor, as an estimated 40 percent of legionnaires at the time were German Army veterans, and 8 to 10 percent of them were S.S. Saint Marc, according to his biography and memoirs, insisted that this did not matter; the Legion essentially practiced a policy of “don’t ask, don’t tell.” Central to joining the Legion was embracing the new family formed by one’s brothers-in-arms, regardless of their pasts. The future, however, would have been clear to legionnaires in the late 1940s: they would deploy to Indochina.
Saint Marc served in Indochina from 1948 to 1954, with a few return trips home. In his first tour, Saint Marc and a handful of legionaries lived in a remote village in northwest Vietnam on the Chinese border. There, with almost no support from or little contact with the rest of the French Army, Saint Marc raised a local army among an ethnic minority hostile to Vietnamese Communists and waged war against the nationalist Vietminh. Much of what he was doing was straight out of the French colonial playbook penned by Gen. Joseph Gallieni and Gen. Hubert Lyautey in the late 19th and early 20th centuries: the French reliance on indigenous forces, the emphasis on building close bonds with locals and the recruits drawn from them, the idea of “progressive occupation,” and Lyautey’s concept of “oil spots” or “oil stains.” The latter concept refers to the focus on securing and attending to the well-being of local communities, and progressively expanding the ostensibly secured zones to include ever-greater percentages of the population. The experience was intense. It meant immersion in the local culture, forging deep bonds with the local fighters, and conducting a brutal counter-guerilla campaign in harsh conditions. His experience was the Indochina War as many French officers imagine it today, thanks in part to the books and movies of Pierre Schoendoerffer.
In later tours Saint Marc served in paratrooper units and commanded Vietnamese or mixed European and Vietnamese airborne units. They fought an intense and extremely dangerous war: Wherever things were going badly, Saint Marc’s fighters would jump in to put out the fire. He missed the devastating defeat at Dien Bien Phu, but served until his unit boarded a ship and left.
Indochina was the crucible that forged Saint Marc and many of his peers in the Legion and France’s other professional expeditionary units, which had borne the burden of that war while the larger conscription-based force remained in France and Germany to help counter the Soviet threat. Vietnam taught them how to fight and, they believed, how to win a counter-insurgency — but also how one was lost. Saint Marc understood the disadvantage created by France’s ambivalence about its precise aims in Vietnam: Was it fighting to restore colonial power? Or was it defending an independent country led by Bao Dai against Communism? Unsurprisingly, while many Vietnamese supported the French or at least preferred them to Vietnamese Communists, many found the French case unconvincing. It did not help that Bao Dai was not up to the task of rallying the country around him. Saint Marc also observed that the war was a distant distraction for the French people, whose own focus was on rebuilding their country in the wake of a devastating war and occupation and enjoying the return of prosperity. Some, especially France’s many Communists, were ardant in their opposition to it. For these and other reasons, the war was a lost cause no matter how well the French military performed.
In Indochina, French officers like Saint Marc also learned the pain associated with another danger — this time to their honor. The kind of war they fought, as Saint Marc described in his Memoire, required that they form intense relationships with locals and make promises to them. Leaving them behind to certain massacre was, in Saint Marc’s eyes, more than just defeat; it was a stain on his and the French Army’s honor. They had betrayed the men and women who had trusted them and who, as he put it bluntly, died because of them.
Saint Marc and other Indochina veterans went straight to Algeria determined and convinced they could win, provided they had the right kind of political commitment behind them. They had reason for optimism. Most essentially, Algeria was not a distant colony like Indochina but part of France, just as Texas is part of the United States. Also, Algeria’s status meant that, unlike in Indochina, the larger conscription-based French military would now come into play. This war would not be carried by France’s professional “colonial” troops but instead by the country’s entire military.
As it happened, the war in Algeria was almost the war Saint Marc hoped it would be. The legionnaires and others who formed the tip of the French spear in the country were at the top of their game and fought masterfully, combining and developing variations of Lyautey-esque colonial tactics with modern fast-paced, high-speed airborne and now heliborne operations. It was the French in Algeria who pioneered and mastered the helicopter as a tool of war, and it seemed to be working. Perhaps more importantly, President Charles de Gaulle, after taking power in 1958 and ending the paralysis of the previous government, gave French officers in Algeria reason to believe they enjoyed the kind of political support denied to them in Indochina. There also seemed to be an emerging vision of a future for the country that was acceptable to European Algerians and the country’s Muslim population alike. Proof, for Saint Marc’s eyes, was the willingness he saw of many Algerian Muslims to accommodate themselves with some form of French rule, not to mention the willingness of thousands of Muslims to fight on the French side. On top of everything, by 1960 there was evidence that the battered and exsanguinated nationalist forces inside the country (as opposed to the exiled leadership) were ready for a political compromise.
De Gaulle, however, had other ideas. From Saint Marc’s point of view, he betrayed the Army by brushing aside the possibility of a compromise and moving to terminate France’s 130-year presence in the country. Worse was Saint Marc’s perception de Gaulle’s government would have Saint Marc and his fellow officers once again break faith with the locals who supported them. France would have them abandon their local allies, many of whom would be killed (and thousands were). This was too much.
In April 1961, Gen. Maurice Challe invited then-Major Saint Marc to join him and three other generals in a putsch against de Gaulle. Saint Marc accepted, and his unit, of which he was only the acting commander while his superior was on leave, agreed to join as well. For four days they and the other rebel units were in control of the colony until it became clear that they were on their own. The rest of the Army was not joining the revolt. Challe, Saint Marc, and several other rebel commanders surrendered, while others went underground and tried to keep French Algeria alive through terrorism. The rebel paratroopers under Saint Marc’s command reportedly evacuated their base singing Edith Piaf’s “Je Ne Regrette Rien” (I regret nothing), which has remained a Legion favorite. Saint Marc was tried and sent to prison, where he remained until he was pardoned and released in 1966. Over the years he was gradually rehabilitated. The publication of Beccaria’s biography in 1988 and his memoir and subsequent books in the 1990s and early 2000s helped revive his reputation. He spent a lot of time meeting with and addressing young officers informally and as an official guest. French President Nicolas Sarkozy in 2011 awarded him the Grand-croix de la Légion d’Honneur, France’s highest honor. He died in 2013 and was buried with full military honors; the French Army’s highest ranking officer, Gen. Bruno Dary, gave the funeral address.
There are a number of explanations for the appeal of Saint Marc to today’s French Army officers. One, according to another French Army major, is that there are few alternatives when it comes to heroes: the wars in Indochina and Algeria are more relatable than the unfathomable First World War and the unappealing Second. Another explanation offered by the same major has to do with the emphasis on ethics in their initial training. The point is to have young officers ponder impossible choices. “We’re trained from a very early stage to envision stuff like that,” he said. A third explanation is the romance of a tale of a young man coming to terms with himself and the world by means of an extraordinary adventure. Saint Marc’s biography and memoir remind a reader of Gustave Flaubert’s novel set during the French Revolution of 1848, L’Education Sentimentale — the key difference being that Flaubert’s protagonist floated through events insulated by his epic self-absorption, whereas Saint Marc’s credo was to take a stand, always, and play an active part. For example, he expressed more respect for a relative who joined the Vichy fascist paramilitary than those who stood on the sidelines during the occupation. He also co-wrote a book with a Wehrmacht veteran with whom he reportedly struck up a strong friendship and held in high regard.
Finally, Saint Marc’s story is a paean to values that resonate among French officers today: a deeply held desire to serve one’s country, certainly, but also courage (moral and physical), fraternity, solidarity, and — above all — honor. Indeed, he suggests a warfighter must be willing to put everything on the line to fulfill his or her duty, on the condition that he or she keeps his or her moral compass in good order. Better death than dishonor. Hence Saint Marc’s explanation in his memoire of his choice to join Challe’s coup attempt:
I had constructed myself since Buchenwald around several essential notions: courage, fidelity, solidarity, engagement, honor… I repeated the motto of the Legion: Honor and Fidelity. But was honor to be found in absolute obedience to the legal power, or in the refusal to abandon the populations who had trusted us? Did fidelity apply to one’s nation (“good or bad, it’s my country”), or toward the men and the women who were going to be massacred because of us?… I chose according to my conscience.
In a similar vein, during his trial he remarked that just 20 years earlier it had been Charles de Gaulle who was the outlaw and traitor. He also speculated that the police guarding his imprisoned Vichy-ite relative likely had, while following orders, helped round up and murder Jews during the Occupation. Further on the topic of de Gaulle, a retired French Army colonel told me that the choice France required Saint Marc to make was “the climax of political wrong doing in war management.” As he put it, “don’t put your soldiers at the horns of an ethical dilemma,” in this case the choice between discipline and honor. It is interesting to note, he added, that in 1940 “de Gaulle chose honor against discipline,” but in 1961 “he created the conditions for the coup by relying on discipline and forgetting honor.”
Americans have plenty to learn from Saint Marc as well. First, there is the imperative that military missions be aligned with clear political objectives or, at the very least, political objectives that are attainable or worth attaining. Saint Marc appears to have clung to the idea that in both Indochina and Algeria, things might have gone differently had France unequivocally advanced a political objective that a majority of colonizers and colonized alike could find compelling. Yet in the case of Indochina, one must question whether victory was possible once Mao Zedong defeated the Kuomintang in China in 1949. As for Algeria, de Gaulle understood that holding on to the colony was not in France’s long-term interests — some wars, it seems, should not be fought. Similarly, Saint Marc’s story emphasizes the related risk of too great a divide between a nation and the armed forces it repeatedly asks to sacrifice so much, and the danger of asking those armed forces to sacrifice for the sake of a cause for which there is little support.
Saint Marc’s wars also shed light on the French Army’s art of counter-insurgency warfare, which are informed by colonial practices and feature modern improvisations such as heliborne operations. The French certainly have demonstrated a knack for raising local forces and building strong bonds with local populations. This is something they boast about today. What is essential — for today’s French military, as it was in Saint Marc’s day — is immersion in the local environment and strong partnerships grounded in mutual exchanges rather than a strictly one-way relationship. The French Army today insists that this approach is essential for security force assistance. It distinguishes them from Americans who, they say, are less interested in building that kind of close, personal relations with “partners.” The French also insist on the importance of fighting alongside the forces they train for the sake of building confidence and trust. This view echoes something about which Saint Marc put considerable emphasis especially when speaking of the Legion or his service with indigenous forces: the need to build real bonds of fraternity, solidarity, and esprit de corps.
However, Saint Marc’s approach takes time — not just in the sense of long deployments, but also in the larger sense of being there for the duration, of being able to promise that “France” was there to stay. Saint Marc and his fellow officers tending their “oil spots” and recruiting indigenous fighters needed to convince people to take the risk of rallying to their side.
The question emerges, then, as to how one conducts a successful counter-insurgency outside of a colonial context. There are many differences between colonial wars and contemporary stability operations or counter-insurgency, but a fundamental one is that colonial forces acted to perpetuate their own and their nation’s presence — the point having been to stay — whereas the point of today’s deployments is, paradoxically, to leave. Ideally, one can transfer generated trust to a third party, that is, the host nation one is there to help. That is easier said than done, especially if an underlying cause of the conflict is that the partner government is incapable of generating trust on its own.
Many French officers in the Sahel today are probably inspired, at some level, by the examples set by officers in the Indochinese and Algerian wars. French Army publications explicitly evoke these wars and the colonial period in general when addresing irregular warfare and security force assistance. Moreover, it is a safe bet that they have read Saint Marc and are familiar with Lyautey and the irregular warfare leaders of the Indochinese and Algerian wars, such as Marcel Bigeard and Roger Trinquier. Tellingly, however, the French Army — for a host of very good reasons — stops short in places like Mali from going “all in” the way Saint Marc did with respect to the degree of immersion and integration that charactized the colonial wars. Among other things, Mali is not a colony; Mali’s army is that of a sovereign nation. The French Army, moreover — notwithstanding the contents of its bookshelves — is not the same. Among other things, it is more risk averse, meaning it is more inclined to “button-up” in fortified positions than to live among the locals. Some reportedly grumble that by prioritizing safety in this manner that they are acting too much like Americans. The French Army today also deploys forces most often for four-month tours. A major reason, according to a French general, is the desire to spread overseas experience among as many soldiers as possible. Today’s French Army is also an all-volunteer force in which everyone is expeditionary, not just the Legionnaires and other “colonial” units. The general suggested that an added benefit of short tours is preventing soldiers from becoming as attached to their local partners as Saint Marc was.
The results of the French Army’s limited effort in the Sahel have been predictably limited. But at least the French Army is not getting ahead of French public opinion or political will. Readers of Saint Marc know better than to do otherwise. As for whether French officers have any answers about how to win, Saint Marc’s message might be for them to do their duty and make the best of it, according to their conscience. As Saint Marc wrote in his memoire, history “is not an abstract matter or a theoretical debate.” It is, on the contrary, “a field of coals in which one must move forward.”
Michael Shurkin is a senior political scientist at the RAND Corporation and recently participated in an exchange program with the French Army. He has a Ph.D. in modern European history from Yale University and studied at the École des Hautes Études en Sciences Sociales in Paris, France.