On Friday, 18, June 2010, Général Marcel Bigeard died. He was and shall forever remainone of France’s most legendary soldiers.
He was a senior Non-Commissioned Officer during the Battle of France seventy years ago this year. Captured by the Germans, he escaped and then fought with the Free French.
And here is where France, Britain and Holland diverged from the North American Lands. America and Canada demobilised after 1945 and had to put armies back together from scratch after North Korea invaded South Korea sixty years ago tomorrow. From 1946, France, Britain and Holland, by contrast, were fighting Communist insurrections (reinvented by George Lucas-style “colonialism is inherently evil” revisionists as “liberation movements”) in Indochina, Malaya and the East Indies. Only the British were victorious, and this only in 1960. But, as a result of these wars, both Britain and France gained additional learning experiences in the field of anti-partisan warfare, which is exactly the kind of warfare being fought in Iraq and Afghanistan today. America had to wait until Vietnam to re-learn what they had forgotten about the Philippines war at the turn of the century and about the Kansas-Missouri Border Wars, as well as Mosby’s Confederacy, during the Civil War. Canada, having no anti-partisan experience as a nation and a weak military anti-partisan tradition that last saw use in the 1830’s, had to invent its special operations from scratch after 2001.
Then-Commandant (Major) Marcel Bigeard was one of the French soldiers who lived through the learning experience in Indochina (today’s Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia.) He commanded the 6ième Battalion des Parachutistes Coloniaux at Dien Bien Phu (see Dr. Bernard B. Fall’s classic Hell In a Very Small Place for further details. In fact, see Hell In A Very Small Place period. It is not only a must-read, it is a good read.) Commandant Bigeard was captured with the rest of the garrison after the cease-fire, and imprisoned as a POW in a Viet Minh reeducation camp. As brutal as that ordeal was, Bigeard and his fellow officers were exposed to and learned the Viet Minh’s way of war. This was not the Clausewitzian/Jominiesque Big Tank Battles kind of war that the deGaulle-addled Free French Generals Cogny, Navarre and de Castries were fighting to no effect. No, this was the way of war of Sun Tzu, the war of the Border Reivers, the Freikorps von Trenck, the Pandurs, Francis Marion, John Singleton Mosby and Paul Emil von Lettow-Vorbeck. This was the war where it matters not how much territory is held because it is the hearts of the people themselves who are the actual battlefield, the war where, as Dr. Fall said in the closing pages of Streets Without Joy, “A dead insurgent is spontaneously replaced by his environment. A dead special forces sergeant is not.”
When he returned from captivity, he and many of his comrades decided to practice the lessons of this Viet Minh tutorial against the Communist Terrorist FLN, who had just massacred francophones in Sétif.
And it worked. Bigeard lead a storied unit (the 3ième Régiment des Parachutistes Coloniaux) of Général Jacques Massu’s 10ième Division Parachutiste during the Battle of Algiers, during which the 3è RPC, the Foreign Legion’s 1ier Régiment Étranger de Parachutiste and other Regiments of the 10 ième DP fought FLN bombmakers. By using what Bigeard and his fellow officers (including Bigeard’s fellow Indochina POW, the 1ier REP’s famed Colonel Pierre Jeanpierre, a Mathausen survivor who gave his life for France the following year in the Bled) had been inadvertently taught by their Vietminh captors, the French thoroughly smashed the FLN network in the city, which saw no further organised action by the terrorists for the duration of the war.
Sometime after the Battle of Algiers, Air Force General Maurice Challe took over as C-in-C of Algeria, and he put Bigeard, Jeanpierre et al’s techniques to use in the Bled, the Algerian countryside. The result was that, in 1961, captured FLN documents reported that the terrorists considered the backbone of their organisation to have been broken and saw no way to continue. But the FLN had a secret ally named Charles deGaulle. Brought to power by the Army in 1958, he then proceeded to plunge a knife into the back of the one who brought him to the dance by engaging in negotiations with the terrorists, and handed the country over to them in 1961.
Bigeard, unlike Generals Challe and Jouhaud, took no part in the anti-deGaulle resistance within the Army. He kept his cards close to his chest and soldiered on, rising to the rank of General before Giscard d’Estaing anointed him Secretary of State for Defence in the 1970’s.
The lessons of Indochina as applied in Algeria were not entirely without success, however. One of Bigeard’s fellow officers in the Battle of Algiers was the Special Services Commandant Paul Aussaresses. As was revealed at the beginning of the last decade, it was Aussaresses who was actually in charge of the massive intelligence operation against the terrorist bombers in Algiers. In the 1960’s, then-Colonel Aussaresses was the French military attaché to Brazil, in which capacity he met a Chilean intelligence officer named Manny Contreras. In the 1970’s, Contreras, now General Manny Contreras, formed Operation Condor, an alliance of South Cone countries set up to cooperate in combating the Communist onslaught on their countries. Operation Condor was the last hurrah of the French Paras of Indochina and Algeria. And they had no self-serving deGaulle to get in their way, which is why, by the late 1980’s, the Communist terrorist threat to the South Cone had been eliminated. So efficient was the French-inspired Operation Condor that the enraged neoconservative future convict (and fanatic Iraq War supporter) Elliot Abrams tried to launch a campaign to sabotage Condor.
But the legacy of Bigeard lives on in other ways. The French author and former soldier Jean Lartéguy immortalized Bigeard as “Colonel Pierre-Noël Raspéguy” in his romans à clefs, Les Centurions and Les Prétoriens . The former film was bastardised into a Hollywood Western set in Indochina and Algeria, with Anthony Quinn playing Raspéguy.
Général Bigeard was also and shall ever remain a hero of mine. As a youth of French ancestry growing up in America before Al Gore invented the intar-web, I had learned French in high school, but, besides that, I had very little else to teach me how to be French. My mother is French-Canadian, but she was too busy with the abundant chores of survival to teach me anything but the rudiments. So, I turned to books, most particularly Dr. Fall’s books, MI-5 Officer Alastair Horne’s classics Verdun: The Price of Glory and A Savage War of Peace (not to be confused with neoconservative shill Max Boot’s interventionist apologia Savage Wars of Peace.) There was also Renoir’s classic film, La Grande Illusion (which was banned by both the Nazis and deGaulle, so you just know it has to be good) to be sure, but it was A Savage War of Peace about Algeria and the Franco-French civil war which ensued that taught me how to be French in a non-French land. It taught me that I was part of something greater, that I was special in a Land overrun by conformity-inducing MTV, just as Masterpiece Theatre had, in earlier years, taught me civilisation and profundity in a pastel and shallowly big-haired epoch.
Needless to say, when I moved back, it was a big shock to discover that the only thing the average French-Canadian has in common with Marcel Bigeard is aspects of a written language. The majority of these Franco-Saxons could and can do an ad lib doctoral thesis defence about the lives and misadventures of Madonna and Marilyn Manson, but mention to them the names “Jacques Massu” or “Maurice Challe” and all you get is a blank stare. Then again, the Franco-Saxons are hardly distinct from anyone else in North America in this regard. While the majority of the populace of this continent can describe the biography of the latest reality TV show contestant chapter and verse, not one in a thousand can tell you, sans Deus ex Google, who Bill McKinley or Robert A. Taft were, or what Rudyard Kipling told Canada about free trade.
Little wonder, then, that we have the wars we have.
Rest in Peace, mon général. You are, at least, spared further exposure to this reiteration of late-era Rome.