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Sunday, March 20, 2011

France leads the charge into Libya

The first country to intercede militarily in Libya this week was France. People in the west tend to discount the French military because of its history from the 1930s to the 1960s, culminating in France's withdrawal of its forces from the unified NATO command structure.

I believe the French military has gotten a bad rap. Among allies on the western front in World War I, France took the largest number of casualties. The French army fought well, and at war's end a French general was the supreme commander.

Unfortunately the war was a heavy financial and psychological burden on France, given that much of the war was fought on French soil. The loss of so many citizens during World War I and a low birth rate made it difficult for the French army to build up its manpower in the 1930s. The French, nevertheless, undertook preparations for a second war. Their armaments -- particularly tanks and ships -- were first-rate. The French had a reasonably intelligent strategy to defend their country, but it was outflanked by a highly innovative and professional German military. Every nation, including the U.S., came up short in initial combat with the Germans.

After the fall of France, the French military splintered into multiple factions. The 1950s and early 1960s saw the near-complete disintegration of the French army in Southeast Asia and North Africa. At that point, de Gaulle began to rebuild the French military under a nationalistic approach. Many countries in NATO took offense at this. We now know, however, that the French military continued to quietly cooperate with NATO in plans for the defense of Western Europe from invasion by the Soviet bloc.

Today the French trail only the U.S., China, and Great Britain in military spending; and the French trail only the U.S. and Russia in nuclear weapons capability. A division of the French army played a key role in the "left hook" attack against Iraq in the 1991 Gulf War.

So, the next time someone tells the tired joke of "How does the French Army salute?" followed by hands in the air for surrender, don't laugh. Instead, push back and say that's not at all the reality. Remember, if not for the French, we might still be singing God Save the Queen at every sport event.