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Michael Vlahos

Michael Vlahos

Posted: June 30, 2010 09:28 AM

Mon General McChrystal

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Bigeard is dead.

Who is General Marcel Bigeard, and why should we care?

First in on the Plaines Des Jarres at Dien Bien Phu: The enterprise that doomed the French Empire. Then, marching in Lizard-cap into the Battle of Algiers with Massu:

"At Dien Bien Phu as a Major commanding 6th Colonial Para or in the Battle of Algiers as a Lieutenant Colonel commanding 3e RPC, would reportedly walk around unarmed, under withering enemy fire, calmly commanding his units over the radio." His declaration: "If it is possible, it will be done. If it is impossible, it will be done."

Look at him striking that unforgettable pose -- rooted in French identity itself. But it was not just "rooted." Bigeard celebrated and renewed French identity in defeat.

This is why we should care.

Remember: Dien Bien Phu and the Battle of Algiers were existentially symbolic defeats for France, because they came after the truly existential defeat of 1940. But go back a bit. World War I was the bitterest of victories -- a war won by others on sacred soil that the French Army (after Verdun) could no longer defend. In ashen reality World War I was a defeat for the very idea of La Belle France.

So what did Bigeard do? He came to represent the solution to a deep crisis in French national identity.

Like many of the great nation states of modernity, beginning with the French Revolution and Napoleon, France invested its realization of identity in the sacred narrative of war. Victory in war became for the French a form of national transcendence, just as it was for Germany, Japan, Russia, and the United States. History itself became a collective quest for victory.

But victory in war has eluded France throughout modernity -- in contrast to those others, each of which could boast their share of grand-national triumph; especially the US, at least until 1968.

France, however many battles it won, has been humiliated in war throughout modernity, even in its greatest and yet most pyrrhic victory. What did La Grande Nation do?

What France did -- what Bigeard did -- was to discover transcendence in defeat. The political outcome of a war came to matter less than the memory and vision of French performance in battle. How clearly we see this with Napoleon! Consider the Arc de Triomphe. Its limestone majesty encompasses a litany of victory: Battle after battle -- and all after a lost cause.

But what does the outcome of mere war matter in the face of such glory in battle? Hence Napoleon at the end, in the cruel winter of 1814, hopelessly outnumbered, winning fight after fight while fighting to the end, is as iconically treasured as the God of Austerlitz.

Yet after the abbatis abbatoir of Verdun and the unrequitable shame of 1940 the French turned to Indochine and Algerie with equally unrequited cran -- for identity-ratification -- for purification in battle, win or lose. Again, catharsis was denied. They lost.

Enter Bigeard. Sure we are going to lose, but not if I have something to say about it: "If it is possible, it will be done. If it is impossible it will be done." Had Bigeard another three regiments of Legion and Paras at Dien Bien Phu ...

Of such dreams, myths are made on.

In the end, myth was better than winning. French identity -- through Bigeard -- found a way to make even defeat in battle a kind of transcendence. I am legend. I am French. He made it so.

America, it seems, is coming to inhabit the puzzle that was once the lonely outpost of the French Empire. We are now the ageing Grand Nation. We have moreover been in losing mode since 1968.

Sure we have fake victories like notches on a Winchester 94 buttstock -- Desert Storm and OEF and OIF -- How like Magenta or Solferino for the fake Louis Napoleon!

Meaningless. We are losing. We are losing -- if such stock is not already exhausted -- our claim on world authority. Furthermore in vainly attempting to sustain such authority we are being beaten by tribal warriors. Unlike early modernity there will be no electric reckoning. No grand canvas of national transcendence -- like the horrific coronation of the new German emperor in the Hall of Mirrors in Versailles.

What there is instead is palpable power-subsidence. We can actually hear the air coming out of American Empire. General Stanley McChrystal should have hearkened to Bigeard.

To be fair he tried. "As CG of Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC), he often went on very dangerous raids in Iraq and, as CG in Afghanistan, often accompanied Infantry units on dangerous patrols." The loving portrait can be viewed on Rolling Stone.

Read it and you will see how he was sucked into the maw of politics, despite all his soldier-instincts. All war is politics of course, but politics itself must serve the deeper needs of national identity. When it does not things begin to come apart.

In our case today we are slowly coming apart because we still hew to the ancient Roman narrative of Eternal Victory. We must win at all costs. But the truth is we cannot win at any cost. Neither can we begin to reckon the cost of defeat.

We cannot even conceive of defeat, though we have not experienced an authentic victory since ... when? 1945? Instead we have come to believe that war is just another venue for political competition. For us victory has morphed into the media spin of victory. Hence opportunities for real myth and legend -- opportunities that might ease the coming pain of defeat -- are thrown over for the cynical court politics of war-spin.

There is no place for Bigeard in our world. We prefer manicured political generals. We prefer the PhD. over the sortie: especially the hopeless sortie of transcendence. War is now the wholly owned franchise of imperial court politics.

Yet even at its most elegant, court politics can degrade the grandest national identity -- But such has been the narrative of this "war" since the beginning. Since we threw over Afghanistan in our lust for Iraq, since we spent five years lying about the terrible reality of what we did to Iraq, since we plunged again into the Afghan abyss, celebrating it as another democratic "broad, sunlit upland." But that was then.

Then-and-now our soldiers fight and sacrifice for the most venal positioning of political advantage. The lives of American troopers -- men and women -- are cruelly appropriated for the gristmill of domestic politics. This represents nothing less than a slow degradation of American national identity.

In the end Bigeard speaks to us of how we might come to terms with such self-destructive national hypocrisy. His life shows us how a nation that came to be torn apart by it own self-driven sense of loss could find solace in its living heroic exemplars, who by their own sacrifices, however ill-fated and tragically prefigured, might redeem identity itself.

Bigeard speaks to us of a necessary honesty in our own defeats yet unacknowledged: Of how we might rediscover and even treasure the best of ourselves in the midst of our own foolish and self-created chaos of bad decisions, orneriness, narcissism, and stubborn denial.