France’s Strategic Vision — Planned Inadequacy

Bayard & Holmes

~ Jay Holmes

Last week, the French government released its outline for future defense strategy and spending. The presentation made it clear that the Macron government wishes to cut its defense budget, concentrate on high-technology advancements, and reduce manpower. When questioned about the feasibility of the force reductions at a time when the French military seems to be busier than it has been in recent decades, a French military spokesman, on behalf of the French Ministry of Defense, stuck to a tightly-scripted play book.

Notably, he did not deny that the restructuring would be inadequate for France’s national security needs. Instead, in a rare instance of political honesty, he said that in the future, the French would rely on “more privileged countries like the UK and USA to provide the necessary manpower.”

French military parade on Bastille Day — soon to be outsourced?
Image US DOD, public domain

That statement was brief and seemed to slip right past the “privileged countries” that France says would have the privilege of sending their flesh and blood to defend France.

However, in spite of the lack of coverage by the US and UK media, it did not quite go completely unnoticed, as in, Piper and I noticed it. We get it. Everyone gets tired of adulting sometimes. These days, politicians commonly woo voters with promises of cradle-to-grave dependence on the “more privileged,” but it’s unusual that a country would actually admit that it expects cradle-to-grave dependence on other countries to provide its defense, so we believe it is worth examining France’s strategic vision more closely.

In a world controlled primarily by despotic nations that offer little freedom and little hope for the future, Western Europe matters. If France were surrounded by allies with more military power, then it would perhaps be less important that France is actively planning on a strategy of military inadequacy, as their neighbors could rush across the border to assist whenever needed. Unfortunately, that’s not the case. 

A country’s Gross Domestic Product (“GDP”) is a standard measure for arguing military spending by NATO member nations, and while this article does not pertain directly to the ongoing NATO debate, percent of GDP spent on defense gives us a legitimate measure. We can optimistically claim that France’s commitment to its national security is backed up by defense spending in the neighborhood of 2.3% of its GDP. However, their allegedly powerful neighbors in Germany only have a defense budget on the order of 1.4% GDP. To France’s southwest, the Spanish have risen from a laughable 0.8% GDP to a still-pathetic 1.2% GDP spending on defense. While a nation’s defense spending as a percent of GDP cannot tell us everything about the quality of its military, it does tell us what that particular nation’s commitment is to national and, in the case of Western European nations, international security.

That said, the numbers change depending on who you ask and who is doing the asking. I am using the numbers that seem to me to be most reliable, based on a combination of what each country most frequently admits and what third-party analysis by groups such as the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute provide. In any case, everyone’s estimates indicate that France’s closest neighbors are in no position to substantially reinforce them.

In the case of Germany, the government and defense industries are partnering closely in hopes of completing more lucrative foreign sales while ignoring the Germany military’s own desperate need for parts, new equipment, and maintenance.

For example, the German Navy has accepted responsibility for submarine patrols in the Baltic Sea—a critical commitment to NATO and Western security in this age of Putin Imperialism. Germany designed and built six submarines optimized for operations in the relatively shallow waters of the Baltic and it allocated suitable manpower. That in itself was no small expense, as skilled submarine crews are so difficult to recruit and train. Unfortunately, Germany did not maintain those submarines due to lack of dry dock time and insufficient parts production. As a result, if the German submarine forces had to put to sea tomorrow, they likely could not keep a single submarine at sea for more than ten days.

You heard correctly—the Germans famous for the U-boats now are not capable of keeping even one submarine operational at sea for more than a handful of days.

Stranded German U-boat 1921 — Who knew this would be the standard in 98 years?

So why didn’t Germany allocate adequate dry dock time and produce parts for the critical maintenance of its submarines?

Because German shipyards were occupied with rushing through construction of new submarines for Israel. That was good news for the Israeli Navy and for German industrial giants. It was bad news for the German submarine force, for NATO, and for Germany’s self-defense.

The German Luftwaffe is in better condition, but it is still not in adequate condition. Due to a shortage in maintenance budget and parts, an undisclosed number of Germany’s planes are not operational at this time. All air forces have planes down for maintenance on any given day, but in the case of the German Luftwaffe, the numbers are so dismal to German taxpayers and NATO partners that Merkel’s government prefers not to announce them.

As for Spain, its current government is claiming that it intends to increase defense spending substantially over the next six years to address its many shortfalls in equipment and operational abilities. Also, in the last two years, Spain has been more willing to provide Spanish personnel to counterterror operations around the world. Like France, Spain, too, maintains garrisons of elite forces in North Africa in locations such as Ceuta and Melilla. However, the Spanish military currently lacks both sufficient financial and popular support to fulfill its strategic vision. The lack of popular support leaves us wondering if its current and next governments will actually complete Spain’s defense rebuilding goals. What we do know, though, is that in its current state, Spain can only minimally contribute to the defense of Europe.  

So then, how about those “more privileged” countries? As far as I know, neither the United Kingdom nor the United States were consulted about France’s new strategy of planned inadequacy. In fact, I am quite certain that they were not consulted. For that matter, the Macron government did not even do much consulting with its own military leaders.  

The Macron government operates on the assumption that everything that the French military needs to know about military matters is what Macron tells it. French military leaders can either support the government’s positions and fantasies, or they can find new careers. Macron and his ministers do not wish to waste their time by listening to the military opinions of generals and admirals.   

It’s not difficult to guess how the current US administration will respond to France’s cute little plan to let Americans provide the French with manpower for their defense. I do not represent the opinions of the US government. I assume that the US administration will respond quietly.

How the UK government responds, though, is of no great consequence. The United Kingdom currently spends only 1.8% of GDP on defense—an even worse defense spending record than France. Also, the United Kingdom, similar to Germany, has currently failed to provide its Navy with the ships that it will need to complete its missions.

I respect the sailors of the UK Royal Navy. They are excellent, but they can’t perform miracles. They need the ships and manpower to complete the missions that the UK government claims that it wishes its navy to complete. Also, while the UK Royal Air Force is in a much better condition than the German Luftwaffe, it has suffered funding cuts to programs that the UK government considered essential. As a result, the Royal Air Force has fewer planes and drones than the UK government agreed that it needs. 

However, a closer look at France’s military systems does offer a somewhat brighter picture.

France has been successful in small antiterror operations in Africa, even with a low budget and poorly-performing helicopters. Lacking helicopters when operating far from any major bases in rugged and remote areas is no easy task. War is easier with adequate airborne resupply and close air support. Enemy strongholds are not particularly bothersome once an air force has been kind enough to drop the proper ordnance on their locations. Without those advantages of adequate helicopters and air support, a country like Chad is a much more daunting theater of operations. The French Army deserves credit for succeeding there, and the French government deserves credit for sending its army there.

France has made good use of two critical advantages in their operations in Africa. First, France has enough personnel overall to enable a system that includes large numbers of forces that specialize in geographic areas. That allows the French to better prepare and shape operations in hostile environments. Second, having forces specialized in geographic areas allows France to pursue a tactic of what we might call “vertical intelligence delivery.” That is to say that the private on patrol is almost as well-informed of all useful available intelligence in his area of operations as is the regimental commander. This greatly minimizes the chance of small patrols unwittingly drifting into ambushes. It also helps the soldiers to establish better relationships with the locals. Both of these advantages will be impacted with force reductions, which will make it more difficult for France to maintain this regional expertise.

The one exception might be the French Foreign Legion. The Legion is excellent, and it will remain viable in the foreseeable future, though it is limited in size, equipment, and logistic support and can only do so much with what it has.  

So how do we form a reasonable view of what the future of Western European defense spending and strategy will look like? Understanding the money and politics might clarify things a bit. Let us glance at a few European cases.

France claims that it is emphasizing high-tech equipment upgrades because that will allow it to operate a smaller, but equally effective, military force. There is perhaps some truth to this, but the more obvious reason is that France wants to focus on foreign military sales rather than its own defense. In particular, the French government intends to quietly keep French defense industries successful and profitable by supplying Mideast and African nations with military equipment. Those French companies would be happy to sell their wares to just about anyone, but they have been most successful in recent years with sales to Saudi Arabia and the Gulf States. Helping to build other nations’ defense forces is more profitable than building their own. 

Italy is more direct about its intentions to market its ships and other military equipment to any buyers with cash.

The Italian defense corporations make no secret that they intend to complete as many foreign sales as possible, and that their product designs are emphasizing foreign sales as opposed to the needs of the Italian military. As for the Italian government’s defense strategy and planning, those are easy to understand on any given day, but one might not wish to put in even that minimal effort to do so, as tomorrow they will change again.

The German government currently feels that it is important to give the appearance of being highly restrained in foreign military sales.

German corporations attempt to be less public about their foreign marketing efforts than the Italians or the French. The reality is that German ships, tanks, guns, and the occasional Eurofighter are all for sale to those who have the cash. The buyers just need to reassure the Germans that the armaments will not be used to kill anyone, because the German government likes to maintain the illusion that munitions are to be used for peace, not for war.

The underlying assumption in Western Europe is that it is not currently under threat by any peer or near-peer forces.

In the case of France, it will continue to rely on the bedrock of Gaullist military thinking, which is to maintain a viable nuclear force to deter Putin, Kim, or anyone else from conducting all-out military operations against them. Young readers might find that approach strange and a bit simpleminded, but France, along with the United Kingdom, sees its nuclear weapons as a viable national security insurance. This Gaullist approach is as ingrained in French military planning as it is in UK, US, and Russian military planning. Western European countries overall, however, assume that terrorist attacks will continue, and they intend to maintain adequate military forces to deal with that threat.  

From the US and UK points of view, there would be no benefit in reacting too strongly to France’s “let the United States and United Kingdom defend us” strategy. The Macron government is speaking to its voters rather than addressing strategic realities.

The Yellow Vests are on the verge of storming the Bastille in their opposition to Macron, and Macron and his handlers have to invent something that sounds like good news to the French working class voters while pretending to give a damn about them. France and NATO have weathered worse storms than the Macron wind storm. They will survive Macron, as well.

In reality, the only thing new in France’s strategy statement is that it is actually admitting to what we already knew—that France is unwilling to carry the burden of its own defense and instead is willfully dependent on its allies. Prepare for the status quo to continue, but maybe don’t stand between Macron and the Yellow Vests.

*   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *

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People’s Republic of China — The Pirate of the South China Sea

Bayard & Holmes

~ Jay Holmes

On July 12, 2016, a landmark event occurred for the South China Sea — the Permanent Court of Arbitration ruled against the People’s Republic of China in a case filed by the Philippines under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, rejecting China’s claims to western Philippine islands.

 

China's Maritime Claim (red) UNCLOS Exclusive Economic Zones (blue) Image by Goran Tek-en, wikimedia commons.

China’s Maritime Claim (red)
UNCLOS Exclusive Economic Zones (blue)
Image by Goran Tek-en, wikimedia commons.

 

In 2013, the Philippines filed the case as a direct challenge to Communist China’s expansive territorial claims that stretch to within a hundred miles of the Philippines west coast.

The court’s ruling makes it clear that the international community has rejected China’s imperialist aggression in the South China Sea. There are no enforcement provisions in the UN convention, so the court ruling against China does nothing to directly prevent it from continuing to expand its presence in the South China Sea. Nonetheless, the ruling is a major diplomatic and public relations disaster for China’s imperialist agenda.

The ruling matters to several countries for several different reasons.

It completely validates the positions of Communist China’s opponents in the dispute. Since the ruling, Indonesia, Malaysia, and to a lesser extent Borneo have experienced an increase in public interest in opposing the China’s aggression.

In the Philippines, the public celebrated the ruling while protesting against China.

Interestingly, the current administration in the Philippines has, with less fanfare, increased its efforts to negotiate economic sharing of the South China Sea. China is happy to play along with negotiations, but their word will be about as good as it usually is, which is not at all.

In Vietnam, the response has been less public.

Vietnam continues to oppose the People’s Republic of China in the South China Sea dispute, but it has been careful this week to not allow public anger against China to manifest in the form of protests at Chinese diplomatic facilities in Vietnam. For the moment, Hanoi is taking a quiet but determined approach in dealing with China and is happy for the conflict to be framed as a Philippine-China problem on public relations terms. Vietnam’s caution is understandable. The closest points of land between the Philippines and Communist China are over 500 miles away from each other. The distance from China to Vietnam is only an inch.

The government of France made what might appear to be a surprising, or perhaps comical, move by announcing that it will support free navigation in the South China Sea by conducting freedom of passage exercises.

France has stated that it remains devoted to international law and order . . . Right. Maybe so. But for the moment, I’ll view France’s “freedom of navigation plans” in the South China Sea with a bit of historical context.

For reasons of free trade, France, along with nearly everyone on the globe, has a legitimate interest in the free navigation of the South China Sea. Additionally, France understandably wants to maintain maritime communications through the South China Sea between its colonial outposts in the Pacific and Indian Oceans. However, as far as France’s noble and rather sudden religious devotion to global peace law and order, I remain skeptical. This is the same nation that wanted to deliver two Mistral class carriers to Russia after Putin’s invasion of Ukraine.

Currently, the French government is continuing to do all that it can to support the French defense industry through the export of warships, fighter planes, air transports, armor, artillery etc. If it could convince anyone that croissants or French lingerie were useful defense products, they’d be busy boxing some up at this very moment. Come to think of it, French lingerie would be a major improvement at all those damned boring European defense industry expos. I’ll take a French lingerie model over a skanky Airbus 400 any day.

French freedom of navigation exercises won’t do much to dissuade Beijing’s imperialist agenda, but they might drum up some nice weapons sales for French corporations.

I’m not at all opposed to France competing in the world arms market. For one thing, people that are forced to share a planet with the likes of Communist China, North Korea, Russia, and the various Jihadistans have a right to defend themselves. Some of the less fortunate countries don’t have a Lockheed Martin, an Airbus, or a Finmeccanica on which to lavish trillions of dollars or euros. These less fortunate nations must lavish their paltry billions on foreign suppliers.

When the capitalist warmongering US or the holier-than-thou peace loving European nations manage to sell their defense products on the international market, it enables their defense industries to maintain higher quality and innovation in the weapons that their own militaries use.

France is, after all, an ally of the US and an important member of NATO. So that’s fine if the French can drum up another big defense contract. I just don’t want to gloss over France’s arms sales campaigns with anything like “…devoted to international law and order,” or any other pseudo socialist pabulum.

In China, the response has been predictable and highly managed as ever.

The People’s Republic of China has allowed an egg throwing festival-type protest against the demon aggressor Obama. The government provided members of its public with large quantities of eggs and posters of Obama to use as targets. If China didn’t have nuclear weapons, they’d be so damned funny.

In Beijing, no protests were allowed at the US or Philippine embassies. Also, China has minimized the rage factor against Obama and the Philippines on the internet. The interesting thing is that China is choosing not to overextend its credibility with the Chinese public by overplaying the old “rage against the capitalists” routine.

That restraint tells us something important — Communist China is not as confident as it likes to pretend to be about its ambitions in the South China Sea.

While swearing that it will never back down an inch, it in fact is hoping to negotiate a face saving way out of its South China Sea public relations disaster. Otherwise, it would be encouraging a much more toxic rage in the Chinese public.

The People’s Republic of China routinely relies on manufactured outrage to try to manage public and international policy. It’s a tough habit to break, even momentarily. For Communist China, its most dangerous and vicious opponent in the South China Sea remains Communist China. That is perhaps the one thing that it and the US have in common in the South China Sea.

So what does all this mean to US taxpayers?

The US administration won’t gloat about the ruling against China. Along with everyone else, the US expected this result, but the US will continue to encourage Communist China’s neighbors to better develop their own defenses to deal with that country’s imperialist agenda.

The US will continue freedom of navigation operations in the South China Sea, but at the same time, this administration and congress won’t take the obvious steps for opposing China’s imperial agenda by withdrawing its “most favored nation” status.

Corporate America and American consumers will continue to support Communist China’s economy by purchasing low quality overpriced junk from it. The trade balance between the US and China will remain hideously unfavorable to US taxpayers and the US economy, but don’t expect this congress or this administration to do anything about it. They won’t.

The important silver lining to all this is that although the People’s Republic of China will never admit it to the Chinese people, it clearly does not intend a major military escalation in the Pacific.

Its usual temper tantrums are not working, and in China, as on Wall Street, money talks. The shrill Communist Chinese rhetoric will continue, but expect some quiet back alley diplomacy from the Chinese in the next few years.

The People’s Republic of China will demand everything, but it will take what it can get.

ISIS Attacks Paris — A Major Mistake

Bayard & Holmes
~ Jay Holmes

On the night of November 13, 2015, cowardly criminals from the ISIS gang carried out coordinated attacks against innocent people in Paris, France. So far, 136 people are confirmed dead, and many more remain wounded.

 

Memorial at Bataclan Image by Annie Harada Viot, public domain.

Memorial at Bataclan
Image by Annie Harada Viot, public domain.

 

Before examining the effects of the attacks beyond the casualties, Piper and I wish to offer our respectful sympathy to all the families that lost loved ones in the attacks. We also wish to assure the people of France that civilized people throughout the world stand in solidarity with them.

It is easy to see why reasonable people might view the Paris Attacks as a “success” by ISIS.

ISIS got attention, and its vainglorious leaders lust for that. They hurt France and, by extension, all French allies and sympathizers. The attacks were a tactical success in that, while they likely killed far fewer people than the ISIS head-monkeys had hoped for, they killed more than enough to justify their efforts in tactical terms.

All this notwithstanding, I view the Paris attacks as a gigantic failure on the part of ISIS.

That’s because the violence in France does not, and will not, support ISIS’s goal of extending its control over more Middle East territory. It certainly doesn’t get the group closer to its stated goal of worldwide Islamic rule.

The Paris attacks have already resulted in increased French air strikes against ISIS assets in the Middle East. As for ISIS assets in Europe, France and other European nations have redoubled their efforts in rounding up the ISIS vermin that have been roaming free across that continent. If you are an agent of ISIS in Europe, your life is more difficult this week than it was last week. Those seventy-two virgins are closer than you think.

This does not mean that ISIS is incapable of carrying out further attacks in the West.

It is never difficult for criminal enterprises to recruit the losers in any society. But since the latest attacks, Europeans will be more willing to tolerate increased police activity and higher military budgets. Those higher military budgets, coupled with increased Western willpower to use military force against ISIS, will equate to a higher rate of vaporization of ISIS thugs across the Middle East. If anyone disagrees with this theory, please note the ISIS casualties these last few days in Syria and North Africa. It’s not a good time to be waving an ISIS flag.

So then, why would a group that claims to be the rightful rulers of all the people on the planet be so unwise as to carry out the Paris attacks?

One critical element of the answer is stupidity. No sane, intelligent person would join ISIS, let alone try to lead it. Lots of types of individuals might join ISIS, but one of the common traits they share is an inability to reasonably perceive reality. Even those that join because they wish to rise in personal status from unemployed dishwasher to “badass terrorist gun slinger” must be intellectually deficient in order to volunteer for life as an ISIS gofer. Being the lead lowlife in a group like ISIS is, at best, a short-term thrill. Being at the bottom of the lowlife heap must be hellish. We are not dealing with a collection of 25,000 brilliant scholars. We are dealing with heartless, bloodthirsty idiots. And they will fail.

When ISIS first came to the forefront of Western media, some analysts predicted that they would be very difficult to defeat. I stated openly that with any real effort by the West, ISIS could be sent back to the caves and sewers that they crawled out of. Some observers viewed the well-publicized parades of black clad jihadists waving ISIS flags as a terrifying new event. I viewed them as an ideal opportunity for target practice for Western and Middle Eastern militaries. A few (very few) experienced military analysts scoffed at the notion that ISIS could be defeated with less than years of major military effort including thousands of US “boots on the ground.”

Thus far, with minimal effort by the US and far less serious efforts by a few of our allies, the ISIS Middle East blitzkrieg has been halted.

Keep in mind that Western efforts have amounted to airstrikes against ISIS targets, pathetically small assistance to the Kurds, a mammoth infusion of cash and arms to that vaguely defined troupe of hapless clowns that we so generously call “the Iraqi Army,” and minimal efforts at helping independent Syrian rebels. We will not at this time delve into any possible covert actions that may have occurred against ISIS.

Thus far, the airstrikes have been partially effective.

Some in the West have called for a more robust bombing campaign against ISIS targets, but that’s a topic for another discussion. The under-armed, outmanned Kurds, now assisted by a few poorly-armed Yazidis, have been very successful in their struggle against their well-armed ISIS opponents. The fact that the Yazidis and Kurds are willing and able to cooperate with each other is further bad news for the despised ISIS. Our wildly expensive efforts with the Iraqi Army have resulted in little more than accidentally supplying ISIS with weapons, ammo, and equipment. Our efforts at assisting Syrian rebels have yet to yield meaningful results. And yet, with such minimal effort by the West, ISIS has been stalled.

What about ISIS’s many friends across the Middle East?

They no longer have any. Thus far, the ISIS Middle East Foreign Policy Initiative has consisted of creating steadfast enemies in Jordan, infuriating the Egyptian government, and declaring war on Hezbollah in Lebanon, thus earning the always generous hatred of the Iranian Shia junta. All of this has been done without them initiating their most important battle – their “coming war” against Israel.

Even by the low standards of ISIS logic, the Paris attacks were a foolish move. ISIS’s future has never been bright. This week, it’s dimmer still.

Vive la France! Vive la liberté!

À la ferme porcine avec ISIS!

Charlie Hebdo and the State of “Free Press”

By Jay Holmes

The recent terror attacks in Paris have been a central theme in Western news outlets for the last couple of weeks. The outrage at these cowardly attacks is understandable, and responses from Western European leaders have shared some common themes. Condemnation for the murder of innocents, the assault against “free speech” and the “free press,” and vows to do more to fight terror were repeated across Europe. But precisely what can we expect in the way of increased defense of freedom of expression? The details are a bit less clear-cut than the rallying cries.

 

Paris rally in support of Charlie Hebdo victims Image by Olivier Ortelpa, wikimedia commons.

Paris rally in support of Charlie Hebdo victims
Image by Olivier Ortelpa, wikimedia commons.

 

Many Westerners quickly noticed that, while chiming in to support Charlie Hebdo’s right to free speech, numerous US television news networks carefully blocked out the now famous cartoon that Charlie Hebdo published. Apparently, “free speech,” as practiced by many of the US news giants, means something like “free as long as we agree with it, and it doesn’t violate our cowardly pathology for political correctness.” Perhaps it’s simply a case of “free to agree with us.”

In his condemnation of the attacks, US President Obama—that same fellow who claimed he would build the most “transparent” US government in US history— wisely did not specifically address the “free speech” or “free press” aspects of the attacks in his response. It simply would have been too ironic right now, considering the “transparency” we have enjoyed from the White House about matters like Afghanistan.

Remember that war in Afghanistan that ended last year? The one that is no longer a war, but that we are still funding and fighting? That war is part of the US global war on terror. The basic reason for conducting the global war on terror is to defend the freedom of the people of the US and, by extension, the freedom of our allies. Freedom is an important thing, and a “free press” is an important aspect of it.

Unfortunately, right about now, “free press” doesn’t apply to our conduct of the not-really-a-war in Afghanistan.

Every quarter the US military delivers vital statistics concerning the Afghan not-war to the US Special Inspector General for Afghan Reconstruction, John Sopko. These statistics include evaluations of the progress of the fledgling Afghan Army, police forces, and national government at large. The reports also include information about bribery and corruption in the Afghan government. In his previous evaluations, Sopko has been critical of the cost and lack of results in Afghanistan. His evaluations were shared with the people of the US. This quarter’s statistics were declared “classified” by the US Army.

John Sopko and his staff will receive the information, but they will not be able to share it with us.

We don’t get to know who specifically made that decision. My suspicion is that the decision to classify the data came from the White House. The rationale is the old “we don’t want this vital information to get into the hands of the enemy” ploy. However, by “enemy,” we can’t be sure if the Army is referring to the Taliban or the US taxpayers that are starting to wonder where the hell all the money went in Afghanistan.

If the data is, in fact, valuable information for the Taliban and their assorted competing warlords, then who shall we court martial for allowing the information to be released to the public for the last six years? But remember, talking less about what we are doing in Afghanistan is an important part of defending “free press” and “free speech” in the US. It’s a rather curious example of “transparent government.” Are you feeling warmer and freer yet? I’m not. As they say in the more fashionable taverns in Georgetown, “Je ne suis pas Charlie Hebdo.”

About now, our French readers are enjoying a good laugh at those politically and culturally less sophisticated Americans. Go ahead and laugh. You should. But then take a closer look at things in France.

While addressing members of the French Navy on board the French carrier Charles de Gaulle, French President Hollande said, “I continue to regret the fact that the international community did not act in the required time to stop massacres in Syria and prevent extremists from gaining even more ground.” Indeed. There is much room for regret.

Hollande forgot to mention that of all the major European nations, France has been the most reluctant to get involved in Syria. Hollande has thus far declined to conduct air strikes in Syria. He was probably counting on French voters to forget that he only authorized the French military to conduct strikes against ISIS in Iraq and not in Syria.

So other than photo ops on an aircraft carrier, what has the French government done in response to the terror attacks?

They have, for the short term, increased police presence backed up by military forces to patrol French cities. As far as cracking down on terrorists that threaten free speech, they have made it clear that too much free speech will not be tolerated in that they have been arresting people who say anything in support of Islamic terrorists. This included the police questioning of an eight-year-old boy when his teacher reported that he was sympathetic to the attackers. The boy’s lawyer has since claimed that the boy does not know what a terrorist is. It’s never too early to teach children about “free speech.”

But let’s not pick on Hollande. There is plenty of French hypocrisy to go around. Angry at Fox news for referring to Islamic enclaves in Paris as No-Go Zones, Paris Mayor Anne Hidalgo stated that Paris will sue Fox news. I think the statement was made between passionate cries of “Je suis Charlie Hebdo” and “Vive la presse libre!” Clearly, France is not going to tolerate Fox news having an opinion about Paris neighborhoods. Since they are not busy in Syria, will Hollande authorize a carrier strike against Fox News?

UK Prime Minister Cameron was, of course, quick to denounce the attacks in Paris, and he made clear the importance of free speech and a free press. That’s a nice sentiment, but how far does it go? Does it apply to his government? Perhaps not.

The UK government has joined other European governments in wanting to require “back door access” to be built into social media products so that European governments can more easily spy on its citizens without a warrant. The government of the nation that invented the concept of the warrant doesn’t think it needs one to routinely listen to private citizens on social media.

As for “free press,” time will tell how free the UK Ministry of Defense has been with information about their planned reductions in the UK military. There are currently allegations making the rounds on Fleet Street that the Ministry of Defense is planning much larger cuts than what they are currently admitting to the public.

If this all sounds too sinister and depressing, don’t worry.

By comparison, people in Western Europe, Canada, the US, Australia, NZ, and Japan still enjoy a higher degree of freedom than the rest of the world. The fact that I can write this article without expecting to get arrested is proof of that. As long as we can remember to frequently and publicly laugh at our politicians, there is hope that freedom will survive.

 

 

 

At the Crossroads of NATO and Russia

By Jay Holmes

Friday, November 14, 2014 might end up being an important date in Western history—not for what happened on this day, but rather for what didn’t happen. The French government failed to deliver the new Mistral class helicopter carrier to the Russian Navy.

 

FS Mistral Amphibious Assault Ship in Toulon Harbor Image by Rama, wikimedia commons.

FS Mistral Amphibious Assault Ship in Toulon Harbor
Image by Rama, wikimedia commons.

 

On December 24, 2010, French President Nicolas Sarkozy announced the sale of two French Mistral class ships to the Russian Navy. The contract was signed on January 25, 2011, with a delivery date for the first helicopter carrier, the Vladivostok, in October of 2014 and the second ship, the Sevastopol, to be delivered in 2015. Two more ships of the same class were then to be constructed under license in Russia. The price of the contract for the first two ships was 1.37 billion euros. This, of course, represented thousands of jobs for the troubled French economy.

In what was likely a well-rehearsed press briefing, Russian reporters asked Russian General Staff member General Nikolai Makarov why the ships would not be built in Russia where Russian workers could benefit from the project. General Makarov stated that the reason for purchasing the French design, rather than Russian, was that “Russia would require another ten years to develop technologies” that could match the Mistral class capabilities and that the Russian Navy did not want to endure that delay. In answering the question, he effectively confirmed the concerns of the US and some of its NATO members.

When the contract was announced in 2010, US Republican senators, led by John McCain, sent a letter of protest to the French Ambassador to the US. NATO member states Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia also protested against the sale. During his visit to Paris on January 8, 2011, US Secretary of Defense Robert Gates expressed US concern over the substantial military technology upgrade that the French were exporting with the sale of the Mistral class ships to Russia. When questioned by journalists, Gates’ representatives stated that, in spite of US concerns, there was nothing that the US could do to block the sale of the Mistral ships to Russia. France had anticipated the complaints and ignored them. The construction proceeded on schedule.

On February 27, 2014, when the Russian flag was hoisted over the Ukrainian parliament in Crimea, the pending transfer of the Mistral ships to Russia quickly became a much more serious problem to Ukraine, to NATO member states, and to Sweden. With a planned delivery date of October 15 looming on the horizon, the US and NATO quietly stepped up pressure on the French government to halt the sale of the high tech Mistral ships. The French quickly complained that they would have to reimburse Russia the 1.1 billion euros already paid for the ship construction, and that it would cost France over a thousand jobs.

Members of the US Congress responded that NATO should purchase the two ships for use by the NATO Standing Force Atlantic and NATO Standing Force Mediterranean. NATO was slow to respond, but after a few weeks, they decided that they lacked the funds and mechanism for making such a purchase. In reality, if the UK and the US cooperated, an offer to purchase the ships at their original sales price could be made within days. France would have no doubt as to the validity of the offer, but that does not mean that France would easily agree.

In less public communications, the Russian government offered, in general terms and without producing a contract, to make further substantial warship purchases from the French shipyards if France delivers the two Mistral ships. Russia is also in a position to quietly make a variety of generous financial offers to the French government or to members of the French government. I am not aware of what other offers have or have not been made.

 

 

In response to pressure from its fellow NATO members, France delayed the projected delivery date to November 14 with the condition that a cease-fire and a permanent political solution be in place by then.

Only days before the deadline, Vladimir Putin did what he always does best. He hurt Russia. On November 10, 2014, Australia deployed warships to shadow Russian warships that had approached the Coral Sea. On November 13, the Russian ships were in the Coral Sea, where they approached, but did not enter, Australian territorial waters.

This bit of Putinism was in response to the announcement by the Australian government that at the G-20 meeting, they would confront Vladimir Putin about the fact that Russian forces had shot down Malaysian Airlines Flight MH17 on July 17, 2014. Thirty-eight Australians were killed in that attack.

On November 12, another Russian armored column crossed into Ukraine, further escalating the Russian invasion of Ukraine, and making it more politically difficult for France to deliver the ships. The November 14 delivery date has now passed, and France has thus far declined to turn over the ships to Russia.

The Russian government responded with its traditional lack of finesse. It officially announced that it would make financial claims against France if the first Mistral is not delivered by the end of November. Less officially, but quite publicly, they have announced that the financial claims would be in the neighborhood of 3 billion euros, and that France would face “grave consequences.” France responded by stating that it would not be forced into any decisions by anyone outside of France.

In spite of what Vladimir Putin’s media machine will tell the Russian public, Russia is, in fact, in no position to deliver and “grave consequences” to France. The Russian ships in the Coral Sea are not capable of overcoming Australia’s defenses, but the move plays well on Putin-controlled state media. As for Australia, Putin doesn’t give a damn what anyone in that country thinks.

 

Russian President Vladimir Putin contemplating the  "grave consequences" he would like to deliver. Image by www.kremlin.ru.

Russian President Vladimir Putin
contemplating the “grave consequences”
he would like to deliver.
Image by http://www.kremlin.ru.

 

While NATO maintains that it cannot purchase the two Mistral ships from France, some interesting options are available.

In 2010, Poland expressed an interest in possibly purchasing a Mistral class ship from France. For lack of funds, no offer has been tendered. Canada, a nation that has the funds, has also expressed an interest in purchasing two Mistral class ships from France. The UK, a nation that has the funds but won’t give the funds to its navy, has not expressed any interest in purchasing a Mistral class ship. Perhaps it should. With the once mighty Royal Navy currently reduced to having no carriers in service, the purchase of a single Mistral class helicopter carrier could serve to boost the Royal Navy’s defense capabilities until the two new Queen Elizabeth carriers enter service sometime after 2016. The helicopter carrier would remain useful to the Royal Navy long thereafter.

The likelihood of the UK considering the purchase of one of the Mistral carriers is approximately equal to the likelihood that I will win the lottery. I don’t buy lottery tickets. Since the US is expected to pick up the slack from the Royal Navy, and since there is next to no Canadian navy afloat from which to pick up any slack, it is in the direct interest of the US to offer partial financial assistance to Canada or to Poland for the purchase of the two Mistral carriers. The key to getting such a deal done would be to allow the French to announce that any such arrangements were the results of inspired, avant-garde thinking by members of the French government. Neither Canada nor Poland would care who claimed credit for any such deal.

My best guess is that between now and the end of November, Vladimir Putin will not learn to act in the best interests of Russia. Russia will continue its aggression against Ukraine, and, therefore, France will want to avoid suffering the political damage that will result in supplying Russia’s invading military with a new high-tech warship. Time still remains for France and its Western allies to come to their senses and redirect the Mistral ships to an allied navy. Whether or not reason will prevail in the long term remains to be seen.

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Becoming Josephine — From Carefree Creole to Empress of France

By Piper Bayard

In BECOMING JOSEPHINE, Heather Webb eloquently traces the transformation of Rose Tascher, carefree Caribbean island girl, to Empress Josephine, wife of the most powerful man of her century—Napoléon Bonaparte.

 

Becoming Josephine by Heather Webb

 

Rose Tascher is a daydreaming Creole in Martinique who fantasizes of adventures in Paris and a grand life at the French court. When her beloved sister dies, Rose is sent in her place to marry Alexandre, an aristocrat and soldier. Before long, the stage of fancy dresses and glitzy balls devolves into a harrowing era of political witch hunts, when no one’s neck is safe from the guillotine. After narrowly escaping death in the infamous Les Carmes prison, Rose once more climbs her way up the social ladder. With her youth fading, along with her options for independence, her courtship with General Bonaparte ensues, and their rise to ultimate power begins.

Webb paints history with linguistic finesse, depicting characters and events with colorful, active palettes of expression. She draws her readers into the fear, uncertainty, and upheaval of revolutionary France through her vivid portrayal of Josephine Bonaparte as a passionate, imperfect, determined survivor. BECOMING JOSEPHINE is not only a refreshing perspective on the Napoleonic Era, it’s a great story.

Highly recommended.

 

 

Why Putin Has His Way with Europe

By Jay Holmes

This past February, Russian Dictator Vladimir Putin ordered his intelligence and military services to invade Crimea in the Eastern Ukraine. Western governments loudly condemned Russia’s aggression, but practical responses have been limited to minor economic sanctions and visa restrictions against major Russian supporters of Putin.

In predictable fashion, Putin responded with symbolic bans on U.S. involvement in Russian energy development. Neither Western responses nor Putin’s counter-measures count for much in the short term. However, in the long term, Russia wants the oil and gas fracking technology that U.S. companies dominate. To get that, Putin is betting that the West will forget about Russian aggression in Ukraine as quickly as it forgot about the Russian invasion of Georgia in 2008.

 

Poster on Rustaveli Avenue, Tblisi, Georgia, 2008 Wikimedia Commons, public domain

Poster on Rustaveli Avenue, Tblisi, Georgia, 2008
Wikimedia Commons, public domain

 

Thus far, there are striking similarities between the Georgian and Ukrainian invasions.

In 2008, Georgia, like the Ukraine of 2014, was expanding its economic and cultural ties with the West while reducing its trade with Russia. That year, Putin quickly seized Georgian territories where there was a significant Russian speaking population. Then he moved more military assets to the Georgian frontier than Russia needed for the intended operations. The propaganda campaign projected an image of Putin’s wild popularity across all segments of Russian society and total approval of his aggression in Georgia. Georgia seemed to be on the brink of complete absorption by Russia.

The West enacted economic sanctions and demanded that Russia withdraw. Putin then announced that his army was withdrawing from Georgia, but, in fact, his army enforced an annexation of Georgian territory. Once it appeared that the crisis was de-escalated, the West quickly rescinded the economic sanctions. Putin got what he wanted and suffered nothing for forcibly annexing part of Georgia.

In Ukraine, we see Putin once again employing this same basic strategy that worked so well in 2008. The Ukrainian people made it clear that they did not want closer economic and political alliances with Russia in exchange for promised Russian financial aid. Protests mounted, and the Russian backed Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych fled to Russia. Russia responded by sending special forces to invade and seize Ukraine’s Crimean peninsula.

In response, the West enacted mild sanctions against Russia.

Putin deployed more Russian military assets to the Ukrainian border areas than were needed to take the Crimea and then he asked for and received permission from the Russian parliament to invade all of Ukraine. The propaganda campaign in the Russian media created an image of a nation of one mind and soul ready to invade and annex more Ukraine territory, or even the entire country.

 

Canstock 2014 Bear Market

image from Canstock

 

Underneath Russia’s bravado, we saw the Russian stock market take a major nose dive.

This forced Putin to use ten billion dollars in Russia’s reserves to prop up the Russian currency and avert a credit crisis. Because Putin was certain that the sanctions were temporary, he likely predicted the economic impact of Ukraine invasion and calculated it as a bargain price for the purchase of Crimea.

As the situation in Ukraine appeared to be escalating beyond the Crimea, the U.S., Poland, and Romania asked their European allies to agree to increased sanctions. Most of the E.U. opposed the increased sanctions, so nothing meaningful happened. It became apparent to Ukrainians that many of their European neighbors were not willing to lose profitable business agreements with Russia in order to support them.

About thirty-three percent of Europe’s fossil fuel imports are from Russia. If we add in the ISIS crisis in Iraq, the energy picture has to concern European governments. Even those nations that do not directly import gas or oil from Russia would see steep price increases if Russian fuel imports stopped. That reality undoubtedly figures enormously into Europe’s unwillingness to support Ukraine by enacting meaningful economic sanctions against Russia. Conversely, with fracking operations now in place and growing in the U.S., the U.S. is becoming a significant gas exporter, it is easier for the U.S. to risk economic boycotts against Russia.

One of the most visible and controversial touchstones of the economic conflict of interest for the Western world regarding Russia’s Ukrainian invasion is a pending ship building contract between France’s STX shipyard in Saint-Nazaire and the Russian Navy.

In 2011, the Russian Navy contracted and partially funded the building of four high-tech amphibious warfare ships. With the Russian annexation of Georgian territory fresh in their minds, France’s Western allies voiced opposition to the deal because most Western governments did not want to improve Russia’s ability to invade their neighbors. One ship is near completion, and the second is partially constructed. The first ship is due for delivery in October of this year.

 

Shipyard at Saint-Nazaire Unaltered image by Pouick44, wikimedia commons

Shipyard at Saint-Nazaire
Unaltered image by Pouick44, wikimedia commons

 

In addition to four powerful amphibious warfare ships, Russia will gain significant upgrades in electronic warfare systems from the French equipment installed on those ships. France benefits in that the one billion, six hundred million Euro payment from Russia fuels approximately a thousand French jobs. With France’s continuing high unemployment rates, the Paris government is reluctant to abandon the work and refund Russia its deposit.

The U.S., Poland, the U.K., and Ukraine appropriately and frankly criticized France’s ship deal with Russia. Predictably, Putin responded by saying that he looks forward to placing large orders for more naval ships from France once these ships are delivered.

On June 30, 2014, four hundred Russian sailors arrived in Saint-Nazaire for training on the shipboard systems. If and when the Russian sailors are given full access to the newer military systems and technologies, France will have allowed major warfare technologies to transfer to Putin’s navy at a time when Eastern Europeans are frantically trying to improve their security against Russian aggression.

The U.S. has suggested one easy way out for France. Rather than lose the financial value of the contracts with Russia, it could lease the two ships already under construction to NATO to be employed by NATO’s Standing Force, possibly in the Black Sea.

Thus far, Europe has been ambivalent to that idea. If Europe can cooperate amongst itself and with the U.S. enough to prevent the transfer of the French naval warfare technology to Russia, it would be a major achievement for European cooperation and security, but it would not address the deeper underlying problems.

Europe is facing major economic problems and has been relying heavily on large doses of political P.R. driven denial.

Take the U.K. as a simple case. The U.K. is the largest producer of oil and the second-largest producer of natural gas in the European Union. Production from U.K. oil fields peaked around the late 1990s and has declined steadily since then. Domestic production of natural gas is also steadily declining. Although once a net exporter of natural gas, the U.K. now imports more natural gas from Norway each year. Norway is limited in how much and how fast it can increase its gas exports to the U.K. The U.K. is also importing oil from Russia. Soon, the U.K. will have to drastically cut its natural gas consumption or find more import sources. This likely means sharp price increases for gas consumers in the U.K.

Four days ago, I had a polite conversation about the U.K.’s energy needs with a respected economist from London. He assured me that, “We can get most of the gas that we need from Norway, and recent discoveries show that in the future we can get all the gas we need from fracking.” He was unconcerned about the U.K.’s current energy dilemma.

 

Unaltered image by Battenbrook wikimedia commons

Unaltered image by Battenbrook
wikimedia commons

 

Fracking comes with serious environmental concerns.

France and Romania have already outlawed the practice. In light of these concerns, how much fracking will occur in the U.K., and how fast can it can it become a reality? Not fast enough to avoid increased prices at the pump and increased vulnerability to Russian aggression.

The U.K. is just one example of how European nations must juggle conflicting priorities in dealing with both Russian aggression against Europe and the usual turmoil in the Middle East. The U.K.’s powerful E.U. partner Germany, following initial indignation, has been somewhat muted in condemnation of Russian aggression in Ukraine. Germany is the one Western European nation that is not on the fast track to bankruptcy, and it cannot afford to ignore its major trade agreements with Russia.

We could go on, but why depress our European readers?

The fact is that North America and Europe must find the political courage to openly face the economic and energy questions that so greatly affect the future of Western civilization. A public that is unaware of energy issues cannot effectively demand that European and North American governments formulate policies that their citizens are willing to accept. Those policies shape how Europe can respond to Russian aggression. As long as the E.U., the U.S., and Canada limit their cooperation to lip service, Eastern Europe will remain at risk of further Russian invasions and energy blackmail.

Cowardly French? Not at the Battle of Verdun!

By Jay Holmes

France has the reputation for being highly uncooperative in the Western community, which has led to the American and European habit of describing the French as being cowardly—a “nation of whores and waiters.” Every nation has whores. Fortunately, every nation also has waiters. And every nation has its cowards, but history indicates that in spite of France’s popular reputation, France’s military has been no less courageous than that of any other nation.

One event in particular that stands out as an example of French courage and as a defining force in the French political psyche is the Battle of Verdun. Like Guadalcanal, Gettysburg, Austerlitz, and Stalingrad, few people outside of Verdun’s immediate neighbors knew about the town or cared about it until a major battle was fought there. In 1916, the word “Verdun” took on a new meaning in France and to the Allied Powers and the Central Powers.

On Ne Passe Pas! "They shall not pass!" Poster by Maurice Neumont, public domain

On Ne Passe Pas!
“They shall not pass!”
Poster by Maurice Neumont, public domain

By early 1916, Europe and the European colonies had been involved with a particularly bloody war for nearly two years. France, Germany, and their allies had suffered hundreds of thousands of casualties on the “Western Front.” Given the largely effective naval blockade of the Central Powers, the German war economy was beginning to suffer, and German leaders knew that the long-range prospect of a German victory was dwindling. Without a rapid victory, the effective balance of forces on the Western Front would shift against Germany.

In an effort to secure that victory, German General Erich von Falkenhayn employed a method that Alexander the Great used frequently with great success in the fourth century B.C. Alexander had learned that enemies often least expect an attack at the strongest point of their fortifications, and that if he quickly concentrated his forces at that point, then he could destroy the center of his enemy’s defensive position and the bulk of its forces while it attempted to maneuver into a counterattack or regain defensive positions.

This method works as long as the attacking army has well trained, disciplined forces that can concentrate their firepower, and its leaders at all levels understand the tactics and are prepared to execute follow-up movement after obtaining the breach in the enemy line. General von Falkenhayn’s situation at the Battle at Verdun met those requirements.

In military terms, the area around Verdun constituted the last high ground between the attacking German army and the city of Paris. Von Falkenhayn counted on the French being unable to reinforce against the German advance. He planned that his army would capture the heights around Verdun and march through the grape fields of Champagne to trample Paris along with the grapes. My assumption is that von Falkenhayn and the German government thought that at some point prior to the German army arriving in Paris, France and the UK would agree to peace terms that were favorable to Germany. Germany could then concentrate its efforts in the east against the faltering Russian army and effect a sizeable real estate acquisition in Eastern Europe. While the long-range hopes of the German leadership concerning the attack on Verdun cannot be determined with certainty, it is safe to say they viewed the Battle of Verdun as vital to German victory.

In the winter of 1916, Verdun’s defensive works were depleted. Most of the mobile artillery that was crucial to its defense had been moved to more active sectors of the front, and the French forces in garrison in the area were too few to deal with a major assault. To the Germans, it seemed that von Falkenhayn’s application of Alexander’s favorite tactic would once more prove effective.

Fortunately for the French, their intelligence services succeeded in detecting the German buildup and discovered that the Germans intended to launch a major assault against Verdun. Due to bad weather and good French intelligence analysis, the French were able to move two additional full divisions to Verdun prior to the assault, but the Germans still enjoyed a two-to-one advantage in forces.

Map public domain, wikimedia commons

Map public domain, wikimedia commons

As a rule of thumb, military planners consider a three-to-one ratio to be optimal for a force attacking prepared defenses. While the Germans realized that they now lacked that preferred ratio, they remained confident because they had a five-to-one advantage in artillery. If we also examine the throw weight/hour and the ranges of the artillery pieces on both sides, it looks more like a twenty-to-one advantage for the Germans.

The Germans were also confident because they already held the land on three sides of the Verdun area. They assumed, quite reasonably, that since they had a major high capacity rail line running to within 20 km of the battle front, and the French had only one narrow road and a low capacity narrow gauge rail line supplying Verdun, that the French would not be able to move ammunition and food to Verdun fast enough to support a battle there. On the map table of the German headquarters, it all looked perfect. From the French side, it had to look like an impending disaster.

At 0715 hours on February 21, 1916, the well-planned German attack started with the world’s first “shock and awe” display. On a scale never seen before, the Germans conducted a massive artillery bombardment against the French defenders. It was heard up to a hundred miles away.

Most of the French soldiers in their defensive trenches were wiped out, and telegraph lines were cut. The massive artillery bombardment was followed up with attacks by specially trained German shock troops equipped with hand grenades and, for the first time, flamethrowers for clearing any enclosed French positions. The Germans quickly gained ground. For the most part, no Frenchmen were alive to defend the ground that the Germans were capturing. The situation was close to desperate for the French.

French reserves crossing a river on the way to Verdun image public domain, wikimedia commons

French reserves crossing a river on the way to Verdun
image public domain, wikimedia commons

Then something interesting happened. Rather than run out of supplies and fall back in retreat as the Germans expected, the French pulled off a near logistical miracle. In spite of the dire conditions and the frequent storms of German artillery shells, they kept supplies and men moving forward. That small, solitary French road leading up to Verdun was filled with supplies and soldiers pushing forward against the flow of wounded Frenchmen being moved to hospitals.

If we try to understand the mindset of the French soldiers that were first sent to reinforce Verdun, it’s difficult to justify thinking of them as cowardly. They had a long walk toward the roaring artillery bombardment of the town on a narrow road jammed with wounded soldiers returning from hell on earth. That previously insignificant road would become known as La Voie Sacrée, the Sacred Path. If those first French troops at Verdun cannot be called cowards, what would we call the men in the last troop of reinforcements? They started up that road knowing that their chances of escaping death or serious injury were less than forty percent. Yet with that knowledge, they marched up that road to face the Germans.

The battle raged until December 16, 1916, and 362,000 French soldiers as well as 332,000 German soldiers died. Depending on how we evaluate injuries, each side also suffered around an additional 100,000 to 200,000 badly wounded soldiers. There were isolated incidents of French and German soldiers refusing to execute suicidal frontal attacks against each other’s positions during the battle, but these were exhausted, malnourished, sleepless men who had suffered long artillery bombardments day after day for weeks on end.

Verdun 1916 French 87th Regiment Cote 304 image public domain, wikimedia commons

Verdun 1916
French 87th Regiment Cote 304
image public domain, wikimedia commons

After December of 1916, both sides waged successive attacks and counter attacks until the end of the Great War. That War was indeed “great” in scale, but it was horrific in nature, and the French held their own. Even those few that suffered mental collapse cannot fairly be called cowards.

Given the independent character of Westerners, the French and their fellow Westerners will likely continue hurling insults back and forth. It’s something of an amusement to all who participate. We can keep telling those jokes about the lack of French military courage, but if any of us is ever tempted to believe those jokes, we should remember one simple word that more than any other word disproves the theory of French cowardice.

Verdun.

Mémorial de la Voie Sacrée, Maison Brûlé image by Gérald Garitan, wikimedia commons

Mémorial de la Voie Sacrée, Maison Brûlé
image by Gérald Garitan, wikimedia commons

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Cowardly French? Not at the Battle of Verdun!

Armageddon and Intervention: Europe Intervenes in the American Revolution

By Jay Holmes

The United States and many Western European allies are presently involved in multiple military interventions around the world. In any country with a reasonable population that has access to something approximating free speech, military intervention will always be controversial. In my view, it is foolish for any nation to run to war too quickly. The costs and possible outcomes should be considered by those who pay for those interventions, as well as for failures to intervene. The taxpayers and their kids.

To do a minimal bit of justice to the subject, I will be publishing short articles in a series in which we will review several past interventions, their costs, and their impacts before considering the current interventions in Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, and Cote D’Ivoire. Then, we will look at a few of the potential cases for military intervention in the near future.

Fortunately, with history, we often have verifiable facts about the outcomes of an event, and we can view these outcomes without staging a second battle of Guadalcanal or Bastogne. One can prepare for war, fight in war or read about war. Having tried all three, I would say that preparing is somewhat tedious, but can, at times, prevent a war, and reading about other people’s wars is, in my view, the best of the three options. It’s great that, except in catholic school and military academies, there are no drill instructors forcing us to read the next page, and the book will usually not kill us (although some porn store customers might debate that point). And come to think of it, I did consider dying rather than finishing Steppenwolf in high school, but that’s the topic of another blog.

So, without bearing the expense of any real interventions, any consequences of not intervening, or any bullets, bombs, or aggravating journalists while intervening, let’s enjoy some arm-chair executive power and safe-distance “generalship” and dice up a few interventions. Feel free to disagree with any conclusions I might propose. Unchallenged ideas always remain imperfect, or may, in fact, simply be stupid. So unlike the youngsters on the obstacle course, you should feel free to appoint yourself Field Marshall, Admiral of the fleet, or Dictator for a day and decide how you might have better managed or avoided past interventions. Unfortunately, this promotion to dictator does not come with countless cowering servants or the treasury of any nation so you still have to clean your dishes tonight, but enjoy yourself nonetheless.

Let’s start with an American intervention. Not Yankees intervening somewhere else, but rather Europeans intervening in America. . . .

Hey Buddy, Can You Spare a Franc?

At Lexington, Massachusetts on April 19, 1775, some stubborn men and adventurous boys blocked an advancing British force of seven hundred well-trained British soldiers. The British were attempting to catch the Americans by surprise at Concord and capture their weapons and ammunition depot. Unknown to the British, the precious and scarce supplies had already been moved.

The British habit of planning operations at the dining room table in the company of their wives, mistresses, and servants was a valuable intelligence opportunity for the colonials, and on this and other occasions, timely intelligence saved the day. It is my unconfirmed suspicion that one unspoken reason the colonials took a stand at Lexington was to cover the success of their intelligence operations against the British camp. If so, they succeeded, and the British continued their careless Headquarters security habits.

The Battle of Lexington is usually considered the start of the American Revolution combat phase. But long before those stubborn Red Sox fans decided to exchange fire with the advancing British, the conservative rebel leaders were hard at work trying to gain the aid of European nations in their struggle against Great Britain. When Patrick Henry said, “. . . but as for me, give me liberty or give me death,” he may have been expecting more liberty for Americans and more death for the British. Henry and other members of the Congress were aware that, as an 18th century superpower, Britain had many enemies, and that chief amongst them were France and Spain.

Most Americans learn that the French Navy sent Admiral de Grasse to assist the colonies, and that the French fleet managed to win a battle against a British fleet in Chesapeake Bay, thanks to favorable winds and the late arrival of British naval reinforcements. We also know that many young low-ranking officers from France and other parts of Europe were quick to come to Philadelphia to seek commissions as high-ranking officers in the Continental Army. Many of those eager European officers were available because they lacked the talent to succeed in their own regiments at home.

However, two excellent European volunteers were Baron Friedrich von Steuben of Prussia and the loveable idealist, French cavalry officer Marie-Joseph Paul Yves Rocha Gilbert du Motier, Marquis de La Fayette, or simply “Lafayette” in the USA. Neither Lafayette nor Von Steuben was “sent” to the colonies by their governments. They both came at their own risk and expense. Von Steuben had a tremendous positive impact in the training of colonial recruits. As for Lafayette, he is best remembered for his courage and leadership on the battlefield, but his greatest service to America might well have been his influence in obtaining loans for financing the war and direct military aid from France.

It’s easy to understand why France, The Netherlands, and Spain were eager to see the Americans succeed against Great Britain. It’s also easy to understand why they hoped to keep their assistance covert as long as possible while publicly declaring neutrality toward the Colonies. In fact, the neutrality was broken before it was ever even announced. Long before de Grasse brought his fleet and French Army soldiers to fight in the colonies, France was clandestinely financing and supplying the Colonials.

Both King Carlos III of Spain and his cousin, King Louis XVI of France, were nervous about aiding a revolution against a ruling European monarch. As it turned out, Louis’ fears were well founded. But both countries were trying to prevent British hegemony in the Caribbean and the North Atlantic, and they both knew that a protracted American war with Britain would present a marvelous opportunity for their own countries.

While France has enjoyed its well-deserved recognition for intervening on behalf of the colonial rebels, Spain’s involvement was much quieter and more advantageous to itself. Spain maintained no illusions about America becoming a staunch ally of any European monarchy. Spain made loans of cash and supplies based on the assumption that they would eventually be repaid approximately 0% +/- zero of any investment made. Spain kept Great Britain guessing in the Caribbean, and actively engaged the British in the Mediterranean. As a result, Spain was able to use the opportunity provided by the American Revolution to remove British colonists from Central America and defeat the British Military units that were sent to capture Central America from Spain.

At the same time, Spain was shipping supplies from New Orleans across the Mississippi and overland to the rebels. In fact, during the first two years of the revolution, Spain supplied much of the rebels’ gunpowder via the Mississippi. During the revolution, Spain was able to evict Britain from her strongholds in Louisiana, Alabama, and Florida.

The Netherlands were allied to Great Britain at the outbreak of the American Revolution. The Prince of Orange had no intentions of assisting the Americans against the British, but the wealthy bankers and merchants of Holland undermined his policies. Dutch banking houses and merchants were quick to organize assistance in the form of money and contraband trade with the American colonies. The British quickly discovered this “silent conspiracy by vast committee” and ignored the Prince’s assertions of allegiance to Great Britain. Great Britain declared war on The Netherlands. The Dutch managed to fight the British navy to a draw, but while the British were capable of bringing in naval reinforcements, the Dutch were not, and The Netherlands signed a peace treaty that included the loss of their colonies in India.

The fledgling United States prospered immensely from the interventions by The Netherlands, France, and Spain. The early financial assistance from Dutch banks and merchants greatly benefitted the US early in the revolution. The financial support and direct military intervention by France helped tip the balance and made victory at the Battle of Yorktown possible. Spain supplied valuable weapons, powder, shot, supplies, and gold while keeping the British occupied in the Caribbean, Mediterranean and Central America. They also kept a third of British forces in continental North America busy during the revolution. While The Netherlands lost from their involvement, and France “joined in” to the revolutionary spirit more than King Louis XVI would have cared for—it cost him his throne and his head—Spain handled itself adroitly.

Spain’s intervention in the American Revolution stands out as a remarkable example of skilled, rational statesmanship. Spain took the time to see the American revolutionaries accurately and accept them for what they were. King Carlos and his crew skillfully avoided clouding their judgments with wishful thinking or cultural biases about the Dutch, the French, the British, the American colonials or the native Americans in the new world.

A reading of the historical records of Spanish diplomatic and military communications from Madrid to the New World reveals a startling picture of 18th century statesman accurately predicting the results of both events that they could impact, and events that were beyond their control. King Carlos had excellent intelligence information, but more importantly, he and his government used that information dispassionately to form an amazingly accurate picture of a war that was fought thousands of miles from Madrid, long before the telegraph was invented.  Two and a half centuries later, we Americans would be well served by following their example.