This is the final installment of Chris Hernandez’ series about the French military and his respectful request, from one warrior (our description of him, not his) to read what he has to say and reevaluate the common misperceptions held about French Soldiers and Marines – and maybe to lay off the bad jokes. You read it and be the judge. (If you missed them, Part One was White Flags and Dropped Rifles, the Real Truth about the French Army and Part Two was The Truth About the French Army: Sex and Reflective Belts.) The Mad Duo
Contrary to conventional American wisdom, the French liked to fight. I accompanied them when they, Afghan troops and a handful of Americans invaded a Taliban-held valley. Despite comments from people who have no actual experience with them, French troops don’t run from a contact. They like to advance toward the enemy and shoot. A lot.
When we invaded that valley, the French blew through a hell of a lot of rounds. They dropped 81mm and 120mm mortar rounds. They flung Milan anti-tank missiles at any worthy target. Their tanks blew big holes in Taliban-held compounds. They called in many air strikes (all American at that time, French aircraft supported them in later missions). One French vehicle was set afire by an RPG and its driver killed; the French carried on instead of being paralyzed by the loss. One of the more inspiring things I’ve seen was a group of French soldiers recovering their dead, burned comrade from the vehicle later that night.
The Mountain Troops got into several engagements during their deployment. A couple of those were intense, prolonged contacts; one was a gigantic, battalion-plus, multi-day fight. The French Marines got into over ninety contacts during their six-month deployment. Neither unit shied away from combat.
One giant advantage the French had over us was with their use of tanks. We maintain an armored force that’s fantastic at defeating T-80s crossing the Fulda Gap, not quite so fantastic at fighting insurgents in mountainous valleys. The French had AMX-10s, light wheeled tanks that were perfect for counterinsurgency combat. They were a tremendous force multiplier.
One night before a major operation, I was laid out in the dirt on an outpost perimeter. I had fallen asleep at midnight. At 3 a.m. a tremendous explosion woke me. I lay still for a few moments, then asked a Marine on guard, “What the hell was that?”
He answered, “I don’t know, but something went right over our heads.”
When the sun rose, I was stunned to see an AMX-10 halfway up a mountain behind the outpost. A brave and/or stupid tank crew had rolled up a narrow trail in the dark, and hit some Taliban.
I didn’t envy the poor driver who had to negotiate that trail. Or the loader who I’m sure had to walk ahead of the tank, knowing that if he made a mistake his crew was rolling down the mountain. As a former tanker, I can tell you that driving a tank up a mountain in the dark isn’t something cowards do.
As I mentioned before, the French were in pretty good shape. I wouldn’t say they’d outdo the typical American infantry unit, but they were in better shape than a lot of Americans thought they were. This led to at least one pretty funny situation with a platoon of American pathfinders.
My friends told me that back in France they had very little vehicle support for training. If a company needed a full complement of APCs for an exercise, they’d have to strip every vehicle in their entire battalion. They were used to walking everywhere, and like most Europeans they lived a much less sedentary life than we do. The Mountain Troops climbed mountains all week during training, then on weekends some of them would get together and climb mountains for fun. It’s just their way of life.
On one mission, American pathfinders from another base were going to climb a mountain to set an overwatch position with the French. One of the French captains later told me the pathfinders expressed concern that the French wouldn’t be able to keep up (“You guys sure you’re in shape? You think you can hang?” ). The captain assured them his troops would be fine.
The mission began the next morning. The pathfinders were way overloaded, and started lagging within the first few hundred meters. The French captain laughingly told me he and his men had to pick up a trail of magazines and water the pathfinders dumped, and eventually had to physically help the pathfinders make it to the top. The pathfinders didn’t talk trash after that.
One of my crazier buddies was a sniper in the French Marine battalion (which is part of the Army). He was a little guy, about 5’7” and 150 pounds. On missions he carried the standard body armor, a forty-pound PGM .50 caliber sniper rifle, a ruck with all the rest of his gear – and a MINIMI (essentially an M249 SAW) up front. Despite the fact that he was humping his own body weight, he refused to carry a FAMAS carbine instead of the MINIMI because he didn’t think it had enough firepower. I went on several missions with his team, and on most of those we’d have to climb three or so hours in the dark to set an overwatch. I never saw him slow down, despite the 150 pound load.
The sniper’s MINIMI broke one day at the range. He turned it in to the armorer, but they didn’t have a spare. He came to me the day before a mission and asked if I could find him another SAW. I told him we only had M4s, M14s and an M240B machine gun.
He pursed his lips and asked, “May I see the machine gun?”
An M240 is way heavier than a MINIMI. I thought, there’s no way he can carry a 240 and a sniper rifle. But I said, “Sure, I’ll show it to you.”
We went to my team’s tent. The sniper lifted the 240, considered the weight. “This is not bad. May I see the ammunition?”
I handed him a hundred round belt in a bandoleer. He nodded, said, “Yes, this will be fine. One hundred rounds on each side of my body armor, another one hundred in the weapon, and three hundred more in my pack. That will not be too heavy. May I borrow it, please?”
I shook my head. Just the extra ammo weight would have nearly killed my then-38-year-old back. The sniper, though, could have handled it. “Dude, you’re insane. But if you want it, go ahead.”
We took the gun to his tent. Later, his team leader saw it and said hell no. The sniper was disappointed. We both knew he could have carried that much weight.
As it turned out, the team leader made the right call. During that mission, we were caught on a mountaintop by a surprise hailstorm that killed three French troops. That mission was the most physically brutal experience I’ve ever had, and even though I was carrying a light load I was barely able to keep up. But I didn’t see a single French Marine struggle to make the hike up the mountain, or struggle back down after the storm, or fall back during the long walk out of the valley. I didn’t even see any of them fall back when we were ordered back into the valley and back up the mountain. (See my blog post, “Even God hates us” for the full story.)
From battalion level down, the French were easy to work with and seemed proud to serve alongside Americans. One thing that impressed me immensely was that many of the Mountain Troops wore American combat patches, especially 82nd Airborne and 101st Airmobile. Many French troops were madly in love with our weapons, and jumped at the opportunity to train with us.
They were also very receptive to integrating Americans into their teams. My team, among others, developed a fantastic working relationship with the French, and has maintained close friendships with many of them. One visited me in Texas, and another is coming soon. One of the Marines moved to the US, married an American girl and is waiting anxiously for his citizenship. I’ll be proud to call him an American.
AN APPEAL TO WARRIORS
The French military is pretty damn good. They’re not perfect, but neither are we. I saw French troops and commanders make mistakes and bad calls, I heard Joes grumbling about bad leadership. I’ve seen the same thing in the US Marines and Army. The French have a few quirks, but overall they’re extremely dedicated, proficient and brave.
And now we get to my point.
Guys, I didn’t write all this just for entertainment value. I also wrote it as a plea. I’d ask that Americans, especially American warriors, reconsider any negative views they might have about French troops.
The French went to war in Afghanistan, and have lost almost a hundred men killed, not because France was attacked. They fought for us, because we were attacked. And they hung in for years, taking casualties but not quitting the fight. They didn’t pull their major forces out until they began taking serious losses from green-on-blue attacks. I don’t blame them one bit for refusing to support a nation whose troops are murdering them.
Today the French are fighting our common terrorist enemy in Africa, taking losses but beating the enemy senseless. They deserve praise and respect for what they did in Afghanistan and what they continue to do today. Old jokes about rifles only being dropped once, or “satirical” articles about French troops trying to surrender, aren’t just stupid clichés. They’re blatant insults toward brave, honorable men who figuratively stood shoulder to shoulder with us as a nation and literally stood shoulder to shoulder with us as soldiers.
Let’s drop the bad comedy routines, and show them the respect they’ve earned.
About the Author: Chris Hernandez is a veteran of both the Marine Corps and the Army National Guard who has served in both Iraq and Afghanistan, where he frequently worked with French elements of ISAF while training and mentoring Afghan personnel. He is also a veteran police officer, having spent a long (and eye-opening) deployment as part of a UN police mission in Kosovo. Chris is the newest member of our team here and we’re damn glad to have him – he will occasionally be doing some guest ranting here as well as on his own page when he’s not working on the sequel to his novel Proof of Our Resolve. Read some of his other work in The Statesman and on his blog.
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Wait until you see his upcoming fiction novel Line in the Valley – fighting between our troops against the Cartels in the near future. It’s going to be awesome. Read excerpts of that in his blog.
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