Working with the French Army
This article was published in several parts on BreachBangClear.com on 9 July (http://www.breachbangclear.com/site/10-blog/426-contributor-chris-hernandez-on-working-with-the-french-army.html).
US Army soldiers with French Marine snipers and French Air Force JTACs, Firebase Morales-Frasier, Kapisa province, Afghanistan, Fall 2009. Author is standing at left side of French Bretagne flag, wearing tan ball cap.
In Afghanistan I worked alongside the French Army. This made me world famous in France. As a matter of fact, I even made the August 2009 cover of RAIDS magazine, which is a sort of French Soldier of Fortune:
I look awesome, don’t I? Unfortunately, the photographer who took that photograph wasn’t very good. I’m off-center in the picture, in addition to being badly blurred. Here’s another version, where I’m highlighted a bit better:
Okay, so maybe I’m not as big of a deal in France as I thought. But working with the French Army was still one of the highlights of my military career.
Almost every time I tell someone I worked with the French, I get comments like, “You mean the French have an army?”, “Did they surrender to you the day you got there?”, or some other variation of the “cheese-eating surrender monkey” theme. And if they don’t outright insult French troops, they usually dismiss my experience by saying, “Oh, you must have been working with the Foreign Legion. They’re not really French.”
Those comments really get on my nerves. And they’re flat out wrong. I served with a few Legionnaires and a lot of regular French troops. Whatever the French public’s or government’s politics are, their soldiers are brave, well-trained, in fantastic shape and aggressive. Describing those men as cowards is an absolutely unfair characterization.
Admittedly, I had a low opinion of French soldiers before I served with them. In Kosovo, the French military had a reputation as being politically biased and ineffective. As a UN cop I worked with French gendarmes, a type of military police officer. They didn’t like the regular French military either.
So in early 2009, when I was told I was going to a French firebase in Afghanistan, I was a little worried. I didn’t speak French, didn’t have a positive view of their troops, and was worried I’d be stuck inside the wire with people who didn’t want to be in combat. I had spent all of my Iraq deployment in a humvee on a convoy escort team; that mission sucked, and I wanted nothing to do with fobbit life or force protection. In Afghanistan I wanted to spend as much time as possible on foot with guys who wanted to fight. The French didn’t seem that type.
Then I started investigating. I went to soldiers who had been in Afghanistan for a while and asked what they thought about the French. And I heard something I didn’t expect, a phrase I was to hear many times during my deployment:
“The only soldiers here who really want to fight are the Americans, Brits and French.”
This phrase was, of course, totally unfair to the Australians and Canadians. It may have been unfair to the Germans, who had a reputation as frustrated warriors whose government didn’t allow them to blitzkrieg Taliban like they wanted to. It didn’t give nearly enough credit to some Afghan National Army units who were aggressive and eager for battle.
But in addition to giving the French well-deserved praise, the phrase did address a certain unpleasant truth. Some countries, apparently in response to American political pressure, grudgingly sent troops to Afghanistan. Those troops were either mandated to stay inside the wire, or when they went out showed zero desire to risk their lives for a cause they must not have believed in.
As an example, one of my best friends worked with a different nation’s troops (I won’t name which nation because I have no firsthand experience working with them and don’t want to slander them all; however, my friend is a reliable, experienced veteran of multiple deployments, and I believe him). According to my friend, this nation’s soldiers would “patrol” by finding an open field not far outside the wire, sit for hours, then go back to the FOB. They took great pains to avoid danger and when engaged immediately broke contact. He described an experience at the Tactical Operations Center, where cameras caught a Taliban cell emplacing a rocket at a frequently-used launch site. As they watched the Taliban preparing to fire on the FOB, my friend asked, “Why don’t you fire on them?”
One of the foreign military officers answered, “We can’t. They haven’t fired on us yet.”
The Taliban launched the rocket. Without a word, everyone in the TOC jumped up and sprinted for bunkers. They knew from experience that rockets from that site would impact in about fifteen seconds. My friend chased them to cover. A few seconds later the rocket exploded. Everyone ran back to the TOC. The camera showed the Taliban hurriedly leaving the area.
Frustrated, my friend asked, “Why the hell don’t you shoot at them now?”
The answer was, “We can’t shoot. Now they’re unarmed.”
Another foreign military, the Italian Army, was widely believed to have paid the Taliban not to attack them. The French were furious about that, with good reason. In 2008 French Paratroopers took over an Area of Operations from the Italians. The Italians had suffered only one death during the previous year in that AO, and assessed the area as low-risk. The French accepted that assessment, and sent one of their first patrols into the area with light weapons and only 100 rounds each, their then-standard combat load.
The patrol was ambushed. One group of ten troops was separated, pinned down, surrounded and wiped out to the last man. Despite what the Italians reported, Taliban forces were extremely strong in that area. But they rarely attacked the Italians, just as Iraqi insurgents rarely attacked Italians around Nasiriyah when I was at Tallil in 2005. Gee, I wonder why.
I arrived in Afghanistan six months after that ambush. Over the next nine months, I went on numerous patrols and reconnaissance missions with the French Mountain Troops and Marines. I learned to speak French well enough that I was able to relay information between American and French radio networks. At times I was the only American on French missions. My worries about working with them were completely unfounded, and since then I get pretty angry whenever I hear tired, old “Frenchmen are cowards” remarks.
ONE BIG DIFFERENCE
We in the US military are often treated like mentally-slow kindergartners. I think every last soldier in the US Army becomes homicidally violent at the thought of wearing a reflective belt in a combat zone. I used to shake my head at new unit commanders in Bagram who ordered their soldiers to travel everywhere inside the wire with a battle buddy, even to a porta-john right outside their tent. Many of us, especially senior NCOs, bristle at the hand-holding, “you’re too stupid to trust” mentality that has permeated the Army.
And don’t even get me started on General Order number One, the prohibition on alcohol. I don’t drink, but just about everyone else in the world does. It wouldn’t be unreasonable to allow grown men and women to escape the stress of war with a beer or two. Apparently our command thinks if they allow us to drink we’ll all go on kill-crazy rampages a la Robert Bales. The thought of moderate alcohol use under controlled conditions induces an automatic brain aneurism in our senior leaders. The French, on the other hand, don’t have that problem.
A typical hangout with the French and Afghans. Americans drink soda instead of alcohol to avoid offending Afghans, who of course are drinking alcohol with the French.
Many Americans have asked me, “Is it true the French served wine at dinner and had wine in their MREs?” The answer is yes and no. They not only served wine at dinner, they sometimes served it at lunch as well. The firebase I was on, which wasn’t that big, had three bars. The regular French Joes could have all the alcohol they wanted in their tents.
I went on a week-long mission to a combat outpost with a French recon platoon. The outpost was at the furthest edge of coalition control, surrounded by Taliban. One of their company XO’s, a captain, accompanied us. When we occupied the outpost, the first thing the troops did was pop open beers and break out steaks to grill.
French Army troops and Air Force JTACs at a combat outpost, Alasai Valley, Kapisa province, Afghanistan. Photo by author.
I had a conversation with the French captain about stupid things that happen in the American military, like the sergeant major and captain in Iraq whose only apparent duty was screaming at troops in the DFAC for wearing paracord bracelets. I’ll never forget the French captain standing there totally relaxed with a beer in hand, without armor or helmet, troops drinking and grilling behind him, telling me, “Things like that don’t happen in the French Army.”
So yes, the French could drink as long as it didn’t interfere with their duties. But alas, the French MREs I saw didn’t have wine rations. Sorry, guys.
Oh, and I don’t remember seeing even one French soldier wearing a reflective belt.
To readers currently in the military this is old news, but civilian readers may not appreciate the dramatic effect sexual harassment complaints have had on us. We’re constantly reminded of the punishment for committing sexual harassment, or not reporting it. Sexual harassment training and prevention classes are always being held. It’s a huge issue in the military.
Here’s an example: after my deployment I picked up an additional duty of preparing a weekly presentation for a group of stressed out, overly serious staff officers. The presentation was way too formal, so I began adding joke pictures to the final slide. The pictures were a hit. Then I tried to add this picture to one presentation:
I thought it was funny as hell. The officers I worked for, of course, deemed it far too offensive. I didn’t see why (and still don’t), but still had to remove it. I suppose the picture might offend female officers who used to be strippers or male officers who married strippers. Whatever the reason, this picture fell outside the boundaries of common decency. That’s the US military for you.
So, how might the French have felt about that picture, or about sexual harassment?
When my team began operations, the French had a going-away party for the outgoing team. Males and females, officer and enlisted mingled over French food and wine. Europeans are really into DJing, so a French officer played music videos with a laptop and projector. Some of those videos were from huge discos in Europe where people strip and have sex on stage; in effect, the French officer was playing techno porn videos on a big screen to female soldiers. I saw this happen on more than one occasion.
NOBODY CARED. There were no sexual harassment complaints, or threats of complaints. I never even heard of a sexual harassment incident among the French.
When the French Marines took over, I attended weekly briefings with their battalion commander. The battalion commander opened every brief with a joke, usually a picture. One female officer was on his staff. At the beginning of one briefing, the BC showed a series of pictures of naked women painted to look like animals. All the officers in the room, including the female, laughed at each one. Then the BC told the female, “So you don’t feel left out, here’s one for you,” and showed a picture of a naked man painted like an elephant. The female laughed in appreciation. In the US Army, the BC would have been relieved.
A French soldier in one of the line platoons had a girlfriend in Headquarters Company. His platoon shared a big tent that had been partitioned into individual cubicles. Every night he wasn’t in the field, his girlfriend stayed with him. Nobody up the chain of command said a word to him about it. As one French officer told me, “Our only rule about sex is, ‘be smart’”.
My French friends used to gently kid me about the “puritan mentality” of American society. They were right. The French seem to have gotten past that. They expect their soldiers not just to fight, but to enjoy life’s basic pleasures while they do it.
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.
French mountain troops advancing into the Alasai Valley as Afghan soldier fires a 12.7mm “Dushka” machine gun. Still from a video by photographer Thomas Goisque. http://www.thomasgoisque-photo.com
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.
French troops and armor in the Alasai Valley, Kapisa province, Afghanistan, 2009. US Military photo.
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 Regiment (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 thought he’d need more firepower if his hide was compromised. 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.
French Marine sniper and spotter. Photo by author.
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.)
French Marine snipers, one of my soldiers and me after a mission, September 2009.
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.
French First Sergeant firing American M14EBR. Photo by author.
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.
Clips of French troops in combat:
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Tags: Afghanistan, France, french army