An ode to French soldiers

In 2009 Chris Hernandez, member at the time of the US Marine Corps and today a reserve soldiers with more than 25 years of military experience behind him, spent several months serving with French troops in Afghanistan, an episode he describes as “one of the highlights of my military career.” In July 2013 he wrote an article about his experiences which was published in several parts on BreachBangClear.com (http://www.breachbangclear.com/site/10-blog/426-contributor-chris-hernandez-on-working-with-the-french-army.html). We thought it worth publishing some extracts.

 

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.

Chris Hernandez, standing, second from left behind French Bretagne flag with US Army soldiers and French Marine snipers and French Air Force JTACs, Firebase Morales-Frasier, Kapisa province, Afghanistan, Autumn 2009.

 

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?” (…) 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 absolutely unfair.

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. (…)

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. (…) 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 [others] (…) 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. (…)

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.

We in the US military are often treated like mentally-slow kindergartners (…) [and there is] 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. (…) The French, on the other hand, don’t have that problem.

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. (…) But alas, the French MREs I saw didn’t have wine rations. Sorry, guys (…).

One giant advantage the French had over us was with their use of tanks. We maintain an armoured 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, (…) at 3 a.m. a tremendous explosion woke me. (…) 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.(…) As a former tanker, I can tell you that driving a tank up a mountain in the dark isn’t something cowards do (…).

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. (…)

Today the French are fighting our common terrorist enemy in Africa (…). 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, honourable 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.

 

Chris Hernandez with French snipers and a US soldier after a mission, September 2009

Chris Hernandez with French snipers and a US soldier after a mission, September 2009