Whenever some perceived contretemps, genuine or not, arises between the Unites States and France, count on a percentage of my fellow Americans emerging from the woodwork to post worn-out disparagement of the French military in WWII. Such posts only illuminate their staggering ignorance, and of course their arrogance. For the disinclined, no reason to trouble reading history.
In France it is everywhere. It is not possible to drive very far without seeing the evidence of three wars fought across this country, all in a span of less than 70 years, each leading to the next, each compounding the toll in human lives. Imagine. Three times in one lifetime, should one have been fortunate enough to last that long, the country was invaded. Twice within 25 years the country was turned into a charnel house, costing the lives of millions, leaving vast swaths of countryside devastated and depopulated. Entire towns and villages simply disappeared, scoured from the map, never return.
For four years before the US entered the First World War France bled nearly to death. Millions of French soldiers died, and more were left incapacitated. France and England were close to exhaustion when the US arrived and provided the push to win the war. When the guns went silent, much of France was left in ruins and the better part of an entire male generation was gone.
The math is easy. Twenty years later, guess who came knocking once again? This time there was hardly anyone there to answer the door–twenty years later is exactly when another generation would have been ready for the military, but there was barely a generation there.
Beyond the strategic issues, beyond the economics, the politics, and the diplomatic failures that led to what transpired, lay the fact that those who could have fathered a generation of soldiers to defend France in 1940 had died on the battlefields of 1914-1918.
You don’t need to read history. All you need do is drive through France. You don’t have to drive very far before coming to a military cemetery, one of the hundreds seemingly everywhere, or to stop in the town squares of thousands of towns and tiny villages, each with a monument to its own war dead. The names for 1940 on those monuments are few, but the list of names for 1914-1918 often takes up several sides of a monument, even in the small towns. Fathers and sons died, and multiple brothers all from the same village.
It is a fact, a dark fact, that one of the reasons so many small villages throughout France today are so quaintly, charmingly quiet to an observer from elsewhere is that they have never recovered their population even now, after the two world wars.
Generations now living in the US, behind the seeming safety of oceans on its flanks and no centuries-long antagonist just across a land border, might be forgiven for a sense of invincibility, but not for arrogance or ignorance. Sometimes it’s smart to read a little history.