If Only We Listened to De Gaulle

In 1934, Charles de Gaulle, leader of the Free French Forces and the French Resistance during the Second World War, wrote Vers l’Armée de Métier (Toward a Professional Army), which formulated how France should organize its military. It was ahead of its time in advocating for a professional army based on mobile armored divisions, namely mechanized infantry and tanks. Not only did he propose this as a way to keep Germany in check, but he saw it as a means of enforcing international law.

Unfortunately for France and its allies, the book did extremely poorly in its home country: only 700 copies were sold. However, it sold ten times as many copies in neighboring Germany, where even Adolf Hitler himself reportedly studied it. Sure enough, Germany employed a very similar approach to du Galle’s, with its panzer units and mobile infantry sweeping through the country in the invasion of France in 1940.

At the time, de Gaulle, who had served with distinction in the First World War, remained a colonel, due to his bold views antagonizing France’s conservative military leaders. He nonetheless implemented many of his theories and tactics as commander of a tank regiment, and during an offensive against German armor at Montcornet on May 17th, he managed to temporarily turn back enemy forces without the benefit of air support. While this ultimately proved inconsequential in slowing the invasion, it was one of the few victories France enjoyed prior to its rapid capitulation just one month later.

Whereas French collaborators and traitors would blame French society for the fall of the country, de Gaulle – who refused to surrender and extolled his countrymen to continue fighting – took the reverse stance, blaming French military and civilian leaders while believing the French people had the courage and moral stamina to keep resisting. Given the sheer size and strategic value of the French Resistance, as recognized by Allied leaders like Eisenhower, his point was validated. If only his prescient book and ideas had been heeded, or at the very least he be placed in the higher ranking he earned. World War Two may have gone very differently, if at all.

H/T to  Jean Lacouture‘s DeGaulle: The Rebel 1890-1944 (Vol. 1)

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On This Day in 1793…

The Louvre officially opened in Paris with an exhibition of 537 paintings. Built in the 12th century as a military fortress, the building now housing the Louvre was a royal palace and then a private museum before the National Assembly, in the midst of the French Revolution, decreed it should be open to the public to display the nation’s great works.

Through centuries of government support and private donations, the Louvre’s world-famous collection has grown to nearly 35,000 objects, spanning almost every civilization, art style, and historical period from prehistory to the 21st century. The museum spans 652,300 square feet (60,600 square metres) and is the world’s most visited museum, receiving over 9 million visitors annually (about 15,000 a day).

Photo courtesy of Wikimedia.

Jean-Baptiste Belley

Belley, with the bust of the philosophe Raynal, by Girodet

Jean-Baptiste Belley, also known as Mars, was a native of Senegal and former slave from Saint-Domingue (modern Haiti) who during the French Revolution became a member of the National Convention and the Council of Five Hundred, France’s legislative chambers.

After buying his freedom and serving as a captain of the colonial infantry, he was elected to the Convention in 1793 during the height of the revolution. He was perhaps the first African and first former slave to be elected to a legislative body in any Western country. He presided over the Convention’s unanimous abolition of slavery and served as an active supporter of the rights of Africans in the French Republic.

Although he was recognized as a full citizen of the Republic, Belley had to struggle against institutional racism. He remained steadfast in helping the new country stay true to its formal claim of equality and liberty until losing his seat in 1797.

In the above painting by Girodet, he stands with the bust of Guillaume Thomas Raynal, a prominent Enlightenment thinker and abolitionist. His stylish relaxed pose was a popular way of portraying figures of the revolution. Many art critics also see in the painting the idea of the noble savage.

Thomas Jefferson, the French, and a Debate About Moose

If that title doesn’t get your attention, than that of the NPR article I just read will: “Thomas Jefferson Needs A Dead Moose Right Now To Defend America.” That in turn references the unusual book, “Wild Ones: A Sometimes Dismaying, Weirdly Reassuring Story About Looking At People Looking at Animals in America.” Needless to say, both the book and the article are pretty interesting. Here’s this gem for example.

So, from his residence in Paris, Jefferson wrote his colleagues — Franklin, Madison, and others — asking them to go out and measure American animals, so he could create his own data set. As biologist Lee Alan Dugatkin describes it in his bookMr. Jefferson and the Giant Moose, the Founding Fathers quickly responded. Madison sent Jefferson a precise description of a local Virginian weasel, measuring all the parts — down to the “distance between the anus and the vulva.”

Jefferson put all these measurements into a table, and published it years later in his Notes on the State of Virginia, comparing a 410-pound bear from America to Europe’s 153.7-pound version, America’s 12-pound otter to Europe’s 8.9-pounder. Mooallem describes Jefferson as a man obsessed. He had to prove Buffon wrong, and (this being an Enlightened Age) he wanted to prove it scientifically — by measuring, describing and building his argument.

I’ll let you figure out what this out-of-context quote means. It’s actually a fascinating story that touches on the power of symbolism, the amusing pettiness of even the most respectable and intelligent statesmen, and the passionate (if not quirky) dedication of one of our most prominent historical figures.

Was Napoleon Bonaparte Short?

Popular culture is full of references to the famous French emperor being short. Heck, his name is even used to describe a presumed psychological phenomenon in which men of short stature compensate for their size by being more aggressive and domineering. (How insecure to you have to be to conquer all of Europe just to make up for your height?)

But contrary to popular belief, Napoleon Bonaparte was not short — in fact, he was actually slightly taller than the average French male of his time.

After his death in 1821, the French emperor’s height was recorded as 5 feet 2 inches in French feet, which translates to 5 feet 7 inches in the English equivalent. Many people didn’t take into account the distinction, since there wasn’t a standardized international system of measurements yet. (Sure enough, it would be the French that would come up with a universal metric system in 1799.)

Other factors contributed to this widespread belief. It didn’t help that the rival English had an obvious bias against Napoleon, and thus caricatured him as short in comparison to their own mighty toops. He was often seen in the company of his Imperial Guard, who were themselves even taller than average, as such elite troops tended to be. His nickname of “Le Petit Caporal” or “The Little Corporal” is also cited as evidence that he was short, but is now believed to have simply been a term of affection by his troops.

Although Napoleon’s actual height still seems unremarkable by modern standards, the average male at his time was shorter than men nowadays. The audacious emperor had many reasons for changing the face of Europe — compensating for a diminutive stature was certainly not one of them.


Happy 194th Birthday Léon Foucault

Two centuries ago, it was difficult for scientists to model intricate planetary orbits. Léon Foucault helped devise a method to make celestial orbits a bit easier to understand. 

Wednesday marks the 194th anniversary of the French physicist’s birth. To celebrate Mr. Foucault and his breakthrough pendulum, let’s take a look at how he was able to model Earth’s rotation.

Jean Bernard Léon Foucault was born in Paris in 1819. While Foucault received a medical education, the profession did not quite suit him. The young doctor is said to have a distaste for bloody medical dissections. But Foucault was brilliant when it came to making models, tools, and devices. 

And Foucault’s craftsmanship came in handy.

Foucault and a series of teachers, bosses, and partners tackled many scientific questions by building contraptions that could make hard-to-grasp phenomenas more tangible. Foucault was able to measure the speed of light. He improved the daguerreotype, an early form of photography. He found a way to prove that light is a wave, not a beam of particles. He named the gyroscope, a stabilizing tool found in everything from toys to the International Space Station. 

In 1851, Foucault made one of his best-remembered experiments: the scientist devised the first model to demonstrate the rotation of the earth on its axis.

People had tried many different ways to explain Earth’s rotation before Foucault. One group had even launched cannon balls up into the air with the hopes that the world would spin enough that they could measure the deviation once the ball plummeted back to earth. Compared to that loud, inaccurate (and dangerous) plan, Foucault’s solution was remarkably elegant. He strung up a brass weight at the end of six-foot wire. The metal ball hung over a pile of damp sand, just close enough that the brass brushed against the sand as it swung slowly back and forth. At first, the pendulum simply carved a straight line in the sand. But over the course of several hours, the line turned into a bow-tie shape.

Newton’s laws of motion state that an object will not change direction unless another force hits it. This means that while Foucault’s pendulum kept swinging in the same direction, the earth (and the sand on the ground) turned underneath it. It’s as if you drew a line back and forth repeatedly on a piece of paper, but then slowly rotated the sheet as you kept drawing – eventually the lines would form a circle.  

Foucault’s experiment became a sensation. The French government even ordered a large-scale version that would hang inside the Pantheon in Paris, with a 219-foot, 61-pound pendulum suspended from the building’s dome. Modern-day pendulums hang in the United Nations headquarters in New York, the California Academy of Sciences in San Francisco, the Boston Museum of Science, and many other locations.

The Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen

On this day in 1789, the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen, also known as the Declaration of Human and Civic Rights, was approved by the National Constituent Assembly of France.

A fundamental document of the French Revolution, it is one of the world’s first documents on human and collective rights, as well as one of the most radical. Though the revolution ultimately failed to live up to its standards, the declaration remained influential for generations, and still inspires many legal and political systems around the world. Many of its concepts were virtually unheard of at the time, and remain relevant in the modern world.

  • Men are born and remain free and equal in rights. Social distinctions may be founded only upon the general good.
  • The aim of all political association is the preservation of the natural and imprescriptible rights of man. These rights are liberty, property, security, and resistance to oppression.
  • Liberty consists in the freedom to do everything which injures no one else; hence the exercise of the natural rights of each man has no limits except those which assure to the other members of the society the enjoyment of the same rights. These limits can only be determined by law.
  • Law can only prohibit such actions as are hurtful to society. Nothing may be prevented which is not forbidden by law, and no one may be forced to do anything not provided for by law.
  • Law is the expression of the general will. Every citizen has a right to participate personally, or through his representative, in its foundation. It must be the same for all, whether it protects or punishes. All citizens, being equal in the eyes of the law, are equally eligible to all dignities and to all public positions and occupations, according to their abilities, and without distinction except that of their virtues and talents.
  • No person shall be accused, arrested, or imprisoned except in the cases and according to the forms prescribed by law. Anyone soliciting, transmitting, executing, or causing to be executed, any arbitrary order, shall be punished. But any citizen summoned or arrested in virtue of the law shall submit without delay, as resistance constitutes an offense.
  • All the citizens have a right to decide, either personally or by their representatives, as to the necessity of the public contribution; to grant this freely; to know to what uses it is put; and to fix the proportion, the mode of assessment and of collection and the duration of the taxes.
  • Society has the right to require of every public agent an account of his administration. A society in which the observance of the law is not assured, nor the separation of powers defined, has no constitution at all.
  • Property being an inviolable and sacred right, no one can be deprived of it, unless demanded by public necessity, legally constituted, explicitly demands it, and under the condition of a just and prior indemnity.

It’s interesting to note that to this day, we’re still debating many of these issues — social versus political rights, individual versus collective, how you balance them and on what basis, and so on. That’s what makes the document so fascinating to me — it’s quite prescient and sets the stage for many of the issues that still concern the modern nation state (as did the US Constitution and Magna Carta before it).

Happy Bastille Day!

As a Francophile, I have a particular affinity for this historical event (though the historian in me wouldn’t resist sharing it regardless). Like many commemorative events, the storming of Bastille is greatly misunderstood and rife with myths and misconceptions. But the revolution it has come to stand for, while ultimately failing in the short term, would introduce some of the most radical social and political ideas in history, unleashing powerful ideals that remain influential to this day.

Learn more about this remarkable event, and its historical context, here. I recommend you do further research, since this is just a basic and rather idealized source (though still a good start).

What We Can Learn From France

After keeping up with the recent French elections from start to finish, I’ve come to believe that the US could learn a lot from France. The incumbent president was born to an immigrant father and a minority mother, yet this background was never brought up, let alone seen as a reason to question his citizenship or loyalty to the country. His main opponent was nonreligious, yet this wasn’t a source of controversy (indeed, he won). There were eight other parties running, representing a wide spectrum of beliefs, and three of them were led by women.

Populist appeals to religion were lacking, candidates weren’t grilled about petty nonsense like whether they pray to God or believe in evolution, and trivial social issues were hardly covered. Negative attack ads are banned, as are funding by special interest groups, unions, and corporations.

Perhaps most importantly, voter turnout was a whopping 80%, which was actually low by French standards (though double our own highest rate).   Obviously, the French political system isn’t perfect, as such a thing doesn’t exist. There was a lot of immigrant bashing, populism, cynicism, and nastiness. But in relative terms, I they do at least some things a lot better then we do, as far as the maturity of their public and political discourse.

A Turning Point in Libya – and the UN?

As of a few days ago, the situation in Libya was starting to seem hopeless. The uprising appeared to be losing it’s momentum ,as Qaddafi’s forces successfully held back the rebel’s efforts to dislodge the bloodthirsty dictator; they even began taking back cities that had fallen under the control of the “Libyan Republic,” also known as the Interim Transitional National Council. Several cities were facing protracted and confusing conflicts, and it was becoming increasingly difficult to determine who was winning where, and what exactly was going on.

Furthermore, as the recent events in Japan shifted the world’s attention away from the Arab uprisings, it seemed the wily Libyan autocrat (and for that matter his Bahraini counterparts) would exploit the opportunity to crush the rebels once and for all. Sitting on billions of dollars of cash, and hunkered down in his fortified headquarters,  Qaddafi had the means to keep the fight going for as long as it’d take. However tenacious and courageous the rebels may be, they would be no match for his resources, especially given his willingness to massacre entire towns in order to pacify them.

All the while, the world was contemplating the typical questions that arise in the face of such a crisis: what do we do? What should we do, if anything? How would we do it? I saw my fair share of diverse perspectives. In the non-interventionist camp was all or some of the following: that this was an internal matter, best left for the Libyans to resolve; that intervention would deligitimize their grassroots efforts; that the US should not, by principle, play the role of global police; and that any involvement would risk civilian lives and muddle us in yet another controversial and expensive Mideast quagmire.

On the other hand, many argued that the international community had an obligation to intervene, due to humanitarian concerns. Qaddafi was brutalizing his own people with mercenaries and his personal security force; the Libyan rebels began their efforts peacefully, and were only fighting to protect themselves and remove their murderous tyrant after four decades of abuse. Most interesting was the argument that the Western powers, after coddling other autocratic regimes in the region, and failing to take a meaningful stand during the revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt, had to atone and do what was right to help the people.

Then there was the argument concerning how to get involved. Almost no one wanted foreign boots on the ground. Rather, the prevailing idea was the enforcement of a no-fly zone, by which foreign air forces would prevent Qaddafi’s planes and gunships from attacking civilians, while also neutralizing his air defenses. This would essentially be “intervention lite” – supporting the rebels and making their efforts easier, while not taking a central role. A similar idea called for arming the rebels directly, though that didn’t seem to get much stock.

Of course, this strategy has it’s own flaws and criticism, and it’s effectiveness is debated. It’s previous uses – during the Bosnian War and in Iraq to protect the Kurds from Saddam during the 1990s – were mixed at best in terms of effectiveness. Many have pointed out that most of the fighting in Libya is occurring between ground forces, and relying on aerial assaults would be incomplete and ineffective in a largely urban conflict. Indeed, while many Libyans – and indeed Arabs throughout the region – had specifically asked for a no-fly zone, a good number also seemed uncertain or downright opposed to the idea.

In any case, all this debate seemed ultimately trivial – every humanitarian crisis spurs analysis, deliberation, and all sorts of journalistic and academic commentary. But rarely does any of it amount to any sort of meaningful policy or action. The powers that be, as well as most of their constituents, fail to seriously take action. There is a long and historic precedence for this, from Rwanda and Somalia, to the situation in Darfur.

Thankfully, this time was different.

The International Community Takes a Stand

In any unusually bold move, the United Nations Security Council approved of a resolution on March 18th calling for the enforcement of a no-fly zone and mandating that international military forces could defend embattled civilians by force (albeit only through aerial and naval means). None of the 15 members voted against the measure, although a few abstained (unsurprisingly Russia and China were among those not to support the measure, though they were widely expected to outright veto the measure rather than back down). It’s always been difficult to get international consensus on anything, let alone something as touchy as foreign intervention. This made the UN’s prompt and practically unanimous decision all the more surprising, especially considering it’s track record. While I obviously would’ve preferred such action to have been taken some weeks ago, I’m still quite pleased that it happened at all.

Following this declaration, several western powers – the US, UK, France, and Canada – commenced with their respective military operations (Operation Odyssey Dawn, Operation Ellamy, Operation Harmattan, and Operation MOBILE). France in particular has been taking a leading role in the crisis; not only was it the first to recognize the Libyan Republic as the legitimate government of the people, but it was among the first to initiate military operations and – as of my writing –  the first to take down several of Qaddafi’s forces. Nearly a dozen other mostly European countries are either directly contributing or otherwise lending their support, with several others expression their intentions to do so.

The effectiveness of all this is still too soon to determine. It’s been verified that several of Qaddafi’s assaults have been held back or thwarted, and so far there are no confirmed civilian deaths (which was a major concern).  Just recently, it was a reported that one of the dictator’s command centers was destroyed, though he remained defiant and continued to claim that he would “fight to the death.” In fact, his forces remain in control of a town near the rebel stronghold of Benghazi, despite supposedly declaring a ceasefire following the passage of the resolution. It looks like the multinational force will be in it for the long-haul, which raises concerns as to the long-term objectives of this conflict. Will Qaddafi concede defeat, or will international forces wind down in response to a protracted conflict? What comes after his fall? What do the foreign powers do then – guide the rebels and help build a new government, or back off and let them take it from there?

My Personal Take on the Subject

I’ve been musing about all these questions myself. As an international relations major, conflict – particularly with respect to humanitarian intervention – is a central topic of concern. There are all sorts of ethical and practical concerns to keep in mind, an no decision, policy, or solution is perfect or entirely acceptable.

Personally, I support intervention in Libya and currently support actions being undertaken by the UN-mandated task force. In my opinion, international involvement is warranted in the face of overwhelming human rights abuses. I understand that in practice, this is a very difficult endeavor: there are dozens of countries in which human rights are regularly abused, and to be involved in all of them militarily would be a costly and unfeasible affair. In an ideal world, we’d have the willingness to apply all of our well-equipped and idle troops to humanitarian missions. But in reality, such commitments are generally beyond what both politicians and the public would find acceptable (hence the emphasis on seeking – or creating – “strategic” or “national security” interests whenever such calls for intervention arises).

But with all that said, Libya’s situation merited particular attention: it began as a peaceful protest and escalated into a war due to Qaddafi’s own viscous predations.  After four decades of human rights abuses, as well as a long history of exporting his brutality, Qaddafi deserves to be taken out, especially now that he is weaker than ever. In any case, our level of involvement is rather small in terms of costs and risks. Supporting these courageous rebels is the least we can do given our own indifference towards – and at times tacit approval of – autocrats in the region.

In response to concerns about long-term prospects, I personally  believe that once Qaddafi is dislodged – which I think is very likely if we keep the fight going – we should leave it to the would-be rebel government to take the reigns of it’s own destiny. Libyan society is very divided, and the rebels include a slew of diverse ideological persuasions. But ultimately, they all agree that the status quo is unacceptable, suggesting that any replacement of Qaddafi is unlikely to be as autocratic and genocidal. In any case, that’s for the Libyans themselves to sort out. As with most things, I’m taking a balanced approach:  we should help the rebels insofar as we facilitate their victory and protect them from the inevitable massacre that would follow Qaddafi’s victory. But following such a victory, it’s up to Libyans themselves to take charge, with the US and other powers at best providing technical, diplomatic, and economic assistance to facilitate their transition.

Of course, I have no delusions about the nature of this intervention. I know there are cold and hard strategic reasons for international involvement; Libya’s conflict was contributing to a spike in the price of oil, for example. I also know that such a no-fly zone is no guarantee of anything, and could very well fail, perhaps taking innocent civilians down with it (collateral damage is a sad fact of any conflict, especially when it involves the use of missiles and planes in an urban setting full of irregulars).

But I also know that no human action is one-sided. I doubt all the diplomats and leaders behind this operation were in it strictly for strategic or economic reasons. I’m sure many of them followed the same logic we all do: balancing self-interest and self-preservation with altruism and sincere ethical conduct. No action is entirely self-less, but few are entirely selfish either.

Which leads me to my next subtopic.

A Watershed for the UN and  for Humanitarian Involvement?

The actions of the UN and the international community are almost unprecedented by the rather low standards of humanitarian intervention. None of my sources, much less myself,  saw this resolution coming. Even fewer believed the war averse Europe and war weary America would actually contribute as much as they have to the effort. I’m very tempted to get romantic and excited about the prospects of this becoming the first of many such resolutions calling for international contributions to defending human rights.

Alas, I must always balance my idealism with my realism. For the most part, I’m cautiously optimistic. As I noted earlier, geostrategic interests with respect to the oil supply certainly had a part to play. But I also think that the world has seen the signs: the Arab world is slowly but surely challenging the status quo of autocracy and disenfranchisement, and the powers that be don’t want to be on the wrong side of history. In a globalized and increasingly interconnected world, we can no longer afford to ignore the crises in nations halfway around the world. As other countries rise in military, economic, and political power, I expect to see the emergence of more multinational efforts such as this one.

Then again, the fact that the major developing powers – Brazil, India, and China – failed to back this resolution, bodes ill for the notion of a multi-polar world.  So has the UN’s failure in other parts of the world, where only mostly poorer nations have shown an interest in getting involved in Peacekeeping, humanitarian assistance, and other such endeavors.  Ultimately, all we can do is wait and see: as protests continue in Yemen, Bahrain, and now Syria, the UN and it’s major contributers will be challenged to act if things escalate. Even if it fails to be as bold as it was with Libya, I can be pleased that something was done.

In a world rife with injustice and apathy, I’ll take what I can get in terms of humanitarian gains. I’ll hope for the best, just like millions of people do everyday.