In English-speaking countries, the French armed forces have become a joke. Literally. Entire websites are devoted to one-liners like: “How many gears do French tanks have? Six: five reverse and one forward.” This is a gross slander of a nation that, back in the days of Louis XIV and Napoleon, was synonymous with military excellence. Those skills, that courage, that panache did not suddenly disappear in the 20th century, notwithstanding France's string of humiliating defeats. There is no better reminder of that than the career of General Marcel Bigeard, who died on June 18 at age 94.
Born in 1916 to a railway worker, he left school at 14 to work in a bank. Called up when war came in 1939, he was a lowly warrant officer when captured on the Maginot Line in 1940. The following year, after two failed attempts, he escaped from a German prison camp and made his way to French West Africa to join the Free French forces. In August 1944 (using the call sign Bruno, which became his lifelong moniker), he parachuted back into France to work with the Resistance and help the invading Allied armies. In the process, he earned the Legion of Honor and Britain's Distinguished Service Order.
Once World War II was over, the French army turned its attention to imperial wars, starting in Indochina where the Viet-Minh under Ho Chi Minh were trying to expel the colonial power. Captain Bigeard arrived in Saigon in 1945. By 1952, he was on his third tour, a major, and newly installed commander of the 6th Colonial Parachute Battalion (“Bataillon Bigeard”). By then everyone in Indochina, wrote French journalist Jules Roy, “knew his high forehead, his fair crew-cut hair, his bird-of-prey profile, his touchy independence”--and the extraordinary combat record that would one day earn him four-star rank without benefit of a St. Cyr education.
He was famous for his fitness and his austerity—both qualities which stood out in an army that valued its luxuries; French troops were issued a wine and cheese ration even in the field and were accompanied by mobile brothels. Bigeard's visitors, noted American diplomat Howard Simpson, could expect “a thin slice of ham and one small, isolated boiled potato” washed down with “steaming tea” rather than the multicourse banquets accompanied by wine and brandy that were de rigueur in most French messes. Bigeard, who had nothing but contempt for office-bound superiors, preferred to fight lean, “à la Viet.”
The paras were the elite of the French army, a quick-reaction force that went wherever the fighting was the heaviest. In 1952, Bigeard and his men were dropped into the village of Tu-Lê in the northern highlands to stop a Viet-Minh offensive and allow the evacuation of French garrisons in the region. The battalion was soon encircled by an entire enemy division. Outnumbered ten to one, they fought their way out through dense jungle, walking nonstop for days and carrying the wounded. Entire companies were wiped out en route but Bigeard and a small group of survivors managed to elude the enemy.
The peacocky personification of paratrooper panache, Bigeard entered battle without a personal weapon and always led from the front. “If it's possible, it's done,” he said. And if it's impossible? That “will be done” too.
On November 20, 1953, he and his men (half of them Vietnamese) were part of the paratroop force dropped into a remote valley of northwestern Vietnam at a place called Dien Bien Phu. They chased off the local Viet-Minh troops and established a French stronghold. Three weeks later they left for other fights. They did not return until March 16, 1954, by which time the garrison had been cut off by the Viet-Minh, which had positioned artillery on the surrounding slopes. Bigeard and his men parachuted into this “jungle Verdun” and continued fighting until the end. They fought brilliantly and heroically but to little avail. The defenders were ground down by relentless artillery fire and frontal assaults that were driven home by the Viet-Minh with total disregard for losses.
The end came on May 7, 1954, when the French commander, Christian de Castries, decided to surrender. The Viet-Minh were only a few hundred yards from his command post, and he had lost nearly half his troops killed, wounded, or missing. Of Bigeard's 800 men, only 40 were still alive. More than 10,000 men were taken alive at Dien Bien Phu, many wounded; of that number fewer than 4,000 survived a death march and four months in Communist camps where undernourishment, lack of medical care, and brutal brainwashing were the norm. Bigeard, by now a lieutenant-colonel, was one of the most fit upon his release, thanks to his rigorous program of calisthenics. Far from broken, he was determined to do better “next time.” He got his chance soon enough in Algeria, where another independence movement was getting under way.
Bigeard's role was immortalized in the 1966 movie The Battle of Algiers; he was one of the models for the dashing Colonel Mathieu who broke the National Liberation Front (FLN) campaign of terrorism in the colonial capital. (Bigeard was also the model for Colonel Raspeguy in Jean Larte-guy's bestselling novels The Centurions  and The Praetorians .) By the time he arrived in Algiers, Bigeard had proven his combat worth yet again leading his 3rd Regiment of Colonial Parachutists in the mountainous bled (countryside). These were unmotivated reservists whom he quickly whipped into shape. Their effectiveness was heightened by their then-novel use of helicopters. During one of their battles, on June 16, 1956, Bigeard was shot just above the heart. Evacuation by helicopter and airplane saved his life. A few months later, on September 5, 1956, while jogging alone and unarmed in a seaside town in Algeria during his recuperation, Bigeard was shot twice more at point-blank range by three young Arabs. Again he just barely survived, but he was in fine fighting form by the time he led his paras into Algiers in their distinctive “leopard” camouflage uniforms and the high-peaked “lizard” forage caps designed by Bigeard himself.
Bigeard and his regiment were given the most daunting task. They were assigned to the Casbah, the Arab quarter, where amid 100,000 inhabitants lurked the leaders of the FLN who were sending out their operatives—often pretty young women who could pass for Europeans—to place bombs in the cafes and gathering spots favored by the pied-noirs, the settlers. The paras confronted this threat in a brutal and effective manner. They cordoned off the Casbah with barbed wire. A curfew was imposed and orders given to fire on anyone caught outside. The bodies were left in the streets until the following morning to impress upon the inhabitants that they had met a force “even more extreme than the FLN.”
Inside the Casbah the paras conducted a census and created a map showing who lived in which house. A preliminary list of targets was then drawn up using police files. In early January 1957, the strike teams fanned out into the Casbah, breaking down doors, and dragging suspects in for vicious questioning. A favorite interrogation technique was known as the gégène: electrical wires running from a small generator were clipped to a detainee's privates and the electrical current increased until he talked. Waterboarding was also commonplace. Once a suspect had been “broken,” any compatriots he named were quickly rounded up and given the same treatment. Afterwards many of the detainees were summarily dispatched under such euphemisms as “killed while trying to escape” or “committed suicide.” In all, during the Battle of Algiers, 24,000 Muslims were arrested and 4,000 disappeared.
In recent years, the myth has become prevalent that torture doesn't work, that suspects simply tell their interrogators whatever they want to hear. In fact, while torture may be morally reprehensible, there is little doubt that, at least in Algeria, it was tactically effective. By forcing captured terrorists to identify their confederates, the paras were able to dismantle the FLN structure inside Algiers within a matter of months. By the fall of 1957 the last FLN leaders in the city had been either captured or killed.
Bigeard was by no means the worst offender in the use of torture. After his men arrested Larbi Ben M'hidi, a top FLN leader, Bigeard refused to torture him. Instead over the course of two weeks the two men developed a personal rapport, one warrior to another. Bigeard supposedly said to him: “Aren't you ashamed to place bombs in the baskets of your women?”
Ben M'hidi replied: “Give me your planes. I'll give you my baskets.”
General Jacques Massu, the commander of 10th Parachute Division, finally got tired of this ongoing dialogue, and he sent a more ruthless officer, Major Paul Aussaresses, to do the foul deed. When Aussaresses took the FLN chief out of Bigeard's custody, he was amazed to see Bigeard's paratroopers presenting arms to send off the FLN leader with full military honors. “It was Bigeard in effect paying his respects to a man who had become his friend,” Aussaresses wrote. Ben M'hidi was driven to an outlying farm where he was hanged “to make it look like suicide.”
But, even if he was soft with Ben M'hidi, Bigeard was no innocent. Rumor had it that his troops flew suspects over the Mediterranean and dropped them out of airplanes to drown; the victims were called Shrimp Bigeard. Many years later Bigeard admitted that torture had been a “necessary evil.”
Necessary or not, French brutality backfired by turning most people in Algeria, the world, and finally in France itself against the war effort. Under growing international pressure, President Charles de Gaulle granted Algeria independence in 1962. By then Bigeard was long gone. He had no part in the last-ditch effort to maintain Algérie Française that was mounted by French army veterans who formed the terrorist group known as the OAS (Secret Army Organization).
Bigeard moved on to commands in Africa where he almost died once again thanks to his favorite method of arriving to inspect a unit—he would parachute and land with his arm in a salute. “This nearly ended in disaster,” wrote historian Alistair Horne of an incident which occurred in 1972, “when Bigeard, by now nearing sixty and a senior general, was dropped into a shark-infested sea by mistake during a visit to troops in Madagascar. He broke an arm but was saved by his faithful staff who had parachuted into the sea with him.”
After retirement in 1974 he was deputy defense minister and elected to the French national assembly, but this dashing cavalier was unsuited for the grubby compromises of politics. His final years were marred by the controversy over the use of torture in Algeria—an issue that rose to prominence again in 2000-01 when Aussaresses published an unrepentant memoir. But, whatever moral qualms one might express about his conduct, Bigeard's legacy as an indomitable fighter remains intact. He was one of the great soldiers of the 20th century. Think of Bruno Bigeard the next time you hear a joke whose subtext is that French soldiers are cowards or incompetents.
Max Boot is a contributing editor to The Weekly Standard and a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations. He is writing a history of guerrilla warfare and terrorism, on which this article is based, for W.W. Norton.
This article appears in full on CFR.org by permission of its original publisher. It was originally available here.