CAIRN-INT.INFO : International Edition

1Over fifty years after the Évian Accords were signed on 18 March 1962, the Algerian War remains the greatest and most recent “trauma” that the French armed forces have ever experienced. The source of this trauma was not merely the military defeat, the loss of “the jewel in the empire crown”, or the realisation that the position of a mediumsized power was a precarious one: it was fundamentally tied to the attempted coups in Algiers in 1958 and 1961, which marked the birth of the Fifth Republic. Although the Algerian taboo had multiple dimensions within the armed forces, it is crucial to highlight that it did not simply refer to a series of “practices” that had been discredited since the Algerian War in particular, and the various wars of colonisation and decolonisation in general. The concept of a taboo more fundamentally designates the inherited structure of ordinary relations between high-ranking military officers and political leaders after the end of the Algerian War. In this sense, the hypothesis that the Algerian taboo has faded seeks to explain the rebalancing of politico-military relations in favour of commanding officers since the end of the Cold War.

2With the significant strategic re-orientation of NATO operations in Afghanistan, it is noticeable that, since the second half of the 2000s, colonial officers such as Lyautey, Gallieni and Bugeaud have (once again) become essential references in the military world. And it is a new development – one which has not occurred since the 1960s – that France’s colonial legacy is now not only grudgingly admitted but openly praised. This reappropriation has occurred not only through the symbolic rehabilitation of a number of “former greats”, but also through the reuse of certain tools to control local populations. Although there are undeniable similarities between the “pacification of Algeria” and the “stabilisation of Afghanistan”, the goal of this article is not simply to outline a historical comparison. Rather, it seeks to understand how the operations carried out in Afghanistan enable us to objectively analyse the gradual erosion of the effect of the Algerian taboo within the French armed forces. Empirically, my argument is based on the genesis of so-called “civil-military” activities. [1] Broadly speaking, Civil-Military Cooperation (CIMIC – Coopération civilo-militaire) designates all of the activities that seek to coordinate relations between military organisations and civilian actors in a particular zone of intervention, whether the latter are local (political, religious or community leaders, populations, companies and associations, administrations, opinion-formers, etc.) or external (IOs, NGOs, United Nations agencies, financial backers, companies, government departments, etc.). [2]

3From the army point of view, CIMIC enables the presence of military forces to be more easily accepted by the local population, and to accelerate the transfer of responsibilities back to local civil authorities. Tested during peacekeeping operations in Bosnia in 1992, civil-military techniques are now an essential component of France’s military toolbox when dealing with local populations in Afghanistan, Benin, Cameroon, Chad, Côte d’Ivoire, Haiti, Indonesia, Kosovo, Lebanon, Mali, Tajikistan and Togo. CIMIC officers are on the “frontline” of those reclaiming the legacy of colonial peacekeepers, to the extent that their specialisation requires them to change and adapt depending on the local population.

4As highlighted in my doctoral research, which took an inductive approach based on the longitudinal observation of interactions between various social groups competing for leadership of civil-military activities, the notion of the erosion of the Algerian taboo enables me to illustrate the connections between professional trajectories, collective resources, and institutional reforms. [3] It allows an alternative explanation to be put forward for the transformation of military organisations since the end of the Cold War, one that is not solely based on observed changes in the international environment. [4] How can professional trajectories, individual endeavours, and the mobilisation of certain groups of officers – that is to say, social interactions – offer a complementary analytical perspective to that of institutional adaptations to changes in the strategic environment?

The legacy of the Army of Africa: trajectories and mobilisations

5Without implying that they like each other or are close friends, most of the ten officers in my sample population know each other well: they belong to the same generation, graduated in the same cohort, were in the same regiments and took part in the same operations. In seven out of ten cases, these officers attended the École Spéciale Militaire de Saint-Cyr (Saint-Cyr Special Military Academy) between 1965 and 1974 and were awarded diplomas from the École de Guerre (War Academy) during the 1980s, in the middle of their careers. Their successful careers were linked to their choice of specialisation: melee weapons and the infantry enjoyed a high level of prestige, since they were directly linked to combat. Moreover, these officers all gained experience through positions held at military headquarters and in operations abroad. They are from the small number of troops that were already professionalised in the 1980s: in 80 per cent of cases, they opted to spend their first deployment with the Troupes de marine (Overseas Troops, formerly the Colonial Troops) or the Légion française. Thus, these officers were for the most part inheriting the legacy of the former Army of Africa. [5] For this cohort of officers, who were adolescents during the Algerian War and military commanders while operations were conducted in the former Yugoslavia and Afghanistan, the effects of the Algerian taboo can be demonstrated across several different dimensions.

The doctrinal dimension and a return to action

6From the 1960s to the beginning of the 1990s, French defence policy essentially revolved around three axes: deterrence, non-integration into NATO, and the preservation of the conscription model. [6] The fact that left-wing parties rallied around the concept of deterrence and its key principles in the 1970s – the doctrine of deterrence by the weak of the strong, sovereign decision-making – and that the socialists worked to conserve the existing military hierarchy during their gradual rise to power crystallised this consensus in the 1980s. In this context, it is the fate of the ground troops that interests us. The doctrine of deterrence tends to enshrine the role of the navy and the air force in the case of nuclear warfare. The role of the ground army is to wait. Nevertheless, high-ranking army officials mobilised to reintroduce a certain amount of “action” and “battle” into the gaps of the prevailing doctrine, the tactical use of the nuclear option being one of the most frequently commented-upon examples. The heirs of the Army of Africa have lamented the fact that, since the mid-1960s, tactics, manœuvres, the “psychological factor” – the “action”, in other words – were all jettisoned.


“You don’t go into the Army to watch over the Desert of the Tartars, so to speak… The Desert of the Tartars [7] is really one of the books that… how should I put it… we went into the Army reading Lyautey, Gallieni, etc., the Algerian War had just ended… and Indochina… which were both at the same time failures in a certain way, but also major human endeavours. Failures that remained for us… we who were entering into the Army at the time, well that didn’t preclude the fact that the officers who were committed to these operations had done so in the name of values that we still believed in […]. Officers in native affairs were, so to speak… the guy who’s there on the ground, learns Arabic, who fully invests in the local population, who often marries a local.” [8]

8Three forms of resistance were clearly observable in the professional trajectories of our sample population during the Cold War: “pretending to believe in it”; indirectly challenging the teachings of the war academy; making oneself available to seize any opportunity to be assigned to operations abroad. The first option consisted of playing the deterrence game without truly believing in it. For some officers, and as early as the African operations that were underway in the 1970s, the “swing” from deterrence to military action began to occur in Djibouti, Chad, Cameroon and Zaire. The Battle of Kolwezi left a particularly important mark in the memory of some legionnaires. [9]


“I remember having witnessed it… it must have been in the Mailly military camp, during manœuvres with my squadron, I was a captain… someone had brought in a TV… after having attended the 8 p.m. briefing about the Kolwezi operation, and in my regiment all the captains were from my cohort, or the one after or the one before, and I knew them personally, it was a huge source of admiration and pride. Why? Because in 1978, I had already been in the army for eleven years, I’d already spent three years in Germany, I’d been in the Légion and then gone back to Germany. So the shift… I felt it at that moment.” [10]

10Generally, after ten or so years in the army, officers become trainees at the École de guerre. Going “back to school” when they already have field experience is not a trivial affair. In this sense, the École de guerre is also a place to examine their commitment to the military institution. [11] Some authors have already examined the discrepancies observed between the material taught and the real-life operations already experienced by the trainees, while others have analysed the different forms of resistance developed by the officer cadets in favour of the reintroduction of strategies of action: for example, by caricaturing the chief proponents of deterrence in graduation newsletters, or by choosing subversive topics for final dissertations. [12] These officers were then sent on assignment, notably to Lebanon, Chad and New Caledonia, where the stakes were similar to those of future peacekeeping operations, characterised by their “population-centric” dimension. [13] This was followed by a fierce rejection of the Eastern Front’s immobility – a rejection which could already be seen in their preference for the Légion or the Troupes de marine, but which was now intensified by their high levels of availability and mobility.


“But once again, careful, because in a military career, you can’t always do what you want to. You need to always be ready to seize the opportunities that present themselves to you. For me, Kosovo or Sarajevo… I was told, ‘Here, there’s a position there, are you ready to go?’ I could have said no. But obviously I said yes… so it’s not me who sought out this career, it’s mostly a result of the fact that as soon as there was an opportunity in that area, I jumped on it, and I’m continuing to do that.” [14]

12While a new balance was being struck between deterrence and action – which marked the general orientation of defence reforms – enthusiasm began to spread on the fringes of the army’s hierarchy, where many were excited at the possibility of finally being able to do what they had been trained to do. Both the possibility of future missions and the reappropriation of certain forgotten skills presented new opportunities. These soldiers represented the only available expertise at the point when a new balance was being struck between deterrence and military intervention. The long-standing culture of their regiments, often described as a “model of cohesion”, [15] the specific nature of their missions, their knowledge of Africa, and their professional organisation had all led these officers to develop skills on the ground that were similar to those that would be required from the leaders of civil-military units in the former Yugoslavia and in Afghanistan. Among these skills were a facility for contact with the local populations, open-mindedness in civilian settings, a high degree of geographical mobility on the ground, and a preference for autonomy and taking the initiative:


“That’s a little bit like the training that you get in the Troupes de marine, which brings together a number of people with a lot of initiative, and which also gives initiative to the people that serve them…. when you end up in the middle of nowhere with your regiment, moving around with your fifteen vehicles, you work things out with the local villages in order to eat, drink, find shelter, everything. I mean, we would just set out and figure it out. That’s initiative right there. […] The Troupes de marine, that’s the ground army! The former colonial troops… At the time, my perspective was very simple: the Troupes de marine was the only place where they would enlist soldiers to actually fight in combat, or the Légion… but for me, the Légion spirit isn’t really my thing, I’m not obedient enough… Troupes de marine, that’s ‘initiative’ and ‘adventure’, so to speak….” [16]

14As early as the 1980s, these officers were already positioned in relation to the post-bipolar “shift”. They came from military groups that had already been professionalised for several decades, had undertaken the majority of their interventions abroad, and were accustomed to operations that demanded contact with local populations. The young captain sent to Lebanon as a peacekeeper for the first time at the beginning of the 1980s often later became the colonel in charge of an entire zone in Bosnia, Kosovo or Afghanistan. The “shift” gave these officers access to institutional positions that would have been unattainable a few years earlier. Military intervention professionals in Africa thus came to constitute – in opposition to the units that were focused on defending the Eastern borders – “the” pool of available skills at a time when a new balance was being struck between deterrence and military projection. Let us be clear, however: this positioning was not strategic, in the sense that it was not the outcome of the officers predicting such future changes. It was rather the end point of a trajectory. [17]

The political dimension and the return to decision-making

15The effects of the Algerian taboo have not only been doctrinal; although, within this article, it was necessary first to outline the trajectories of the officers in my sample, we should not forget that, above all, these effects have a political dimension. This is where the legacy of previous coups has a direct effect: the taboo feeds off of “a sense of betrayal”. Not only did the political authorities knowingly turn a blind eye to counter-insurgency practices in Algeria, including torture, but it was one of the most illustrious political leaders, the General de Gaulle, who presided over the “defeat of the generals”. [18] The passivity of the army stationed in Algeria primarily influenced how officers perceived their margin for public expression, the famous “duty of discretion” [devoir de réserve]. Even between themselves, certain things could not be said:


“After officers were prevented from talking about politics, they became completely… well, incompetent, I’d say, regarding political matters. When I was at war school, I had just graduated from Sciences Po, and in the middle of a debate, I quoted… a very famous citation that we all learn in political science… I think it was [Robert O. Paxton] who said: ‘France is a country that is in a permanent state of latent civil war’. And the colonel instructing us, in front of the cadets, said: ‘Oh, but you’re not allowed to say that!’ See… because the state of civil war was the putsch and we weren’t supposed to talk about that… So we didn’t talk about politics…” [19]

17Since the beginning of the 1990s, a number of indicators have tended to show that the ability of the Algerian taboo to silence high-ranking officers is waning. First of all, there are a burgeoning number of autobiographies penned by commanding officers (in particular those having served in the former Yugoslavia). These autobiographies are written less as strategic treatises intended for specialists, and more as eyewitness accounts meant for the general public. This “opening up” of the military world also attests to a quest for recognition from the rest of society, at a time when the impotence of peacekeepers was tarnishing the military’s image. [20] The number of institutional and doctrinal publications, the vast majority of which are accessible to the public, has literally exploded these past twenty years, in proportions that are hard to quantify. Second, both the surge of new technologies and the mastery of certain information and communication networks on the one hand, [21] and simultaneous reforms in the professionalisation of the armed forces on the other, have helped to open up the world of military organisations to the public.

18Increased contact with and understanding of civilian contexts, both at the level of central organisations (relations with political decision-makers, access to diplomatic spheres, an understanding of how the arms industry works, links with certain academic networks) and of operations abroad (frequent contact with local populations, an understanding of how allied armies function, liaisons with NGOs and international organisations) explains the development of this more relaxed attitude towards public expression, as well as a certain rebalancing of the normal relationships between high-ranking officials and political leaders in the Fifth Republic. Of my sample, 60 per cent possessed non-military qualifications at Masters level (history, information and communication sciences, political science, foreign languages) and 20 per cent at doctoral level (history, information and communication sciences) at a time when the bridges between academia and the military had not yet been meaningfully institutionalised. Let us remember that, at the beginning of 2010, although 40 per cent of the officers surveyed still held high-ranking positions within the armed forces (military governor of Paris, director of the Musée de l’Armée [Army Museum], commander of the territorial army, project manager for the Centre interarmées du concept, de la doctrine et de l’expérimentation [CICDE – Joint Task Centre for Concepts, Doctrine and Experimentation]), a few months after retirement 60 per cent of the officers had taken up high-level civil service positions (Council of State, official representative for the Lille region), international positions (International Management Group, Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe), or the private sector (Gaz de France Suez, DEMOS consulting group). [22] The split between the public and private sectors was relatively even.

19Research on the transformation of modern armies, in particular via increased exposure to civilian techniques and standards, has been relatively well known for the past few decades, especially with regard to the influence of “civilianisation” on defining and carrying out military policies, and the effects of professionalisation. [23] In the wake of the difference established by Morris Janowitz between “managers” and “leaders”, the work of sociologists [24] and public policy experts [25] investigating the consequence of reforms in France has consistently mentioned the co-existence of the “combatant” or soldier, and the “technocrat”. The professionalisation of military activities – in essence, their “technification”, or increased bureaucratisation – has only accelerated the spread of these two archetypes of authority, the former more traditionally warlike, the latter more legal-rational and technical. The co-existence of technocratic and bellicose reference points, and in particular its influence on social relations among officers, is not new; nor does it constitute something specific to those units specialised in peacekeeping operations. It is doubtless the military’s openness to how other social sectors function that has increased these past few decades, with the effects of professionalisation perhaps emphasising the shift from a more institutional model to a more industrial one. [26] The growing technicality of field operations and the bureaucratisation of central administration procedures – in both cases in dialogue with civilian standards and techniques – have favoured the partial reintegration of commanding officers to the centre of decision-making processes with regard to foreign policy. “Technification” designates the repercussions of a series of constraints emanating from the politico-normative frameworks for intervention (multinationalisation, juridification, humanitarianisation) on the organisation of military units and the use of force. The logic of intervention reinforces the role of intermediate decision-making levels. Likewise, due to the multinational context and overlapping rules of engagement, “technical levels of instruction” [27] become significant. The “vague neglect” with which ground troops were dropped into Bosnia ultimately constituted the most important vector for the officers’ reappropriation of their mission and profession. Lacking explicit explanation of how political objectives would become military goals, in the context of strict rules of engagement, and faced with an inhibiting tactical framework, certain leaders took the risk of moving, improvising or innovating in the field. But what could have been merely the banal application of a strategic guideline designed to anticipate the enemy’s moves, or at least to regain the upper hand, has generally been depicted as a considerable political risk. [28] Contrary to misleading appearances, the systematisation of multilateral humanitarian or “crisis management” operations almost paradoxically augments the role and political involvement of military organisations. It must be understood that this political role is not solely linked to the mandated use of force. It is primarily the tangible consequence of the territorial control exercised by military organisations; it also corresponds to the very nature of actions carried out by the military, as ordered by political leaders: establishing contact with local populations and authorities, helping to rehabilitate vital socio-economic functions in a country, assuming responsibility for a control zone, ensuring refugee returns, and preserving electoral equilibrium. Moreover, the variety of sectors in which military forces are involved (security, administration, community organisation, humanitarian aid, social and cultural services, economics, finance, agriculture, etc.) grants them a role in territorial administration and management with regard to local populations. For some, the institutionalisation of civil-military activities even occurred “unbeknownst to political leaders”. [29] Without going quite that far, I would instead suggest that this project, which was clearly an internal military initiative, was elaborated amidst political indifference. The technification of field operations has a corollary at the level of central administrations: the bureaucratisation of procedures, organisational modes and career trajectories. And yet – lest we be misled here – technification and bureaucratisation are not synonymous with the subordination of defence actors to the standards and techniques handed down by civilian elites or even political leaders. Quite to the contrary: these changes in fact transformed the configuration of politico-military relations in the Fifth Republic to the benefit of these defence actors. [30] Socialisation in civilian circles in general, and in political circles in particular, not only puts officers at ease when dealing with the authorities, but also allows them to “speak the same language”. Hence, since the end of the Cold War, we have witnessed the strengthening of military expertise supported by the highest level of the hierarchy: between 1991 and 1995, the Chief of Staff of the Armed Forces worked towards the reintegration of military members within decision-making circles, be these meetings of the Quai d’Orsay’s crisis unit or of various Select Councils during the Gulf War period. [31] More broadly, this reinforcement of military expertise was indisputably linked to the resources mobilised by certain heirs of the Army of Africa during the reform process: the aura of “great leaders”, [32] academic excellence, available pool of skills for field operations and, most of all, an understanding, in central administrations and field operations alike, of how civilian players act in crisis management operations. At the end of the 2000s, the military’s more relaxed attitude towards speaking out went so far as to allow public challenges to the decisions of the Commander-in-Chief of the Armed Forces. [33]

The memory dimension and the link between the army and the nation

20As it concerns a military sector with a very high rate of social reproduction, a large percentage of my sample are the sons and even grandsons of officers. For the generation in question, the fathers had often been officers during the Algerian War, whilst my subjects were children or adolescents (their dates of birth ranging from 1945 to 1954). This professional legacy goes hand in hand with family heritage and, more specifically, a father’s image often tarnished by the military institution during the 1960s. On a more emotional level, this heritage thus affects intergenerational ties. Father figures loom large over the career paths of my subjects: to a more or less conscious degree, many expressed the desire to rehabilitate not only the methods, but also the figures of the previous generation. Not that these officers are nostalgic for the colonial empire and its forms of peacekeeping, but rather they hope to re-establish a sort of historical truth, the very truth that their institution has prevented them from sharing. In this sense, the rehabilitation of paternal legacy through personal career choices also marks a form of individual resistance that reinforces identification with the Army of Africa. For these heirs, it is thus a question of rehabilitating their paternal legacy, unfairly betrayed by the military institution, by showing that “it can be done the right way”. The “it”, which clearly illustrates the full force of the Algerian taboo, refers to action strategies in general and operations in contact with local populations in particular.


Q: You were born in 1946, your father was thus an officer during the Algerian War, and you were an adolescent at the time… Did you have any discussions about the war with your father?
“Yes, I had some…”
Q: Do you think that everything you heard about peacekeeping operations growing up might explain your choice of career in crisis management?
“Well, yes, it’s obvious… it’s obvious… and I went back to Algeria in the position that my father was in after independence and I found that difficult to deal with. And on top of that, I always thought it was an injustice, what people said about officers who tortured people, etc., knowing full well that my father also was probably forced to give the order for violence like that. But at the same time, I went back there precisely, when I was in the Foreign Legion, to know how people would react when I told them my name. And I was actually justified in what I thought, what I mean is, I was warmly welcomed. So of course there’s that. It’s also one of the reasons why I went into the Army when actually, uh… I was hesitating between other career choices, so to speak. But the idea… [silence]… that’s generally it… it’s rather curious, my relationship to my father, the idea that my father… it’s true that when you’re a kid, it’s always the same thing: ‘my father the hero’… and that in reality, through his institution, he had been unfairly accused, but ultimately, it’s my duty to go there and show that like my father I can do this job well.” [34]

22The legacy of the Algerian taboo also affects relationships between the armed forces and the rest of society, in a context in which public debates concerning national identity and immigration are crystallising, at the same time as an increase in legislation with regard to conflicts of memory and the consecration of victimhood. [35] On several counts, the military institution seems committed to preserving the potent memories of the Algerian War for the new generation of recruits. The integration of Muslims, or more precisely the assimilation of certain religious and cultural practices, has been an evident concern during the past few years. [36] The implementation of the “Défense deuxième chance” (D2C – Defence as a Second Chance) programme in 2005 – which indirectly targets the new generation of recent immigrants [37] at a time when, by professionalising, the army has become the top employer for young French men without diplomas – translates the worry of high-ranking officers faced with the risk of a distortion of the relationship between the army and the nation: that is to say, a growing gap between members of the military and the rest of civil society.

23The issue of how, variously, the Algerian War is remembered in France has now begun to be addressed officially by the military. We should note that the organisation of an unprecedented exhibition on colonisation in Algeria at the ArmyMuseum from 16 May to 29 July 2012 preceded the Senate’s adoption on 8 November 2012 of a law designating 19March as the Journée nationale du souvenir et du recueillement à la mémoire des victimes civiles et militaires de la guerre d’Algérie et des combats en Tunisie et au Maroc (the International Day of Remembrance and Contemplation in Memory of the Civilian and Military Victims in the Algerian War and the Battles in Tunisia and Morocco). The comments made by the director of the Army Museum, General Christian Baptiste, reveal the awareness that certain officers have of the integrating role of the armed forces: [38]


“The first misgiving that we had to overcome was in fact mine. When in February 2011, my team and I took the decision to organise this exhibit, we were perfectly aware of the difficulties. No exhibition of this kind, on France’s actions and those of its soldiers in Algeria over a long period of time, had ever been held. We were very conscious of the fact that a lot of pain and suffering still existed, that different accounts and memories persisted and that, consequently, our job would be very difficult. But we had just organised a very beautiful exhibition on the 150 years of Italian unity and we, as a military museum, couldn’t we talk about the 130 years of our history in these lands, 50 years after the end of the French presence in Algeria? Should we avoid the obstacle even though the topic is decisive for French society today? We had to do it…”
Q: What are the initial lessons you learned from organising this exhibition?
“I’m convinced that a museum of military history, like the Army Museum, is first and foremost a melting pot for social ties and cohesion. I believe that the idea of a nation is the outcome of the long trajectory of those who comprise it, and that over the course of generations we can gradually gain the ability to overcome the historical events that divided us. Our shared past is the basis for our fate in the future, and if this exhibition convinces visitors of this, our mission will be accomplished.”

Unearthing France’s colonial heritage in Afghanistan

25A multinational operation conducted within a NATO framework, supported by UN mandates, an air campaign followed by occupation on the ground, territorial division into controlled zones, support provided to the central administration, economic rebuilding, monitoring elections: in Afghanistan we find a number of the characteristics typical of the interventions in which civil-military forces were deployed in the former Yugoslavia. At the time, the local population was seen as a constraining factor for the forces. The anti-terrorist nature of operations in Afghanistan changed the relationship to the local population, which was no longer viewed as an environmental factor needing consideration, but which literally became the battlefield itself. [39] It was thus in the context of this shifting strategic relationship with local populations that the justification for civil-military intervention was altered, rather than the latter’s specific practices. The relationship between the tools of colonial peacekeeping and contemporary counter-insurgency practices has become structural for the reproduction of civil-military activities within the armed forces. Bolstered by the transatlantic circulation of counter-insurgency doctrines, the reinvention of the colonial tradition has taken two concrete forms: the rehabilitation of the “great veterans” who were in charge of colonial peacekeeping, and the rediscovery of certain methods of controlling local populations.

The transatlantic circulation of counter-insurgency doctrines

26Between 2001 and 2012, the American strategy in Afghanistan was recalibrated: initially based on air supremacy, it moved towards reconsidering the need to deploy ground troops. The American army’s leadership within the coalition was such (there were 90,000 American troops out of a total 130,000 troops in December 2011) that its strategic shift automatically entailed that of its allies. Two concomitant factors can explain the strategic change that occurred around 2005 and, in its aftermath, the very clear reassessment of the usefulness of the civil-military tool. These are the political consequences of the concurrence of the Iraqi and Afghan theatres of war, in particular with regard to the loss of human life; and the gradual realisation within the American administration that a ground presence would be necessary for longer than originally planned. The bloodiest period for coalition soldiers in Iraq was during 2003-2007, and in Afghanistan from 2004 to 2011; the effects of this double military engagement were concentrated between 2004 and 2007. [40] The Department of Defense officially finalised the recalibration of its air force doctrine to move towards stabilisation. [41] This recalibration was linked to the mobilisation of several groups of officers who shared a certain number of characteristics with the French heirs to the Army of Africa. First of all, the secrecy in which the American counter-insurgency doctrine has been shrouded during the past several decades can be explained by the cumulative effects of the trauma of Vietnam, the mixed results of its subversive military operations in Latin America and Somalia, and, more broadly, by the weak planning for irregular warfare from a doctrinal perspective. British and American counter-insurgency experts have likewise been faced with the traditionalism of politico-military elites, and have begun their careers with a personal reflection on the successes and failures of anti-subversion struggles at a time when such topics were controversial. And lastly, but most significantly, all these experts combined academic excellence with a strong penchant for doctrinal reflection. General David Howell Petraeus obtained a doctorate in international relations, with a focus on the lessons of the Vietnam War, from Princeton University in 1983, then participated in operation Iraqi Freedom, leading the 101st airborne division, with which he managed to take control of the region north of Mosul. In April 2004, he was put in charge of organising the Iraqi forces, and then in 2007 became the commander of the Iraqi military coalition. Once back in central government in 2008, Petraeus monitored operations in Afghanistan and Iraq before being promoted to commander of the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) in Afghanistan in 2010. Although these successive promotions both in the field and within the American government clearly represent a meteoric rise, [42] it was predominantly Petraeus’ responsibilities within the field of higher military education that helped to formalise American counter-insurgency doctrine. Named commander of the U.S. Army Combined Arms Center (CAC) at Fort Leavenworth in Kansas in 2005, he then oversaw the development of a counter-insurgency manual that would ultimately have a long-lasting impact. [43] Many examples can be cited. In addition to American Lieutenant-Colonel John Nagl, [44] a close collaborator of General Petraeus’, the Australian Lieutenant-Colonel David Kilcullen was co-opted by the American administration. Before becoming an advisor to General Petraeus in 2007, he held a position in the State Department’s Office of the Coordinator for Counterterrorism, then as a special counter-insurgency advisor to Condoleezza Rice. With a doctorate in political philosophy from Australia’s University of New South Wales focusing on counter-guerrilla operations in Indonesia, Kilcullen also became interested very early on in counterinsurgency doctrines, before publishing his own thoughts on the subject at the end of the 2000s. [45] The “COINistas” [46] explicitly refer to the strategies of revolutionary wars, [47] positioning themselves in reaction to Mao’s famous expression, according to which “the guerrilla must move amongst the people as a fish swims in the sea”. To take this metaphor one step further, and in particular to understand how the local population as such have become the main issue at stake in interventions, we must now “forget the fish to concentrate on the water”, or even “drain the bowl”. [48] The link that leads from the rediscovery of counter-insurgency techniques to the celebration of colonial heritage in Afghanistan – for both Anglo-American allies and the French alike – is the essential trait that officers in contact with local populations must possess.

27If French CIMIC officers began to reclaim their colonial legacy in the middle of the 2000s, this was first and foremost because the reappropriation of counter-insurgency techniques by American officers made them more relaxed about the possibility of exploiting their own heritage. [49] A curious doctrinal back-and-forth thus took place on both sides of the Atlantic. The American deputy officers sent to Iraq were prepared for the task largely thanks to images from the Battle of Algiers. [50] It was these same British and American officers who unearthed, in collaboration with the RAND Corporation, a number of eyewitness accounts written by French colonial officers that are now deemed indispensable. These texts had been so completely forgotten in France that it took until the middle of the 2000s for them to be translated back into their original language following this American initiative. In particular, General Vincent Desportes, head of the CDEF (the main centre for ground army doctrine) between 2005 and 2008, was responsible for France’s reappropriation of these doctrines. [51] At the heart of the “Strategies and Doctrines” collection that he edited for Economica can be found the importation and discussion of American doctrines by a new generation of French officers. [52] We have also witnessed a new phenomenon during the last decade: four studies were published between 2005 and 2007 by the CDEF in its Cahiers de la recherche doctrinale collection which contained the word “Algeria” in their title. [53] Among these works, Guillaume Lasconjarias’ study on the Sections administratives spécialisées (SAS – Specialised Administrative Sections) is without a doubt the one most directly linked to the exhumation of civil-military expertise in Algeria.


“This study on the SAS follows in the footsteps of work conducted by the CDEF on the concept of ‘stabilisation’. This notion is comparable to what was called ‘pacification’ during the Algerian War, which is nevertheless an inadequate term for current operations. The main problem seems to be the army’s understanding of its own past, in particular in terms of its actions towards the local population. […] Certain army corps, by virtue of their traditions, their lengthy experience with field operations, today still seem better equipped than others. The Foreign Legion, for example, whose multicultural aspect is an essential asset that allows it to integrate everywhere and at all times. The Troupes de marine also cultivate their roots.” [54]

From the symbolic rehabilitation of the great veterans to the reinvention of tradition

29Among the officers presented as leading authorities by COINistas and CIMIC officers, there are many decorated veterans from the period of colonial pacification, including the Marshals of France Hubert Lyautey, Joseph Gallieni and Thomas Bugeaud. In particular, we have these officers to thank for some of the most “lapidary” maxims regarding the non-coercive strategies re-used by contemporary civil-military actors, whether these are rapporteurs for the French National Assembly’s Committee on National Defence and Armed Forces [55] or the highest military authority in terms of CIMIC within the Centre de planification et de conduite des opérations (CPCO – Joint Staff Centre for Planning and Conducting Operations). [56]


“The ACMs (actions civilo-militaires) that we now call CCM (coopération civilo-militaire) or CIMIC (civil-military co-operation), to use the English term as adopted by NATO, are and always have been a part of French military culture. CIMIC’s possible contributions during the stabilisation phase of current operations can be seen in a study of our military history. To be convinced of this, one needs only to re-read the essay published in 1900 by Colonel Lyautey titled ‘On the colonial role of the army’: ‘First of all, past experience has shown that we rarely, if ever, destroy a pirate band through force… Second, we should not lose sight of the fact that the pirate is, if I can speak freely, a plant that only grows in certain soils, and the surest way to get rid of him is to make the soil inhospitable.’ If we replace the word ‘pirate’ with the word ‘terrorist’, these comments remain strikingly pertinent today.” [57]

31Going beyond the metaphors of the “bowl” and the “fish”, the “soil” and the “plant”, the image of the “soldier-worker” or “soldier-administrator” – the perfect depiction of the human contact skills possessed by colonial officers – is experiencing a revival. Here are, on the one hand, the traits required by military leaders working towards pacification, according to Joseph Gallieni:


“A soldier first acts as a soldier, as long as it is necessary, to subjugate rebellious populations; then, once peace is obtained, he puts down his weapons. He becomes an administrator. […] This is the true role of colonial officers and their dedicated and intelligent collaborators, the deputy officers and soldiers that they are in charge of. It’s also the most delicate task, the one that requires the most effort, where officers can demonstrate their personal qualities, because destruction is easy, reconstruction is more difficult. […] During this period that follows conquest, the troops only function as a sort of police, a task which is soon transferred over to specialised troops, militias and the police proper; but the colonial officer is wise to take advantage of the inexhaustible dedication and ingenuity of French soldiers. As supervisors, as administrators, as skilled labourers, as commanders of small outposts, everywhere that a soldier’s initiative, pride, or intelligence are called upon, they will show themselves worthy of the task at hand.” [58]

33On the other hand, here are the qualities required for officers in charge of crisis operations, according to the army’s acting Chief-of-Staff at the time of publication:


“In fact, when he wrote that ‘he who is only a soldier is a bad soldier’, he [Hubert Lyautey] already anticipated the kind of changes our profession would undergo, and how officers would no longer be able to content themselves with being actors merely wielding technical expertise. Since the end of the Cold War and the collapse of the Soviet bloc, our armies have permanently been involved in managing and controlling crises, each one different from the last. Our high-ranking officials increasingly carry out missions where situational intelligence is essential and inseparable from military expertise and where taking initiative is the norm, even at the lowest levels. Moreover, as these operations rarely take place in a purely military context, soldiers must often act in complex situations, amongst other highly diverse actors, such as the media, NGOs and local populations.” [59]

35In the new CIMIC doctrine drafted in 2012, the emphasis placed on former colonial officers became obvious. [60] Once again, it is not a question of identifying the similarities between the pacification of Algeria and stabilisation in Afghanistan, or between colonial officers and CIMIC experts today. Instead, this article seeks to show that this publicly validated colonial heritage has now become a structuring factor. In other words, the establishment of this kinship is playing an unprecedented role in the distribution and legitimisation of institutional positions. We are consequently witnessing a kind of mythical reinvention of the civilianmilitary tradition in Afghanistan: from what yesterday was a tool improvised to deal with urgent multinational mandates and hastily assembled in relation to humanitarian intervention, civil-military co-operation has now (once again) become the classic instrument wielded by French officers, in accordance with their culture and history. The legacy handed down to officers involved in “Afghan stabilisation” from the “great veterans” of pacification and decolonisation has become the main vector for the legitimisation and social reproduction of civil-military expertise from the former Yugoslavia to Afghanistan today. I do not seek to suggest that the heirs of the Army of Africa promoting this project within the ranks of the armed forces only became aware of this kinship in 2005, but that this legacy was only socially legitimised within the realm of civil-military cooperation as a result of the strategic shifts operated by the American military.

Reusing pacification techniques

36This unearthing of the colonial legacy contributing to the reproduction of civil-military activities is not merely a symbolic process. The contemporary action repertoires for stabilisation in general, and for CIMIC in particular, were simultaneously informed by the cumulative experience of peacekeeping operations in Indochina and Africa, and counter-insurgency in Algeria. The overall approach draws upon Gallieni’s famous “oil spot” pacification technique in Madagascar. This method involved starting from a stable sector and pushing pacification outwards in a series of concentric circles, adopting a population-centric perspective [61] and supporting the one-off operations by other research and investigation units that drove deeper and deeper into the valleys to weaken insurgents by cutting off their routes and their supply points, as well as seizing their weapons caches. In addition to tactical manœuvres, two tools used to control the population during the pacification of Algeria and the subsequent war have also been re-employed. Harking back to Thomas Bugeaud’s Arab bureaus, the Native Affairs bureau implemented by Hubert Lyautey was described as spearheading pacification in Morocco and sought mainly to encourage the durable establishment of a military administration within the population. Originally called “Information Services”, Native Affairs recruited officers from all service branches and worked to collect information, ensure the policing of routes and markets, supervise public works, and monitor plantations and tax collection. The Algerian War offered several examples of counter-insurgency practices linked to control of the local population: these were carried out by the Specialised Administrative Sections (SAS). The SAS comprised a chief executive officer, assisted by a deputy officer, three attachés from Algerian Affairs, civilian contract personnel (an accountant, a radio operator and a secretary), a nurse and sometimes a female assistant in charge of social initiatives. With this team, the chief executive officer led political, economic and social initiatives with the goal of establishing lasting relationships with the population and constituting a centre of resistance to the Front national de libération (FNL – National Liberation Front). The SAS model seems to have been the inspiration for the Provincial Reconstruction Teams (PRT) in Afghanistan and Iraq. PRTs – small multidisciplinary and civil-military force detachments at the regional level – have as their goal the creation of local influence networks in order to support the coalition’s actions and bolster the government’s authority against the Afghan regional factions. These organisations are multinational but under the control of a national contingent. In 2009, Afghanistan had 26 PRTs, including 12 American sub-commands incorporating civil-military officers and representatives from other administrations. As the scope of action of PRTs is local and they are run primarily by national sub-commands, it is difficult to take stock of their successes or failures over the whole Afghan territory. [62] In the same vein – that is, the pooling together of civilian and military knowledge in order to better serve local populations and thus promote the central government’s authority – the American army put in place a system of “integrated researchers”, the Human Terrain System (HTS). First established at the end of 2006 in Afghanistan and Iraq to address the ethnographic and cultural information gathered in the field by social science experts, the value of this tool was confirmed by the COINistas, despite significant controversy. [63]

37Although CIMIC officers benefited from the mobilisation of their Anglo-American counterparts for the rehabilitation of counter-insurgency doctrines in Afghanistan, they were simultaneously wary of how the French colonial legacy was being exploited by the Anglo-Americans. In this exchange, British and American soldiers borrowed colonial pacification methods and a highly extensive political view of civil-military forms of action, while French authorities seemed more reticent and did not assume responsibility for any PRTs. The wariness of French officers was first and foremost due to the perception that humanitarian assistance was counterproductive.


“[Silence]… Hmmm… well, it’s the problem of assistance, are we there to do it for them? What do we want? It’s a good question… but once again… I don’t presume to know the truth necessarily… but we have to think about it, see the advantages and disadvantages, look at attitudes, look at the means on the ground… Well, I think that the American vision, which consists of giving tons of money and thinking that money is going to fix everything… We have a more humanist approach, so we go and interact with people, saying “ok, here, we’re going to work together: you do this, we’ll pay for that”. But showing up and saying ‘we’ll pay for something for you, we’ll build you a school’ when there aren’t even any students, all of this just because you have money and you have to build a school…” [64]

39At the beginning of the 2000s something approaching a change of heart can be noted among French officers, who began to underline the anachronistic nature of comparisons between Algeria and Afghanistan. [65] This double game of reappropriation and differentiation can also be seen in the attitudes they adopted in the context of daily interactions with local populations. According to some observers, both civilian and military, from France or elsewhere, a “French touch” [66] phenomenon seemed to exist, a specifically national skill for interacting with local populations. It was apparently very visible in the context of patrol behaviour. [67] This attitude might partly explain the fact that the French contingent was one of the least affected by threats and attacks. Although NATO’s indicators concerning soldier mortality by country seemed to justify the French stance, this tendency was sharply reversed after 2011, as seen in Figure 1 below. [68]

Figure 1

Soldier mortality by country in Afghanistan[69]

Figure 1

Soldier mortality by country in Afghanistan[69]

40The gift of French officers for contact with local populations thus had some limits after all. [70]

The generals’ revenge

41The gamble of starting with a limited goal (the institutionalisation of civil-military activities in France) in order to observe broader social phenomena (the transformation of military organisations) is based on an inductive approach. [71] There is always a danger in this however, which is the hasty generalisation, with regard to all of the armed forces, of hypotheses specifically formulated concerning the processes linked to the institutionalisation of the CIMIC project. Is there not a tendency to over-determine CIMIC’s exemplarity with regard to the rest of the armed forces? Is the sample population representative? Was I dealing with a sort of reform “showcase”? In no way do I seek to present the civil-military endeavour as the cornerstone of defence transformations, as this is certainly not the case. My goal has rather been to demonstrate how the civil-military project has been a vector – among others, naturally, but nevertheless a particularly revealing, if elusive one – of the new forms of individual involvement and collective mobilisation that have emerged in the military world since the end of the Cold War.

42Viewing the transformation of military organisations through the prism of the erosion of the Algerian taboo doubtless warrants analysis from other research perspectives, even if the type of extraterritoriality that “strategic” subjects suffer within the social sciences is regrettable. Some of the proposals made in this article might be invalidated, particularly by ethnographic studies which demonstrate that within certain military units there has been a retreat into the “military ethos”, in contrast with the growing familiarity with civilian standards and techniques that is the collective resource of CIMIC officers. There would thus appear to be a simultaneous shift towards the opening up, and the refocusing, of military organisations. [72] It would therefore be fruitful to dig deeper into the somewhat metaphorical use of the notion of taboos; failing that, we should at least distance ourselves from certain “psychologising” expressions (“trauma”, “betrayal”) and exploit instead the contributions from the sociology of collective memory, which have inspired a significant amount of research in political sociology and international relations. [73] Moreover, it seems useful to turn to international comparisons in order to better understand how the process of “rediscovering” counter-insurgency techniques has unfolded for France’s allies. [74] Finally, incorporating new public policies would allow us to more directly examine the effects of the bureaucratisation and managerialisation of professional armies on relations between high-ranking officers and political leaders. [75]

43As far as this article is concerned, the reductionist gamble has paid off. The idea of the gradual erosion of the Algerian taboo offers a clear-cut alternative to the perspective adopted by the majority of studies, by explaining the transformation of military organisations via a process of homeostatic adaptation to the international environment. In material terms, this allows us to reinstate actors in a central role within the processes of institutional change. The main hypothesis here is thus the revenge of the generals. This expression was chosen less for its headline qualities than for its reference to the work of Samy Cohen on the evolution of politico-military relations under the Fifth Republic. [76] Cohen depicts the construction of the presidential monopoly in terms of defence by explaining that the balance between politico-military relations during the Cold War, skewed in favour of the presidency, was first and foremost due to two historical elements: inherited relations between the president of the Republic, Charles de Gaulle, and certain army officers in Algeria; and nuclear deterrence. The thesis of the revenge of the generals is situated within the aftermath of defeat. With the collapse of bipolarity, the balance in normal relations between political leaders and the military high command shifted in favour of the officers. I support the notion that the presidential monopoly has significantly deteriorated over the course of the last twenty years or so: nuclear deterrence may still be fundamental, but it plays a much less central role in the French strategic stance towards operations abroad, given the implementation of reforms. On the other hand, the effects of the Algerian taboo have considerably faded, in particular with regard to ground troops. Samy Cohen is careful to relativise the excessive optimism which consists in believing that, since military power has been subordinated to civil power, France has been “vaccinated” against the possibility of a military “coup”. He adds that the decisive causes of the likelihood of a military intervention within the political sphere are more closely linked to the political and democratic structure of a country than to its military structure – in reference to the ministerial instability of the Fourth Republic, which favoured the return of General de Gaulle. I share this view. The implementation of defence reforms corresponds more to the decisions of political authorities than military ones. At the time, the vast majority of officers, in particular in the army, spoke out against the reforms, especially against professionalisation, and wished to preserve the mixed army model. Despite some initial reticence, the unintentional consequences of these reforms allowed military figures to regain a certain influence in the development and implementation of decisions relative to foreign policy, both within decision-making centres and ongoing operations. This is no doubt what explains the massive approval of high-ranking officers for these reforms after the fact. In other words, the re-balancing of relations between political authorities and military leaders during these past twenty years is without a doubt less the result of ground purposefully gained by officers than of ground unconsciously surrendered by political leaders.

Methodological appendix

Archival research

44Although the nature of the documents consulted was extremely varied, they can be grouped into two major categories. The first concerns the activities of the working group on civilmilitary actions from its creation in November 1994 to its disbanding in 2005: warrants, summonses, internal memos, correspondence, meeting minutes, progress reports, final directives. Thanks to these hundred or so documents, I was able to access the negotiations regarding the division of labour between military organisations. The second category consisted of material from a hundred or so archives on the “lessons learnt” (Retours d’expériences – RETEX) in Bosnia, Kosovo and Afghanistan. The analysis of these RETEX documents, in the form of end-of-mission reports, audits and “doctrinal” publications, allowed me to observe how information circulated, and provides an unrivalled view of how the administrations of the doctrinal community “digest” the contingency of military operations and reinvent tradition.

Unstructured interviews

45Fifty-seven interviews were conducted with forty-three current or former CIMIC leaders, as well as diplomats, high-ranking civil servants, industrialists and humanitarians. The average length of an interview was two hours, and ranged from forty minutes to a little more than six hours. Out of the forty-three interviewees, thirty-six were, or had been, members of the military (including twenty active officers, five members of the reserves and eleven now working in alternative careers; and, by rank, ten commanding officers, nineteen senior officers and seven junior cadet officers). More than eight times out of ten, I interviewed these officers in Paris, generally in their offices (69 per cent of the time), in a restaurant or café (25 per cent) and or at home (6 per cent). As far as possible (in around one case out of three), I used the double interview format. The first interview was “exploratory” and unrecorded; it allowed me to introduce myself to the interviewee, and create a climate of trust by explaining the nature of my research. The second interview was an “in-depth” interview, which was recorded, and which sought to confront the interviewee with contradictory or supporting information gathered elsewhere.

Prosopography by cohort

46I was able to recreate the trajectories of members of the three groups of actors that had the greatest influence on the institutionalisation of CIMIC: the “industry players” (Special Forces officers); the “soldiers” (army officers); and the “diplomats” (the emergency staff sent by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs). The first two groups were in competition for the leadership of this specialisation within the armed forces, while the third offered the most constant form of non-military support. With regard to the “industry players” in charge of prospecting the markets for reconstruction, my sample contained thirteen members from the “Civil Affairs” Bureau of the Commandement des opérations spéciales (COS – Special Operations Command) between 1992 and 2004. It also included commanding officers from the economic espionage sector of the Direction générale de la sécurité extérieure (DGSE – General Directorate for External Security) in the 1980s, junior officers from the Legion specialised in intelligence, and a good number of reservists, executives from companies specialising in post-conflict reconstruction. The “soldiers” studied in this article consisted of a sample population of ten officers, nine of whom were generals and one colonel. Some had been in charge of the first civil-military units dropped right into the middle of the Bosnian conflict; others, at the level of chief-of-staff, had taken a close interest in the “dossier”, whether they had been in charge of its conceptualisation, its promotion and diffusion among non-military actors, or even if they “ended up” acting as arbitrators. Finally, with regard to the “diplomats”, my sample was composed of seven individuals who, between the 1980s and the 2000s, had gravitated towards the organisations within the Ministry of Foreign Affairs which were devoted to emergency situations (Secrétariat à l’action humanitaire [Secretariat of State for Humanitarian Action], Cellule d’urgence [Emergency Unit], Mission interministérielle pour l’Europe du Sud-Est [Interministerial Mission for South-Eastern Europe]).


  • [1]
    Cf. Grégory Daho, “Une revanche des généraux. L’institutionnalisation de la coopération civilo-militaire en France”, doctoral dissertation in political science, under the supervision of Michel Dobry, Paris, Université Paris I-Panthéon Sorbonne, 12 July 2013.
  • [2]
    The particularly broad and consensual official definition of CIMIC – borrowed from NATO language in 2005 – reflects the intensity and longevity of the competition between Special Forces and the army for its leadership. Each rival group can at least partially identify with the definition: “Civil-military co-operation (CIMIC) designates the function designed to encourage the force’s integration within its human environment in general, and with local populations in particular, in order to facilitate the achievement of its mission, the re-establishment of a normal security situation and crisis management undertaken by civil authorities (administration, humanitarian action, economic recovery…)” (Coopération civilo-militaire, Doctrine interarmées, DIA-3.10.3(A) CIMIC(2012), No174/DEF/CICDE/NP dated 17 July 2012, 19.) All translations from the French in this article are by the article translator, unless an English-language source is given in the footnotes.
  • [3]
    See the methodological description in the appendix.
  • [4]
    On the one hand, the end of international conflict resolution via the balance assured by the two superpowers acted as an objective constraint on the use of armed force: deterrence was no longer enough, since the possibility of a major war between states was obsolete. On the other hand, political and military authorities took note of this change in the international environment and responded by reshaping their projection capacities through the implementation of defence reforms between 1992 and 1996. This perspective tends to uphold the functionalist bias behind the thesis of the “inevitability of reform” which “likewise dominated the academic world via the two main analytical trends in relation to military policies: military sociology on the one hand, and strategic analysis on the other”. Bastien Irondelle, “Gouverner la défense: analyse du processus décisionnel de la réforme militaire”, doctoral dissertation in political science, under the supervision of Samy Cohen, Paris, Sciences Po, 16 December 2003, 16. See the publication of this dissertation under the following title: La réforme des armées en France. Sociologie de la décision (Paris: Presses de Sciences Po, 2011).
  • [5]
    The Army of Africa (Armée d’Afrique) was the name given to the expeditionary corps sent to Algiers in 1830, and thereafter to all the military units engaged in colonial peacekeeping: the Légion étrangère (Foreign Legion), formed in 1831, the Troupes de marine, which became the Troupes coloniales in 1900, and the various indigenous regiments (the Zouaves, the Tirailleurs). During the Cold War, the opposition between the colonial army, which spearheaded the imperial conquest, and the continental army, which held the blue line of the Vosges from the mid-nineteenth to the mid-twentieth century, was replaced by the confrontation between the heirs of the Army of Africa, members of the Légion or the Troupes de marine, the armed branch of post-colonial relations, and the Army of the East (Armée de l’Est), focused on the possibility of a Soviet invasion in Europe.
    “This sociological and symbolic polarisation was also geographical in nature. Whilst the largest force, and deploying armoured and mechanised divisions against the Soviets, the traditional ground army was unable to re-establish its leadership. In the middle of the 1970s, it had more than 200,000 troops in the northeast, 60,000 of which were in Germany, all along the border with France. Experts everywhere began to question the army’s usefulness, in the era of ‘push-button warfare’, to use the then-common expression. Challenged from the inside in the 1970s by soldiers’ committees, playing only an accessory role in nuclear deterrence and stuck in its traditions, the then-image of the army was that of a soldier sweeping out the barrack floors in Vitry-le-François, and offered young officers little in the way of opportunities, other than garrison living in Mailly-le-Camp and military exercises in the CAR […] The events of 1989-1990 changed all of that. Much to the delight of the military, which would finally see some action. From the ‘Desert of the Tartars’ to the Iraqi desert.” (Jean-Dominique Merchet, “Les transformations de l’armée française”, Hérodote, 116, 2005, 63-81 (66)).
  • [6]
    Michel Dobry refers to a national consensus on defence, to the extent that these three axes were not subject to political competition (or that this competition only occured on the political fringes). The author reminds us that the intentionality of actors with regard to the emergence of a consensus and its renewal is limited: a consensus is not a compromise; it is rather “a pragmatic rule from which it is costly, in the French political game, to deviate overtly”. In other words, actors do not create consensus, they are trapped by it. See Michel Dobry, “Le jeu du consensus”, Pouvoirs, 38, 1986, 48.
  • [7]
    Dino Buzzati, Le désert des Tartares [English title: The Tartar Steppe] (Paris: Presses Pocket, 2004 [1st Italian edn 1940]). The novel tells the story of a young officer sent to guard the Bastiani fortress in an isolated area. Caught between his fascination with the surrounding desert and his anticipation of a great event, the lieutenant is slowly consumed from the inside. The Desert of the Tartars has come to be widely used as a metaphor for the wait-and-see attitudes of, and the paralysis experienced by, some army officers during the Cold War.
  • [8]
    Interview with a general from the Légion, in Paris in a café, 29 June 2009.
  • [9]
    The Battle of Kolwezi was an airborne operation conducted mainly by legionnaires, which took place in Zaire in May 1978 to rescue a number of European and Zairian hostages held in the city of Kolwezi by the Front for the National Liberation of the Congo (FNLC).
  • [10]
    Interview with a general from the Légion, as above.
  • [11]
    Enseignement militaire supérieur scientifique et technique (EMSST – Higher Scientific and Technical Military Education). The entrance exam for the École de guerre is an important career step for high-ranking officers, as it determines who will see their careers “take off” and who will see theirs “slow down”.
  • [12]
    Rémy Martinot-Leroy, “Guerre à l’école et école de Guerre: la désobéissance doctrinale des officiers français de l’armée de terre face au ‘fait atomique’ à travers les écrits des officiers brevetés de l’école supérieure de guerre (1970-1977)”, Cahiers du CEHD, 26, 2006, 141-62.
  • [13]
    On the evolution of military doctrine with regard to civilian populations, see Rupert Smith’s concept of “war among the people”. Rupert Smith, The Utility of Force. The Art of War in the Modern World (New York: Vintage, 2008).
  • [14]
    Interview with a general from the Légion, cited above.
  • [15]
    Members of the military use this expression to describe the level of integration and solidarity within a combat group.
  • [16]
    Interview with a colonel, Troupe de marine, in Paris in his office, 3 April 2008.
  • [17]
    This enthusiasm should be tempered, or at the very least not over-determined. The heirs of the Army of Africa likewise contained their enthusiasm, since they particularly did not wish to become an expeditionary corps once more. Moreover, the global transformation of the country’s defence stance, now favouring military projection, meant that these officers lost a certain form of monopoly. In other words, in “taking the reins of the new professional army, thanks to its prior experience in volunteer regiments and interventions abroad”, the Army of Africa “instilled part of its spirit in the former metropolitan army”, at the risk of “dissolving its own identity”, even if the members of the “colonial” troops “largely dominate the military system” (J.-D. Merchet, “Les transformations de l’armée française”, 70).
  • [18]
    Samy Cohen, La défaite des généraux. Le pouvoir politique et l’armée sous la Ve République (Paris: Fayard, 1994).
  • [19]
    Interview with a general from the Légion, as above.
  • [20]
    When peacekeeping operations were implemented in Bosnia in 1992, and in Kosovo from 1999, officers were divided on the issue of whether or not to grant the army humanitarian capabilities. For an overview of these bitter debates, see for example the position taken by the army’s Chief of Staff, Admiral Jacques Lanxade (interview given to Xavier Merlin in the magazine X-Passion, edited by students at Polytechnique and reprinted in Le Monde, 22 May 1993): “A unit specialised in humanitarian aid should perhaps be created, Admiral Lanxade declares” and on the other side of the debate, the response given by General Claude Le Borgne, “What shall we put on your tombstone, soldier?” (Cultures & Conflits, 11, Fall 1993, 127-38).
  • [21]
    Two officers in the sample, highly visible as a result of the blogs they write, should be mentioned here. In collaboration with the group Gaz de France Suez for whom he is an adviser, General Emmanuel de Richoufftz pens an eponymous blog in which he is often called “the suburban general” [le général des banlieues]. It seeks to offer a number of young people professional training and registration for a driver’s licence (<>, accessed 7 August 2012). Colonel François Chauvancy, on the other hand, focuses his blog on the military’s role in society (<>, accessed 7 August 2012).
  • [22]
    Some studies tend to relativise this career change phenomenon, arguing that officers have always maintained networks that might be useful for such changes, and that many of the officers were recruited into CIMIC as a result of their openness towards civilian contexts. In addition, the increasing technicality of civil-military occupations offers such officers options other than the traditional position of director of human resources, by utilising their aptitude as “born leaders”. Moreover, even junior officers are changing careers in record numbers.
  • [23]
    Samuel Finer, The Man on Horseback. The Role of the Military in Politics (Boulder: Westview Press, 1962); Morris Janowitz, The Professional Soldier. A Social and Political Portrait (New York: The Free Press, 1960).
  • [24]
    Michel-Louis Martin, Warriors to Managers. The French Military Establishment from 1945 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1982); Cristel Coton, “Officier de salon, officier de terrain. La virtuosité militaire en question”, in Vincent Porteret (ed.), La défense. Acteurs, légitimités, missions: perspectives sociologiques (Paris: L’Harmattan, 2007), 17-29, and “Au service du mythe. Récit d’un capitaine de l’armée de terre”, Agone, 37, 2007, 131-50; Sébastien Jakubowski, La professionnalisation de l’armée française. Conséquences sur l’autorité (Paris: L’Harmattan, 2007).
  • [25]
    Fabrice Hamelin, “Le combattant et le technocrate. La formation des officiers à l’aune du modèle des élites civiles”, Revue française de science politique, 53(3), 2003, 435-63. Online
  • [26]
    Charles Moskos, “La banalisation de l’institution militaire. L’armée américaine: du modèle institutionnel au modèle industriel”, Futuribles, 111, June 1987, 27-37.
  • [27]
    Louis Gautier, Mitterrand et son armée, 1990-1995 (Paris: Grasset, 1999), 23.
  • [28]
    General Morillon, Commander of UNPROFOR from September 1992 to July 1993 accomplished a publicity coup in Srebrenica in March 1993 outside the action zone of French forces. Within the Muslim enclave under siege, he is said to have proclaimed: “I will never abandon you”. Enjoying a high level of publicity at the time, Morillon managed to have humanitarian convoys enter the city. The General cut off communications with national military authorities, who remained “without any news” and was escorted instead by two American soldiers. Although this episode not only rattled the UN’s outmoded diplomatic traditions and shocked French military hierarchy, it was particularly revealing not simply because it depicted an officer’s risk-taking, but especially because it demonstrated the effects of military investment in humanitarian logic.
  • [29]
    Christian Olsson, “L’action civilo-militaire dans les Balkans: économie politique internationale et enjeux de sécurité dans les opérations extérieures contemporaines”, DEA thesis, Paris, Sciences Po, 2002, 5.
  • [30]
    “On the one hand, the weakening of civilian oversight is linked to the uncertainties of the strategic environment at the end of the Cold War, and also to the increasing technicality of operations; on the other, the augmented role of the military can be explained by the fact that the latter has acquired a significant amount of experience in politico-military affairs while, during the same period, civilian elites have lost track of military issues” (F. Hamelin, “Le combattant et le technocrate…”, 435-6).
  • [31]
    “When I arrived at the Élysée Palace in May 1989, I decided to maintain my direct involvement in crisis management and politico-military decision-making, as it is undertaken in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. I thus chose to personally attend, as the president’s chief of staff, meetings at Matignon and the meetings of the Quai d’Orsay’s crisis unit. This was unprecedented. Thanks to this entirely new role, I can fully contribute to the analysis of crisis situations and help to prepare guidelines”. Jacques Lanxade, Quand le monde a basculé (Paris: Nil éditions, 2001), 299.
  • [32]
    “Grands chefs”: A frequent informal, oral expression that many of our subjects used, and which designates not only institutional positions, but also exceptional qualities.
  • [33]
    A group of officers under the pseudonym of SURCOUF expressed its misgivings when the white paper on defence and national security was published in 2008, with an opinion column titled “Livre blanc sur la défense: une espérance déçue”, in Le Figaro on 19 June 2008. In addition, General Vincent Desportes, the former director of the Centre de doctrine et d’emploi des forces (CDEF – Centre for Force Employment Policy), was sanctioned after having publicly expressed his doubts, qualifying the operations in Afghanistan as an “American war”: “General Desportes expressed a personal and uncalled-for opinion that was lacking in foundation. […] This is an irresponsible opinion, as it comes from someone who is currently active. It’s ‘misconduct’” (Admiral Édouard Guillaud, Commander-in-Chief of the Armed Forces, Europe 1, 2 July 2010). The sanction was confirmed by the Minister of Defence, Hervé Morin, who accused Desportes “of having lacked discernment” (RMC, 7 July 2010). In the immediate aftermath, General Vincent Desportes was reportedly placed under surveillance by order of the President (Le Canard enchaîné, 5 January 2010).
  • [34]
    Interview with a general in the Légion, as above.
  • [35]
    At the beginning of the 2000s, the country witnessed a resurgence in accounts of torture (General Paul Aussaresses, Services spéciaux, Algérie 1955-1957 (Paris: Perrin, 2001)) and the fate of the Harkis (Boussad Azni, Harkis. Crime d’État, généalogie d’un abandon (Paris: Ramsay, 2001)).
  • [36]
    A Muslim chaplaincy was created aboard the Charles-de-Gaulle aircraft carrier on 18 March 2005 by a decree signed by the Minister of Defence, Michèle Alliot-Marie. This move sought to contain the spontaneous practices of “self-proclaimed imams”. See Jean-Dominique Merchet, blog “Secret défense”, 14 April 2011, <>, accessed 1 October 2012.
  • [37]
    Camille Sicourmat, “Le plan Défense Deuxième Chance: quel bilan un an après sa mise en place?”, Les thématiques du C2SD, 8 July 2007.
  • [38]
  • [39]
    As is perfectly illustrated by the current fate of the counter-insurgency slogan par excellence, “winning hearts and minds” (Bertrand Valeyre, “Gagner les cœurs et les esprits. Origine historique du concept. Application actuelle en Afghanistan”, Cahiers de la recherche doctrinale, CDEF, July 2010).
  • [40]
    The number of improvised explosive devices in Afghanistan is said to have more than doubled between 2005 and 2006: 530 IEDs in 2005, compared to 1,297 in 2006, according to Ahmed Rashid, Le retour des talibans (Paris: Delavilla, 2009), 292.
  • [41]
    Military Support for Stability, Security, Transition, and Reconstruction Operations, 28 November 2005. The joint force concept was published in December 2006 and the directive was revised on 16 September 2009.
  • [42]
    Petraeus would become director of the CIA in September 2011 but was then accused of adultery and resigned in November 2012.
  • [43]
    FM 3-24 Counterinsurgency, Headquarters Department of the Army, December 2006.
  • [44]
    Ph.D. in political philosophy from Oxford University: John Nagl, Counterinsurgency Lessons from Malaya and Vietnam. Learning to Eat Soup with a Knife (New York: Praeger, 2002).
  • [45]
    David Kilcullen, The Accidental Guerrilla. Fighting Small Wars in the Midst of a Big One (New York: Oxford University Press, 2009), and Counter Insurgency (New York: Oxford University Press, 2010).
  • [46]
    This is the nickname given to American counter-insurgency (COIN) experts.
  • [47]
    Mao Zedong, Problèmes stratégiques de la guerre révolutionnaire en Chine (Beijing: Éditions en langues étrangères, 1960 [1st edn 1936]); Ernesto Che Guevara, Souvenirs de la guerre révolutionnaire cubaine (Paris: Mille et une nuits, 2007 [1st edn 1963]), La guerre de guérilla (Paris: Mille et une nuits, 2009 [1st edn 1960]); Vo Nguyen Giap, Guerre du Peuple. Armée du Peuple (Paris: François Maspero, 1968 [1st edn 1961]).
  • [48]
    Jean-Pierre Gambotti, “Contre-insurrection et stratégie oblique”, Alliance géostratégique, 2009.
  • [49]
    “The search for a new strategy in Afghanistan was accompanied by the (re)discovery of great military leaders who had distinguished themselves in the counter-insurgency war, and national pride can only be flattered by this” (Mokrane Ouarem, “Lyautey au chevet de l’Afghanistan”, Le Monde, 1 April 2010).
  • [50]
    Film directed by Gilles Pontecorvo, shot in 1966; Benjamin Stora, interview in L’Express, 5 January 2007.
  • [51]
    Two texts republished in 2006 by the RAND Corporation were retranslated and published in French: David Galula, Contre-insurrection. Théorie et pratique (Paris: Economica, 2006 [Pacification in Algeria, 1956-1958]), and Roger Trinquier, La guerre moderne (Paris: Economica, 2008 [A French View of Counterinsurgency]).
  • [52]
    Benoît Durieux, Relire De la guerre de Clausewitz (Paris: Economica, 2005); Michel Goya, De l’emploi des forces armées au 21e siècle (Paris: Economica, 2010). Although substituting the term “pacification” or “peacekeeping” for “stabilisation” allows for certain kinds of knowledge to be exhumed while maintaining a distance with regard to the spectre of occupation, some of these officers took on board the proximity of these terms in the titles of their works. (Paul Haéri, De la guerre à la paix. Pacification et stabilisation post-conflit (Paris: Economica, 2008)).
  • [53]
    Guillaume Lasconjarias, “Les ‘sections administratives spécialisées en Algérie’: un outil pour la stabilisation”, October 2005; Adèle Le Guen, “L’emploi des forces terrestres dans les missions de stabilisation en Algérie”, June 2006; Quentin Pichelin, “Vaincre une guérilla. Le cas français en Algérie”, 2007; Alexandre Kinnen: “ALAT et stabilisation, le cas de l’Algérie”, July 2007. These studies were not merely the result of their authors” initiative: they were commissioned by the commander-in-chief of the army, who petitioned the CDEF from 2004 for “an action plan on stabilisation” (General Saqui de Sannes, No. 000336, 22 March 2004).
  • [54]
    G. Lasconjarias, “Les ‘sections administratives spécialisées en Algérie’…”, 10.
  • [55]
    “Give me a doctor and I’ll trade you three companies. […] A building site is worth three battalions” (Robert Gaïa, Information Report No. 3167 on “les actions civiles des armées sur les théâtres extérieurs” [“the civilian actions of armies in overseas operations”], French National Assembly’s Committee on National Defence and Armed Forces, 20 June 2001, 31).
  • [56]
    “When we seize a hideout, if we think of the market we’re going to set up there tomorrow, we don’t take it in the same way” (Colonel Bernard Hué, “Les apports des actions de coopération civilo-militaire (CCM) en stabilisation”, Doctrine, 12, May 2007, 29).
  • [57]
    B. Hué, “Les apports des actions de coopération civilo-militaire (CCM) en stabilisation”, 29-30.
  • [58]
    Gallieni’s instructions from 22 May 1898, cited by Jacques Frémeaux, De quoi fut fait l’empire. Les guerres coloniales au 19e siècle (Paris: CNRS éditions, 2010), 18-19.
  • [59]
    Preface written by Army General Henri Bentégeat, in Hubert Lyautey, Le rôle social de l’officier, (Panazol: Lavauzelle, April 2004 [1st edn 1891]): “Among the figures that were at the origin of my military calling, Hubert Lyautey, Marshal of France, whose portrait sits atop my desk, occupies a very special place in my heart and symbolises the image of a military officer in all his glory.
  • [60]
    Coopération civilo-militaire, DIA-3.10.3(A) CIMIC(2012), No174/DEF/CICDE/NP from 17 July 2012, 17.
  • [61]
    “Constantly move outwards; combine political and military action to take control of the country; enter immediately into direct contact with the local population, in order to understand their tendencies and state of mind, and to fulfil their needs so that you can persuade them to support the new institutions” (Gallieni’s instructions from 22 May 1898, Journal officiel de Madagascar, citation from General Bruno Dary, introduction by Jean-Yves Alquier, “Nous avons pacifié Tazalt – Journal de marche d’un officier parachutiste”, Cahiers de la réflexion doctrinale, CDEF, 2009).
  • [62]
    Paul Haéri, “Provincial Reconstruction Team. Mazar-E Sharif”, Cahiers de la réflexion doctrinale, CDEF, May 2006; Sebastian Rietjens, “Civil-military cooperation in response to a complex emergency. Just another drill?”, Ph.D., Enschede, University of Twente, 2006.
  • [63]
    Laleh Khalili, “The new (and old) classics of counterinsurgency”, Middle East Report, 40 (255), Summer 2010. Embedded within combat units, the HTS teams have provoked strong reactions, in particular from the executive committee of the American Anthropological Association, which spoke out on 6 November 2007 against the use of anthropologists by the American army (“Final Report on The Army’s Human Terrain System Proof of Concept Program”, Commission on the Engagement of Anthropology with the US Security and Intelligence Communities, 14 October 2009).
  • [64]
    Interview with Colonel Bernard Hué, head of the CIMIC bureau of the CPCO, 2006-2010, CPCO, Paris, 26 May 2008.
  • [65]
    Colonel Benoît Durieux, commander of the French battalion in Surobi from July 2008 until January 2010, preferred to “liberate hearts and minds rather than conquer them” (Press Service of the Ministry of Defence, 11 March 2010), while General Marcel Druart, commander of the La Fayette task force from November 2009 to April 2010, criticised this expression, finding it indicative of “an oppressive merchandising exercise carried out on the Afghan population” (cited by B. Valeyre, “Gagner les cœurs et les esprits…”, 57).
  • [66]
    “Quatre ans de stabilisation ‘au royaume de l’insolence’. Retour d’expérience des opérations PAMIR et EPIDOTE”, Cahier de la réflexion doctrinale, CDEF, January 2006, 54.
  • [67]
    “The French don’t adopt aggressive attitudes, which sets them apart from some other allied contingents, who live in constant paranoia, expecting an attack or a suicide bomb at any moment. When patrolling on foot, French soldiers only wear helmets when there is a proven threat; when they patrol in armoured vehicles, there are always some soldiers who are unprotected. And patrols conducted in unarmoured vehicles (VLRAs) also act according to the same principle” (“Quatre ans de stabilisation ‘au royaume de l’insolence’…, 54).
  • [68]
  • [69]
  • [70]
    Participation in chouras, or local councils composed of village leaders, is a typical form of involvement for French CIMIC officers, in order to gain access to local authorities. During these meetings, the highest-ranking officer generally does not bear a weapon or wear a bulletproof vest. A few men ensure his immediate security, while other units posted around the village monitor the movements of potential insurgents. And yet, it was during a choura in the village of Joybar, two kilometres north of the Tagab Forward Operating Base, that five French military members and an Afghan interpreter were killed on 13 July 2011. Ultimately, because it is also on the basis of those who “died in battle” that a military service earns its reputation with regard to military values, the CIMIC is also part of this grim toll: on 9 June 2012, whilst monitoring checkpoints along a major roadway, four soldiers who belonged to the Groupement interarmées des actions civilo-militaires (GIACM – Armed Forces Civil Military Actions Group) were killed in a suicide attack.
  • [71]
    “Forced to recognise and assume the irreducible contingency of the phenomenon that it seeks to study, strategic analysis must adopt a hypothetico-inductive approach, through which it establishes and delineates its subject in successive stages through observation, comparison and the interpretation of multiple processes of interaction and exchange that constitute the backdrop of life within the system of action in question. In short, this is an approach that uses the lived experiences of its participants to offer and verify broader and broader hypotheses on the characteristics of the whole.” Michel Crozier, Erhard Friedberg, L’acteur et le système (Paris: Seuil, 1981 [1st edn 1977]), 454.
  • [72]
    André Thièblemont, “Approche critique de la notion de culture militaire”, in François Gresle, Sociologie du milieu militaire. Les conséquences de la professionnalisation sur les armées et l’identité militaire (Paris: L’Harmattan, 2005), 20-1.
  • [73]
    Maurice Halbwachs, Les cadres sociaux de la mémoire (Paris: Albin Michel, Paris, 1994 [1st edn 1925]); Marie-Claire Lavabre, “Usages du passé, usages de la mémoire”, Revue française de science politique, 44(3), 1994, 480-93.
  • [74]
    Elie Tenenbaum, “De l’IRA à l’IRAK. Transferts d’expérience contre-insurrectionnelle dans l’armée britannique”, Les Champs de Mars, 20, April 2009, 131-53.
  • [75]
    Philippe Bezes et al., “New Public Management et professions dans l’État: au-delà des oppositions, quelles recompositions?”, Sociologie du travail, 53(3), 2011, 293-348.
  • [76]
    S. Cohen, La défaite des généraux.Online

The thesis of adaptation, dominant in academic and strategic circles, explains the transformation of military organisations only in terms of the changes to the international environment since the end of the Cold War, thus reproducing a deterministic, functionalist and disembodied vision of change. By observing the genesis of civil-military activities in France between 1992 and 2005, this article suggests an alternative explanation, which pays particular attention to the evolution of social interactions between officers. It is primarily the erosion of the taboo inherited from the war in Algeria which contributes to the current transformation of military actors and organisations.

Grégory Daho
With a doctorate in political science from the Université de Paris I-Panthéon Sorbonne, Grégory Daho is a member of the Centre européen de sociologie et science politique (CESSP Paris – European Centre for Sociology and Political Science) and of the Institut de recherches stratégiques de l’École militaire (IRSEM – Strategic Research Institute of the French Military Academy). Among his publications are: “Les réseaux militaro-industriels français et la prospection des marchés de la reconstruction en ex-Yougoslavie: un laboratoire pour l’intelligence économique nationale?”, Les Champs de Mars, 22, November 2011, 133-51; “‘Nouvelles menaces’, ‘nouvelles guerres’: la construction des discours sur le désordre international”, Les Champs de Mars, 20, April 2009, 109-30. His work in political sociology focuses on international security, the transformation of military organisations, and professional groups within foreign policy and defence.
Translated from French by
Sarah-Louise Raillard
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