Chat maigre: French for “lean, solid dog”

National Commando Training Center in Coullioure. Photo courtesy of Romain Mielcarek (http://www.guerres-influences.com/romain-mielcarek/)

The Cult of Light Infantry?

Here at Lean, Solid Dogs, we maintain a special interest in light infantry because we love to romp around the outdoors carrying heavy things. And there’s a whole profession dedicated to that! They’re called light infantry and they work for the government, which does research for them and gives it away for free. It also sells off their old gear almost as cheaply.

Of course, they’re not a perfect model for us. For the sake of joint health, no one should ruck more than 30 lbs. (14kg) habitually unless they make their living by carrying a mortar. And some of us need to unlearn some of the “push, push, push!” mentality. Nevertheless, lean solid dogs can pick up a lot from light infantry.

But first, a word from our sponsor … me!

What is light infantry? Roughly, they’re soldiers who walk a lot. They’re not armored, not mechanized. Maybe they catch a ride when possible, but they’re capable of transporting themselves and their gear around on foot. (Above, French Moroccan troops decamp from Hanoi in 1954.)

In the 20th century, light infantry seemed like a specialty mostly for East Asians: the Imperial Japanese Army (IJA), China’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA), and the People’s Army of Vietnam (PAVN) worked stunning miracles, like Michael Jordan defying the laws of gravity and reinventing the game of basketball.

Even when I’m sitting at a desk, I’m writing a novel this year about the People’s Liberation Army, so I constantly have light infantry on the brain. When it overflows, I dump it out on this blog.

The Imperial Japanese Army’s staff would have loved more heavy equipment, but it was absolutely out of the question. They had the know-how in spades–a deep talent pool of engineers and military professionals–but they lacked requisites like manufacturing capacity, sealift, and oil and they knew it. The slender resources they did have, they wisely earmarked for the Navy and air arms, and that was that. PFC Yamada would get some puttees, a bolt-action rifle, and a really huge bayonet.

Those East Asian armies specialized in light infantry because they had to: It’s all they had. They couldn’t support highly mechanized armies with their limited industrial bases. The Japanese and the PLA rationalized their reliance on light infantry in ideology: superior courage, commitment, and the spirit of the bayonet would prevail over firepower and technology. They were helped by existing cultural ingredients–for example, the IJA taught conscripts to revere their bayonets as latter-day samurai swords–but they were making a virtue of necessity. Their armies would have liked to be heavier, but then, I’d like be taller. Too bad.

But the French Army is different. They chose their own “cult of light infantry” freely, despite having other options, because they love the light fighter as an idea.

The Feline Fighter

Wolves. Bears. Sharks. Tigers. Lions. Wildcats and hellcats. Falcons. “Screaming Eagles.” “Devil dogs.” How many badass animals have been adopted as names and similes for history’s warriors?

But domestic cats? How many armies psyche up the young heroes-in-training with thoughts of elegant Siamese cats? Languid Persians?

The Armée Francaise, that’s who! Go ahead, make your silly jokes! The Fighting Calicoes! The Battling Marmalades! Maybe a parachute regiment called “The Finicky Persians.” Or “Hell’s Turkish Angoras.” Oh yes, quel drôle!

Go ahead, make your silly jokes! Anyone who rocks this hat is clearly broadcasting, “I don’t care what you think.”

The French Army likes its soldiers agile, flexible, and nimble: in French, chats maigres, “skinny cats.” Not emaciated, of course, but rangy and optimized for endurance. And not lacking strength, to be sure–there are lots of ropes for you to climb, soldat de France, and pullups too! But excess muscle would weight you down, when we want you light and quick. In a word, feline!

That means no protein powder for you, légionnaire! It’s forbidden. In fact, not too much food for you either! In memoir accounts of new trainees in the Foreign Legion, being constantly hungry is almost as much of a trope as “march or die” in old movies. American servicemen who train with French units remark on how much running they do and their level of endurance. And among visiting French troops, a common refrain is to exclaim about the American troops’ huge breakfasts of eggs, potatoes, and sausage. 

The Foreign Legion has a reputation for devoting a lot of training time to ironing clothes and distance running. At the Legion’s annual half-marathon, winning times are about 80 minutes

Why this cult of the skinny cat? It’s what academics like me call “overdetermined,” which is short-hand for “lots of reasons, any one of which would have been enough.”

One is that France is drawn to the “cult of light forces” ideologically, writes Benoist Bihan, because it happens to fit well with France’s untidy heritage of mixed of aristocratic and republican ideals. On one hand, the French army drew most of its officers from old military families, some with traditions of service stretching from the ancien régime through the 20th century, that formed a sort of aristocratic caste. On the other hand, they served a republic, the birthplace of Enlightenment egalitarianism, officially hostile to class difference and aristocracy. You can’t fit just any ideal into the narrow middle ground on that Venn diagram. But you actually can fit the “quick, nimble light fighter!”

It fits OK with aristocratic heroism: The light infantry officer is a figure of daring, dash, and élan. His battle is won or lost by the wiles, daring, and fortitude of identifiable individuals, not a superpower’s vast, hemispheric system, where whole divisions are just components and the individual man counts for nothing except a nameless cog in a clanking machine.  In other words, in the light infantry officer’s war, there’s lots of room for conspicuous heroism. He may distinguish himself individually and re-inscribe his ancient family name with glory in the annals of French arms. Vive le roi! Vive l’empereur! Vive la France!

But also, the light infantryman’s heroism is open to any son of the Republic, irrespective of birth or even education. He need not be bred as a chevalier right from his gilded cradle, nor need he even spend his whole youth studying military science. Yes, a talented boy will be educated at the public expense at the military academy of Saint-Cyr if only he show a clever mind and firm spirit, but even that is not necessary. France’s greatest paratroop officer, the patron saint in the “cult of light forces,” Marcel Bigeard, rose from an ordinary soldat de deuxième classe with an 8th grade education! In the warfare of agility, daring, and maneuver it is enough for any French conscript to show resolution and aggressiveness. L’esprit de l’attaque! Vive la République!

In a word, goes the thinking, light infantry were satisfyingly French as few other options could be.

Add to this that the French Army has been doing this for two centuries. Napoleon knew a thing or two about maneuver warfare, and his famous light infantry chasseurs fought in Spain against the world’s first “guerillas.” So France failed against an agrarian irregular resistance before it was cool!

France’s 19th century African and Asian colonies have been called “a gigantic system of outdoor relief for army officers … designed to give them something to do.” Whatever the French Army thought they were accomplishing out there, they gained tons of experience at maneuvering light, nimble bodies of infantry and marines around vast spaces and tight spots. And along the way, they contributed a lot to the military art and science of light forces.

France was at the bleeding edge of things like rifle technology. The French Navy actually gets credit for this immediate predecessor to the first modern military bolt-action rifle (also French). They adopted this early bolt-action repeater that fed metal cartridges (also invented by…guess who!!).

Just as important, their officers were honing the subtle, soft skills of military diplomacy and local politics that turn out to be everything in what are now called “small wars.”

This points to an another important ingredient in the French cult of light infantry: unofficially, France had two parallel armies, a heavy one for the defense of Europe, and a light one for overseas, and the two grew apart culturally and eventually politically.

Even after the whole “collaborate with Nazis?” quarrel, the Army faced a dilemma with its overseas commitments. Like the British Army, they were tied down in Europe with NATO and struggled to protect their overseas colonies, but the French Army had it worse: they were constrained by a French law that forbade deploying French conscripts (i.e. most of the army) outside of France or Algeria. For colonial garrisons—in Southeast Asia, the Middle East, the Pacific, South America, and all over Africa—they were limited to using units from the Foreign Legion, regular units of French professionals, and the Troupes coloniales. (These sound like “indigenous forces,” but not really: the enlisted ranks were about half Arab, African, or Asian and half French volunteers). Diverse in origins and unit designators, what these overseas forces had in common was that they were light fighters. And collectively, these overseas forces came to feel unsupported and estranged, like the Breakfast Club of the French Army, and developed an “outsider” identity as square pegs, the misunderstood streetfighting punks to the rich preppies of Big Army and its heavy divisions back in Europe. From their perspective, these colonial paratroopers and legionnaires were doing France’s actual gutter fighting, unloved and half-disavowed by Paris and the respectable general staff officers who enjoyed clean kepis, starched tablecloths, and sherry with dinner. They fought dirty little wars in dirty places with dirty tactics, but that was how they got results—c’est la guerre.   

Just imagine Jack Nicholson with a képi and a cigarette doing the scene in French and you’ve got the idea.

The dynamic is dramatized in Jean Lartéguy’s novel The Centurions (1960), in which paratroop officers in Vietnam and Algeria come feel more kinship with their revolutionary enemies than their estranged countrymen in anti-military France and even from the army’s own respectable but clueless mainstream. Taking seriously the Maoist doctrine that war is a political struggle much more than a military one, they organize themselves in effect as a radical Maoist insurgency and influence French and Algerian politics in their own right. In real life, some of the paratroop officers then attempted a putsch in 1961, briefly seizing control of Algiers in hopes of thwarting Algerian independence. (Lartéguy wrote that up in a hasty sequel, the aptly named Praetorians.)

Bigeard was the (very obvious) model for characters in both the left-leaning film The Battle of Algiers (dir. Gillo Pontecorvo,1966) and Jean Lartéguy’s rightist novel The Centurions (1960).

The icon of these real and fictional paratroopers was the aforementioned Marcel Bigeard, the working class conscript who rose to general and later Minister of Defense. If the “skinny cat” is the spirit animal of the French light fighter, Bigeard was their their exemplar, prophet, and patron saint. He preached a holy trinity that became paratrooper gospel and a French Army mantra: “flexible, feline, and mobile” (souple, félin et manœuvrier). The skinny cat also had nine lives in each sweaty running shoe. His whole resume of tough guy stuff is way too long, so I’ll skip all of WWII and his first eight years in Vietnam (!) and just mention that he parachuted into Dien Bien Phu twice, suffered 90% losses in his battalion, survived the subsequent death march and prison camp (which killed another 50%), and just a couple years later was shot in the chest in Algeria. Three months after that, he was jogging(!!) and was shot in the chest twice more in a failed attempt at assassination. (He kept working too, chest wounds be damned.)

Chest wound? Pas de probléme–that’s no reason to take medical leave. There’ll be rest enough in the grave! Keep up the old morning run (in French, le footing) and don’t make excuses every time you’re shot by assassins.

There are even more reasons for the French cult of the “skinny cat”–see, I told you this was overdetermined–but that is a subject for another day. I grow tired, and I haven’t even been shot once today!

For now, let it be known henceforth that there are no “dog people” and “cat people.” The lean, solid dog shall lie down with the skinny cat, and the beasts from the wild / Shall be lit by a child / And all do bear walks and lizard crawls.

The Wisdom of Our Fathers (pt. 2): French Surplus Shorts

These guys aren’t wearing short shorts because the weather is hot. They’re the only way to guarantee complete freedom of movement for your thighs.

Here at Lean, Solid Dogs, we have previously lamented the problem of finding pants that do not bind active, thick, “plus-sized thighs.” When buying pants off the rack, unless you are shopping for BDUs, then often you must choose between too much room in the waist and not enough room in the thighs.

Part of our continuing series on “The Je Ne Sais Quoi of French Surplus.”

But it was not always thus. Another, better way was once known to our hardier, more vigorous, manlier forefathers: short shorts. Thirty to forty years ago, when men had over twice the grip strength and sperm count of men today, men had bigger thighs and had the good sense not to cover them with baggy, oversized shorts. It was understood that the proper length of shorts was roughly like so:

If you wear shorts that stop above the swell of your thighs, they can’t bind your thighs, even if they get wet, and no matter how big your thighs are.

Eighties-era F1 shorts. Note the GAO shirt and Palladium boots as well. Illustration by Kevin Lyles, in M. Windrow & W. Braby, French Foreign Legion Paratroops (1985), reproduced by kind permission of Osprey Publishing (London).

This truth was once known to every man in America and informed the design of basketball shorts, wrestling and weightlifting singlets, and military shorts like UDTs and ranger panties.

However, practical is not always presentable. The shorts that work great in a hot yoga class can get you the wrong sort of attention on the street (especially if you’re near sketchy public men’s rooms in municipal parks). You will need something just a little longer if you don’t want to be mistaken for a pride marcher or a catamite.

If you are a thickly thighed outdoorsman who gravitates to cheap surplus gear, you already have ample reason to be thankful to France. With its “almost Juche-like self-reliance” in design and “riens a foudre” (“zero f***s given”) attitude of indifference, France was unafraid to try ideas that looked weird. That’s how we got the GAO shirt, the most underrated hot weather garment in existence, and the stupendously light but tough “bush shoes.”

But wait, because only now do we come to the greatest of France’s gifts. Voilà! The “F1” tropical/desert shorts! These are truly the perfect “dual-purpose” shorts for athletic use and social wear. They are equally at home rucking around in the desert propping up a neo-colonial strongman regime and making droll conversation at the yacht club.

What is so great about F1 shorts? First, they keep you cool. With a 4″ inseam, they are the perfect length: just long enough to keep your thighs from rubbing each other raw when you run, but short enough to vent body heat without looking like a banana hammock.

You can get away with a lot on a European beach, but in the more puritanical US, you can only go so short without creating a spectacle. The F1 shorts snuggle up to that line without crossing it.

Second, they are tough. I have surplus pairs made over 30 years ago, and they still look ageless. And though hard to find in the US, if you’re persistent you can find them for $20. And being a plain OD serge herringbone, they do not look military. You can wear them in polite company and not look like a Three Percenter.

Notes From 48 Hours in the Field (part 1)

Without meaning to, this weekend I got to spend 48 hours in the field. A buddy and I planned a weighted ruck and gear test in the mountains, and we came home gloriously delirious and trashed, and just as I planned to slip into a hot bath, I got an opportunity to join a major search operation elsewhere in the mountains. So instead of a lavender-scented bath, I got a hasty resupply and a 3:00am departure. It was awesome!

Did it really count as being “in the field” for 48 hours, given that I made it home between the hike and the search? Not precisely, but my inner lawyer argues thus: “Yes, your honor, I did get one hot meal. But it was week-old ravioli re-heated in a microwave and eating standing up at 2am. And granted, I did sleep in a bed with sheets. But it was only for 2.5 hours and I was wearing dirty BDUs. And if the court will allow me to approach the ladies and gentlemen of the jury, they will find in my favor just based on how I smell.”

It was paradise, or some near-synonym that means “something gloriously horrible that you would like to do again soon.” And I learned tons, which I will dump out into print here:

1) Options for dressing for high heat

How should you dress for prolonged exercise in high heat? One school of thought says you should wear shorts and a tank top, like a marathoner, and be cooled by sweat and breezes. The other school says to protect yourself from radiant heat by covering up, like a farmer. Both philosophies make intelligent points and science has tried to adjudicate between the two philosophies. But the results are inconclusive.

So my hiking buddy and I ran an unscientific test of our own. We were the perfect pair of subjects: I like to hike in short shorts (though normally I wear long sleeves on top) and he is farmer and works every day covered up in hot sun. So I wore French surplus, which is the ideal type of the “sweat and breeze” approach, and he wore inexpensive technical pants and shirt, ably representing the “block the rays” approach.

On this particular hike, I was the lucky one. We walked in shade for much of the way, sparing me from a lot of radiant heat. And we were carrying moderately heavy weight (45 lbs./20kg for each) with significant climb, generating lots of body heat. We both agreed that I got the better bargain that day. Even with all of our huffing puffing, my body heat dissipated right away, his did not. And despite my exposed skin, I had the luxury of intermittent, partial shade; I did not have to provide all my own shade with my clothing.

Though I lucked out that day, I could also have lost under some circumstances. It is hard to be certain of the conditions you will find in an unfamiliar environment, and as Goggins says of environmental stress, “…more than any other variable [it] can break a motherfucker down fast.” From what I’ve experienced, people can compensate for heat and cold for a long time, but once we cross some threshold, we collapse suddenly and badly. Once that happens, we are so compromised that it’s extremely difficult to save the situation by our own actions.

So on training hikes like this, I might as well carry more gear. After all, once I’ve decided to haul 45# for the hell of it, there’s no reason I shouldn’t trade some of the steel plates or bricks for clothes, shelter-building supplies, batteries, tools, and three days of food instead. So my next experiment in romping will be to devise an easy on/easy off weight so that I can do my weighted rucks with my regular, homely, lovable, eminently useful SAR pack.

2) Map is not territory: On the search, I got lucky and was placed with one of our team’s “tribal elders,” so to speak, who has half a lifetime of lessons to teach about searching. She pointed out how wrong the topographic lines on our maps were. The maps were composed from aerial photographs of the tree tops, she explained, and the cartographers’ (highly) educated guesses about the ground below. But they might have had no way to know about some deep, narrow fold in the earth that we were struggling across where the map showed no obstacle.

3) The compass is king: All of our search teachers emphasized map and compass skills, and early on they told us that the compass isn’t just an analog backup in case your GPS breaks. But only now have I come to understand why. First, my GPS is great at telling my location and my track, but it sucks at telling my direction. Even more importantly, if I’m staring at my GPS unit, I’m not searching, I’m just walking. With a compass, I can set a heading, find a landmark to walk toward, and then keep my eyes up and moving. (Uncle Ron, one of our nav gurus, even teaches a clever, quick trick for laying your compass on top of your GPS screen and getting map bearings to a distant objective. Then you can put your GPS away, glance down at your compass only occasionally, and still arrive at your destination.)

The Unglamorous Favorite: La Musette F1/F2

Part II in our series on “The Je Ne Sais Quoi of French Surplus”

Can you call something your “favorite” if you find it uninteresting and humdrum but you still choose it over most other things? If so, meet my favorite daypack, the French “musette F1/F2.”

This particular F1 has endured 40 years of people doing stupid things to it, like loading it with 50 lbs. (23kg) of bricks, and it’s still as strong as the day it was made.

I guess I love this thing. It’s basic and boring, but based on my actual behavior, it must be my favorite, because I use it literally every day and take it into the field several times a month.

My SAR pack, a tricked out F2

In about the Seventies, the French army replaced their simple canvas modèle 50, which they’d carried through their Indochina and Algeria campaigns, with the musette F1, made of a clever rubberized fabric to keep water out. In the late Eighties they issued a slightly enlarged version, the F2.

You can find both on the surplus market for a little as $20. Also available but far less common are Austrian rucks that seem clearly like improved homages to the F2.

For a 1970s design, these bomb-proof French packs ride pretty comfortably, sitting nice and high on the back. I can pack almost 40# (18kg) of bricks into an unmodified F1 before it grinds against my low back.

Though the straps can scarcely be adjusted, they have the golden ingredient for comfort: they are broad. Not padded, but broad. (I owe this discovery to Sgt. Šileika, the Lithuanian trail Yoda.)

Broad straps are comfortable. Not padded, but broad.

All I can criticize the straps for is that you cannot adjust them for length. However, we fix that in just a few minutes. We just need to replace the original “quick” attach hook.

This “quick” attach hook is anything but quick. It also leaves no way to adjust the strap length.

See, the pack was designed with the idea that first you’d put your right arm through the strap and then, instead of awkwardly slipping your left through another tight strap, you would just have that left strap flopping free and then re-attach it to the pack with a hook near your left hip. (This may even have been necessary to make it fit with the FAMAS rifle’s unusual sling.)

But that hook is impossibly clumsy and slow (at least for me), and you can’t shorten or lengthen the strap to cinch it up to your body.

Happily, you can change all that for $1. Cut that hook off and replace it with a “G hook” and a short length of 1″ (25mm) webbing. And, regardez! You have an adjustable strap. (Believe me, if I can do this, you can do this.)

Replace it with a little webbing and a G hook. They’re $1 apiece. (You could also use a new spring hook or a spring bolt, but this cheap, faster to use, and adjustable.)

While you’re at it, replace the buckles, which as one commenter writes at La Tranchée Militaire, “… are almost impossible to use because they give you so little room to pass the straps through,” and you have to thread/unthread two long straps through two slots each.

The original buckles are slow and clumsy, but you can replace them.

Instead, buy a pair of 25mm “split-bar” buckles. You can slip them right on and you don’t even have to remove the original buckles.

Finally, take my advice and get six “web dominators,” which are basically little bungee spools for loose straps flapping all over. You’ll want them because this thing has about 2m of extra straps, and unless you’re currently using them all to strap stuff all over the outside of your pack, you’ll want them out of the way.