Hats Of Defeat

A further installment in our series on French gear.

Some people deal better than others with losing.   

France doesn’t like to lose, but for a great power, it’s endured a tough couple of centuries. It lost its bid for global hegemony to Britain, and it lost Paris three times to Germans (twice before Germany was even a country). Then it lost Indochina and Algeria, and it was humiliated by the Suez Crisis. And yet, like a buccaneering tycoon, though France lost two empires, it bounced back both times.

In popular career books, they say you should embrace your failures. Learn from them, see them as stepping stones in your growth, and rather than feeling shame, look on them with fond compassion, like a photo of yourself as a cute, gap-toothed kid smiling to show where your front baby teeth fell out. And remember not just went wrong in those failures but also the things you did well, the good qualities you showed, the new skills that you used (however imperfectly) for the very first time.

In this, the French Army leads the way! Other militaries only like to talk about their signal victories—Midway, Kursk, Stalingrad, El Alamein—but the French Army famously makes cult out of the defeats where French troops stood out nevertheless by their fortitude: Waterloo, Camérone, Bazeilles, Dien Bien Phu.

The French Troupes de Marine commemorate their Alamo moment at the Battle of Sedan (1870), when a small unit of holdouts covered their parent unit’s retreat by sacrificing itself in Bazeilles at the “house of the last cartridges.” (Alphonse de Neuville, Les Dernières Cartouches, 1873.)

The French celebrate these noble defeats and commemorate them like other armies celebrate victories. Where the US Marines celebrate the Corps’ birthday with a ball each year, the French Foreign Legion celebrates Camerone Day, when a platoon sent to Mexico for stupid reasons was surrounded and made a suicidal banzai charge. (Some were spared by the Mexicans, though, in admiration for their bravery.)

This brings us to another instance of French exceptionalism: their attitude toward the hats that they wore in defeat. And for that, I must detour for a moment into (appropriately Gallic) literary theory.

The first casualty of war is the losing hat

Hats are symbols; they’re extra visible, and we wear them as as clothing first and only second as protection against sun, rain, and cold. 

Even in work uniforms, hats are mostly symbols. Why do McDonalds crew members wear a hat? As a branding symbol. Yes, it serves a hygienic need too, but so would a hair net. Why do police officers wear those brimmed, quasi-military hats? Why not golf visors or tiaras? Official symbolism. 

I won’t go “full semiotic” here, because literary theory is like men’s cologne—a little bit is usually too much. But one last point about symbols: they never stop taking on more meaning, like your leftover honey-glazed tofu keeps absorbing fridge odors. Today’s sharp-looking hat might smell like freezer-burned carrots tomorrow, and even your BPA-free Pyrex can’t protect it.

For practical purposes, this gives us the Lean Solid Dogs Law of Surplus Hats: if someone loses a war badly, it’s his hat that will suffer. The losing side will hate their uniform hat and drop it into a black hole ASAP because it conjures unhappy memories directly into their brain stems.

The Soviets went to Afghanistan with a pretty decent boonie hat.

Sure, it was heavy and featured “typical Soviet construction – meaning basic and barebones,” but it kept the sun off your head. And yes, the “afghanka” looks quaint, with its funny cone-headed top, but it scored alright in the (admittedly uncompetitive) category of “Soviet fashions.” It was definitely more dignified than this:

Soviet hat fashion prized qualities other than visual appeal. Or comfort. Or quality. Or simplicity of design.

But when the Soviets lost in Afghanistan, their populace was so demoralized and poisoned that their government paid with its life. But first, their hat paid for the sins of the government. The afghanka was pulled from service even before the last tank returned home, tainted by the USSR’s terminal ordeal.

A Soviet unit just returned from its tour in 1986. By this point the war had gone full quagmire, and linguistic historians believe this photo captured the last time that anyone with a St. Petersburg accent said the sentence, “I’m overjoyed to be back in Tajikistan!”

Of course, some “hats of defeat” were hated even before their surrounding politics went pear-shaped. The green baseball-style “field cap, hot weather” was hated by US Army troops even before they could mispronounce “Vietnam.” It made them sweat under its polyester material, having been categorized by the Pentagon as a “hot weather” cap only because it lacked ear flaps. But above all, it made them feel dorky.

IMHO, this hat would still have screamed, “Abandon all hope, draftees! We are SOOO out of our depth,” even if Gen. Westmoreland had been the love child of Joan of Arc with Sun Tzu.

Soldiers care how they look. They are young men, after all, and they’re carrying out a rite of passage, thousands of years old and extremely difficult, and important to the social “homework” of a new adult man: finding your place in male hierarchy and showing that you can be entrusted with responsibilities to other men and maybe to a woman too.

Developmentally, this is all HUGE, the stuff of myths and archetypes–matters like this are why cultures have symbols. So it’s small wonder that soldiers care how they look in their uniforms. In the darkest days of World War II, Stalin’s Red Army suffered terrible defeatism. So at Stalin’s personal order, they eliminated their infamously dowdy, shapeless, socialist uniforms that made every man equal in proletarian ugliness. From their grand imperial past, they resurrected smart uniforms, shoulder boards, medals, and ranks–all previously abolished by the Revolution. Soldiers’ spirits soared. They felt like men, heroes. From memoirs and letters home, we have abundant documentation of Red Army soldiers saying (and I’m paraphrasing): I feel like a million bucks! We even walk differently. We feel like real fighters now! We’re still as good as dead, but darnit, we feel like heroes now.

Now completely doomed WITH SHOULDER BOARDS!
(Photo courtesy of Za Rodinu)

So it was a big deal that the iconic Vietnam hat was hated by the guys wearing it, even before Vietnam was Vietnam. Ironically, the hat was actually chosen by the Pentagon because the old guys there because it seemed squared away and soldierly to the aging staff officers. (Apparently the Sixties had this thing called a “generation gap.”) Troops tried to make the hat less dumb by crushing the crown down on top of the head, even putting cardboard inside the front to keep it neat. But sometimes they were actually forced by their commanders to stop, even though Gen. Westmoreland himself wore it that way. Eventually the hat was so tainted by US failure in Vietnam that it was abandoned and replaced with the same hat that the Army wore in Korea(!).

But there should be no misunderstanding: the unpopular Vietnam hat was objectively ugly even when it was still a gleam in the eye of a hung-over RISD grad on their first day as a government fashion designer.

Embrace Your Failures, Double Down On Your Hats

In keeping with France’s age as a civilization, she regards highly the due place of tradition. So coupled with her healthy, mature attitude toward failures and setbacks, France lives out this appreciation of tradition in her headgear. Where other armies lose one little hopeless counter-insurgency and bury their hat in shame in the same closet as their teenage poetry journal, France rises from the canvas, forthrightly summarizes her lessons in a new marching song, and then throws her same old well-loved chapeau in the ring once more.

Next time, the hat that only a patriot could love: the Bigeard cap.

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 GAO Shirt

A repost as part of our current series, “The Je Ne Sais Quoi of French Surplus.” See our previous installments on French design idiosyncrasies, French day packs, and bush shoes. Amusez-vous bien!

The débardeur GAO or chemise GAO. Quintessentially French, this man’s expression says it all: “With shirts like these, we are the masters of every hot climate we deign to visit. En fait, we would be the envy of the world if only we had ditched these hats, which apparently were designed as a team-building exercise between a Soviet puppet government and Japanese war criminals.”

The French really understand parched, roasting climates. From 200 years of walking around North Africa, they figured out what to wear for brain-boiling heat.

Call me an insufferable American chauvinist, but I rejoice that my ancestors left Strasbourg for a new land where they would be free to have short shorts with proper back pockets.

If you’re a regular reader of Lean, Solid Dogs, you already know that I love short shorts. And my favorites are surplus French Army shorts. Cheap, durable, and comfortable, they would be 100% perfect if not for the tragic European aversion to back pockets.

But my French cousins absolutely aced one other piece of hot weather gear: the GAO shirt. Think of it as an optimized tank top. Its most distinctive feature is that it doesn’t have sides, just straps that hold the front and back together while ventilating your body. For even more ventilation, there’s a deep V-neck that leaves about half your chest exposed to the air. Only the shoulders get extra coverage to protect them from the sun and the chafing of pack straps or other loads. And the designers even compensated for the lack of back pockets on their shorts but putting a sort of dump pouch across the small of the back, like some cycling jerseys have.

The GAO shirt’s origins are somewhat mysterious and people are unsure where the name comes from. It might be named after the Gao region of Niger, or it could be an acronym for “Operational Support Group” (Groupe d’Appui Opérationnel). What we do know is that it appeared in 1983 in Chad, when the French Army helped repel a Libyan invasion.

Beau travail (1999)

To my surprise, I’ve never seen a GAO shirt on anyone else in the United States. Peerless for hot, dry weather, they deserve to be better known. I first saw them years ago in Claire Denis’ film Beau travail and instantly saw how comfortable they would be.

French surplus GAO shirts are cheap but very difficult to buy from within the US for some reason, even in the age of Ebay and FedEx. However, they are easy to make. If you get hold a French specimen to copy, a sewing machine, and some 33% polyester ripstop fabric, you’re in business. If readers are dying for a pattern, drop us a line and I’ll do my best to provide you with one.