The Free State
"Man, in a word, has no nature. What he has is - history."

Saturday, May 31, 2008

Book Review: DG's The Edge of the Sword

The Edge of Sword is now a classic French essay on military leadership. Charles de Gaulle’s thoughts on the nature of leadership are condensed into this little book (80 pages). De Gaulle meditates on such topics as military-civilian relations, ‘great men’ in history, past wars, prestige and, perhaps most important, the qualities of a great leader. He writes succinctly, poetically, full of wise and witty quips.

Written in the 1930s, one finds many telling comments on the era. De Gaulle shows what seems like a dangerous militarism in his glorification of (well) glory as he condemns “a thousand [post-WW1] paintings applying themselves to depict the ravages while hiding what is effective and glorious.” He criticizes the Cartesian tendency for abstraction in French military thought, instead praising then-Colonel Pétain for the victories he achieved in WW1 thanks to flexibility for the circumstances on the battlefield (IE, not systematically attacking the enemy as the doctrine of élan prescribed). He even complains, we are still in 1932, that “from Sydney to San Francisco” education, shops, accommodation and clothes are becoming more and more similar…

De Gaulle’s description of the leader is paradoxical. He both says “thought” is opposed by changing circumstances and uncertainty on the ground, so the leader must have solid instincts and good intuition, but “the man of war must be capable to consider intensely and at length the same objects without tiring.” All great men of action, he says, “possessed the ability to turn in on themselves.” At the same time, thoughtfulness must not turn into waffling or indecision, for De Gaulle says, citing no less than Alexander the Great, Galileo, and Columbus, that there are no great accomplishments with “base prudence and cowardly modesty”.

A wonderful paradox emerges from De Gaulle’s description of war and power, for he knows the horror of them, yet he has committed his life to them. On weapons he writes “shameful and magnificent, their history is that of mankind.” No doubt thinking of his own struggles with depression, he notes that the leader is a lonely man, and there is a choice between “happiness and power.” Ultimately, however, his choice is clear: “it is not a question of virtue, and angelic perfection does not lead to empire.”

Finally, I want to quote him at length, because the book ends with a bang. He says that “nothing great is done without great men, and they are what they are for having wanted it. Disraeli got used, from adolescence, to thinking like a prime minister. In the lectures of [French Field Marshal] Foch, then still obscure, one could see the generalissimo.” De Gaulle almost seems to be predicting a glorious destiny for himself: as a child in school he himself had written of a story featuring himself as “General de Gaulle” chasing the Germans out of France…

De Gaulle wrote this book at the age of 42. He was not yet “le General” and the (twice) savior of France, but only a mid-ranking officer in the French army, one who had so far had a very slow, unspectacular rise in the ranks. Yet he dreams. He tells us what ambition is. A definition contrasting with the advice a letting agent gave me, during one of Birmingham’s darker hours, that if I were ‘ambitious’ I might open a fast food restaurant… (How ugly.) Hear De Gaulle speak:

“But, may the ambitious of the first rank be haunted by such a zeal, - artists of effort and leaven of the dough, - who see in life no other reason than to make their mark on events and whom, from the riverbank which ordinary days fix them at, dream only of the heave of History! These ones, despite the turmoil and illusions of the century, should make no mistake: there is not in the military an illustrious career which has not served a great cause in politics, nor any Statesman’s great glory which was not lit by the brilliance of the nation’s defense.” The dullness and disappointment of everyday life, the hopes and ambitions for greatness and glory are all in the same breath. In short, De Gaulle is entre le néant et l’infini…


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