“Bastille” Is Not French for Bullshit


TUCSON – The old saw, monkey-see-monkey-do, is hard to avoid as Donald Trump plans to ape France’s Bastille Day parade. He misconstrues that Gallic clash of cymbals, showing a worried world what sort of chest-thumping primate now occupies the White House.

July 14, 1789, was when peasants with pitchforks -- the 99 percent -- stuck it to a greedy ruling class. The modern parade celebrates 1945 when allies helped France drive off a despot who thought not cheering at his speeches was treason.

“We have to try and do better,” Trump told aides, seeking a personal not-cheap thrill and totally missing the point. America hardly needs to flaunt armed forces that cost $642.9 billion in 2017, equal to the next 13 countries’ budgets, and will increase by $54 billion.

Spines tingle each year in Paris at the opening flourish: Three jets swoop low and close over the Champs-Elysées trailing blue, white and red smoke. Tanks chew up pavement, and missiles roll by. But hardware is not the point.

Crowds love gendarmes in red-plumed gleaming silver helmets on spirited horses in syncopated step: a Republican Guard that protects democrats. They cheer as Foreign Legion Pioneers, in beards and buffalo leather aprons, stride past armed only with polished axes.

Trump is no Hitler, but his laughably transparent Big Lie convinces a substantial hardcore. Few who profit from his exclusionary policies are fooled, just silent. He is not about Fatherland über alles, only his gargantuan ego. Think Mussolini. And imagine if Il Duce had had that big red button on his desk.

With three million dead over the last century, the French don’t use the word war unless they mean it. Having seen what can happen when deluded demagogues crave power, they take their freedoms, and elections, seriously.

France learned its Vietnam lesson in 1954: old cultures reject colonizers and saviors with shopping lists. During the Soviet Evil Empire days, it was allied with NATO but refused to have its political decisions made in Washington.

After Mikhail Gorbachev gave the crumbling Iron Curtain a final push, France resisted Europe’s trend to leave defense to America. It spent what it had to, without costly overkill or needless bases that got legislators elected.

Today, France has enough nukes to ruin anyone’s day. Lumbering Transalls that fly past on Bastille Day are no match for the U.S. C-5M Super Galaxy (or Russia’s larger Russian Antonov Condor), but they get the job done.

No one will win a world war involving China or Russia. The immediate risk is North Korea, but the only military deaths so far have been aboard U.S. Navy ships colliding with each other, signaling incompetence to Kim Jong-un.

And the stunning North-South Korea opening to the Winter Olympics suggest that Kim might emerge as the bigger man

Wars, these days, are “unconventional,” with few front lines. Bombing usually makes them worse. They need well-trained highly mobile commandos backed at home by statesmen and seasoned diplomats to defuse casus belli.

I’ve covered France in action since my West African days in the 1960s. In 2003, I found a squad of French troops in Cote d’Ivoire in soft berets and no flak vests, calmly smoking in full view of rebel snipers in the hills above.

“What are you, nuts?” I asked one. He laughed. “They know what we’ve got for them if they piss us off.” True enough. For decades, a few well-placed bases cut short coups and protected civilians across much of Africa.

When Islamist zealots fled Libya south into Mali in 2013, several hundred elite troops ran them out of Timbuktu, chased them into Niger, and scattered them into the desert. Der Spiegel Online wrote:

“In a single stroke, it transformed the international community's image of French President François Hollande from that of a president perceived by many to be a ditherer to one who has become a decisive military leader.”

Hollande dithered but not about defense. When Bashar al-Assad crossed Barack Obama’s red line, using chemical weapons on civilians, he had jets revving up on the runway. But the United States and Britain wimped out, and NATO stood down.

Since the 1980s, Americans have become obsessed with the doctrine of overwhelming force. And troops are trained, above all, to protect their own. All else, such as the people they are meant to protect, is secondary.

In theory, that’s fine. Of course, armies should avoid casualties. In practice, it gets tricky. One example among many makes the point.

After reporting in Kosovo in 1999, I asked a French officer for a ride to Marseille from the NATO base in Tirana, Albania. “No problem,” he said, adding with a laugh, “if you can get past the Americans guarding the gate.”

Sure enough, I showed a puffed-up U.S. corporal my Pentagon press credentials and pointed to the French plane barely 100 meters away. “Not possible, sir,” he said. The American flag on that tiny strip meant it was his turf. I tried some friendly GI banter. He gave me that 1,000-mile stare of a man who holds the Free World’s fate in his hands. I cajoled. He stared.

After half an hour, the Transall’s props began to turn. I made a run for it, hoping not to get shot in the back by a bullet bought with my taxes.

I thought of this dichotomy watching the Super Bowl. After the teary extravaganza of national hymns, gladiators in heavy gear tried to send each other off the field in stretchers. It is the reverse of football elsewhere, soccer, which avoids contact, played in shorts and jersey with no need for armor.

It was a great game, with a thrilling finish. But it was a game, with few lasting consequences beyond hangovers in Philadelphia. If more Americans spent a tenth of the time learning global realities as we do sports minutia, we could elect leaders worthy of us. In our democracy, whoever wins is everyone’s president, even if he, or she, doesn’t act like it.

Rather than the parade, Trump might have reflected on the Paris accords, essential to the survival of a planet, which he imperils by encouraging more fossil-fuel pollution. He could have noticed desperate refugee hordes, who if ignored risk turning to the terrorism he sees as his greatest challenge.

Consider: A president sworn to protect America attempts to squelch inquiry into Russian election meddling. With hypocritical reference to national security, he stonewalls the Democrats’ response to a Republican whitewash.

The real Donald Trump should be a surprise to no one. Take, for example, his demand in 2012 to see Obama’s passport records and college transcripts. Bill Maher then offered $5 million to charity if anyone could show proof that Trump was not “the spawn of his mother having sex with an orangutan.”

Trump sued Maher for breach of contract. He wanted the $5 million because his lawyers provided a birth certificate saying his father was, in fact, a bona fide human. He eventually dropped the suit.

It is safe to assume that Trump is not an orangutan. But with his thin skin, his failure to grasp basic democratic principles or his responsibility to a wider world he puts in peril, neither is he a president.