The Consummate Warrior
Marcel Bigeard, 1916–2010.
Jul 5, 2010, Vol. 15, No. 40 • By MAX BOOT
Necessary or not, French brutality backfired by turning most people in Algeria, the world, and finally in France itself against the war effort. Under growing international pressure, President Charles de Gaulle granted Algeria independence in 1962. By then Bigeard was long gone. He had no part in the last-ditch effort to maintain Algérie Française that was mounted by French army veterans who formed the terrorist group known as the OAS (Secret Army Organization).
Bigeard moved on to commands in Africa where he almost died once again thanks to his favorite method of arriving to inspect a unit—he would parachute and land with his arm in a salute. “This nearly ended in disaster,” wrote historian Alistair Horne of an incident which occurred in 1972, “when Bigeard, by now nearing sixty and a senior general, was dropped into a shark-infested sea by mistake during a visit to troops in Madagascar. He broke an arm but was saved by his faithful staff who had parachuted into the sea with him.”
After retirement in 1974 he was deputy defense minister and elected to the French national assembly, but this dashing cavalier was unsuited for the grubby compromises of politics. His final years were marred by the controversy over the use of torture in Algeria—an issue that rose to prominence again in 2000-01 when Aussaresses published an unrepentant memoir. But, whatever moral qualms one might express about his conduct, Bigeard’s legacy as an indomitable fighter remains intact. He was one of the great soldiers of the 20th century. Think of Bruno Bigeard the next time you hear a joke whose subtext is that French soldiers are cowards or incompetents.
Max Boot is a contributing editor to The Weekly Standard and a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations. He is writing a history of guerrilla warfare and terrorism, on which this article is based, for W.W. Norton.