MILITARY SERVITUDE AND GRANDEUR By Alfred de Vigny (1835)

ALFRED DE VIGNY appears an unlikely author to "rediscover." After all, the poems of this officer, writer, and from 1845, member of the Acade'mie franc aise, are included in those compendia of literature which as students we were made to digest in French 302. But, to my generation, de Vigny seemed little more than a period writer, an interesting and even admirable aristocrat attempting to come to terms with the changed circumstances of post-Revolutionary France. He appeared too traditional for the 1960s, a man in middle age, cautious and reflective. Even the critics considered him shortwinded and his emphasis upon morality a trifle heavy-handed, a view with which those of us who preferred the free-spirited poetry of Rimbaud and Verlaine certainly agreed.

De Vigny was resurrected in my mind during a recent seminar at the Naval War College in which the role played by conscription in some historic strategic decisions was discussed. All of the officers present from the four services were of the opinion that the draft should be restored in the United States. I suppose that this alone did not surprise me as much as their unanimity and the strength of their convictions in this matter.

I reread Military Servitude and Grandeur, first published in 1835, with the intention of unraveling de Vigny the writer from the military theoretician, for he lived in circumstances which, despite obvious differences, were similar to our own. Educated during the heady days of Napoleon's Empire, when the famous "bulletins" announcing the emperor's victories were read by the professors to enthusiastic students, when the appearance of "one of our chums . . . in a hussar's uniform, his arm in a sling" would cause a small classroom revolution, de Vigny had the misfortune of enlisting just as the silence that fell across the field at Waterloo initiated an era of peace in Europe that lasted almost 40 years. De Vigny shared the deceptions and disappointments of the heroes of another great French writer of this period, Stendhal. He saw his youthful ardor and enthusiasm for military life, his desire to test himself against danger, decline into the comatose routine of peacetime garrison life: "So I will not make myself out much of a warrior, having seen little of war," he admitted. "{However} I have long enough been keenly hurt by the strangeness of army life to be qualified to speak of it." And hurt he was, for in the army he wasted precious years "dreaming of the battlefield in the Champs-de-Mars {the Paris parade ground} and exhausting a powerful but useless energy in parade exercises and private quarrels."

However, in lucid moments, he realized that a military career had been a mistake rather than a miscalculation, that "to a wholly active life, I had brought an entirely contemplative nature." The advantage, at least to posterity, was de Vigny's indelible testament -- a description of the French army of the Bourbon Restoration in its monasticism and malaise.

Military Servitude and Grandeur is also about de Vigny's sifting for new values amidst the wreckage of the ancien re'gime, Revolution and Empire, not an easy task given the political passions that any discussion of France's recent past aroused after 1815. As the title suggests, his military values were almost diametrically opposed to those publicly cultivated by Napoleon's armies, which is hardly surprising given the writer's poor opinion of Bonaparte. The semi-ecclesiastical virtues of humility, sacrifice and self-abnegation were, in his view, far more common, and far more useful, to soldiers than were those of heroism or e'lan, especially in the peacetime army of the Bourbon Restoration. De Vigny saw courage as a quiet commodity, one rationed over a career rather than expended ostentatiously in some pointless duel or clattering charge.

The heroes of the three short stories that make up the body of the book are "Grognards" -- modest veterans of the Napoleonic campaigns whom de Vigny found much more sympathetic than the arrogant and quarrelsome young aristocrats his own age. Each personifies a virtue that de Vigny believes to be most commonly military. Self-abnegation is represented by Major Laurette whom, in 1815, the fresh sub-lieutenant encounters on a bleak and treeless stretch of road in Artois. His baggage consists of a cart containing a madwoman, the widow of a man whom the vindictive politicians of the Directory had obliged him to execute. Personal responsibility is the theme of "The Vigil of Vincennes" -- the old, slightly stooped sergeant-major Timoleon lavishes a fastidious attention upon his powder magazine to the point that he falls victim to his own exce`s de ze`le when he attempts to take inventory at night by torchlight. But de Vigny's adulation, and most successful story, is reserved for Captain Renaud, a man whose experiences in the Napoleonic Wars have virtually transformed him into a pacifist, but who out of military honor and loyalty to his men leads them into the streets armed only with a Malacca cane against the Parisian insurgents of 1830. He is assassinated by a 14-year-old boy who has been given a pistol and precise instructions by two cowardly revolutionaries.

So much for de Vigny's values. What in his writings might hold meaning for our own day? Despite the distance, both geographical and historical, the French army's situation in the Bourbon Restoration was similar to that of our own armed forces in at least two essential respects. First, Napoleon's great and powerful French armies had been defeated. France was a diminished power, one that must adjust to her relative decline in status and influence on the world stage. For her officers, this was a humiliating situation, all the more so because France's misfortunes appeared to be artificially induced, enforced by political decisions that did not reflect the realities of power. "War seemed to us so much the natural condition of our country, that we could not believe the calm of peace would last," wrote de Vigny. "It seemed to us that we risked nothing in making believe we were resting, and that supineness, in France, was not a grave evil."

The second way in which the army of the restored Bourbons differed from that of Napoleon's Grande arme'e was that France's new masters had abandoned conscription for an army of long-service professionals. This was a radical departure from the policy of the previous quarter century, and even for a conservative of de Vigny's stamp, bode ill for the future of his country. In his view, the French army had become "a nation within a nation. It is one of the vices of our times." While the new regime argued that large conscript armies threatened the peace in France and the stability of Europe, de Vigny recognized that the separation of the forces from the nation held grave dangers for both: on one hand, the nation pursued riches paying scant attention to the requirements of civic -- and military -- responsibility, limiting its patriotic obligations to occasional outbursts of mindless chauvinism. For its part, the army was left a physical and emotional cripple, "a body set apart from the great body of the nation. It resembles the body of a child inasmuch as its intelligence is backward and has been forbidden to grow . . . It is a body seeking everywhere for its soul and cannot seem to find it."

For de Vigny, the virtues of universal military service were obvious on at least three levels. "Such as it is, the army is a good book to open to know humanity better," he wrote. As later reformers were to remark, within the army social classes that might not otherwise meet were forged into a national entity.

Military service also formed character, according to de Vigny, especially the infantry, turning out "men of this antique type; men who push their sense of duty to its utmost consequences, having neither regrets for their obedience nor shame for their poverty . . . proud of their country's glory and unmindful of their own." Sacrifice and self-abnegation were the cornerstones of military service: "I clearly saw this mysterious instinct everywhere binding people into powerful groups."

The last advantage of universal military service was that it led to peace. This may seem a curious conclusion to draw given our realization that popular passions, once harnessed to war, may be controlled only with difficulty by politicians seeking precise political and strategic goals. De Vigny certainly appears to be on shaky ground when he praises the armies of antiquity, "these intelligent armies" of citizens where "love of peace and order were found more often in the camps than in the cities, because it was the flower of the nation that inhabited them." Certainly, warfare was a constant preoccupation of the city states of ancient Greece, with the democratic Athenians bearing at least as much, if not more, of the responsibility for the endemic conflict than the militarists of Sparta.

ON THE OTHER HAND, might it not be equally true that, today, the Western democracies are more likely to commit citizen armies only where they see their vital interests at stake? This seems to be the lesson that France brought back from Algeria in 1962, and the United States from Vietnam a decade later. In France, for instance, a country that, like the United States, maintains interests beyond her borders, this led early on to the creation of two armies -- a conscript force for home defense and patriotic education, and an elite professional army led by such units as the Foreign Legion to enforce a more muscular politics outside of Europe. And, whatever one might think of Britain's policies in Northern Ireland, it is certain she could not have carried on the fight against the Irish Republican Army for so many years with a conscript army. In circumstances of limited conflict, especially, professional armies allow policymakers an extra dimension of action to reinforce diplomatic initiative.

But, as a spokesman for "the fighting trade," de Vigny believed it was "benighted and barbarous" when "the fighting man is set apart from the citizen," for it caused the armed forces to be "either scorned or honored beyond measure" according to whether the nation "found it useful or necessary." The forces must feel that they serve the nation, embody the popular will, not that they have become agents for partisan policy. Military service was a fundamental liberty that Frenchman, out of ignorance, fear, vanity and lassitude, had abdicated.

De Vigny prophesized correctly that his era was not to provide a solution -- indeed, he did not survive to witness his country's humiliating defeat in the Franco-Prussian War, which convinced France at last that she required a mass conscript army. Our own time may be brought to this solution in an entirely different manner. Budget cuts or a demographic crunch in the number of young men eligible for military service may impel a reconsideration of the draft. But more, if we are concerned about the dangers of nuclear weapons, and if we are serious about eliminating them as the main pillar of national defense, then missiles must be replaced by a substantial buildup of conventional forces. This will require a cheap and inexhaustible supply of manpower, and the United States will be forced to resort to conscription as the only way to fill the ranks. That would restore military service as a requirement of citizenship and, incidently, make a lot of officers very happy. :: NOTE ON AVAILABILITY: De Vigny's book can be found in second-hand bookstores under the title of "The Military Necessity," translated by Humphrey Hale (1953). Douglas Porch, Mark W. Clark Professor of History at The Citadel, is the author of "The Conquest of Morocco" and "The Conquest of the Sahara."