Beau Geste: Libya and the European mind

by John MacBeath Watkins


Beau Geste is a 1924 novel by P.C. Wren about three English brothers who join La Légion étrangère (the French Foreign Legion) because they are trying to do the decent thing, by the standards of the British upper crust at that time. It is eventually revealed that they are saving a woman from scandal, sacrificing their reputations to preserve hers.  The brothers are Digby, John, and Michael "Beau" Geste. Beau geste translates as "handsome gesture."

They end up in a fort in French North Africa, which is attacked by Tuareg tribesmen, and as the garrison of the fort is picked off by the Tuareg, they prop up the bodies of the dead to make it look like there is still a full garrison. The book was made into two films, a 1926 silent film starring Ronald Coleman and a 1939 remake with Gary Cooper, Ray Milland, Robert Preston, Susan Hayward, Broderick Crawford, and Brian Donlevy.

That iconic film still shows sometimes on late-night television, reminding us of the tragic nobility the European mind connects with the French colonial empire. The National Journal's "Talleyrand" gives us a skeptical echo of this mindset in his commentary today:

Talleyrand, like many other people, is very perplexed by this most recent action. Several European nations, the United States and a few token others have decided to intervene militarily in a civil war on the losing side, and just at the moment when these forces were on the verge of defeat.

 Of course, the timing is peculiar because the U.S. did not want to go it alone. It takes time to build a coalition, and Gadaffi, well aware of this, has been trying to crush the rebellion before those outside Libya could do anything.

This is more than a no-fly zone, which would have done little to stop Gadaffi's troops. The French opened hostilities with air strikes against military vehicles Gadaffi loyalists were using to attack the rebels. But I'm skeptical about the efficacy of air power alone against Gadaffi's army. I suspect someone is going to have to put boots on the ground, and President Obama has vowed that it will not be America.

The answer to the question, "whose boots" might also be the answer to the question, is Operation Odyssey Dawn a good idea, or just a beau geste?

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