Sign Up

Barbarians at the Gate

What are two French generals doing in front of the White House?

April 20, 2003

What are two French generals doing in front of the White House?

Before and during the Iraq war, it sometimes felt as though the United States was at war with France — something that has never happened in all of the 227 years of U.S. history.

Indeed, some of the harshest comments coming from the U.S. government, the U.S. Congress and even many media outlets were reserved not so much for Saddam Hussein and his cohorts — but for America's French allies.

Curiously enough, part of the U.S. defensive posture was not to boycott Middle-Eastern oil. Rather, Americans have been busy emptying their fridges of bottles of Evian drinking water — 51% of which in any case are owned by that true-blue American icon Coca-Cola.

The French were criticized for not having any stomach for fighting against Saddam. Worse, it was said that, if push came to shove, they would once again expect to be bailed out by the Americans and their fighting force.

Of course, the French are no push-overs. In fact, because of their involvement with their former colonial possessions in Africa, French soldiers probably have had more than their fair share of casualities over the past 25 years.

And, if Americans really need proof of France's military prowess — here it is. After all, two French generals have taken prime strategic positions right in front of the White House!

And, imagine, one of them is eyeing the Old Executive Office Building, which now houses much of the President's staff.

In terms of symbolism, this is historically the closest thing to capturing the global projection of American might.

After all, it used to be the home not just of the Department of State, the U.S. foreign ministry, but also the Departments of War and the Navy — the precursors of today's Pentagon.

What about the other French general taking up his watching post in Washington? He has his eyes fixed squarely on the Department of the Treasury, established by that parsimious Scotsman Alexander Hamilton — familiar to all Americans and global citizens from the back of the ten-dollar bill.

No doubt that general is anticipating wasting hard-earned American tax dollars on drink and loose women, as Americans believe is typical of those decadent French.

But don't be frightened. The French generals in question are not real. They are bronze monuments placed there at the turn of the 20th century to honor two great revolutionary heroes.

One is the Marquis de Lafayette, of course. It is after him that Lafayette Square in front of the White House is named. And the other man is the Comte de Rochambeau, whose statue was a gift by France to the American people.

They may be an eyesore for President George W. Bush as he gets out of bed in the morning, but otherwise they pose no threat to the safety and territorial integrity of the United States.

And better yet, as far as we could find, no Congressman has yet proposed either to rename the square — or to remove the generals.

On the contrary, they are a timely reminder of the long-lasting alliance between France and the United States. And not so much the Marquis de Lafayette, who was one of George Washington most valiant companions but, more to the point, the Comte de Rochambeau.

Rochambeau commanded a contingent of 6,000 French troops who landed on the coast of Rhode Island in 1780 — and brought much needed French reinforcements to Washington's exhausted Continental Army.

The two generals jointly besieged the British at Yorktown and forced them to surrender. That battle put an end to the Revolutionary War that had lasted for four years before Rochambeau's arrival. Without French help, the war — and the history of the United States — could have turned out very differently.