German troops march down the Champs-Élysées in Paris, on Sept 8, 1944.
German troops march down the Champs-Élysées in Paris, on Sept 8, 1944. // AP Photo

They Will Never March Down the Champs-Élysées

PARIS While last week marked the 70th anniversary of the D-Day invasion at Normandy, take a moment to remember that by June 6, 1944, here in Paris Nazi troops had been marching daily down the famed Avenue des Champs-Élysées  for four years.

June 14 is the 74th anniversary of Nazi occupation of Paris. Sitting on the marble base of L’Arc de Triomphe, it’s easy to imagine the horror les Parisians must have felt as German troops in lock-step marched around its massive walls and right down the world’s most famous boulevard.

Most people know the Arc stands guard over the Champs Elysses like an eternal monolith. Fewer people know that it’s actually France’s monument to its war history. Fewer still know that under its massive arches burns an eternal flame near the tomb of an unknown soldier from World War I.

France, like the rest of Europe, has known centuries of warfare that has cost millions of lives. The black and white newsreels of the 1940s are a testament to those who sacrificed their lives.

Now try to imagine today’s enemies of Paris – and of Western European life – ever coming close to marching in its streets. Think what it would take for Mullah Omar, al Qaeda and all of its affiliates, the Taliban, the Haqqani Network, al-Shabbab, Boko Harem and whatever other terrorist groups rise to the top of today’s threat lists, in lock-step, alongside mechanized and armored formations, submitting this entire city to their will — much less all of France or more.

Of course, war in the 21st century is something far different from 1940. Or at least, overseas contingency operations and counterterrorism efforts are different. Thousands of miles from Paris, on other continents, angry young men continue to stream into Islamist extremist movements. Sometimes by the thousands, like the 8,000 foreign fighters in Syria. More often, by the hundreds. Or less. They fight against everything Paris stands for but likely they will never set foot in this city. It’s not Paris they want. Some of them leave Paris to fight on far-off front lines in places like Syria. But there is little doubt the front lines remain far from Place de l’Etoile, where the Arc sits.

Maybe that’s the point of President Barack Obama’s security policy. Obama has in the last month given the Afghan fight a two-year extension to 2016, and is increasing and redefining its war budget to become a global terrorism slush fund. From Yemen to Indonesia, U.S. special operations forces are poised to fight where they know they can win with minimal risk, a minimal footprint, at minimal cost.

But the U.S. and NATO likely won’t stick their necks out much further. Just ask Crimea. One warship at a time steaming through the Black Sea. A few fighter jets. A few hundred troops rotating through Poland.

There was nothing minimal about the Nazi occupation of Paris, or the Allied invasion at Normandy. In New York, Washington and Pennsylvania, the casualty count from terrorism reached a few thousand, while the wars that followed claimed another 8,000 U.S. and coalition lives. Tens of thousands more enemies and civilians were killed. In Europe, as Normandy’s 70th anniversary reminds us, by war’s end, the casualty counts reached the tens of millions. In cities and farm fields. On beaches and in trenches. And within earshot of the middle of Paris. The ‘whole of government’ counterterrorism waged today pales in comparison to ‘the whole of life’ experience of World War II – where every bit of food, scrap of metal and cloth, and inch of road mattered.

The sense of scale is palpable at the Arc, where the names of French victories and commanders are etched in stone 50 meters into the sky.  

Paris today is as international a city as it gets. On a hot June night, the faces and fashions crowding the Champs come from everywhere: China, North Africa, the Middle East, the United States, South America, Eastern Europe, India and South Asia. For the Nazis to make it this far, 70 years ago, they had to kill enough French soldiers, push deep enough into French territory, and scare the government (made up of veterans of World War I) into surrendering rather than spilling more French blood. The Germans occupied a capital that was essentially handed over to them, probably saving tens of thousands of lives. 

Paris will never be handed over to the Taliban. Five more won’t tip the scale. No number of al Qaeda will ever march down the Champs Elysses. But more importantly, probably no Iranians or Russians will, either. A few months ago, the world focused on Secretary of State John Kerry’s deal with Iran to cease their progress toward nuclear weapons. But even if Iran developed a nuclear bomb, U.S. and foreign intelligence agencies estimate the regime has no territorial ambitions in its own region, much less into Europe.

In the days before last week’s Normandy celebration, the Obama administration briefed news media on NATO, Russia and the standoff over Ukraine. They sounded stern warnings with Cold War echoes that Allied powers would not stand idle against Russian aggression, after being caught flat-footed against Russian aggression. Quietly, strategists admit the crisis already may be over. Crimea now belongs to Russian President Vladimir Putin, he likely has no further territorial ambitions and anyone west of Poland can go about their business. Russians are not marching toward the Champs, either.

Today’s wars are no more about Paris as they are about London, Moscow or Washington. They’re about ideas. There likely won’t be any major French victory to etch into L’Arc de Triomphe for the next 70 years. No beach on which to stand ceremony. But something else could happen. As elderly French and German soldiers this week hugged in tears, will one day Americans and Iraqis? Taliban? Al Qaeda? Will French and Malian extremists? Will Nigerians, Boko Haram or not, embrace each other?

Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel met French Defense Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian during his stop and, according to Pentagon press secretary Rear Adm. John Kirby, “topics included counterterrorism activities in Africa, where the U.S. and France have many common interests in helping African nations deal with this threat. The two leaders also discussed the NATO Summit, Russian actions in Ukraine, the French sale of Mistral-class ships to Russia, and the security concerns of Allies in Southern Europe.” 

“They spent time reflecting on the D-Day anniversary and the history of the past century, with Secretary Hagel remarking that the D-Day ceremony ‘is a reminder of what history teaches and informs us if we are wise enough to learn from events from the past.’”

Perhaps. But if the Arc is past, and past is prologue, then history tells us even after Normandy, after Fallujah, after Osama bin Laden and Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl, there will be more battles to write into these stone walls. And hopefully, more reconciliations to celebrate.

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