Review Corner: Article Review II

17 Sep

The Unbearable Lightness of Being French: Law, Republicanism, and National Identity at the End of the Old Regime. By David A. Bell. The American Historical, Vol. 106, No. 4. October 2001, pp. 1215-1235.

From Mercenary to Citizen Armies: Explaining Change in the Practice of War. By Deborah Avant. International Organization, Vol. 54, No. 1, Winter 2000, pp. 41-72.

 Reviewed by Simon S. Sundaraj-Keun

For enthusiasts fascinated in the French psyche during the Revolutionary Era, The Unbearable Lightness of Being French: Law, Republicanism, and National Identity at the End of the Old Regime and From Mercenary to Citizen Armies: Explaining Change in the Practice of War are articles that dive into the trials and tribulations of France during the First French Republic. These articles are essays written by David A. Bell and Deborah Avant elaborates of the political, military, and social crisis of Revolutionary France. The authors, Bell and Avant compiled numerous insights in order to encompass the psychological, political, emotional, and economical responses during the Revolutionary Era and the establishment of French national identity.

David A. Bell is a professor of history at John Hopkins University in Baltimore authored The Unbearable Lightness of Being French: Law, Republicanism, and National Identity at the End of the Old Regime. Dr. Bell has also taught at Yale University and specializes in eighteenth-century France history. He is a frequent contributor to The New Republic and the London Review of Books. Deborah Avant is Professor of Political Science and Director of the Institute for Global and International Studies authored From Mercenary to Citizen Armies: Explaining Change in the Practice of War.  Dr. Avant has contributed numerous journals to the International Organization, International Studies Quarterly, Armed Forces and Society, Review of International Studies, and Foreign Policy. She is an expert in international relations, military organizations, national security, transnational security, role of private sector in conflict and security.

            The main theme of these articles is to depict the cost of allegiance that set a Frenchman apart from the rest of Europe. It also focuses on French military and government responses on key events during the tumultuous time of the Revolutionary Era. The Unbearable Lightness of Being French: Law, Republicanism, and National Identity at the End of the Old Regime and From Mercenary to Citizen Armies: Explaining Change in the Practice of War exams the philosophical notion of nationalism to the early forms of organize conscription French civilians into France’s National Army. These articles bring to light the sense of urgency to defend France’s survival from invading aristocrat hordes. The articles coincide with the main theme of exploring the subject of nationalism in order to build a stronger French national identity.

            Furthermore, these articles elaborate on the reluctant of some elements of the French leadership to put an end to the war. Bell elaborates in his article by referring to the French as revolutionaries or reformers who struggle in gaining acceptance within Europe and even more internally among each other. Avant’s article focuses on the important of developing citizen armies in order to promote the sense of national prestige and honor, which in turn became a beacon of French identity.

 These articles were very informative in dealing with the issue of nationalism. It also demonstrates that foreign policy can be exceptionally difficult to execute due to one’s reliance of others for defense. The benefit of having a citizen army is to be able to contribute to the defense of one’s state in the face of overwhelming odds. The flip side of the coin is that a clash between political and military interest could be devastating to the economic or military activity of a state if the leadership is unable to prioritize its national goal. It is important for a nation-state to place its military in the hands of its people for national security and the promotion of a national identity. The caution is one not to place its national interest and security in foreigners for a long period of time in order to prevent the questioning of one’s allegiance.

Furthermore, these two articles is the key in understanding how nationalism and national identity intertwine in a state or nation formation. For example, the Boer Wars and its end brought about the cohesion of Afrikaners as a single entity in order to dominate South African politics till the mid-1990s. The notion of a Kurdish nation-state which has its own army based in Northern Iraq is creating stir in the border regions of Turkey, Iran, and Syria. Also one has to keep in mind of the Kurdish lobbyists within the European Union (EU) who gather political support in blocking Turkey accession into the EU. Besides the Kurds there are the Tibetans who exist as a political entity outside their own nation-state with a significant presence within the Indian military and politics institution.

             Bell and Avant articles are based on primary and secondary sources with a brief description and it also contains a comprehensive bibliography, which is useful for further research. The strength of these articles reminiscences the French sense of security lost during the Revolutionary Era and the hope of portraying a united France in face for counter-revolutionary onslaught by the rest of Europe. It also offers some vital information on the sacrifices and misfortunes of France in the Revolutionary Era. It also portrays the French soldier as a common person who was torn between their neighbors and the nation-state. Personally, I recommend these articles for historians, sociologists, and enthusiast in general.

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