Relations with French troops warming after chilly start
NIJRAB, Afghanistan — It’s late March, 2003, and Maj. Jean-Christophe Berry, a French marine, is looking for a table in an American dining facility in Afghanistan.
For weeks, U.S. officers had been needling him about Iraq, asking when his country would join the coalition. While the comments were generally lighthearted, Berry said his American colleagues assumed France would sign on. When the war started without France, relations turned chilly.
Berry, who is now a lieutenant colonel, remembers finding a seat across from a U.S. Army captain who was well into his meal. As he settles in, the American, without saying a word, stops eating, grabs his tray and leaves the table.
When it happened a second time, Berry spoke to an American officer he was on friendly terms with. In the end, a separate block of time to eat was established for U.S. military personnel opposed to breaking bread with the French.
“It was tough,” Berry recalls. The funny thing, he adds, laughing, is that “fries didn’t originate in France. They came from Belgium.”
Berry was referring to attempts by some Americans to purge the word “French” from the American lexicon, particularly with respect to food.
Another French officer said the rift over Iraq stung him hard, too. In France, one of his prized possessions is a picture of his mom as a little girl, held high in the arms of a U.S. soldier during World War II.
“Without America, we wouldn’t be a free country,” said the officer, who would only speak on condition of anonymity. “To some extent, we still owe America for this. But this obligation was not reason enough to support the war.”
Relations between the two countries have since thawed, with the French taking on a more pivotal role in Afghanistan. Today, small teams of U.S. servicemembers live and work side by side with French forces.
“They are a good fighting force,” said Army Capt. Dave Disi, who has been out with the French military on dozens of missions. “I’ve never had any problems with them. They are very deliberate.”
Ironically, several Americans said when they arrived at their French base camp in Kapisa province they figured their host would serve great food but fall short on the military side.
“It’s just the opposite,” said Air Force Lt. Col. Mark Heiser, who heads up the U.S. provisional reconstruction team in Kapisa. “The food isn’t great, but to work with them is.”