There's an old joke that goes "for sale–French rifle, never fired and only dropped once." It comes from an ugly old stereotype about the French military, one of white flags, hands thrust aloft, tails tucked in retreat. There's nothing wrong with good natured ribbing between military forces (just ask your average Marine rifleman what he thinks of the Air Force). Good humor is a vital element of any healthy military unit. But the idea of French soldiers as a yellow-bellied lot, thirsty for retreat, and allergic to courage has exceeded the bounds of comedy.

The stereotype exists in a realm of pop-history, where many believe that France's past is littered with dropped rifles and abandoned posts. This stink has clung to the French military for decades now. It's wrong, inaccurate, and undeserved.

While there is no definitive history of cruel japes, the idea of the surrendering French seems to have come from World War II and the Battle of France. There, Hitler's army enveloped French, British, and Belgian forces in a brilliant flanking maneuver. The ensuing evacuation of 350,000 soldiers at Dunkirk is renowned as one of England's finest hours. What fewer have heard of is the heroic stand of the French First Army at Lille, where 40,000 encircled French soldiers held out against 7 German divisions. While others fled, the outnumbered French bravely stood and fought—ensuring the successful evacuation of another 100,000 allied troops.

Even after Paris capitulated, the French people battled on without their government. Hundreds of thousands braved brutal Nazi rule and joined the French Resistance. Over a million joined Charles de Gaulle's Free French Forces, which grew to the fourth largest army in Europe by 1945.

The typecast of the retreating Frenchmen gathered steam in the post-World War II colonial wars. France fought a pair of high profile conflicts in the 1950s, in Algeria and Indochina. Both resulted in a French cessation of territory.

But again, history speaks with clarity. The French won the battle of Algiers. To wit, criticism of their prosecution of that conflict was that they were too aggressive. French timidity was never part of the conversation. They did suffer a battlefield loss in Indochina, now Vietnam. But Americans would would wisely consider restraint when criticizing military defeats in that land.

Up until 1870's Franco-Prussian war (resulting in a decisive German victory), the French Army had for hundreds of years been considered one of the finest fighting forces, if not the finest fighting force, in Europe. After incredible heroism in World War I, they regained their crown.

The French fought shoulder to shoulder with us in the Gulf War. They protected the coalition's left flank during the allied ground assault, meeting an Iraqi mechanized infantry division along the way.

They fought fiercely, taking 2500 prisoners at nearly no losses of their own. After the 9/11 attacks, the French flushed into Afghanistan. They deployed nearly a quarter of their military forces to fight the Taliban and at a cost of nearly half a billion euros a year.

An American soldier there spoke glowingly of his French comrades, admiring how they fought on after an RPG attack crippled a vehicle and killed the driver. "One of the most inspiring things I've seen," the American wrote, "was [the French] recovering their dead, burned comrade from the vehicle that night."

Twenty years after writing The Jungle Book, Rudyard Kipling toured World War I's western front as a combat journalist. He was awestruck by French skill in battle. They "carry an edge to their fighting, a precision, and a dreadful knowledge coupled with an insensibility to shock, unlike anything one has imagined of mankind," he wrote.

"Their business is war," Kipling finished, "and they do their business."

That business has today brought them to Africa, where France has shouldered responsibility for fighting a burgeoning Islamic insurgency. With little support, they've deployed a large counterinsurgency force spread out over five African nations. Paris sent thousands of troops, hundreds of armored vehicles, and fighter jets to confront terrorists there. After an Islamic attack in Ivory Coast earlier this year, the French responded by deploying a new reaction force.

After the 2004 terrorist attacks in Madrid, the Spanish government withdrew its combat forces from Iraq. After the 2015 Paris attacks claimed the lives of 137, France responded by hammering ISIS positions in Syria. President Francois Hollande addressed his nation with resolve, saying "[terrorists] must be certain that they are facing a determined France, a united France, a France that is together and does not let itself be moved."

During World War II, General George Marshall stressed to his commanders the importance of esprit de corps, a term for high morale and a fighting spirit. It's no accident that he appropriated it from the French.

This article originally misstated Francois Hollande's job title. It also originally mischaracterized an American serviceman as being a member of the special forces.