It’s the dark romance of the French Foreign Legion: haunted men from everywhere, fighting anywhere, dying for causes not their own. Legionnaires need war, certainly, and Afghanistan is winding down. But there’s always the hopeless battle against rogue gold miners in French Guiana . . .
I. The Farm
The word “foreign” in the name French Foreign Legion does not refer to faraway battlegrounds. It refers to the Legion itself, which is a branch of the French Army commanded by French officers but built of volunteers from around the world. Last summer I came upon 20 of them on a grassy knoll on a farm in France near the Pyrenees. They were new recruits sitting back-to-back on two rows of steel chairs. They wore camouflage fatigues and face paint, and held French assault rifles. The chairs were meant to represent the benches in a helicopter flying into action—say, somewhere in Africa in the next few years to come. Two recruits who had been injured while running sat facing forward holding crutches. They were the pilots. Their job was to sit there and endure. The job of the others was to wait for the imaginary touchdown, then disembark from the imaginary helicopter and pretend to secure the imaginary landing zone. Those who charged into the imaginary tail rotor or committed some other blunder would have push-ups to do immediately, counting them off in phonetic French—uh, du, tra, katra, sank. If they ran out of vocabulary, they would have to start again. Eventually the recruits would stage a phased retreat back to their chairs, then take off, fly around for a while, and come in for another dangerous landing. The real lesson here was not about combat tactics. It was about do not ask questions, do not make suggestions, do not even think of that. Forget your civilian reflexes. War has its own logic. Be smart. For you the fighting does not require a purpose. It does not require your allegiance to France. The motto of the Legion is Legio Patria Nostra. The Legion is our fatherland. This means we will accept you. We will shelter you. We may send you out to die. Women are not admitted. Service to the Legion is about simplifying men’s lives.
What man has not considered climbing onto a motorcycle and heading south? The Legion can be like that for some. Currently it employs 7,286 enlisted men, including non-commissioned officers. Over just the past two decades they have been deployed to Bosnia, Cambodia, Chad, both Congos, Djibouti, French Guiana, Gabon, Iraq, Ivory Coast, Kosovo, Kuwait, Rwanda, and Somalia. Recently they have fought in Afghanistan, as members of the French contingent. There is no other force in the world today that has known so much war for so long. A significant number of the men are fugitives from the law, living under assumed names, with their actual identities closely protected by the Legion. People are driven to join the Legion as much as they are drawn to it. That went for every recruit I met on the farm. Altogether there were 43, ranging in age from 19 to 32. There had been 48, but 5 had deserted. They came from 30 countries. Only a third of them spoke some form of French.
The language problem was compounded by the fact that most of the drill instructors were foreigners, too. It would be hard to find a more laconic group. The sergeant supervising the helicopter exercise had mastered the art of disciplining men without wasting words. He was a former Russian Army officer, a quiet observer who gave the impression of depth and calm, partly because he spoke no more than a few sentences a day. After one of the imagined helicopter landings, when a clumsy recruit dropped his rifle, the sergeant walked up to him and simply held out his fist, against which the recruit proceeded to bang his head.
The sergeant lowered his fist and walked away. The chairs took off and flew around. Toward the end of the afternoon the sergeant signaled for his men to dismantle the helicopter and head down a dirt road to the headquarters compound. They rushed to it, carrying the chairs. The farm is one of four such properties used by the Legion for the first month of basic training, all chosen for their isolation. The recruits lived there semi-autonomously, cut off from outside contact, subject to the whims of the instructors, and doing all the chores. They were getting little sleep. Mentally they were having a hard time.
They had been on the farm for three weeks. They came from Austria, Belarus, Belgium, Brazil, Britain, Canada, the Czech Republic, Ecuador, Estonia, Germany, Hungary, Italy, Japan, Latvia, Lithuania, Macedonia, Madagascar, Mongolia, Morocco, Nepal, New Zealand, Poland, Portugal, Russia, Senegal, Serbia, Slovakia, South Africa, and Ukraine. Seven actually came from France, but had been given new identities as “French Canadian.” After the recruits returned to the compound they had a while to wait before dinner. In the dirt yard a slim, bullying corporal barked them into a disciplined formation in a parade-rest stance: feet apart, eyes fixed forward, hands clasped behind their backs. Then the sky opened up. The men were drenched but did not care. In the winter they might have been less indifferent. Men who have been through winters on the farms insist as a result that you should never join the Legion then. You should go to Morocco, sleep under a bridge, do anything, and wait for spring. The rain stopped. The sergeant extinguished his cigarette. For me, in French, he spared precisely four words: “It is cocktail hour.” He walked across the compound, released the men from formation, and led them through the barn to the back side, where the cocktails were being served. The cocktails were pull-ups and dips and a sequence of synchronized sit-ups punctuated by two brief rests during which the slim corporal strolled across the abdomens of the recruits. Then it was run to the barn to wash, and run to a multi-purpose room to eat.
Before eating, the recruits drank large field cups of water, and inverted the empty cups on their heads to demonstrate the achievement. A soldier came in to observe them. He was the platoon commander, Fred Boulanger, 36, a muscular Frenchman with a military bearing and an air of easy authority. Watching him watch the recruits, I asked how the training was going. He answered that the boat was sinking normally. It was a figure of speech. He knew from experience that the recruits were doing well enough. Boulanger was a non-commissioned adjudant, the equivalent of a warrant officer. He had been barred from the regular French Army because of troubles with the law when he was a teenager, and so had joined the Foreign Legion under the identity, initially, of a Francophone Swiss. He had risen through the Legion’s ranks during a 17-year career, most recently in French Guiana, where he had shown a particular aptitude for the jungle and had excelled in leading long patrols across some of the most difficult terrain on earth—thriving in conditions that cause even strong men to decline. After two years there, on the hunt for gold miners who are infiltrating from Brazil, Boulanger was reassigned to France. It should have been a glorious homecoming, but just before leaving Guiana, Boulanger had roughed up a superior officer. For this he was being disciplined.
Boulanger now found himself on the farm, adjusting to garrison life and trying to steer this batch of recruits through their introduction to the Legion. On the one hand, he needed to make legionnaires of them. On the other, he had already lost five to desertion. Not too soft, not too hard—that was the pressure he felt, and with a sense that his own future was on the line. A young Scotsman named Smith, who had been cashiered from the British Army for failing a drug test, was his current concern. Smith was at risk because he missed a new girlfriend back home. For his part, Boulanger missed the jungle. Mostly what he did here was to supervise the other instructors. The only direct contact with the recruits reserved systematically for him was a French-language lesson that he taught daily in the multi-purpose room.
For obvious reasons, the teaching of rudimentary French is a preoccupation in the Foreign Legion. One morning I attended a class. The recruits had arranged the tables into a U, around which they sat, shoulder to shoulder, waiting for Boulanger’s arrival. Each of the native French speakers was formally responsible for the progress of two or three nonspeakers and would be held accountable for their performance.
On a whiteboard at the front of the room, Boulanger had written a list of words in French to be copied down: more, less, high, low, on, under, inside, outside, interior, exterior, ahead, behind, small, large, thin, fat. Beside that he had written: Morning (Shave) Breakfast. Noon Evening Eat. To wash yourself. To shave. Write Read Speak. Buy Pay. Boulanger walked into the room holding a pointer. Standing ramrod-straight, he led the class through conjugations of the verbs to be and to have. “I am, you are, he is,” they said in ragged unison. “We have, you have, they have.”
He said, “You will learn French fast because I am not your mother.”
Motioning with his pointer, he whistled a recruit to the front of the class. Boulanger pointed at his head. The class said, “Hair!”
Nose, eye, one eye, two eyes, ear, chin, mouth, teeth, lips, tongue, cheek, neck, shoulder, repeat! He began whistling individual recruits to their feet for answers. Arm, elbow, hand, wrist, thumb—not la thumb, le thumb, it’s masculine! He selected a New Zealander and indicated the man’s stomach. The New Zealander stood and mumbled something indistinct. Boulanger whistled the New Zealander’s Senegalese tutor to his feet, and said to him, “We learned this last time. Why does he not know it?”
The Senegalese said, “He learned it, sir, but he forgot it.”
Boulanger gave both men 30 push-ups. No one thought he was being capricious. He had a gift for empathetic command. Skull, foot, balls, repeat! He directed a recruit to jump onto a table. “He is on the table,” he said. He directed another to crawl underneath. “He is under the table,” he said. These were not men who had excelled in school. Boulanger told them to take a break to practice what they had learned. He left for a smoke. When he returned he said quietly, “Outside,” and the recruits stampeded to comply. A dirt track led to an upper field. He said, “Go to the track!” They ran to it. He said, “Where are you?” They shouted, “We are on the track!” He directed them into a hedgerow. “We are in the hedgerow!” He ordered one man to walk across a clearing. What is he doing? “He is walking across the clearing!” He ordered all the others into a ditch. “We are in the ditch!”
Morning, afternoon, evening, night. There were tactical exercises during which the recruits advanced in confusion through forest and field, shooting off blanks and suffering scores of imaginary casualties for their errors. There were parade-ground exercises during which they learned the strange, slow cadence of the Legion’s ceremonial march, and the lyrics to meaningless Legion songs. There were runs, short and long. There were weapon-disassembly-and-cleaning classes. And there were endless housekeeping chores, the tedious corvées that constitute much of garrison life. During one of these intervals the unhappy Scotsman named Smith approached me with a mop in his hand and asked for news from the outside. I mentioned something about French elections and war, but what he meant was the latest soccer scores. I told him I could not help him there. We talked while he mopped. He missed his girl, yeah, and he missed his pub. He called the British Army the best in the world and said he would return happily if only it would have him back. By comparison, he said, the Foreign Legion had no sense of humor. I laughed for the obvious reason that the Legion, by comparison, had taken him in.
The stay on the farm was nearly over. The program called for the platoon to walk out carrying full patrol gear and to make a roundabout, two-day, 50-mile march back to the Legion’s headquarters, at Castelnaudary, near Carcassonne, for the final three months of basic training. The march to Castelnaudary is a rite of passage. Once it is completed, recruits become true legionnaires and during an initiation ceremony are given permission by the regimental commander to put on their kepis for the first time. Kepis are the stiff, round, flat-topped garrison caps worn in the French Army as part of the traditional dress uniform. Charles de Gaulle wears one in famous pictures. Those worn by legionnaires are white—a color that is exclusive to the Legion and gives rise to the term képi blanc, often used to signify the soldiers themselves. Legionnaires are expected to be proud of the caps. But two nights before the departure from the farm, the recruits would have preferred to crush them underfoot. The men had been training since before dawn, and now they were standing in formation holding practice kepis wrapped in protective plastic, and being drilled on the upcoming ceremony by the vicious corporals. Again and again, to the order of “Platoon, cover your heads!,” the recruits had to shout, “Legio!” (and hold the kepis over their hearts), “Patria!” (and hold the kepis straight out), “Nostra!” (and put the kepis on their heads, wait two seconds, and slap their hands to their thighs). Then they had to shout in unison, with pauses, “We promise! To serve! With honor! And loyalty!” They were so damned tired. Smith in particular kept getting the sequences wrong.
Before dawn the recruits set off in file through heavy rain. They wore bulky packs, with assault rifles slung across their chests. Boulanger navigated at the head of the column. I walked beside him and ranged backward down the line. The Russian sergeant brought up the rear, watching for strays. It was a slog, mostly on narrow roads through rolling farmland. Dogs kept a wary distance. When the column passed a herd of cows, some men made mooing sounds. That was the entertainment. Late in the morning the column entered a large village, and Boulanger called a halt for lunch in a churchyard. I had thought that people might come out to encourage them, and even warm them with offers of coffee, but rather the opposite occurred when some of the residents closed their shutters as if to wish the legionnaires gone. This fit a pattern I had seen all day, of drivers barely bothering to slow as they passed the line of exhausted troops. When I mentioned my surprise to Boulanger he said that the French love their army once a year, on Bastille Day, but only if the sky is blue. As for the foreigners of the Foreign Legion, by definition they have always been expendable
II. The Past
The expendability can be measured. Since 1831, when the Legion was formed by King Louis-Philippe, more than 35,000 legionnaires have died in battle, often anonymously, and more often in vain. The Legion was created primarily to gather up some of the foreign deserters and criminals who had drifted to France in the aftermath of the Napoleonic Wars. It was discovered that these men, who were said to threaten civil society, could be induced to become professional soldiers at minimal cost, then exiled to North Africa to help with the conquest of Algeria. The new legionnaires got an early taste of the deal when, in the Legion’s first North African battle, a squad of 27 was overrun after being abandoned by a French officer and the cavalry under his command.
During the pacification of Algeria, 844 legionnaires died. During a foolish intervention in Spain in the 1830s, nearly 9,000 died or deserted. During the Crimean War, in the 1850s, 444 died. Then came the French invasion of Mexico of 1861–65, whose purpose was to overthrow the reformist government of Benito Juárez and create a European puppet state, to be lorded over by an Austrian prince named Maximilian. It did not work out. Mexico won, France lost, and Maximilian was shot. Of the 4,000 legionnaires sent off to help with the war, roughly half did not return. Early on, 62 of them barricaded themselves in a farm compound near a village called Camarón, in Veracruz, and fought to the finish against overwhelming Mexican forces. Their last stand provided the Legion with an Alamo story that, in the 1930s, during a spate of tradition-making, was transformed into an officially cherished legend—Camerone!—promoting the idea that true legionnaires hold the orders they receive before life itself.
Between 1870 and 1871, more than 900 legionnaires died while reinforcing the French Army in the Franco-Prussian War. This was their first fight on French soil. After the war ended, the Legion stayed on and helped with the bloody suppression of the Paris Commune—a civilian revolt during which legionnaires dutifully killed French citizens on French streets, often by summary execution. After order was restored, the legionnaires were quickly returned to their bases in Algeria, but they had earned the special loathing reserved for foreign mercenaries, and a visceral distrust of the Legion still felt by French leftists today.
The Legion’s radical composition, its physical isolation, and its very lack of patriotic purpose turned out to be the attributes that have molded it into an unusually resolute fighting force. An idea grew up inside the Legion that meaningless sacrifice is itself a virtue—if tinged perhaps by tragedy. A sort of nihilism took hold. In 1883, in Algeria, a general named François de Négrier, addressing a group of legionnaires who were leaving to fight the Chinese in Indochina, said, in loose translation, “You! Legionnaires! You are soldiers meant to die, and I am sending you to the place where you can do it!” Apparently the legionnaires admired him. In any case, he was right. They died there, and also in various African colonies for reasons that must have seemed unimportant even at the time. Then came the First World War and a return to France, where 5,931 legionnaires lost their lives. During the interwar period, with the Legion having returned to North Africa, Hollywood caught on and produced two Beau Geste movies, which captured the exoticism of Saharan forts and promoted a romantic image that has boosted recruiting ever since. Immediately after World War II, which claimed 9,017 of its men, the Legion went to war in Indochina, where it lost more than 10,000. Recently, near Marseille, an old legionnaire told me about a lesson he learned as a young recruit, when a veteran sergeant took a moment to explain dying to him. He said, “It’s like this. There is no point in trying to understand. Time is unimportant. We are dust from the stars. We are nothing at all. Whether you die at age 15 or 79, in a thousand years there is no significance to it. So fuck off with your worries about war.”
With the French withdrawal from Indochina, the Legion returned to Algeria under the command of embittered army officers, many of whom believed that they had been betrayed by the civilian elites and that only they, the officers, had the moral fiber to defend the integrity of France. These were dangerous delusions for officers to have, particularly because the Legion now found itself embroiled in something like a French civil war—the savage eight-year struggle over Algerian independence. It was an emotional fight, characterized by the systematic use of torture, retributive killings, and atrocities on all sides. The Foreign Legion committed its share of the crimes. It also lost 1,976 men. Altogether perhaps a million people died. It won’t matter in a thousand years. For cultural reference, Brigitte Bardot was in her prime.
Near the end, just when the army believed it had prevailed on the battlefield, wiser heads in France—Charles de Gaulle and the French people themselves—realized that Algeria could no longer be held. After negotiations began for a complete French withdrawal, a group of French officers hatched a plan to reverse the tide by seizing cities in Algeria, killing Charles de Gaulle, and installing a military junta in Paris. They made their move on April 21, 1961, starting with the seizure of Algiers by a regiment of Legion paratroopers under the command of Major Hélie de Saint Marc, an officer who, tellingly, is revered within the army today, for having stuck to his principles. Two additional Legion regiments joined the rebellion, as did a number of elite units of the regular French Army. The situation seemed serious enough to the government in Paris that it ordered the detonation of an atomic bomb at a Saharan test site to keep it from falling into the hands of rogue forces. But the conspiracy was hopelessly ill-conceived. On the second day, after de Gaulle appealed for support, the conscripted citizen-soldiers who made up the overwhelming majority of men in the armed forces took matters into their own hands and mutinied against the conspirators. The coup failed. The chief conspirators were arrested, 220 officers were relieved of their command, another 800 resigned, and the rebellious Foreign Legion parachute regiment was disbanded. The paratroopers were unrepentant. Some of them deserted to join the OAS, an ultra-right terrorist group that launched a bombing campaign. When the others left their Algerian garrison for the last time, they sang an Edith Piaf song, “No, I Regret Nothing.”
The Legion emerged from the experience reduced to 8,000 men and reassigned to bases in southern France, where it spent the next decade doing little more than marching around and building roads. The trauma was deep. This is a sensitive subject, and officially denied, but the history of defeat encouraged a reactionary culture in the Legion, where, beneath an appearance of neutral professionalism, the officer corps today harbors virulent right-wing views. It is common at closed social gatherings to hear even young officers regretting the loss of Algeria, disparaging Communists, insulting homosexuals, and seething at what they perceive as the decadence and self-indulgence of modern French society. In the southern city of Nîmes, home to the Legion’s largest infantry regiment, the Second, a French officer complained to me about the local citizens. He said, “They speak about their rights, their rights, their rights. Well, what about their responsibilities? In the Legion we don’t speak about our rights. We speak about our duties!
I said, “It angers you.”
He looked at me with surprise, as if to say, And you it does not?
He had been an enlisted man in the regular army before becoming an officer in the Legion. He had been deployed to Djibouti, Guiana, and Chad. He said that in the regular army, which since 2001 has been a volunteer force, a conscription culture remains in which soldiers commonly talk back to their superiors and fail to execute orders. It’s halfway to civilian life, he said—a nine-to-five job, with weekends off. Service in the Legion, by contrast, is an all-consuming existence.
I asked him if there are national differences. Yes, he said. For instance, the Chinese make the worst legionnaires. Usually they angle for kitchen work—he didn’t know why. The Americans and British are almost as difficult, because they get upset about living conditions. They endure for a while, then run away. Not all, but most. You would think that the selection board by now would have figured this out. The French are flaky, the Serbs are tough, the Koreans are the best of the Asians, and the Brazilians are the best of all. But whatever their attributes or faults, he felt like a father to every one them, he said, though the oldest were older than he. He told me that like other Legion commanders he spent every Christmas with the troops rather than with his own family because so many had no home to return to. He said this meant a lot to them. Frankly I doubted it, in part because legionnaires are not the type to care much about Christmas, and anyway do not usually like or trust their officers. But the officer’s conceit fit perfectly into the official paternalistic view.
At the Legion’s headquarters, the commanding general, Christophe de Saint Chamas (good Catholic, father of seven, graduate of the French military academy Saint-Cyr), pursued the theme. He said, “He is the walking wounded of life when he arrives. When he comes I can protect him. I can protect him from what he tells me about his past. His past becomes a force that can be used to turn him into a good soldier. What I can do for him is fix strict rules, the first being to speak French, the second to respect the hierarchy. The discipline he learns is very visible. We saw it for instance in firing rates in Afghanistan, where legionnaires used much less ammunition in firefights. So he is a great soldier. He is willing to die for a country that is not his. But his weakness? His fragility in inaction. He drinks, he gets in trouble, or he deserts.”
I asked if this was a particular worry now, with France pulling out of Afghanistan.
His eyebrows arched defensively. He said, “Obviously we are not going to declare wars just to occupy the army.”
…to be continued