On The Road With The French Foreign Legion

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 Afghanistung is winding down. But there’s always the hopeless battle against rogue gold miners in French Guiamãng cầu . . .

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I. The Farm

The word “foreign” in the name French Foreign Legion does not refer khổng lồ faraway battlegrounds. It refers to lớn 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 trăng tròn of them on a grassy knoll on a farm in France near the Pyrenees. They were new recruits sitting back-to-baông xã on two rows of steel chairs. They wore camouflage fatigues và face paint, và 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 lớn come. Two recruits who had been injured while running sat facing forward holding crutches. They were the pilots. Their job was to sit there & endure. The job of the others was lớn wait for the imaginary touchdown, then disembark from the imaginary helicopter & pretend to lớn secure the imaginary landing zone. Those who charged inkhổng lồ the imaginary tail rotor or committed some other blunder would have sầu 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 lớn start again. Eventually the recruits would stage a phased retreat back to lớn their chairs, then take off, fly around for a while, và come in for another dangerous landing. The real lesson here was not about combat tactics. It was about bởi not ask questions, bởi not make suggestions, vì chưng 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 khổng lồ 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 lớn die. Women are not admitted. Service to lớn the Legion is about simplifying men’s lives.

What man has not considered climbing onto a motorcycle and heading south? The Legion can be lượt thích that for some. Currently it employs 7,286 enlisted men, including non-commissioned officers. Over just the past two decades they have sầu been deployed to lớn Bosnia, Cambodia, Chad, both Congos, Djibouti, French Guiana, Gabon, Iraq, Ivory Coast, Kosovo, Kuwait, Rwanda, & Somalia. Recently they have sầu fought in Afghanisrã, 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 khổng lồ join the Legion as much as they are drawn to lớn 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 lớn 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 obhệ thống who gave the impression of depth và 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 khổng lồ him & simply held out his fist, against which the recruit proceeded lớn bang his head.

The sergeant lowered his fist and walked away. The chairs took off & flew around. Toward the over of the afternoon the sergeant signaled for his men to lớn dismantle the helicopter và head down a dirt road to the headquarters compound. They rushed to lớn 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 lớn the whims of the instructors, & doing all the chores. They were getting little sleep. Mentally they were having a hard time.

“He is the walking wounded of life when he arrives,” an officer saidof the typical legionnaire. “The discipline he learns is veryvisible.”

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, và Ukraine. Seven actually came from France, but had been given new identities as “French Canadian.” After the recruits returned to lớn the compound they had a while lớn wait before dinner. In the dirt yard a slyên, bullying corporal barked them inlớn 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 khổng lồ Morocco, sleep under a bridge, vì chưng anything, & 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, & led them through the barn to the bachồng side, where the cocktails were being served. The cocktails were pull-ups and dips & a sequence of synchronized sit-ups punctuated by two brief rests during which the slyên ổn corporal strolled across the abdomens of the recruits. Then it was run to the barn to wash, & run khổng lồ a multi-purpose room khổng lồ eat.

Before eating, the recruits drank large field cups of water, and inverted the empty cups on their heads to lớn demonstrate the achievement. A soldier came in to lớn observe them. He was the platoon commander, Fred Boulanger, 36, a muscular Frenchman with a military bearing and an air of easy authority. Watching hlặng 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, và 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 và had excelled in leading long patrols across some of the most difficult terrain on earth—thriving in conditions that cause even svào men khổng lồ decline. After two years there, on the hunt for gold miners who are infiltrating from Brazil, Boulanger was reassigned lớn 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 & trying lớn steer this batch of recruits through their introduction lớn the Legion. On the one hand, he needed to lớn make legionnaires of them. On the other, he had already lost five sầu lớn desertion. Not too soft, not too hard—that was the pressure he felt, và 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 kiểm tra, was his current concern. Smith was at risk because he missed a new girlfriover bachồng trang chính. For his part, Boulanger missed the jungle. Mostly what he did here was to supervise the other instructors. The only direct liên hệ with the recruits reserved systematically for hyên ổn 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 inkhổng lồ a U, around which they sat, shoulder lớn shoulder, waiting for Boulanger’s arrival. Each of the native sầu French speakers was formally responsible for the progress of two or three nonspeakers và would be held accountable for their performance.

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On a whiteboard at the front of the room, Boulanger had written a menu of words in French khổng lồ 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 sầu. Write Read Speak. Buy Pay. Boulanger walked inlớn the room holding a pointer. Standing ramrod-straight, he led the class through conjugations of the verbs lớn be and lớn have sầu. “I am, you are, he is,” they said in ragged unison. “We have sầu, you have sầu, they have sầu.”

He said, “You will learn French fast because I am not your mother.”

Motioning with his pointer, he whistled a recruit to lớn 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, neông xã, shoulder, repeat! He began whistling individual recruits khổng lồ their feet for answers. Arm, elbow, h&, wrist, thumb—not la thumb, le thumb, it’s masculine! He selected a New Zealander & indicated the man’s stomach. The New Zealander stood & mumbled something indistinct. Boulanger whistled the New Zealander’s Senegalese tutor to his feet, & said to hyên ổn, “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 comm&. Skull, foot, balls, repeat! He directed a recruit khổng lồ 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 lớn take a break to lớn practice what they had learned. He left for a smoke. When he returned he said quietly, “Outside,” and the recruits stampeded lớn comply. A dirt traông xã led to an upper field. He said, “Go to lớn the track!” They ran lớn it. He said, “Where are you?” They shouted, “We are on the track!” He directed them into lớn a hedgerow. “We are in the hedgerow!” He ordered one man khổng lồ walk across a clearing. What is he doing? “He is walking across the clearing!” He ordered all the others into lớn a ditch. “We are in the ditch!”

Morning, afternoon, evening, night. There were tactical exercises during which the recruits advanced in confusion through forest & field, shooting off blanks & 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, và the lyrics khổng lồ meaningless Legion songs. There were runs, short & 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 và war, but what he meant was the lademo soccer scores. I told hyên ổn I could not help hyên 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 và said he would return happily if only it would have him baông xã. 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 hyên in.

The stay on the farm was nearly over. The program called for the platoon to lớn walk out carrying full patrol gear and khổng lồ make a roundabout, two-day, 50-mile march baông xã khổng lồ the Legion’s headquarters, at Castelnaudary, near Carcassonne, for the final three months of basic training. The march khổng lồ 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 unisize. Charles de Gaulle wears one in famous pictures. Those worn by legionnaires are white—a color that is exclusive khổng lồ the Legion & gives rise lớn the term képi blanc, often used lớn signify the soldiers themselves. Legionnaires are expected khổng lồ be proud of the caps. But two nights before the departure from the farm, the recruits would have sầu preferred lớn crush them underfoot. The men had been training since before dawn, and now they were standing in formation holding practice kepis wrapped in protective sầu plastic, & being drilled on the upcoming ceremony by the vicious corporals. Again & again, khổng lồ the order of “Platoon, cover your heads!,” the recruits had to shout, “Legio!” (và hold the kepis over their hearts), “Patria!” (và hold the kepis straight out), “Nostra!” (and put the kepis on their heads, wait two seconds, và 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 tệp tin 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 hlặng 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 farmlvà. 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, và Boulanger called a halt for lunch in a churchyard. I had thought that people might come out khổng lồ encourage them, & even warm them with offers of coffee, but rather the opposite occurred when some of the residents closed their shutters as if lớn 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 lớn 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 sầu 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 sầu died in battle, often anonymously, & more often in vain. The Legion was created primarily lớn gather up some of the foreign deserters and criminals who had drifted khổng lồ France in the aftermath of the Napoleonic Wars. It was discovered that these men, who were said to lớn threaten civil society, could be induced khổng lồ become professional soldiers at minimal cost, then exiled lớn North Africa lớn help with the conquest of Algeria. The new legionnaires got an early taste of the giảm giá 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 commvà.

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 Mexiteo of 1861–65, whose purpose was to overthrow the reformist government of Benito Juárez & create a European puppet state, to lớn be lorded over by an Austrian prince named Maximilian. It did not work out. Mexico won, France lost, và 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 lớn the finish against overwhelming Mexican forces. Their last stvà provided the Legion with an Alamo story that, in the 1930s, during a spate of tradition-making, was transformed inlớn an officially cherished legend—Camerone!—promoting the idea that true legionnaires hold the orders they receive sầu before life itself.

Between 1870 & 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 & 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 lớn 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, & its very laông xã of patriotic purpose turned out khổng lồ be the attributes that have sầu molded it inlớn 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 khổng lồ fight the Chinese in Indochimãng cầu, said, in loose translation, “You! Legionnaires! You are soldiers meant to die, và I am sending you lớn the place where you can vị it!” Apparently the legionnaires admired him. In any case, he was right. They died there, & also in various African colonies for reasons that must have sầu seemed unimportant even at the time. Then came the First World War và a return lớn France, where 5,931 legionnaires lost their lives. During the interwar period, with the Legion having returned to lớn North Africa, Hollywood caught on & 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 lớn war in Indochimãng cầu, 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 lớn explain dying to lớn him. He said, “It’s lượt thích this. There is no point in trying khổng lồ underst&. Time is unimportant. We are dust from the stars. We are nothing at all. Whether you die at age 15 or 79, in a thousvà years there is no significance to it. So fuck off with your worries about war.”

With the French withdrawal from Indochina, the Legion returned khổng lồ 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 lớn defover the integrity of France. These were dangerous delusions for officers lớn 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 sầu killings, và atrocities on all sides. The Foreign Legion committed its giới thiệu of the crimes. It also lost 1,976 men. Altogether perhaps a million people died. It won’t matter in a thousvà 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 và 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 lớn reverse the tide by seizing cities in Algeria, killing Charles de Gaulle, và installing a military junta in Paris. They made their move sầu 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 stuông chồng to lớn 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 thử nghiệm site lớn keep it from falling inkhổng lồ the hands of rogue forces. But the conspiracy was hopelessly ill-conceived. On the second day, after de Gaulle appealed for tư vấn, the conscripted citizen-soldiers who made up the overwhelming majority of men in the armed forces took matters inkhổng lồ their own hands & mutinied against the conspirators. The coup failed. The chief conspirators were arrested, 2đôi mươi officers were relieved of their comm&, another 800 resigned, và the rebellious Foreign Legion parachute regiment was disbanded. The paratroopers were unrepentant. Some of them deserted to lớn join the OAS, an ultra-right terrorist group that launched a bombing chiến dịch. When the others left their Algerian garrison for the last time, they lịch sự an Edith Piaf tuy vậy, “No, I Regret Nothing.”

The Legion emerged from the experience reduced lớn 8,000 men & reassigned to lớn bases in southern France, where it spent the next decade doing little more than marching around & building roads. The trauma was deep. This is a sensitive sầu subject, & 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 comtháng at closed social gatherings lớn hear even young officers regretting the loss of Algeria, disparaging Communists, insulting homosexuals, & seething at what they perceive as the decadence và self-indulgence of modern French society. In the southern city of Nîmes, trang chính lớn the Legion’s largest infantry regiment, the Second, a French officer complained lớn 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!”