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New Tales of the French Foreign Legion—Advance Look
I saw the French Foreign Legion just once, marching slow, dire and perfect at the end of a Bastille Day parade on the Champs Elysees. They marched at the funereal legion pas, 88 steps a minute instead of the standard 120—carrying not rifles but polished axes, and wearing buffalo leather aprons as if intending fabulous and deliberate carnage in their white kepi hats, their white gloves, their beards.
These were the Pioneers, a unit that harks back to the Legion’s founding in 1831, when foreigners with axes were recruited to demolish defenses of the great unwashed of Algeria. Legionnaires were the worldwide muscle of the French empire, la mission civilisatrice which would come full circle and end in defeat for the Legion in Algeria in 1962. Some of those defeated legionnaires had been defeated earlier in Indochina, and many of those in turn had been defeated as Wehrmacht Germans in World War II.
There has been much defeat in Legion history—it’s easy to name catastrophes, hard to recall victories.
A Legion general in the 1880s: “You legionnaires are soldiers marked for death and I am sending you where you can die.”
America’s Alan Seeger, an upper-class bohemian legionnaire, became immortal in poetry anthologies by writing: “I have a rendezvous with death.” He died in 1916 at the Battle of the Somme.
The trick is to find glory in death, in the manner of the Alamo. Here lies the Legion’s allure—in its reveling in lost causes, in fighting to the last man, in the old tattoo credo: Death Before Dishonor. This is one of the deeper, crazier and more eternal mysteries of manhood, and probably no one is better than the Legion at making it a philosophy.
Its greatest holiday commemorates the defeat at the Battle of Camaron in 1863.
Under Captain Jean Danjou, who had a prosthetic hand carved from wood, 65 men vowed to fight to the death against 3,000-or-so Mexican soldiers. They fought, they died. When the last five ran out of ammunition, they attacked the Mexicans with their bayonets. Three survived, along with the wooden hand, which resides now in the Legion’s Museum of Memory in France, a relic displayed every year on the battle’s anniversary.
This sort of grisly romance provokes the writing of books. The latest is from N.J. Valldejuli, recalling his youth as a prep-school kid who graduated from Kenyon College and then in 1986 disdained the bounties of America and joined the Legion.
“Contented men do not volunteer for the kind of service and commitment the Foreign Legion demands,” he writes in Inside the Foreign Legion: Adventures With the World’s Most Famous Fighting Force.
The stereotype of Legion candidates is spurned lovers or criminals on the run. Valldejuli was neither, he says. But something was wrong. He was working at sales jobs, teaching Spanish at a military school. He read a memoir of the Legion. He flew to France and survived the Legion’s fierce winnowing to become one of the foreigners who constitute 85 percent of the 9000 legionnaires. He lasted two years of a five-year commitment until a medical discharge.
And now, decades later, he has compiled a sizable volume of notes on both his experience and his later research.
With no major combat to report from his short enlistment, he might have dwelled more on the beauty of military life in the Legion mode—the fastidious perfection, the self-abnegating discipline, the pride. But Valldejuli seems more fascinated by the squalor of discontented men who have stranded themselves outside civil society.
“When a good legionnaire isn’t whoring, he’s usually drinking and later fighting,” he says.
Young men of this ilk, everywhere in the world, are looking for trouble. They find it in bars, on motorcycles, in riots at soccer stadiums, in gang wars. They tend to say “I’m not looking for trouble,” but they are, and they find it. And some of them turn pro by finding their ways into elite military outfits.
Valldejuli writes: “No legionnaire joins thinking of future college financial aid, health care benefits or impressing a civilian employer. A man joins the Legion to fight.”
For some reason hidden in male chromosomes, the ecstasy of violence and vandalism exists side by side with brutal discipline: unquestioning obedience, pointless precision, turning everyday behavior into precise rituals—making beds, shining shoes, walking down the street. Elite military training is ferocious in its suppression of individuality, which in the Legion goes as far as the assigning of new names.
It’s all part of a male pursuit of self-sacrifice, as in the old Marine Corps joke: “The Corps is the finest machine ever devised for the killing of young American men.”
With no imperial wars at hand, the Legion now functions as a sort of constabulary in former French possessions in Africa, Southeast Asia, the South Pacific, and in South America.
On duty in French Guiana, for instance, they guard against illegal gold miners.
Off duty, they delight in disorder. One night, Valldejuli writes, an English legionnaire was killed by civilians in a brawl. His buddies returned a few weeks later with nightsticks. “They just started from one end of the street to the other. Just destroyed everything. Cars, people, shops, everything.”
One legend tells of the “Dance of the Flaming Asshole” in which a Guiana legionnaire shoved newspaper up his anus and set it on fire.
Bar Stool Stories
The book provides little of the colorful history of the Legion and a lot of these stories, the sort of stories veterans swap—rueful but nostalgic anecdotes of outrage and humiliation. Often they are true but the charm they have for the teller does not always survive the telling. This is history as told from the next bar stool.
Men like to pretend that women are the mysterious half of our species but books like this are reminders that men can also exist in a bewildering world of self-absorbed illogic. And we need them there. Not too many of them, mind you, but enough to endure grotesque pain, take ridiculous chances and fight to the death when honor or duty calls, which it does sometimes.
As it happens, there are no women legionnaires. Hard to imagine such a thing, especially the Pioneers commemorating mayhem by slow-marching down the Champs Elysees on Bastille Day, wearing leather aprons, each right shoulder bearing a well-shined axe.
by N.J. Valldejuli
Stackpole Books, December 2023
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