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Friday, October 01, 2010

The hard truth about the French Foreign Legion

NY Review of Books: The world contains more misfits, sadists, masochists, and people who enjoy fighting than we sometimes like to suppose. How else can one explain the fact that the French Foreign Legion is heavily overrecruited? In an age when most of the world’s armies strive to make military service a less bestial and more enlightened experience than it used to be, the Legion still drives its trainees to scrub floors manically, fold kit and uniforms with obsessive precision, and march, march, march. ...

The Legion did much service to France in its colonial wars—by 1925 twelve battalions were deployed in Morocco alone. Windrow compares its experience to that of the US Army in America’s earlier frontier wars. Its soldiers were seldom required to display much initiative or imagination. They were merely expected to march, suffer, fight, and die for five centimes a day, with a minimum of reflection, much less complaint. One unit in Morocco in 1900 marched 1,134 miles in seventy-two days, losing only six of four thousand men to sickness. Most of the remainder reached barracks with their broken boots held together with wire and string. ...

It is safe to assume that only a tiny minority of the readers of this book have ever known lives of real Third World hardship, hunger, superstition, and arbitrary violence without appeal. For the nineteenth-century European underclasses such experiences might be the norm…. When men born into such conditions were offered [in the Legion] regular meals, a comprehensible system of reward and punishment, clearly-defined tasks and a sense of collective self-esteem, they could be shaped into a weapon, but it would remain a rather indiscriminate one….

Before [World War I]…people simply did not question the need for wars nor the moral status of those who fought them, and the things that might happen on campaign were no business of civilians; after all, the adversaries that they were fighting never took prisoners themselves, except with the very worst of intentions.


Both sides displayed absolute ruthlessness in the Legion’s long, inconclusive struggle with the North African tribes. All the combatants were men of their time, and what passes for civilization was far away. These two books go far to explain the enduring fascination of the Legion for armchair warriors and historians. But only the foolish seek to romanticize this bleak, cruel fighting machine, loyal only to its own.

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