Boulanger pointed at his head. 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. The New Zealander stood and mumbled something indistinct. Why does he not know 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 directed another to crawl underneath. 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. A dirt track led to an upper field. What is he doing? 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 runs, short and long. There were weapon-disassembly-and-cleaning classes. 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.
1. The French don’t waste time
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 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. 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.
To serve! With honor! And loyalty! 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.
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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.
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As for the foreigners of the Foreign Legion, by definition they have always been expendable. The expendability can be measured. Since , when the Legion was formed by King Louis-Philippe, more than 35, 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.
During the pacification of Algeria, legionnaires died. During a foolish intervention in Spain in the s, nearly 9, died or deserted. During the Crimean War, in the s, died. It did not work out. Mexico won, France lost, and Maximilian was shot. Of the 4, legionnaires sent off to help with the war, roughly half did not return. Their last stand provided the Legion with an Alamo story that, in the s, during a spate of tradition-making, was transformed into an officially cherished legend— Camerone! Between and , more than 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. 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.
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You are soldiers meant to die, and I am sending you to the place where you can do it! 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, 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, of its men, the Legion went to war in Indochina, where it lost more than 10, 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. There is no point in trying to understand. Time is unimportant. We are dust from the stars.