A great French institution shows no signs of slowing down.
(Page 2 of 2)
Given the economic conditions in Eastern Europe, the Legion gets lots of eager candidates from the region — one employment agency in Budapest advertised that the Legion was hiring and proposed transport to the nearest recruiting station in France. Oddly, some Japanese recruits enlist because they think a Legion tour looks good on their CV. Former Red Army officers have also shown up. They say a Legion general reviewing new troops thought he recognized one of the men. “What were you before joining the Legion?” he asked. “A general, general,” the recruit replied, snapping to attention.
ACTUALLY BECOMING A LEGIONNAIRE starts at the 4th Foreign Regiment at Castelnaudary in southwestern France with four months of boot camp, twice as much as the regular French army, of which the Legion is an integral, a special, part. Recruits are immediately shipped out to the boondocks to rough it for a month in a “cohesion phase,” a complete break with ordinary life when they bond, whatever a new buddy’s nationality or language. The result, for these men without a country, is a near-fanatical dedication to an ideal: the Legion itself, whose motto, Legio Patria Nostra (the Legion is our homeland), says it all.
This ideal itself creates unusually strong bonding. Legionnaires never leave a wounded comrade on the battlefield; in combat they often shield officers with their bodies. In return, officers leave their families at home on Christmas Day to spend it with their men — and these tough guys delight in decorating their posts with traditional Nativity scenes. Officers also serve their troops breakfast in bed on the Legion’s annual day, April 30. “This camaraderie is no myth,” says Captain Joel Bonis, a veteran of the 13th Foreign Demi-Brigade in Djibouti on the Horn of Africa. “The other evening I was in a bar with a civilian friend and he pretended to throw a punch at me. Suddenly a Legionnaire was pinning his arms behind him, growling, ‘Nobody lays a hand on a Legion captain.’”
Still, discipline is strict and punishment swift, though the days are past when an officer might run his saber through a Legionnaire’s chest for murmuring in the ranks, or a drill sergeant punch out a recruit for neglecting to shave. “It’s tough, but not in a stupid or brutal way,” Alex Lochrie, retired Scottish Legion veteran and author of the recent Fighting for the French Foreign Legion, told me. “Legionnaires are hardened during training so they don’t suddenly find themselves disoriented in combat conditions like forces that rely heavily on reservists. The result is that only a small number of them suffer from Posttraumatic Stress Disorder.”
For many, the hardest hurdle is the French language itself. The drill sergeant’s first phrase is usually, “Those who can understand French, sit down.” Those still standing quickly learn survival French, with every instruction session a language lesson. Any time left over is spent ironing the proud uniform, with no fewer than 15 precisely placed creases in the shirt to pass inspection. Besides intensive training in basic soldier’s tradecraft, recruits spend weeks learning to march at the Legion’s special cadence — 88 steps a minute, vs. the usual 120 for other armies — a pace that gives the impression they are still subconsciously tramping through the Sahara. And while marching, they have drilled into them the Legion’s traditional songs: slow, melancholy chants that refer to suffering and solitude as the Legionnaire’s lot.
After boot camp, actual combat training at an assigned unit starts early, ends late, and hones men to a sharp edge. As a British sergeant (with this outfit you don’t ask names or hometowns) who instructs sniper marksmanship told me, “This is the way soldiering should be, highly trained and disciplined. Give a Legionnaire an order and it’s done and done right. Other outfits today are too lax.” I saw some of this training at the 2nd Foreign Airborne Regiment’s base on the Mediterranean island of Corsica.
This is the Legion’s crème de la crème, priding itself on jumping at lower altitudes, higher speeds, and more tightly bunched than any other airborne troops. In a rugged, remote area of the island, I watched a squad, uniforms dark with sweat, practice patrol tactics. They dived to take cover when “enemy” fire crackled just ahead. Suddenly a hand grenade came out of nowhere and landed beside the point man. He was reaching down to throw it back when it exploded — covering him with white flour. “You’re lucky that was a practice grenade,” his sergeant bellowed. “They only throw grenades back at the enemy in war movies, you idiot. In real combat you hit the ground as far away as you can jump.”
AT DAWN NEXT MORNING I was jammed in with 80 troops in full combat gear, heavy backpacks and two parachutes each, aboard a deafening military transport. When the jump master raised his arms like an orchestra conductor, sticks of men on both sides of the plane sprang up, hooked their static lines to overhead cables and crowded toward the open rear doors. Suddenly a red signal light went green, a klaxon shrieked, and the assistant jump masters at each door began screaming “Go! Go! Go!” The pumped-up Legionnaires piled out almost on top of each other — two per second according to my watch.
We climbed to 8,500 feet and the Legion’s elite commando jumpers in fluorescent red helmets repeated the operation with flying wings. They went into free fall for long, breathtaking seconds before popping their chutes. Circling above the drop zone, deftly controlling direction and speed, they landed on a small bull’s-eye in the middle of the zone. In combat they can drift like that for miles into enemy territory at night on commando jobs without being seen or heard.
Today the Legion is putting its experience in the world’s hellholes to good use in the foothills of Afghanistan’s Hindu Kush as part of NATO’s American-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF). First thing its contingent of 800 men (integrated with France’s 3,400-man contingent) did on setting up their Tora base in the Surobi district east of Kabul was to mark out their turf: clambering onto the HQ roof, they cockily painted Legio Patria Nostra in big white letters. With NATO’s rules of engagement emphasizing making nice with the local population, there have been no legendmaking heroics, Taliban insurgents usually melting away into villages after taking sniper shots at them. The ISAF commander, General Stanley McChrystal, dropped by for a get-acquainted visit, telling the French commander he had grown up as a big admirer of the Legion and congratulating him on his troops.
Legionnaires, of course, are used to basking in American admiration. So impressed was General H. Norman Schwarzkopf by the Legion’s performance in the 1991 Operation Desert Storm that he presented it with his famous four-star cap as a token of esteem. But perhaps the highest praise has come from that other elite fighting outfit, the U.S. Marine Corps, whose official Gazette once concluded, “No combat unit surpasses the Legion in wartime exploits, professionalism, and courage.”
A man of faith in a godless age is hitting Americans where it hurts.
Mr. and Mrs. American Spectator Reader, let P.J. O’Rourke talk sense to your kids.
In Britain, defending your property can get you life.
The debacle of this president’s administration is both a cause and a symptom of the decline of American values. Unless Congress impeaches him, that decline will go on unchecked. An eminent jurist surveys the damage and assesses the chances for the recovery of our culture.
It won’t take long for conservatives to scratch this presidential wannabe off their 2008 scorecard.
The American Christmas, like the songs that celebrate it, makes room for everybody under the rainbow. Is that why so many people seem to be hostile to it?
Was the President done in by the economy, or by the politics of the economy?