Here Comes the Foreign Legion

A great French institution shows no signs of slowing down.

By From the February 2010 issue

It was my first quatorze juillet in Paris. I followed the crowds over to the Champs Elysées to watch the traditional Bastille Day parade flow down the cobblestones from the Arc de Triomphe, and a splendid sight it was: the silver-helmeted Gardes Républicaines bobbing on horseback, the impeccably aligned army, navy, and air force companies, followed by the proud, self-conscious cadets of the military academies, all marching to some of the world's most rousing martial music-when it comes to putting on a military pageant, the British and French uniformed services, among the last bastions of Europe's millennial traditions, are superb.

As the parade neared its end, the crowd stirred expectantly, necks craning. A low murmur rippled from the Arc down to the reviewing stand at Place de la Concorde: "Voilà! C'est la Légion!" Cheers and applause mounted as the Foreign Legion's band passed, playing its strangely solemn hymn "Le Boudin," followed by the Legion's company, every crease and white képi in place, every assault rifle at the same angle, marching with their trademark slow swagger. The overwhelming impression was of a relentless, ruthless fighting machine. You wouldn't want to get in its way.

The French public loves the Legion, partly for the macho mystique of its roguish, glory-filled past, partly because so many Legionnaires have given their lives for their adopted country, and partly because it is still easier, as it has been for its 178-year history, to send foreigners out to get shot at than the sons of voting French mamans. Its reputation for iron discipline and feats of arms long ago spread far beyond France's borders. Today this unique band of 7,600 professional soldiers from some 140 countries has become a familiar sight in the nasty, ambiguous little conflicts of the post-Cold War era. From Beirut to Bosnia, Cambodia to the Congo, and now Afghanistan, "The Foreign Legion is coming" has meant hope for some, fear for others, depending.

In Brazzaville, the besieged capital of the Congo Republic just over a decade ago, it literally meant life or death for thousands of terrified foreign residents behind barricaded doors. Flies fed on bloated corpses as rival Cobra and Zulu militias, drugged and drunk, bturned the city into a charred, chaotic battlefield. Then early one morning armored personnel carriers of the Legion's elite 2nd Foreign Airborne Regiment rumbled up Avenue Charles de Gaulle. At a roadblock, wild-eyed Cobra militiamen charged up spoiling for a fight, waving machine guns and grenades, ordering everybody out of the olive drab vehicles. A Legion captain coolly got down and said matter-of-factly, "We're not looking for a fight, but we're going evacuate any foreign civilians who want to leave." The Cobras looked over the 15 crack Legionnaires with automatic assault rifles and fixed bayonets, and thought again: "Okay, okay, go ahead," their leader muttered.

Despite skirmishes costing them a number of casualties, the Legion methodically saved 5,265 civilians of 52 nationalities, including nearly 100 Americans. One of its last tasks was to escort U.S. ambassador Aubrey Hooks to Maya Maya airport. "They did an absolutely superb job in a very difficult situation," he said later. "They were extremely professional and took a humanitarian approach, going back repeatedly to be sure they had gotten everyone out." Tokens of gratitude poured in from those who owed their lives to the Legion, including a Chinese woman whose French was limited to a heartfelt merci.

A HUMANITARIAN ROLE as international rescuer and peacekeeper is a far cry from the Legion's initial mission, just as today's professionals are a different breed from its original ragtag bunch of scoundrels. When King Louis Philippe created "a Legion of Foreigners" in 1831 to conquer new colonies, he knew that many would be on the run from the law. Recruiters asked few questions, new names and birth certificates were freely granted. For decades these dregs of society slogged through the deserts and jungles of France's empire. They weren't always covered with glory: in 1842 the disgusted governor-general of French Algeria reported to Paris, "They fight badly, they march badly, they desert often." (The Legion had its way of dealing with deserters: it paid North African tribesmen to bring them back, dead or alive. They found it easier just to return the decapitated head to a Legion fort, to which his official papers would be attached.)

But slowly the Legion began to earn its stripes. When France's puppet emperor in Mexico, Maximilian, needed propping up in 1863, a small Legion unit was sent. Attacked on April 30 by 2,000 Mexican troops, Captain Jean Danjou's company of 65 men held out in a dilapidated hacienda in the village of Camerone until their ammunition ran out and nearly all were killed. In response to the Mexican demand for surrender, the last five standing fixed bayonets and charged into a withering volley of fire. "These are not men," the awed Mexican commander exclaimed, "but demons."

A legend was born and 20th-century novelists and filmmakers developed it. British writer P.C. Wren's Beau Geste in 1924, with its Fort Zinderneuf under attack by Touaregs and Beau dying at his post, set the tone and was adapted for the screen several times. The 1930 Hollywood classic Morocco had Marlene Dietrich following her Legionnaire lover Gary Cooper through the Sahara (and speaking her lines phonetically for lack of English). It won Academy Awards for both her and its director, Josef von Sternberg, which is more than can be said for the 1950 farce Abbott and Costello in the Foreign Legion. Edith Piaf famously sang "Mon Légionnaire" about her soldier who refused to give his name. It only remained for Frank Sinatra to croon, "If you turn me down once more, I'll join the French Foreign Legion / Bet you they would welcome me with open arms."

Bet they would. Over the years the Legion has welcomed defrocked bishops and gentlemen running from gambling debts or girl trouble, along with escapees from the Bolsheviks like Georgian prince Dimitri Amilakhvari. Its who's who also includes Henri Bourbon-Orleans, Count of Paris and pretender to the throne of France, who enlisted as Swiss citizen Henri Orliac, and Prince Napoleon, both of whom joined in 1939 as privates. The prince of Bavaria, Albert Frederick von Hohenzollern, Prince Louis II of Monaco, and Ali Khan did tours. Artists and writers too: German painter Hans Hartung, Hungarian author Arthur Koestler, and songwriter Cole Porter all wore the Legion uniform.

During World War I the Legion garnered an impressive list of distinguished service citations on its way to creating one of the longest combat records of any elite unit in modern history. This was the great period of American enlistment. A mixed lot, American recruits included Bob Scanlon, a black boxer from Ohio, and Charles Sweeney, fresh out of West Point. David King, Victor Chapman, and Andrew Champollion were Harvard graduates. Algernon Sartoris was a grandson of Ulysses S. Grant. Then there was Alan Seeger, a Harvard-educated poet who was killed in the first suicidal attack at the Battle of the Somme on July 1, 1916, at the age of 28. A poem, "I have a rendezvous with death," was found on his body. Today the church bell that rings out over the village of Belloy-en-Santerre is a commemorative gift from Seeger's family.

During World War II, when the Legion carried out missions from Narvik, Norway, to Bir Hakeim in Libya, losing 9,000 men in the process, many German Legionnaires unhesitatingly fought against Germany. But as France's colonial empire wound down after the war, the Legion, which had served for 72 years in Indochina, found itself trapped at Dien Bien Phu in April-May 1954. The wily Viet Minh general Vo Nguyen Giap surrounded the Legion's dug-in positions and rained shells on them for two weeks before sending in his troops. The Legionnaires held out for 56 days, often calling for their artillery to pound their own posts as the Viets swarmed over them. A Legion medic later recalled, "Some with one arm amputated would say they could still throw grenades, men who had lost a leg propped themselves against a tree with a machine gun, one who had lost an eye said ‘It's easier now, doc, I don't have to close it to aim.'" When the massacre was over the Legion had lost 9,714 dead and 10,201 taken prisoner -- and France's colonialist regime was finished. For this outfit that perversely celebrates its heroic sacrifices as much as its victories, another legend was born.

WHO ARE THESE MEN with false names, many of whom came to the Legion for one last chance, more than 36,000 of whom have died serving it? How do they merit their many accolades, such as that of the American military historian Douglas Porch, who writes, "There can be few, if any, units that have produced such a sustained record of combat performance"?

It's easy enough to enlist. All a man has to do is sign up at a recruiting station on French soil -- the hard part comes later. French police have been known to let illegal immigrants through if they are heading for the Legion; one recruit recently bicycled in from Mongolia. French citizens are legally forbidden to join unless they are already officers in the regular army -- it's one of the Legion's worst-kept secrets that French recruits routinely enlist under Swiss or Canadian "declared identity." Of the approximately 10,000 hopefuls who knock on the Legion's door annually, only around 1,000 will make it even as far as boot camp. "In the past, when we had five times as many troops and big combat losses, we had to take more questionable recruits," a Legion officer told me. "Now we can be choosy and take only the biggest and smartest."

Some, surely, are petty delinquents, though the Legion never, ever, says who. An ID card is preferred, but if there's none then background checks -- often with national police forces and Interpol -- are pushed harder. Besides thorough psychological, medical, and physical exams, the Legion always has members on hand who can question candidates in their own language. Those guilty of violent crime, child molesters, drug traffickers and addicts are virtually certain to be excluded.

And women. "Impossible," a Legion general told me. "There has never been a woman in the Legion and there never will be. The day you introduce women, our special camaraderie is gone. Besides, we're an assault force and that's not women's work." Another reason stems from the Legion's international character; women and their role are viewed quite differently by soldiers from some of the cultures represented in its ranks. In any case, being politically correct is definitely not one of the Legion's many traditions.

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."

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About the Author

Joseph A. Harriss is The American Spectator's Paris correspondent. His latest book, An American Spectator in Paris, was released this fall.