To be honest, we never cared much for the French, nor as they have made it very clear, did they care much for us, although if it wasn’t for America they would be singing the Horst Wesel song at the Folies Bergère and Wiener Schnitzel would be the specialty of the local McDonald’s. There are some Americans, particularly the female kind, that will jump on anything with a French name. Did anybody ever hear a woman brag to her friends that she was wearing a genuine Finklestein? But take the same rag and put a label on it that says “Chanel” and for the girls at the Mah Jong club, it would be the nearest thing to a weekend at a Holiday Inn with Julio Iglesias. Seltzer, what we used to ask for as “two cents plain” in New York luncheonettes, is after all just carbonated water. Franconise it, and it becomes “Evian” and it costs a dollar a bottle. Anyone who has mingled with Parisian crowds during the summer will understand that necessity is the mother of invention, particularly in the case of the French discovery of perfume. We mention all of this so that it will be clear that we would sooner go to a square dance, or worse yet, a Karaoke bar, than admit that the French have developed a good idea and made it part of what is left of their culture. It is a concept — although it eats our hearts out to admit it — simple, powerful and enduring enough for us to follow.
America now finds itself in a historically unique position. We are the world’s richest, and militarily mightiest, nation. We are also the most envied and probably most hated nation, with some considering us a threat to themselves. We represent the supremacy of democratic ways and modernity over old and autocratic cultures. If we befriend a state, we are instantly considered an enemy of that state’s enemy. If an unjust and evil force becomes empowered, for all intents and purposes, we are the only state that has the power to right an oppressive wrong by ourselves. Even when these responsibilities do not require the actual dispatching of troops to bring the fight to those who would do us harm, in order to maintain our credibility, the rest of the world, friend and foe, and even those who periodically switch these roles must clearly understand that we have the necessary capability, and are poised to strike, ready and waiting for the appropriate political decision.
Things that will do us harm are usually a long time brewing. A political butterfly flaps its wings in some far away place, and over time and distance brings a hurricane to us. Our modern political landscape, stretching from Pearl Harbor to the Twin Towers, is littered with the debris that has resulted from the American mind-set against preventive war. It would require extraordinary popular support for an administration to pry our young men loose from Saturday night at the bowling alley, clean sheets, the sports pages, chilled Heinekens and Monday Night Football, in order to fight other young men who pose no discernible threat to us, in some Godforsaken place they never knew existed, let alone whose name they could even pronounce. The ghost of Vietnam haunts the American psyche. Once a military venture has begun, as time passes it becomes geometrically more difficult to sustain support at home if it becomes attenuated or if the results are ambiguous. Mothers resist their sons being led off to be killed if there is no apparent threat to this country.
In the 19th century the French suffered severe losses through both disease and combat in Algiers and various parts of Africa. Already demoralized French forces were forced to undergo living conditions that were described as “nearly unbearable,” and there was an increasing lack of support from the general population. A solution was at hand.
On March 10, 1831, King Louis Philippe signed a Royal Ordinance creating the French Foreign Legion. The Legion, composed of volunteers from the dregs of the planet — although today it is claimed that only minor criminals are allowed to join — consists of 60% foreigners led by French officers. Although one might question that it is hard to reconcile their motto, to “serve with honor and fidelity,” with such a bunch, the fact is that they have fought with distinction in Indochina, Tonkin, the Crimea, Morocco, Madagascar, North Africa, Zaire, Kuwait, Dahomey, Chad, Mexico and Bosnia.
The Legion offers the flotsam and jetsam of the world the opportunity to start over, with a new name and a new identity. It is a hard life (although corporal punishment is only dispensed in isolated cases), membership is basically equivalent to a five-year prison sentence. Nevertheless, there is no manpower shortage. Each year the Legion accepts 1,500 new members out of approximately 100,000 applicants.
It would seem that an American Foreign Legion makes perfect sense any way in which it is viewed. We would still, of course, in a time of conflict, immediately utilize our Air Force and Navy. But for boots on the ground — the place where the waiting body bags are waiting to be filled — it would be our Foreign Legion that would be sent in. This does not mean that we would still not maintain our highly mobile, technically superb army. It does mean that more of these young men and women would finish their tours of duty and come home under their own power.