Vanity Fair contemplates with mixed admiration, fascination, and horror the reactionary brio and romantic history of the French Foreign Legion.
Immediately after World War II, which claimed 9,017 of its men, the Legion went to war in Indochina, where it lost more than 10,000. 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. He said, “It’s like this. There is no point in trying to understand. Time is unimportant. We are dust from the stars. We are nothing at all. Whether you die at age 15 or 79, in a thousand years there is no significance to it. So fuck off with your worries about war.”
With the French withdrawal from Indochina, the Legion returned to Algeria under the command of embittered army officers, many of whom believed that they had been betrayed by the civilian elites and that only they, the officers, had the moral fiber to defend the integrity of France. These were dangerous delusions for officers to have, particularly because the Legion now found itself embroiled in something like a French civil war—the savage eight-year struggle over Algerian independence. It was an emotional fight, characterized by the systematic use of torture, retributive killings, and atrocities on all sides. The Foreign Legion committed its share of the crimes. It also lost 1,976 men. Altogether perhaps a million people died. It won’t matter in a thousand years. For cultural reference, Brigitte Bardot was in her prime.
Near the end, just when the army believed it had prevailed on the battlefield, wiser heads in France—Charles de Gaulle and the French people themselves—realized that Algeria could no longer be held. After negotiations began for a complete French withdrawal, a group of French officers hatched a plan to reverse the tide by seizing cities in Algeria, killing Charles de Gaulle, and installing a military junta in Paris. They made their move on April 21, 1961, starting with the seizure of Algiers by a regiment of Legion paratroopers under the command of Major Hélie de Saint Marc, an officer who, tellingly, is revered within the army today, for having stuck to his principles. Two additional Legion regiments joined the rebellion, as did a number of elite units of the regular French Army. The situation seemed serious enough to the government in Paris that it ordered the detonation of an atomic bomb at a Saharan test site to keep it from falling into the hands of rogue forces. But the conspiracy was hopelessly ill-conceived. On the second day, after de Gaulle appealed for support, the conscripted citizen-soldiers who made up the overwhelming majority of men in the armed forces took matters into their own hands and mutinied against the conspirators. The coup failed. The chief conspirators were arrested, 220 officers were relieved of their command, another 800 resigned, and the rebellious Foreign Legion parachute regiment was disbanded. The paratroopers were unrepentant. Some of them deserted to join the OAS, an ultra-right terrorist group that launched a bombing campaign. When the others left their Algerian garrison for the last time, they sang an Edith Piaf song, “No, I Regret Nothing.”
The Legion emerged from the experience reduced to 8,000 men and reassigned to bases in southern France, where it spent the next decade doing little more than marching around and building roads. The trauma was deep. This is a sensitive subject, and officially denied, but the history of defeat encouraged a reactionary culture in the Legion, where, beneath an appearance of neutral professionalism, the officer corps today harbors virulent right-wing views. It is common at closed social gatherings to hear even young officers regretting the loss of Algeria, disparaging Communists, insulting homosexuals, and seething at what they perceive as the decadence and self-indulgence of modern French society. In the southern city of Nîmes, home to the Legion’s largest infantry regiment, the Second, a French officer complained to me about the local citizens. He said, “They speak about their rights, their rights, their rights. Well, what about their responsibilities? In the Legion we don’t speak about our rights. We speak about our duties!”
I said, “It angers you.”
He looked at me with surprise, as if to say, And you it does not?
1er Régiment Étranger de Parachutistes disbanded 30 April 1961