Delenda Est Carthago

Why not delve into a twisted mind? Thoughts on the world, history, politics, entertainment, comics, and why all shall call me master!

Name:
Location: Mesa, Arizona, United States

I plan on being the supreme dictator of the country, if not the world. Therefore, you might want to stay on my good side. Just a hint: ABBA rules!

14.1.05

What I've been reading

The French Foreign Legion: A Complete History of the Legendary Fighting Force by Douglas Porch
HarperCollins Publisher, 1991

I've been slogging through this massive book for a while now, not because it's bad, but because it's over 600 pages long and I usually only read at night when I'm going to bed. So it's taken me a while, but it was worth it. This is a fascinating look at the Foreign Legion, which if Americans know at all they know from 1930s movies, which (and I'm going out on a limb here) probably don't show the reality of being a legionnaire. It's also trendy to deride everything French these days, but the Foreign Legion is a very interesting group of mercenaries who have fought well in the past and continue to provide support for various military endeavors around the world (at the time this book was published, they were in the Persian Gulf).

I enjoyed the book, because Porch doesn't simply settle for a blow-by-blow narrative, although he doesn't shy away from it. He examines what it means to be a legionnaire, and why the Legion attracted certain types of people, and how the Legion itself promoted a myth of high adventure in the deserts of North Africa and what that meant to the legionnaires. As a group of mercenaries, the Legion never enjoyed the kind of good press "national" armies enjoyed, as the public tended to look down at it because the men weren't fighting for a "cause" even as Hollywood and books romanticized the idea of being in the Legion. Porch ably demonstrates this dichotomy throughout the book, as uses first-hand accounts of legionnaires who joined for the adventure and found the reality was unexpected. There is a great deal in the book about who the men were, where they came from, what they expected, what they got, and how they dealt with it. The Legion is much more than a Beau Geste myth, and Porch does a fine job explaining this.

He also does well with the actual military campaigns of the Legion. The force was created in 1831 to respond to the need of the French to pacify their new possession in Algeria, and from there it expanded to fulfill France's desire to create an overseas empire. Porch argues that the Legion was necessary for France's imperial glory, as successive French governments, from the Second Empire to the Fourth Republic, were unwilling to send native French troops to faraway places to die (although a large percentage of legionnaires were, in fact, French). So the Legion was used whenever the French believed things might get messy. Porch devotes a long chapter to the Legion in Spain in the late 1830s, a part of European history I was unfamiliar with. He also goes into the Legion in Mexico in the 1860s, the conquest of Tonkin in the 1880s, and the Legion's adventures in Dahomey and Madagascar.

The bulk of the book is devoted to the twentieth century, because the sources are better and defeat is usually more interesting than victory, and France has seen its share of defeats since World War I. The Legion was used in both World Wars, and Porch writes diligently about their actions, even a strange expedition to Norway in 1940. He also gets into the split that occurred in the Legion, like in France, when the government capitulated to the Nazis in 1940. He goes over the Rif War in Morocco in the 1920s, when the Legion was building its own legend thanks to propaganda written by the behest of its top commanders. This returns to the psychology of being a legionnaire, and how the Legion saw itself as a kind of priesthood, with rituals and relics that were almost worshipped. Part of this, Porch argues, is why the Legion felt so betrayed when Charles de Gaulle gave up Algeria.

Of course, the two longest sections of the book deal with Indochina and Algeria. Dien Bien Phu gets its own chapter, as does the Battle of Algiers. These two wars killed the French empire, and almost killed the Legion. Porch examines the military failings of the two wars, as well as shows how the Legion fought well despite these failings. In fact, Porch argues that France was on the cusp of destroying the drive for Algerian independence when de Gaulle simply let North Africa go, which led to open rebellion against the Fifth Republic in 1961. It's an interesting part of history that, naturally, doesn't show up in American schools (not because American schools are bad, but because it's not in any way connected to American history).

Porch's book has drawbacks. First, the maps are bad. When I read a history book, especially one as massive as this, I'd like better and more maps. The map of Dien Bien Phu is two chapters before the one about the battle! The maps are poorly drawn, as well. It's a minor criticism, but it bugged me. Second, Porch, although he admits he's interested in writing a straight narrative history of the Legion, still drops the ball in this regard a few times, especially when it comes to the larger backstory of French history. I would have liked to know the circumstances of how the French ended up in Algeria in the first place. Porch treats in like a fait accompli, even though the French went to Algeria in 1830, only a year before the establishment of the Legion. Porch also doesn't really explain why Dien Bien Phu ended French rule in Vietnam. We know it did, but why? He just goes over the battle and then assumes we all know why the French abandoned Southeast Asia. It bugged me. He also ignored the Legion's "conquest" of Morocco in the early 1900s (I put it in quotes because I'm not sure the Legion had anything to do with it). He mentions the Moroccan crisis of 1907-08 a few times (which almost led to war with Germany) but doesn't really do into it. As there were a large percentage of Germans in the Legion, it seems that it would warrant more than just a mention.

Possibly the most interesting aspect of the book is something Porch did not know he was writing about, and that's how the book reflects the political situation in the States today. I'm not going to get into the shithole Iraq has become, but it's fascinating to read about the situation in Vietnam in the 1940s and '50s and Algeria in the 1950s and '60s and compare it to how the Bush administration is handling the Iraqi insurgents. It amazes me once again that although I can accept that Bush doesn't read the newspapers, he doesn't have anyone around him with the balls to read history and explain it to him. I mean, Condoleeza Rice is a smart woman, isn't she? She knows history. When you read about the Viet Minh and Mao's tactics on fighting a guerrilla war and the FLN in Algeria and how they ultimately turned the population against the French, you can't help but think about the situation in Iraq. It's interesting.

Overall, this is a good book if you're interested in military history or French history or even European history in general. It takes you inside a force that's unique, at least in modern history (mercenaries were commonly prior to Napoleon). Go buy it! What are you waiting for?

3 Comments:

Blogger Richard said...

Hey...a great review of the LKegion book...made me plan to read it. Thanks


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16/1/05 3:31 PM  
Blogger Greg said...

No problem. That's what I'm here for.

18/1/05 8:08 PM  
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