Sunday, March 13, 2016

The Centurions

The Centurions (this edition 1962, E.P. Dutton, originally published in French as Les Centurions, 1960, Presses de la Cité) is the last in my impromptu trilogy of books-about-irregular-warfare.  But the best!  Despite some structural issues (plot deviations and narrative oddities that could simply be a result of translation), this novel was transporting and thought-provoking and ultimately fascinating.  Not unlike the French wars in Indochina and Algeria, it was unwieldy and disturbing and a long slog but I couldn't put it down.

Once you read the wikipedia entry on author Jean Lartéguy, The Centurions makes so much more sense.  Lartéguy was a soldier and war correspondent, which of course informs his work of fiction about soldiers who are part of the end of French engagement in Indochina and the beginning of the end of French Algeria.  He basically says this in his Author's Note at the beginning, but if you don't know much about the Algerian War, it won't make a big impact on you.  In any case, this isn't really a novel about geopolitics (although some would argue that it is that before anything else) but a story of soldiers at the tail-end of the modern imperial era, their relationship to the mother country, and the profound changes in warfare wrought by the ideological conflicts of the second half of the 20th c. The Centurions is about how soldiers engage with these issues, especially the last one.

In addition to the Author's Note, Lartéguy prefaces his story with a quote from Marcus Flavinius, a Centurion in the 2nd Cohort of the Augusta Legion.  Flavinius is depressed to learn that the citizens of Rome may no longer support those fighting to protect the far reaches of the Roman Empire.  He warns the cousin to whom is writing that "if it should be otherwise, if we should have to leave our bleached bones on these desert sands in vain, then beware of the anger of the Legions!"  You don't need a sheepskin from Harvard to see where Lartéguy is going with this.

The novel is divided into three parts:  Camp One (Indochina), The Colonel from Indochina (France), and Rue de la Bombe (Algieria).  The story opens with French soldiers having just surrendered to the Vietminh at Dien Bien Phu in 1954.  You follow a loose group of soldiers that has a band-of-brothers sensibility to it:  there is the aristrocrat (de Glatigny), the risen-through-the-ranks colonel (Raspéguy), the intellectual (Esclavier), the mercenary/intelligence agent (Boisfeuras) - I'm essentializing terribly here, but that's kind of how war novels go.  All of them are veterans of the war against Germany - some in the Resistance, some in the Regular forces, but all had participated, and bravely.  There are also some peripheral characters in the prison camp, who stay part of the story as it moves forward.  It took me a while to sort out who was who, and I'm not sure if this is because Lartéguy didn't draw his characters sharply enough, or if I'm displaying some kind of microaggression (all French names sound the same!).  At any rate, it really took me almost until the second section to gain a deeper understanding of all of them.

The prisoners endure terrible conditions, of course, and some die (many, actually, in the real thing), but the point of this section is to a) show how enduring extreme hardship bonds these men closer than family and b) what it means to fight an ideological war.  The more thoughtful of the soldiers, while they decry the absolute power that Communism requires in order to achieve its goals, understand and even in some way admire the dedication and sacrifice that the Vietminh are making.  They return to a France that considers them kind-of heroes (they fought bravely) but also kind of wants to forget them (France lost because of them).  No one wants to hear what they have to say about this new kind of enemy for which national honor is meaningless unless it comes with an absolute power dynamic that turns every resource toward the goal of victory.  Soldiers who speak of the former enemy in this manner are tagged Communists.  Basically, the survivors return, nobody understands them, and they find that they can only be understood by their former brothers-in-arms.

Does this sound familiar?  Yes, we did not learn from the French, perhaps foolishly assuming that they were just shedding the last remnants of a has-been empire while we were defeating an evil one.  You know, just because it is recent history doesn't mean you can't learn from it.

But I digress from the plot.  After returning, Colonel Raspéguy, who doesn't care much what anyone in charge thinks, and has so many medals from displaying so much crazy courage in the far east that he basically tells the French command that he's going to start his own regiment, with hand-picked officers (guess who) and a bunch of rag-tag, mutineering recruits, and they'll go to Algeria and show those rebels there what for.  And they do, the recruits are transformed by his tough leaders into soldiers who fight first for each other, then to win, then to punish whomever they are supposed to punish, and only then maybe for some vague ideal of France.  In short, they are a kind of mercenary band, under French command.  They battle the Algerian nationalists brutally, are pulled out to deal with the Suez crisis, are pissed that they can't just take Cairo, then are brought back to forcibly suppress nationalist activity in Algiers.  They must use questionable tactics to accomplish this, and claim to be unhappy about it (they are soldiers, they say, not policemen), and end up back in the Algerian mountains, patrolling the perimeter of the French empire, like Marcus Flavinius above.  The end is rather obvious, but, I gather, based in reality, so Lartéguy's overlay of ancient history isn't entirely off-base.

Distractingly, there are some love interests toward the end of the book, including the almost-laughable one where the French paratrooper thaws the beautiful-but-frigid French Algerian woman, or the colonel beds a teenager much to the delight of her family.  Oh wait, and how about the officer and prisoner who fall on each other passionately as soon as the other interrogator is out of the room?  I found these unnecessary but suppose they are part of what happens when soldiers hang around long enough.  Still, there is a sense that if only the rest of the population had fallen at their feet like the ladies did, none of that Algerian messiness would have happened.

This is, of course, a terribly brief and not very good synopsis of this almost 500-page novel.  The narrative is more or less clear, but there are a lot of characters to keep track of, and if you don't buy into the basic premise of our-army-knows-better-than-your-government you will not want to stick with it.  And I'm not quoting as I usually do because I didn't have enough bookmarks to save all the places I wanted to save, and couldn't turn the corners of the pages down else Bill would get mad at me for defacing library books.  But I do want to make it clear that if you are interested in soldiers, modern warfare, 20th c. world history, the West's engagement with Communism and Islam (for that, not the former, is the issue in Algeria - more prescience from Lartéguy!), or even just France (because it isn't all croissants and the Tour Eiffel), you should read this book as an artifact, or primary source, if nothing else.*  I've encountered the notion of combat bonds before, and if you read about soldiers at all you know about this, but the scope of the story - from Vietnam to France to Algeria - and the clearly-developed agenda is what sets this apart.  Were there really soldiers who drew so inward, who used the military to advance their own aims, who learned in Vietnam what they thought they needed to do in Algeria?  Did France really just not know what to do with herself?  If you are a follower of wikipedia threads as I am, you will learn that this is all more or less true.  Per the entry on Lartéguy, some of his characters are pretty clearly based on real-life figures.  And they weren't nice people.  They may have thought they were doing the right thing but there is a whole means-and-ends question surrounding that war.  And as for Algeria, it is important to remember (or to learn because who in America actually knows anything about the Algerian War?) that this was a terribly nasty modern war, where French actions offer yet another recent-history lesson in counterinsurgency.

Hoo boy, I am rambling here.  I've read a series of books, just happening to go in order from idolizing our Communist comrades during the Second World War to being beaten by them afterwards.  By The Centurions the ideology has receded, replaced by force for force' sake.  It is hard to condense this compelling tale, and I suppose many of you won't read it unless you have to for school or something.  There is apparently a movie, "Lost Command," and a sequel - The Praetorians.  I don't know if I need more justification of French brutality in Algeria, but the movie, well, et tu, Netflix?

*And there are the the larger questions of nationalism, colonization, ideology, and self-determination.  We think it is awesome that we threw off the British yoke (with French help!), so why demonize the Algerians, as the French generally did, when they tried to do the same?

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