Dossier: Legionnaires Blues.
Flowers, vegetables, and bright colors and the cries of market sellers, In the street stalls of Mitrovica the Legionnaires of the 1REC are at home. At the extreme point of the French contingent as part of NATO’s entry into Kosovo, they have opened the way through fields of mines and the last Serb forces in retreat. Collecting intelligence on arms caches and exhuming the dead in fields is for the Legion an operation like others, with moments of exaltation and periods of routine. It is another “tour of duty” that will one day be added onto the regimental flag. Thus in the Legions arsenal, there is enough ammunition and that is a story.
What does Louis the II of Monaco, the painter Stael and the writer Blaise Cendrars, the Count of Paris, Curzio Malaparte or Pierre Messnar have in common? They have all served and left a mark in the Foreign Legion. Like Frederic Rossif or Fernand Gravey and 600 000 others anonymous souls who, since 1831 have signed with their dreams and sometimes their blood into this most unique corps of men in the world. They have all for one instance in their existence wanted to take on a great load. To open a page as pale as their Kepis, a tormented story of months spent in training.
Today the Legion has almost become an eternal myth otherwise threatened by the profesionnalization of the French Armies. The only force that is completely professional it risks becoming banal as the French Armed Forces go through present changes. These changes are serious enough that the General of the Foreign Legion sounds the alarm: “We are going through some turbulent times, the current adjustments may weaken our role or specialty”. The rest of the Army, the so-called “regulars” are shaded by the Legion and envy the popularity, prestige and independence enjoyed by the Kepi Blancs. A fact that is played out every year with the public applause received at the on the 14th of July at the Champs Elysees. As the parade rounds the Presidential Tribune, Place de la Concorde all regiments break in two columns, only the legion remains one solid block refusing ever to be divided.
In the ranks of these “Brothers in Arms”, the Marines whom share with her deployments abroad and in Africa remain exasperated by the singularity of the Legion. Many are not sad to see the restructuring of the professional army imposed on a Legion often accused of gross egoism. However the Legion is not only an image one hundred times celebrated in popular movies, songs and books, it is a system refined down to the finest detail, an organization, a family, a country and a religion that can not live without exception. “If our rules (our way) is no longer recognized, the Legion will cease to exist as present”, says the General Piquemal. What rules? A brief review.
In the Cuin Farm some kilometers from Castelnaudary in the Aude Region of France Sung Yung, has been on his feet some 15 hours. Drunk with fatigue and delirious he repeats over and over in accented French: “I make coffee, you make coffee, he makes coffee”. Sung Yang stares out with folding eyelids, his mouth agape and lips immobile. His battle partner, a French speaker repeats to him “ I make the coffee…” there remains one more month of basic training. The Korean Sun Yang came from the streets of Seoul, he bought an airline ticket and drunk a little before arriving at Roissy. At the end of a train trip on the RER he presented himself at the Recruiting Bureau at the Gare de l’Est and found himself on a train for Aubagne. There they asked him if he wanted to change his name, put on sports attire and submit to a few tests, his origin was irrelevant. One week later with an assigned identity he arrived at the 4eme Regiment de la Legion Etrangere at Castelnaudary, his basic training unit and finally the Farm where he will not leave until after two months and 400 words of French, perfectly digested into his vocabulary. Sung Yang also learns how to strip and reassemble his personal weapon in complete darkness and he will have completed a hundred times the combat obstacle course. One morning at attention before the French flag he receives his Kepi Blanc like thousands before him. That night he drinks himself into a stupor with his new brothers in arms and with them he sings without losing a breath in his Asian accent: “Tien, Voila du Boudin”. This day, Sung Yang has become a Legionnaire.
Once departed the hole of Castelnaudary the five-year contract continues in one of the Legion regiments stationed in France or overseas. In the regiments based in the Midi or in Corsica the Legion is most at home abroad. From the rainforests of Guyanne to the Pacific Atolls and the deserts of Djibouti to the islands of the Indian Ocean, the Legion completes tours of duty and in Africa participates in all operations involving the French military. Often they find themselves in the first line of fire:
Gulf War: The 1REC is at the spearhead of the division Daguet during the night of the ground offensive near the Iraki village of d’As Salman and covered under a sandstorm. The Legionnaires have a dark sense of humor, disappointed in a battle that has been quickly decided: “ Not enough action, lets go on all the way to Bagdhad”, complains a Legionnaire.
Operation Restore Hope, Somalia in 1993. While the Americans are holed up in and pulling out of Mogadishu, the Legion pacifies Baidoa. Many of them are from Djibouti and speak the local Somali, in the back rooms and cafes they easily obtain information on hidden arms caches and troop movements from locals stoned on kat.
Cambodia (1992-93): Despite an unsteady peace, bridges are blown up every night around the temples of Angkor Wat, the next day they are repaired by the engineers of the Legion. Further south the Legion patrols the paddy fields haunted by the Khmer Rouge.
In the ex-Yugoslavia in 1992 during the dark hours of the siege of Sarajevo, the Legion is charged with the protection of the Airport. At the end of the runway a watch post receives sniper fire. “Beret Blue: Nicht Gut! spits a Caporal in his flack jacket with his finger steady on the trigger, unable by orders of the Secretary General of the UN to return fire. The General Piquemal explains the modern role of the Legion this way: “ There is no longer a reason to repeat Camerone, but to participate in peace keeping missions, humanitarian assistance and evacuation of friendly citizens”. “And the legion has no choice. Can you refuse a mission where French Soldiers may be killed? However it is certain that if we had the choice we would prefer combat missions. In this epoch we need to adapt to these new roles often without using our weapons, but by showing our presence”.
It can be said that these changes and the difficulties with them affect employment opportunities. Traditionally the number of draftees in the French Army was eight times greater than professionals were. Since then the proportion has stabilized. As with the rest of the Army the Legion will lose numbers. From 8 500 men it will fall to 7 800 in 2002, French recruits will rise in proportion to foreigners. “ It’s crazy how many Legionnaires arrive from Monaco, Belgium and French Canada” Jokes an Officer. The make up of recruits reflects present and past social upheavals in Europe. For example the number of republican Spaniards following the Spanish Civil War, Germans following the fall of the III Reich, Hungarians after the Budapest revolt, Portuguese after the colonial wars and Americans after Vietnam, Brits after the Falklands. Today Russians and Slavs after the fall of the Berlin Wall, Asians escaping economic hardships and ex-Yugoslavs from the wars flock to the Legion.
Stir, Brew and Mix Blood
I was born in Angola, confesses Da Costa a Portuguese Caporal-Chef. When I had to leave my country of birth I wanted to leave everything behind, my past, my family, my country. With a German friend I hung around Africa for a while in areas not very safe but where we could find some work. Afterwards we both presented ourselves at Fort de Nogent at the Legion Bureau. Together we went back to Africa, to Djibouti. After two years on leave I put on my uniform and went to Portugal to visit my family. When my mother saw me she began to cry, from pride I think”. After 19 years of service the old mercenary Da Costa has only one dream: To obtain his French Nationality and retire one day in Perpignan… A tradition of naturalization which surpasses judicial law in France.
Graz is from Austria and confesses that a money problem brought him to the Legion, he claims: “The Legion reflects the history of France, blood stirred, mixed and mixed again. We are the only immigrants that integrate so well. But it is also true that we are the most military of all the militaries but all that is changing. Today the commanders remain far too intrusive. They take us as men but treat us like kids. Marriage of a Legionnaire is still under the approval and authorization of the Ministry of Defence.”
Imre left his native Hungary because he was sick of a poverty line salary, so while the iron curtain was still up he crossed the barbwire across East Germany. Today he resides in a comfortable house: The Legion is a place where you can start again, without regret or loss of spirit. Today they watch us too closely; they want to weaken the Legion. Before a Caporal was something today you need to be switched onto computers more than combat skills. A Legionnaire in front of a computer! Good for him but not for me! On Humanitarian missions you would think we’ve become a Non Governmental Organization”.
But the Legion has seen four times their present numbers and has been close to disbandment. It surrendered to Spain in 1835, has fought in wars and some say that the Americans offered to buy the Legion when the Communist Party of France vied for its disbandment in 1981 of what it called a “Colonial Army”. It was torn apart during the second war during fighting between forces loyal to DeGaulle and Petain. But it has always survived to remain the only force of foreigners in the world under national command. No other country has achieved this phenomenon. “The secret”, explains an officer “ Is constant contact and trust between officers and men, the Americans are too distant and the British system is worse. Our word and that of our leaders is firm and final, never transgress from discipline but at the same time place yourself in the shoes of the men”.
We’ve been led to understand that to engage in the Foreign Legion is to adopt a new family and a new country, to forget the past and start a new life where the smallest details are looked after. For example the Service of Moral and Foyer of assistance is controlled by few and generates so much money that some might imagine it to be the “Pot of Gold of the Legion”. Where the supposed partnership between the Legion and Brewing companies is creating Legionnaire millionaires and Mafia style syndicates. This could not be farther from the truth, in reality the Legion controls its own financial affairs as a father runs the family, for the benefit of all its members. It finances a holiday resort in the Midi (Malmousque) and an Institution of retired and disabled veterans at Puylobier, where 150 men exist independent of the state social system due mainly to the production of 250 000 bottles of wine annually at their vineyards. The Service of Goods and Merchandise of the Foreign Legion (SAGLE) controls some $US 1 Million Dollars in stock at its outlets (Foyers, Boozers etc). The current price of a Green Beret is $6.77 Euros, a Kepi at 16.5 Euros. The profits generated from these sales is recycled into the Legion and used to assist both active and retired Legionnaires in financial need. Assistance is provided into reintegration and retraining of Legionnaires into civilian life, holiday centers are funded and lodging for veterans provided and self funded by the Legion, not the Ministry of Defence. For example the famous Kepi Blanc magazine is wholly financed by the Legion and prints 15 000 copies per month, distributing to no less than 66 countries.
Legio Patria Nostra originated in 1831 and is thought to have been coined by Polish or German soldiers exiled from their nations for inciting revolution. The Legion still accepts men in need and those seeking a new identity, on the other hand this does not guarantee complete impunity. Contrary to popular myth the Legion rejects blood crimes; the door is permanently closed to murderers. “The Legion still tolerates “bicycle thieves”, those that have outrun the police and the French justice systems recognizes and accepts our approach to minor offenders”, explains a Colonel. “However, we have a broad network of Legionnaires around the world from where we are able to obtain information. Those that lie to us, the past always catches up”.
Not a Place for Women
Within the mess created by the restructuring, the Army wishes to rationalize, standardize and reorganize its forces. Tour of Duties to exotic locations and postings are to be redistributed and promotions regulated. “Hold it right there!” Cries the Legion hierarchy, “If you mess with the pillars supporting the Legion such as our internal system of promotion, you risk sending the entire Legion crashing to the ground. It would be the death of the Legion as we know it”.
Feminization is already well advanced in all units of the French Army except the Legion. “The presence of women is incompatible with the very nature of the Legion”, explains General Piquemal. “Our essential character and valor is cohesion and camaraderie between men. The presence of women would automatically lead to the dissolution of the Legion. Women certainly have a place in the Army, but never with us.”
Every Friday in the crypt of the Legions sacred sanctuary at Aubagne, the General Piquemal personally receives all Legionnaires finishing their contracts. He hands them each a certificate of good and loyal service before posing for a traditional photo. The General tells each that the Legion never abandons its own and that the door is always open for their return. But can the Legion, with all its traditions and customs survive under the present reforms of the military? Some wars are not fought on the battlefields. However in the coming months after the disbandment of so many units, the French Army will create a new Legion regiment. A paradox in this war between the regulars and the Legion. This regiment will be housed on the Albion Plateau; an Engineering unit called the 2REG.