le meilleur/the best

Soldiers of misfortune The French Foreign Legion was founded by King Louis Philippe as a way to dispose of destitute immigrants and to fight far-off colonial wars withou racking up French casualties. Its role in the 19th century may yet point the way to the model military unit of the 21st century.

JOHN OTIS Freelance

Check-in at the Foreign Legion proving ground here takes place in a mosquito-infested swamp where a 2.7-metre-long boa constrictor coils and prepares to attack. The task? Catch the snake by hand.

I'm tagging along as two dozen French officers tackle the Legion's infamous jungle-training course. Besides going mano a mano with belligerent reptiles, soldiers must dog-paddle across rain-swollen rivers and endure a three-day "death march" on half rations, 10 bullets and a box of matches.

It's a punishing steeplechase through the equatorial rain forest that attracts crack military units from around the world.

"The jungle makes you very humble. It's trees and nothing else," says a veteran legionnaire as he studies the nervous Frenchmen just off the plane from Paris. "It's disorienting. It's totally unlike anything they are used to. Morale tends to go down after the first 48 hours."

Up to their ankles in mud with a serpent that hugs its prey to death, the rookies must feel like soldiers of misfortune. The snake's hiss is like full-volume radio static; its leathery body expands and deflates with each breath. When a volunteer finally ventures forward, the boa lashes out, jaws snapping.

The boa holds its ground until Lt. Alain Walter, the Legion's domineering drillmaster, intervenes. Playing the toreador, he dangles his green beret in front of the snake's head as a second legionnaire sneaks up from behind and immobilizes the boa by gently pinching its neck. "Do it with love and tenderness," Walter snarls. "Avec amour! Avec delicatesse!"

Newly enlightened, the officers start charming the snake. Even I manage to pick it up. Cradled in my arms, it seems more like an exotic pet than the Creature from the Black Lagoon. Which is the whole point. The exercise allows the tenderfoot to feel a sense of calm in the wild, to grasp that toughing it out in the jungle often requires more finesse than force.

"You don't just break a guy down physically. Anyone can do that. We teach them to survive," says Colonel Christian Houdet, commander of the 800-man 3rd Regiment of the French Foreign Legion.

Survival in no-man's-land is the Legion's raison d'etre. From Gallipoli to Dien Bien Phu to Bosnia, this front-line mercenary force has locked and loaded in some of the worst trenches, hilltops, and pillboxes of the past two centuries.

If not always triumphant, legionnaires have demonstrated a battlefield prowess and a fight-to-the-last-man bravery that belie their origin as a throwaway battalion of rogues and misfits. The very notion of molding the scrapings of humanity into the most elite detachment of the French armed forces sounds like a war-room hallucination - like making Navy SEALS out of McHale's Navy.

The Foreign Legion isn't the tonic for every disaffected soul. "Depending upon the direction which he is given, the legionnaire can be the best soldier in the world or the worst of brutes," commented one French general shortly after the force was founded in 1831.

Yet the Legion's mongrel roots have turned out to be its greatest strength. They march and die under the French tricolour, but legionnaires are men without a country. Thus, patriotism has been supplanted by something far more potent - an almost mystical belief in one another.

"From the moment they enter the Legion, this bonding starts taking place," says retired U.S. general Norman Schwarzkopf, who commanded allied forces - including legionnaires - in the Persian Gulf War and was made an honorary Legion private. "They build a tremendous esprit de corps. And that, as we have learned throughout history, makes for a good fighting man."

Heartbroken? Defrocked? Washed out of the Michigan Militia? Wanted by Interpol?

The French Foreign Legion wants you!

Actually, it prefers men of sound mind, strong body and no rap sheet, but the Legion considers all comers. Once accepted into the 8,500-man force, which is headquartered near Marseille, recruits sign a five-year contract with a starting monthly pay of 5,600 francs, about $1,400.

They are then sent to one of the 10 Legion garrisons in France, Tahiti, Djibouti and French Guiana. As newly minted legionnaires, they are encouraged to be all they can be - though not what they once were.

"They want to change their lives and we give them the chance," says Colonel Houdet as he sips a glass of wine in the officers' mess. "We say, 'No matter what you did before, now you are a good man and you must become a good legionnaire.' The Foreign Legion becomes the man's new country and his new family."

In fact, some can't go home because they have been blacklisted by their own governments as "whores of war." Slovakian legionnaires can be imprisoned for eight years.

"In Germany, they consider you to be a mercenary. They think we're all criminals," says Thomas, a blond, 6-foot-5-inch university dropout, as he drains a bottle of Heineken in the training-camp bar. "My ex-mates are rather scared of me."

Books and movies like Beau Geste, Death March in the Desert and Legion of the Damned helped to cement the popular folklore of a military underworld of fugitives and psychotics.

But the Legion nurtures this image through the long-standing tradition of anonymity. Whether sinner or saint, nearly every legionnaire ditches his true identity for a French passport and a nom de guerre.

Background checks help to weed out violent offenders, but even the official Legion Web site admits that "the legionnaire is seldom an angel." In the training camp, several soldiers cover their faces when a camera is pointed in their direction, and a few sputter in anger when I question them about their motives for joining. "Never ask a legionnaire about his past," warns an Italian officer named Fidelli as he rips the Velcro name tag off his shirt and drops it on his desk.

The Foreign Legion was founded by King Louis Philippe as a way to dispose of destitute immigrants and to fight far-off colonial wars without racking up French casualties.

"Throughout most of human history, it was considered the order of things that the destruction of war should be left to needy foreigners so that citizens of rich states could go about making their fortunes," according to David Isenberg, a military analyst and an expert on hired soldiers.

Alexander the Great marched off to war with 50,000 mercenaries in the year 329 BC. The British army fought with 30,000 Hessians during the American Revolution. In Vietnam, the U.S. government paid Thai, Filipino and Korean soldiers. And last year, a desperate Mobutu Sese Seko - who had no faith in his own army - contracted Serbian soldiers in a futile attempt to prop up his dictatorship in the Congo.

The Foreign Legion attracted a few good men, but it was widely viewed as "the receptacle of the rabble of the world's races," wrote Antoine Sylvere, who enlisted in 1905. In North Africa, "no woman with a reasonable hope of marriage would be seen dead with men so degraded as legionnaires," according to Douglas Porch in his book The French Foreign Legion. Some candidates were so taken by the Legion's reputation as a kind of Hell's Angels on camels that they falsely claimed to have committed crimes, thinking it was the only way to get in.

At the same time, the Legion has been an outlet for idealistic crusaders anxious to strike a blow against Hitler, Ho Chi Minh or Saddam Hussein. Alumni include Cole Porter, Prince Aage of Denmark, and Rene Stourm, a French archbishop. But the genius of the Legion - its magic - is the way it kneads the dirty dozens into a close-knit fraternity of warriors. "It's like metal being tempered," says Abraham, an Ethiopian-born legionnaire stationed in French Guiana. "A good piece will get stronger."

While Americans remember the Alamo, the French remember Camaron, a besieged hacienda where 65 legionnaires fended off 2,000 Mexican troops for two days in 1863 as part of Emperor Napoleon III's futile attempt to maintain a foothold in Mexico. They refused to surrender, and only three survived. In a blitzkrieg mission to Beirut in 1983, legionnaires spirited Yasser Arafat to safety in Tunisia. During the Gulf War, the Legion overran Iraq's Al Salman airport as part of the allied invasion's left flank.

The promise of a kepi - the Legion's trademark white hat - and a multi-entry visa to the world's hot spots attract William Walker wanna-bes from more than 100 countries.

As a result, happy hour in the training-camp bar resembles a post-match bacchanal with a NATO rugby squad.

I meet 11 chain-smoking, Heineken-swilling legionnaires from seven countries: Belgium, France, Germany, Britain, Hungary, Slovakia and Switzerland. Heavily accented French is the lingua franca; heavy, black waterproof watches are the jewelry of choice; and a multicolour tattoo, drilled into the biceps or back of the shoulder, is each man's distinguishing characteristic.

In the movie adaptation of Henri Charriere's autobiography Papillon, a veteran convict at the infamous penal colony in French Guiana explains why escape is next to impossible: "You're out in the middle of a swamp 1,000 miles from nowhere."

That's pretty much what I expected to find. Hardly anyone goes to this overseas department of France. Many French people believe it's some African colony downriver from Guinea-Bissau. Americans tend to confuse it with nearby Guyana, a former British colony where cult leader Jim Jones and hundreds of his followers drank cyanide-laced Kool-Aid in a mass suicide in 1979.

Wedged between Suriname and the northeast shoulder of Brazil, French Guiana - like the French Foreign Legion - was founded by castaways. It was claimed in 1642 as a way for France to snag a piece of the colonial action in South America, but early settlements succumbed to starvation and epidemics. Desperate to nation-build, the French government dispatched thousands of prisoners to perform hard labour in the jungle and on Devil's Island. But the penal colony floundered, and the harsh conditions killed so many inmates that it was nicknamed "the dry guillotine."

Even today, maladies range from malaria to dysentery. The terrain is dense, tropical rain forest. The weather alternates between torrential downpours and scorching heat. "You get sunburned on your first day and it lasts for two years," says Miroslav Strbak, a Slovakian legionnaire. For jungle training, French Guiana is as good as it gets.

Getting there is another story. From my home in Bogota, Colombia, the trip involved two airlines, three time zones, a night in Caracas and a milk run of stopovers in the Caribbean windward islands. Finally, the jet touched down at Rochambeau airport, a gleaming terminal just outside the capital city, Cayenne. "I expected a mud hut," says photographer Richard Emblin, who accompanied me on the trip. "This looks like Charles de Gaulle International."

Once on the ground, it's immediately clear that French Guiana is an island of French culture stubbornly resisting assimilation by the rest of South America. At customs, a brusque grammar Nazi corrected Emblin's faulty French pronunciation, but ignored his luggage. There are no roads to Brazil, but passengers can fly directly to Paris on Air France. The currency is the French franc, the TV news is beamed in from the Old World, and the centrepiece of our hotel bathroom was a polished porcelain bidet.

Amid international protests, the French closed the penal colony in 1954 and eventually carved a high-tech corridor out of the wilderness. It is now home to the European Space Agency's sprawling complex, which launches half of the world's commercial satellites. Several kilometres outside Cayenne, however, the croissant shops and the Citroen auto dealerships disappear and the jungle returns. When satellite-laden Ariane IV rockets streak across the sky each month, they pass over secluded villages of Arawak, Bush Negro and Wayana Indians.

The Foreign Legion training camp, bivouacked along the Approuague River near the Brazilian border, is so remote that Colonel Houdet points to the southwest and says: "In that direction, there are 2,000 kilometres of forest, nonstop."

On Day 2 of their workout, the French officers are put through an obstacle course of mud pits covered with barbed wire. Lt. Walter orders a dozen of them to flood their 9-metre-long pirogue in the middle of the river, rock the wooden boat back and forth to extract the water, then clamber aboard. They are allowed just 20 minutes to build fires out of wet wood with the help of a chalky white tree paraffin. Using the yellow innards of palm leaves, they lay down a glow-in-the-dark trail that will allow them to hunt after dark.

Except for a portable satellite Global Positioning System for navigation, FAMAS automatic rifles and 50 pounds of plastic explosives for clearing an emergency heliport, their equipment could come from a Boy Scout troop.

"You need people who know the terrain, not tons and tons of gear," says Harrison, a non-commissioned British officer. "You learn what to avoid and what to look for. In the forest, there are animals to hunt, bamboo trees to cover yourself, wood to burn and fruit in the trees. There is everything you need."

The Frenchmen need a breather; they are a soggy, sagging bunch. For every demerit, Lt. Walter, the drillmaster, has them to plunge into the river or perform push-ups on their knuckles. They get off easy. During the French occupation of Indochina in the 1950s, legionnaires found drunk on duty were tied to a tree next to a watering hole frequented by tigers. But compared to basic training in France, "this is much more severe," says one officer as he wipes the grit from his face.

Even diehard American units have deserted the course.

"Legion officers I talked to who had done joint training there with Navy SEALS said the Americans were wimps," says Douglas Porch, a military historian at the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, Calif.

"They had their supplies, including water, brought in by chopper and left after 15 days. The Legion continued on for 30 days, subsisting on fruits and berries."

I figure we'll be digging into the same sort of minimalist outback fare for lunch. Instead, Lt. Walter leads me and photographer Emblin on a 3-kilometre hike into the forest.

We arrive at a rough bamboo hut topped with palm leaves where a dozen Legion officers are feasting on imported sausage and smoked ham, stabbing at rounds of Camembert and Brie with their bayonets and uncorking bottles of French champagne.

The spread is in honour of Colonel Houdet, who resides at the Legion's 3rd Regiment garrison in the coastal town of Kourou and rarely makes it out to the jungle - though this looks more like a Sunday picnic on the Seine.

It may be a band of self-styled globocops, but the Legion is fiercely French in its traditions and tastes. The officers, on loan from the French army, are the cream of the corps. Foot soldiers must learn French on the job. "I was totally lost because of the language barrier," says Duncan, a Scottish NCO. "You don't understand what's going on. For the first few months, I just kept my mouth shut and tried to watch everyone else."

I haven't spoken a word of French in five years, but I stumble along with a melange of Spanish, English and phrase-book French. Yet a handful of legionnaires are even more linguistically challenged than I am.

Former legionnaire Antoine Sylvere writes that the salmis of dialects spoken in the Legion would be "incomprehensible" to those schooled in the language of Moliere and Racine.

But many master the new tongue and eventually settle down in France. Until the mid-1980s, Legion privileges also included access to official unit brothels, known as Bordels Mobiles du Campagne.

The best perk, others say, is marching down the Champs Elysees on Bastille Day, the July 14 French independence day celebration.

"It's ecstasy," says Abraham, the Ethiopian, as he sips coffee spiked with rum one evening and recalls one such parade. "There are 6,000 regular army troops, but people just want to see the legionnaires. The crowds are there waiting for three or four hours. There are Japanese tourists on the rooftops clapping. The guys are walking on air. They get underwear thrown at them."

All of this rubs off and can lead to the odd spectacle of Bulgarian or South African legionnaires who are more familiar with the Louvre and the Left Bank than their home towns. Robert Adams, an Associated Press Television reporter, recalls meeting a Bosnian Serb legionnaire in Sarajevo who professed a cold neutrality about the horrific ethnic cleansing raging all around him. "I'm not a Serb," the Serb told Adams. "I'm a French legionnaire, and when I have finished, I will be a Frenchman. So f--- them all."

Then there's Harrison, the British NCO, who sits next to me in the officers' mess one night. With his shaved head, stocky frame and constant scowl, he looks like a demented prison warden. But he fancies himself a wine connoisseur and spends half the meal fussing over vintages. Parched from a long day in the tropics, I'll drink anything wet. But Harrison frowns at his first sip of wine, leaves the table and tips his glass into the bushes. He asks the waiter for another bottle but still is not satisfied. "It's vinegar," he says.

He goes on to sample and veto four more varieties before settling on a 1994 Cabernet. By the time dessert is served, we are walled off from our dinner companions by rejected bottles.

Boozing appears to be the true Legionnaire's disease. When the Legion was founded, salaries were so low that soldiers would raffle off parts of their uniform for drinking money. "It was not uncommon in the 1830s to see legionnaires returning to barracks without shoes, shirts or even trousers," Porch writes.

Sylvere describes one occasion when his unit of 120 men consumed 700 litres of wine in a few minutes.

To keep it flowing, the Legion makes its own: a Cotes de Provence appellation called Legion Etrangere. Cases of red, white and rose are bottled in southern France by invalid legionnaires who live in a chateau surrounded by vineyards.

"I just had some the other night," says Schwarzkopf, who lives in St.Petersburg, Fla. "They gave me cases of it when I came home."

Given its original role as colonial shock troops for the French empire, the Foreign Legion has never been accused of political correctness.

But just like university-admissions counselors, Legion recruiting officers covet diversity. It's a matter of discipline; too many soldiers of one stripe can revert to speaking their own language, leaving commanding officers clueless. So the Legion has tried to become an all-inclusive scrum, and many of its members no longer fit the profile of the hardened tough guy.

Kiko, a soft-spoken Filipino, was an English major in his former life and an avid reader of Tolstoy, Jorge Luis Borges and Gabriel Garcia Marquez. Why he abandoned One Hundred Years of Solitude for five years in the Foreign Legion, he won't say. He will say that the myth differs from the reality. "It's not like in the movies where there is adventure every second. When you're a young legionnaire, you have to clean the toilets."

Prince Aage of Denmark once commented that women make the best recruiting sergeants and, sure enough, the Legion is replete with jilted suitors. "I joined because I was very much in love with a girl and she went off and married someone else," says Duncan, the Scottish NCO. "It was time to begin again." In Laurel and Hardy's Beau Hunks, a spoof of the Foreign Legion, all of the soldiers - including a rebel Arab chief - carry photos of the same woman.

But enlistment patterns are more a reflection of political turmoil than sentimental anguish. Impoverished Germans joined en masse after the world wars. Spaniards poured in when Franco rose to power. Stoked by TV images of the Falklands War in 1982, hundreds of action-starved Brits signed up because there was a waiting list to join Her Majesty's armed forces.

Since the fall of the Berlin Wall, the Foreign Legion has become a refuge for out-of-work drifters and ex-enlisted men from former Soviet-bloc nations. Hadnaegey Imre, a 26-year-old corporal from Hungary, gets high marks from his superiors, but he is counting the days until his Legion contract expires. "You're always full of mud," he says as he cleans his boots in his cramped training-camp dormitory. "I don't like military life, but it's a job."

Vladimmir, a Slovakian who is supposed to be helping Lt. Walter with the French officers, is so bored that he falls asleep on the riverbank. When he wakes up, he peels off his shirt and does 200 sit-ups. He has the body of Schwarzeneggar and the mind of a stockbroker. After meticulously salting away his salary, he had enough money to buy an apartment and a car in his home town, Bratislava. He's earning $350 a month on his savings alone. His secret is 12.6-per-cent interest, he says, grinning.

Tradition-bound legionnaires aren't amused. They view soldiers like Vladimmir as unmotivated cherry pickers who have watered down a proud institution. "We have to reduce their percentage," Lt. Walter sniffs. "The French Foreign Legion is not the eastern European Legion."

A perfect world for Legion is one with several small crises in different countries to attract a mix of recruits. But Porch insists that economic refugees are often the best bet. "It's better to have this sort of recruit than an incurable romantic who thinks that, by joining the Legion, he can live out some kind of Beau Geste adventure, be interesting at dinner parties on his return, and then discover that soldiering is really rather dull and that five years is a large chunk out of one's life."

Besides acquiring his honorary private stripes during the Gulf War, Schwarzkopf received a wallet-sized card with a telephone number and message instructing him that, should he ever find himself in a lose-lose situation, anywhere in the world, the Legion will come to bail him out.

Legionnaires are brothers in arms. Green cards and good wine notwithstanding, the French connection means little to the best and the bravest. Even their motto is defiantly independent: Legio Patria Nostra - The Legion Is Our Fatherland. "If you say, 'OK, guys, over the top for France!' they will say, 'No. Over the top for the Legion!' " Abraham says.

But unbridled autonomy can breed anarchy. In 1961, with France on the verge of granting independence to Algeria, hard-line legionnaires who weren't ready to give up the fight for North Africa launched a rebellion and tried to assassinate President Charles de Gaulle. After the failed putsch, there were several attempts to abolish the Foreign Legion.

The institution survived - even as France faded as a world power - but its role in the 21st century is uncertain.

As a collection of light infantry battalions, the Legion is more limited than elite units like the U.S. Marine Corps, which has artillery, amphibious and air capabilities. And as kepi-clad macho-men in an era of smart bombs, the Legion can seem a bit old-fashioned. In that sense, the snake pits and obstacle courses in French Guiana look more like training for the next Indiana Jones movie than for the next war.

Another liability is the Legion's legendary swagger, which doesn't play well during sensitive "peace-ops" assignments. As part of the UN contingent in Bosnia - where they weren't supposed to pull the trigger - legionnaires let off steam by playing "hunt the sniper," says Adams, the APTV reporter. One soldier would dash in front of a Serb sniper position to draw fire, while a second legionnaire with a counter-sniper rifle would attempt to spot the muzzle flash and take out the shooter.

But by most accounts, the Foreign Legion will probably end up with a substantial piece of the action in New World Order engagements. Rather than set-piece battles, the world's most recent conflicts have been small-scale brushfire wars that required personnel on the ground for extended periods. Casualty-shy democracies are reluctant to dispatch their own troops to quagmires like Somalia and Rwanda. But as soldiers-without-portfolio, legionnaires can go anywhere the French government sends them; fighting is just a day at the office.

"It is very easy for France to deploy forces like (the Legion) into world hot spots because they don't have to worry about the political flak they'll take at home from the mothers of French soldiers," Schwarzkopf says.

The allure of a "no-fault" multinational army has led to an ongoing debate about building an elite UN force of up to 10,000 rapid-reaction troops. There are also a growing number of so-called "corporate mercenaries," which can be more cost-effective than national armies.

"Because so many armies are so bad, if you've got 100 or 1,000 mercenaries with a sense of purpose, they can do a lot of damage or have a huge positive effect," says Michael O'Hanlon, a foreign-policy fellow at the Brookings Institution.

South Africa's Executive Outcomes, for example, can provide platoons supported by MiG-23 jet fighter-bombers and helicopter gunships on demand. In the early 1990s, the firm helped to thwart Jonas Savimbi's UNITA rebels in Angola, suffering only 20 casualties in the process. The U.S. firm Military Professional Resources Inc., or MPRI, works closely with the Pentagon and is currently training Croat and Muslim units in the Bosnian army.

But private groups are more problematic than the Foreign Legion because they can rent themselves out to rogue states.

Even MPRI has come under scrutiny from critics who contend that its operations could be a way for Washington to carry out sensitive policies overseas with little accountability - because Congress has no watchdog authority over private-sector military men.

The Foreign Legion, by contrast, is battle-tested and answers to the French government.

And over the years, it has become more popular than ever.