| The Dark Romance and Grim Reality of Life in the French Foreign Legion
||[Mar. 22nd, 2019|03:13 pm]
In 1883, in Algeria, a general named François de Négrier, addressing a group of legionnaires who were leaving to fight the Chinese in Indochina, said, in loose translation, “You! Legionnaires! You are soldiers meant to die, and I am sending you to the place where you can do it!”|
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.”
[..] He warned me that the smugglers had placed a lookout directly across the river from us, and that he was watching us now, and maybe wondering why I had arrived, except that he probably already knew. The Russian was a burly man, aged 40. Around 1993 he had been a young soldier in the Soviet Army in Berlin when his unit was suddenly disbanded. Feeling betrayed and uprooted, he had drifted for three years until finding the Foreign Legion forever.
His name was Pogildiakovs. He said, “You do not live in the forest; you survive.” His men did not love him as they loved Boulanger. Still, they called the camp “Pogigrad” in his honor.
There had been some excitement the week before when a patrol surprised two couriers hurrying toward Brazil along the riverbank. One of them jumped into the river and escaped. The other, who was captured, said that the swimmer was carrying 18 pounds of gold in plastic bottles taped to his body. The captain came to Pogigrad soon afterward for a visit. That night when he heard the story he said to Pogildiakovs, “Did you write it up? Write it up! The general will jump for joy, because we still don’t know where the gold goes!”
Pogildiakovs eyed him evenly. Jump for joy? Maybe that’s what generals do, he seemed to indicate, but let’s not forget that the gold got away. The night was hot. He had had a bit to drink. We all had, even the captain, if only as a gesture. Rum and water, with Tang stirred in. Ten men were sitting around a rough-hewn table by the camp kitchen under an assembly of tarpaulins in heavy rain. They spoke in whatever French they had. Drink. Pour. Another. Enough.
Pogildiakovs got up, scowling. He said, “I do not feel at all sorry for the bastards. These are not helpless victims. They are breaking the law. Some of them make more money than I do.”
He left. Later, a dark-bearded soldier sat beside me and said, “Yes, but the ones we catch, they’re always the poor.” He was born in the Cape Verde Islands. He emigrated to Brazil, went to school in Rio de Janeiro, got a master’s degree in computer science, became fluent in English, and three years ago found himself sitting in an office working on cyber-security. He checked out, flew to France, and joined the Legion. The surprise, he said, was to find himself now as a soldier involved in suppressing Brazilians.
That night after dinner I sat in the open-sided mess hall with another group of legionnaires, some of whom I would accompany on a one-week patrol into the most remote areas of Guiana. The talk was of women. One soldier was an Argentinean who had spent $25,000 on prostitutes, drugs, and drink during a one-month binge in Amsterdam.
Another soldier said, “You’re really crazy. You risk getting killed for six months in Afghanistan, then take the money and spend it like that?”
The Argentinean said, “Everyone should do it at least once in life.” He looked at me for affirmation.