It’s the dark romance of the French Foreign Legion: haunted men from everywhere, fighting anywhere, dying for causes not their own. Legionnaires need war, certainly, and Afghanistan is winding down. But there’s always the hopeless battle against rogue gold miners in French Guiana . . .
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DESERT STORM The Foreign Legion in North Africa in the 1950s. No other force in the world has known so much war for so long.
The word “foreign” in the name French Foreign Legion does not refer to faraway battlegrounds. It refers to the Legion itself, which is a branch of the French Army commanded by French officers but built of volunteers from around the world. Last summer I came upon 20 of them on a grassy knoll on a farm in France near the Pyrenees. They were new recruits sitting back-to-back on two rows of steel chairs. They wore camouflage fatigues and face paint, and held French assault rifles. The chairs were meant to represent the benches in a helicopter flying into action—say, somewhere in Africa in the next few years to come. Two recruits who had been injured while running sat facing forward holding crutches. They were the pilots. Their job was to sit there and endure. The job of the others was to wait for the imaginary touchdown, then disembark from the imaginary helicopter and pretend to secure the imaginary landing zone. Those who charged into the imaginary tail rotor or committed some other blunder would have push-ups to do immediately, counting them off in phonetic French—uh, du, tra, katra, sank. If they ran out of vocabulary, they would have to start again. Eventually the recruits would stage a phased retreat back to their chairs, then take off, fly around for a while, and come in for another dangerous landing. The real lesson here was not about combat tactics. It was about do not ask questions, do not make suggestions, do not even think of that. Forget your civilian reflexes. War has its own logic. Be smart. For you the fighting does not require a purpose. It does not require your allegiance to France. The motto of the Legion is Legio Patria Nostra. The Legion is our fatherland. This means we will accept you. We will shelter you. We may send you out to die. Women are not admitted. Service to the Legion is about simplifying men’s lives.
What man has not considered climbing onto a motorcycle and heading south? The Legion can be like that for some. Currently it employs 7,286 enlisted men, including non-commissioned officers. Over just the past two decades they have been deployed to Bosnia, Cambodia, Chad, both Congos, Djibouti, French Guiana, Gabon, Iraq, Ivory Coast, Kosovo, Kuwait, Rwanda, and Somalia. Recently they have fought in Afghanistan, as members of the French contingent. There is no other force in the world today that has known so much war for so long. A significant number of the men are fugitives from the law, living under assumed names, with their actual identities closely protected by the Legion. People are driven to join the Legion as much as they are drawn to it. That went for every recruit I met on the farm. Altogether there were 43, ranging in age from 19 to 32. There had been 48, but 5 had deserted. They came from 30 countries. Only a third of them spoke some form of French.
The language problem was compounded by the fact that most of the drill instructors were foreigners, too. It would be hard to find a more laconic group. The sergeant supervising the helicopter exercise had mastered the art of disciplining men without wasting words. He was a former Russian Army officer, a quiet observer who gave the impression of depth and calm, partly because he spoke no more than a few sentences a day. After one of the imagined helicopter landings, when a clumsy recruit dropped his rifle, the sergeant walked up to him and simply held out his fist, against which the recruit proceeded to bang his head.
The sergeant lowered his fist and walked away. The chairs took off and flew around. Toward the end of the afternoon the sergeant signaled for his men to dismantle the helicopter and head down a dirt road to the headquarters compound. They rushed to it, carrying the chairs. The farm is one of four such properties used by the Legion for the first month of basic training, all chosen for their isolation. The recruits lived there semi-autonomously, cut off from outside contact, subject to the whims of the instructors, and doing all the chores. They were getting little sleep. Mentally they were having a hard time.
They had been on the farm for three weeks. They came from Austria, Belarus, Belgium, Brazil, Britain, Canada, the Czech Republic, Ecuador, Estonia, Germany, Hungary, Italy, Japan, Latvia, Lithuania, Macedonia, Madagascar, Mongolia, Morocco, Nepal, New Zealand, Poland, Portugal, Russia, Senegal, Serbia, Slovakia, South Africa, and Ukraine. Seven actually came from France, but had been given new identities as “French Canadian.” After the recruits returned to the compound they had a while to wait before dinner. In the dirt yard a slim, bullying corporal barked them into a disciplined formation in a parade-rest stance: feet apart, eyes fixed forward, hands clasped behind their backs. Then the sky opened up. The men were drenched but did not care. In the winter they might have been less indifferent. Men who have been through winters on the farms insist as a result that you should never join the Legion then. You should go to Morocco, sleep under a bridge, do anything, and wait for spring. The rain stopped. The sergeant extinguished his cigarette. For me, in French, he spared precisely four words: “It is cocktail hour.” He walked across the compound, released the men from formation, and led them through the barn to the back side, where the cocktails were being served. The cocktails were pull-ups and dips and a sequence of synchronized sit-ups punctuated by two brief rests during which the slim corporal strolled across the abdomens of the recruits. Then it was run to the barn to wash, and run to a multi-purpose room to eat.
Before eating, the recruits drank large field cups of water, and inverted the empty cups on their heads to demonstrate the achievement. A soldier came in to observe them. He was the platoon commander, Fred Boulanger, 36, a muscular Frenchman with a military bearing and an air of easy authority. Watching him watch the recruits, I asked how the training was going. He answered that the boat was sinking normally. It was a figure of speech. He knew from experience that the recruits were doing well enough. Boulanger was a non-commissioned adjudant, the equivalent of a warrant officer. He had been barred from the regular French Army because of troubles with the law when he was a teenager, and so had joined the Foreign Legion under the identity, initially, of a Francophone Swiss. He had risen through the Legion’s ranks during a 17-year career, most recently in French Guiana, where he had shown a particular aptitude for the jungle and had excelled in leading long patrols across some of the most difficult terrain on earth—thriving in conditions that cause even strong men to decline. After two years there, on the hunt for gold miners who are infiltrating from Brazil, Boulanger was reassigned to France. It should have been a glorious homecoming, but just before leaving Guiana, Boulanger had roughed up a superior officer. For this he was being disciplined.
Boulanger now found himself on the farm, adjusting to garrison life and trying to steer this batch of recruits through their introduction to the Legion. On the one hand, he needed to make legionnaires of them. On the other, he had already lost five to desertion. Not too soft, not too hard—that was the pressure he felt, and with a sense that his own future was on the line. A young Scotsman named Smith, who had been cashiered from the British Army for failing a drug test, was his current concern. Smith was at risk because he missed a new girlfriend back home. For his part, Boulanger missed the jungle. Mostly what he did here was to supervise the other instructors. The only direct contact with the recruits reserved systematically for him was a French-language lesson that he taught daily in the multi-purpose room.
For obvious reasons, the teaching of rudimentary French is a preoccupation in the Foreign Legion. One morning I attended a class. The recruits had arranged the tables into a U, around which they sat, shoulder to shoulder, waiting for Boulanger’s arrival. Each of the native French speakers was formally responsible for the progress of two or three nonspeakers and would be held accountable for their performance.
On a whiteboard at the front of the room, Boulanger had written a list of words in French to be copied down: more, less, high, low, on, under, inside, outside, interior, exterior, ahead, behind, small, large, thin, fat. Beside that he had written: Morning (Shave) Breakfast. Noon Evening Eat. To wash yourself. To shave. Write Read Speak. Buy Pay. Boulanger walked into the room holding a pointer. Standing ramrod-straight, he led the class through conjugations of the verbs to be and to have. “I am, you are, he is,” they said in ragged unison. “We have, you have, they have.”
He said, “You will learn French fast because I am not your mother.”
Motioning with his pointer, he whistled a recruit to the front of the class. Boulanger pointed at his head. The class said, “Hair!”
Nose, eye, one eye, two eyes, ear, chin, mouth, teeth, lips, tongue, cheek, neck, shoulder, repeat! He began whistling individual recruits to their feet for answers. Arm, elbow, hand, wrist, thumb—not la thumb, le thumb, it’s masculine! He selected a New Zealander and indicated the man’s stomach. The New Zealander stood and mumbled something indistinct. Boulanger whistled the New Zealander’s Senegalese tutor to his feet, and said to him, “We learned this last time. Why does he not know it?”
The Senegalese said, “He learned it, sir, but he forgot it.”
Boulanger gave both men 30 push-ups. No one thought he was being capricious. He had a gift for empathetic command. Skull, foot, balls, repeat! He directed a recruit to jump onto a table. “He is on the table,” he said. He directed another to crawl underneath. “He is under the table,” he said. These were not men who had excelled in school. Boulanger told them to take a break to practice what they had learned. He left for a smoke. When he returned he said quietly, “Outside,” and the recruits stampeded to comply. A dirt track led to an upper field. He said, “Go to the track!” They ran to it. He said, “Where are you?” They shouted, “We are on the track!” He directed them into a hedgerow. “We are in the hedgerow!” He ordered one man to walk across a clearing. What is he doing? “He is walking across the clearing!” He ordered all the others into a ditch. “We are in the ditch!”
Morning, afternoon, evening, night. There were tactical exercises during which the recruits advanced in confusion through forest and field, shooting off blanks and suffering scores of imaginary casualties for their errors. There were parade-ground exercises during which they learned the strange, slow cadence of the Legion’s ceremonial march, and the lyrics to meaningless Legion songs. There were runs, short and long. There were weapon-disassembly-and-cleaning classes. And there were endless housekeeping chores, the tedious corvées that constitute much of garrison life. During one of these intervals the unhappy Scotsman named Smith approached me with a mop in his hand and asked for news from the outside. I mentioned something about French elections and war, but what he meant was the latest soccer scores. I told him I could not help him there. We talked while he mopped. He missed his girl, yeah, and he missed his pub. He called the British Army the best in the world and said he would return happily if only it would have him back. By comparison, he said, the Foreign Legion had no sense of humor. I laughed for the obvious reason that the Legion, by comparison, had taken him in.
The stay on the farm was nearly over. The program called for the platoon to walk out carrying full patrol gear and to make a roundabout, two-day, 50-mile march back to the Legion’s headquarters, at Castelnaudary, near Carcassonne, for the final three months of basic training. The march to Castelnaudary is a rite of passage. Once it is completed, recruits become true legionnaires and during an initiation ceremony are given permission by the regimental commander to put on their kepis for the first time. Kepis are the stiff, round, flat-topped garrison caps worn in the French Army as part of the traditional dress uniform. Charles de Gaulle wears one in famous pictures. Those worn by legionnaires are white—a color that is exclusive to the Legion and gives rise to the term képi blanc, often used to signify the soldiers themselves. Legionnaires are expected to be proud of the caps. But two nights before the departure from the farm, the recruits would have preferred to crush them underfoot. The men had been training since before dawn, and now they were standing in formation holding practice kepis wrapped in protective plastic, and being drilled on the upcoming ceremony by the vicious corporals. Again and again, to the order of “Platoon, cover your heads!,” the recruits had to shout, “Legio!” (and hold the kepis over their hearts), “Patria!” (and hold the kepis straight out), “Nostra!” (and put the kepis on their heads, wait two seconds, and slap their hands to their thighs). Then they had to shout in unison, with pauses, “We promise! To serve! With honor! And loyalty!” They were so damned tired. Smith in particular kept getting the sequences wrong.
Before dawn the recruits set off in file through heavy rain. They wore bulky packs, with assault rifles slung across their chests. Boulanger navigated at the head of the column. I walked beside him and ranged backward down the line. The Russian sergeant brought up the rear, watching for strays. It was a slog, mostly on narrow roads through rolling farmland. Dogs kept a wary distance. When the column passed a herd of cows, some men made mooing sounds. That was the entertainment. Late in the morning the column entered a large village, and Boulanger called a halt for lunch in a churchyard. I had thought that people might come out to encourage them, and even warm them with offers of coffee, but rather the opposite occurred when some of the residents closed their shutters as if to wish the legionnaires gone. This fit a pattern I had seen all day, of drivers barely bothering to slow as they passed the line of exhausted troops. When I mentioned my surprise to Boulanger he said that the French love their army once a year, on Bastille Day, but only if the sky is blue. As for the foreigners of the Foreign Legion, by definition they have always been expendable.
II. The Past
The expendability can be measured. Since 1831, when the Legion was formed by King Louis-Philippe, more than 35,000 legionnaires have died in battle, often anonymously, and more often in vain. The Legion was created primarily to gather up some of the foreign deserters and criminals who had drifted to France in the aftermath of the Napoleonic Wars. It was discovered that these men, who were said to threaten civil society, could be induced to become professional soldiers at minimal cost, then exiled to North Africa to help with the conquest of Algeria. The new legionnaires got an early taste of the deal when, in the Legion’s first North African battle, a squad of 27 was overrun after being abandoned by a French officer and the cavalry under his command.
During the pacification of Algeria, 844 legionnaires died. During a foolish intervention in Spain in the 1830s, nearly 9,000 died or deserted. During the Crimean War, in the 1850s, 444 died. Then came the French invasion of Mexico of 1861–65, whose purpose was to overthrow the reformist government of Benito Juárez and create a European puppet state, to be lorded over by an Austrian prince named Maximilian. It did not work out. Mexico won, France lost, and Maximilian was shot. Of the 4,000 legionnaires sent off to help with the war, roughly half did not return. Early on, 62 of them barricaded themselves in a farm compound near a village called Camarón, in Veracruz, and fought to the finish against overwhelming Mexican forces. Their last stand provided the Legion with an Alamo story that, in the 1930s, during a spate of tradition-making, was transformed into an officially cherished legend—Camerone!—promoting the idea that true legionnaires hold the orders they receive before life itself.
Between 1870 and 1871, more than 900 legionnaires died while reinforcing the French Army in the Franco-Prussian War. This was their first fight on French soil. After the war ended, the Legion stayed on and helped with the bloody suppression of the Paris Commune—a civilian revolt during which legionnaires dutifully killed French citizens on French streets, often by summary execution. After order was restored, the legionnaires were quickly returned to their bases in Algeria, but they had earned the special loathing reserved for foreign mercenaries, and a visceral distrust of the Legion still felt by French leftists today.
The Legion’s radical composition, its physical isolation, and its very lack of patriotic purpose turned out to be the attributes that have molded it into an unusually resolute fighting force. An idea grew up inside the Legion that meaningless sacrifice is itself a virtue—if tinged perhaps by tragedy. A sort of nihilism took hold. 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!” Apparently the legionnaires admired him. In any case, he was right. They died there, and also in various African colonies for reasons that must have seemed unimportant even at the time. Then came the First World War and a return to France, where 5,931 legionnaires lost their lives. During the interwar period, with the Legion having returned to North Africa, Hollywood caught on and produced two Beau Geste movies, which captured the exoticism of Saharan forts and promoted a romantic image that has boosted recruiting ever since. Immediately after World War II, which claimed 9,017 of its men, the Legion went to war in Indochina, where it lost more than 10,000. 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.”
With the French withdrawal from Indochina, the Legion returned to Algeria under the command of embittered army officers, many of whom believed that they had been betrayed by the civilian elites and that only they, the officers, had the moral fiber to defend the integrity of France. These were dangerous delusions for officers to have, particularly because the Legion now found itself embroiled in something like a French civil war—the savage eight-year struggle over Algerian independence. It was an emotional fight, characterized by the systematic use of torture, retributive killings, and atrocities on all sides. The Foreign Legion committed its share of the crimes. It also lost 1,976 men. Altogether perhaps a million people died. It won’t matter in a thousand years. For cultural reference, Brigitte Bardot was in her prime.
Near the end, just when the army believed it had prevailed on the battlefield, wiser heads in France—Charles de Gaulle and the French people themselves—realized that Algeria could no longer be held. After negotiations began for a complete French withdrawal, a group of French officers hatched a plan to reverse the tide by seizing cities in Algeria, killing Charles de Gaulle, and installing a military junta in Paris. They made their move on April 21, 1961, starting with the seizure of Algiers by a regiment of Legion paratroopers under the command of Major Hélie de Saint Marc, an officer who, tellingly, is revered within the army today, for having stuck to his principles. Two additional Legion regiments joined the rebellion, as did a number of elite units of the regular French Army. The situation seemed serious enough to the government in Paris that it ordered the detonation of an atomic bomb at a Saharan test site to keep it from falling into the hands of rogue forces. But the conspiracy was hopelessly ill-conceived. On the second day, after de Gaulle appealed for support, the conscripted citizen-soldiers who made up the overwhelming majority of men in the armed forces took matters into their own hands and mutinied against the conspirators. The coup failed. The chief conspirators were arrested, 220 officers were relieved of their command, another 800 resigned, and the rebellious Foreign Legion parachute regiment was disbanded. The paratroopers were unrepentant. Some of them deserted to join the OAS, an ultra-right terrorist group that launched a bombing campaign. When the others left their Algerian garrison for the last time, they sang an Edith Piaf song, “No, I Regret Nothing.”
The Legion emerged from the experience reduced to 8,000 men and reassigned to bases in southern France, where it spent the next decade doing little more than marching around and building roads. The trauma was deep. This is a sensitive subject, and officially denied, but the history of defeat encouraged a reactionary culture in the Legion, where, beneath an appearance of neutral professionalism, the officer corps today harbors virulent right-wing views. It is common at closed social gatherings to hear even young officers regretting the loss of Algeria, disparaging Communists, insulting homosexuals, and seething at what they perceive as the decadence and self-indulgence of modern French society. In the southern city of Nîmes, home to the Legion’s largest infantry regiment, the Second, a French officer complained to me about the local citizens. He said, “They speak about their rights, their rights, their rights. Well, what about their responsibilities? In the Legion we don’t speak about our rights. We speak about our duties!”
I said, “It angers you.”
He looked at me with surprise, as if to say, And you it does not?
He had been an enlisted man in the regular army before becoming an officer in the Legion. He had been deployed to Djibouti, Guiana, and Chad. He said that in the regular army, which since 2001 has been a volunteer force, a conscription culture remains in which soldiers commonly talk back to their superiors and fail to execute orders. It’s halfway to civilian life, he said—a nine-to-five job, with weekends off. Service in the Legion, by contrast, is an all-consuming existence.
I asked him if there are national differences. Yes, he said. For instance, the Chinese make the worst legionnaires. Usually they angle for kitchen work—he didn’t know why. The Americans and British are almost as difficult, because they get upset about living conditions. They endure for a while, then run away. Not all, but most. You would think that the selection board by now would have figured this out. The French are flaky, the Serbs are tough, the Koreans are the best of the Asians, and the Brazilians are the best of all. But whatever their attributes or faults, he felt like a father to every one them, he said, though the oldest were older than he. He told me that like other Legion commanders he spent every Christmas with the troops rather than with his own family because so many had no home to return to. He said this meant a lot to them. Frankly I doubted it, in part because legionnaires are not the type to care much about Christmas, and anyway do not usually like or trust their officers. But the officer’s conceit fit perfectly into the official paternalistic view.
At the Legion’s headquarters, the commanding general, Christophe de Saint Chamas (good Catholic, father of seven, graduate of the French military academy Saint-Cyr), pursued the theme. He said, “He is the walking wounded of life when he arrives. When he comes I can protect him. I can protect him from what he tells me about his past. His past becomes a force that can be used to turn him into a good soldier. What I can do for him is fix strict rules, the first being to speak French, the second to respect the hierarchy. The discipline he learns is very visible. We saw it for instance in firing rates in Afghanistan, where legionnaires used much less ammunition in firefights. So he is a great soldier. He is willing to die for a country that is not his. But his weakness? His fragility in inaction. He drinks, he gets in trouble, or he deserts.”
I asked if this was a particular worry now, with France pulling out of Afghanistan.
His eyebrows arched defensively. He said, “Obviously we are not going to declare wars just to occupy the army.”
III. The Jungle
But on the bright side there will always be the struggle against clandestine gold miners in French Guiana. The country stretches inland for hundreds of miles up several large rivers from the northeast coast of South America, between Suriname and Brazil. It is a malarial inferno, a former penal colony and home to Devil’s Island—once famous for its isolation, now largely just forgotten. With the exception of a rocket site for the European Space Agency and a few dismal coastal towns linked by a single road, it remains almost entirely undeveloped. For obscure historical reasons, it has nonetheless become an integral part of metropolitan France—not a colony or territorial holding but a full-fledged département of the republic, though one neighbored by South American countries. The arrangement is awkward, especially for a country as tightly engineered as France. One consequence is the need to pretend that the borders are real, and to do something about increasing numbers of Brazilians and Surinamese who have been hacking their way into some of the most remote areas of the jungle to dig illegally for gold. The Legion’s Third Infantry Regiment, which is based in Kourou, on the coast, to protect the rocket site, has been given the job of finding those people, seizing their possessions, and getting them to leave. The assignment is obviously hopeless, even absurd, and therefore a good fit for the Legion.
The jumping-off point for the mission is a hamlet called Saint Georges, on the wide, fast Oyapock River, which flows from south to north and forms the eastern border with Brazil. I passed through it on the way to joining up with Boulanger’s former outfit, the regiment’s Third Company, which was currently stationed at the Legion’s most remote permanent outpost, in an Indian village called Camopi, about 60 miles upriver by boat. The embarkation port was a muddy embankment with a couple of open-sided shelters, where in heavy rain a team of legionnaires piled barrels of fuel and bottled water into two 45-foot pirogues. A pirogue is a canoe. These were wood-planked, leaky, and extremely crude, but capable of carrying as many as 14 men and tons of supplies, and particularly resilient during encounters with submerged trees and rocks.
A half-dozen replacement legionnaires boarded the pirogues for the ride to Camopi. They were joined by the company’s commander, an earnest French captain, who had been in Kourou attending to bureaucratic chores. The trip upriver took six hours, much of it spent bailing. The day was intensely hot and humid. Brazil lay to the left, France to the right. Both were sheer walls of forest.
The village of Camopi occupies a point formed by the confluence of the Oyapock and its largest tributary, the Camopi River, which drains the immense uninhabited jungle of southern Guiana. About 1,000 people live in the vicinity, most of them members of a small indigenous group called the Wayampi. Few of them speak much French. Some of the women go bare-breasted. Some of the men wear loincloths. Most of them fish, hunt, and tend subsistence gardens. But Camopi also has a national police post manned by gendarmes who rotate through from France. It has a school, a French national post office and bank, a boardinghouse, a bar, a restaurant, and a general store. It has a brothel across the river, in Brazil. The Wayampi are full French citizens, and they are not inclined to forget it. They know that, because the French administration cannot treat their traditional subsistence living as a form of employment, they qualify for the public dole. In the French presidential election of 2012 they constituted one of only two constituencies in Guiana to vote for the right-wing incumbent, Nicolas Sarkozy, who had visited Camopi by helicopter.
The Legion’s base fronts the Oyapock in semi-solitude, isolated from the settlement by the confluence of rivers, yet close enough for the sounds of tropical music to drift through the air on sultry nights. The base has a floating dock, a small guard tower, an elevated barracks with bunkrooms above and hammocks below, an open-sided kitchen and mess hall, and various small structures, including those for the all-important generators. There is no cell-phone coverage. There is a satellite television that captures the world’s funniest home videos dubbed in French: Things babies do. Things pets do. Goof-ups and pranks. There is a drinking-water system that no one trusts. Depending on the gods, there is sometimes the whisper of an Internet connection that lands on a patch of dirt by the outboard-motor storage shed. There are at least two wooden signs saying, LEGIO PATRIA NOSTRA. There are mosquitoes. There are coral snakes under the wooden walkway to the showers. There are wandering chickens to keep the coral snakes down. There is no air-conditioning. There is a pet duck. Behind the base there is a runway that has been recently paved and could be used by small military transport airplanes in a pinch, though moving legionnaires by boat is cheaper and makes more sense. The runway is paved because someone got a contract. There are no airplanes.
On the evening of my arrival, about 30 legionnaires were there, most having just returned from patrols, and were engaged in the high military art of appearing to be busy while doing nothing at all. The talk was about a shoot-out that had occurred at dawn the same day, after a team of visiting gendarmes had gone off in pursuit of two pirogues that had passed by the village under cover of darkness and were obviously smuggling supplies to gold miners somewhere up the Camopi. After a chase that lasted hours, the gendarmes forced one of the helmsmen into a hasty landing that capsized and sank his pirogue and sent its occupants scrambling into the forest. A young woman was captured, and said she was a cook. The gendarmes placed her onto their boat for the return home. Just then the other pirogue, which had been hiding in dense vegetation upstream, broke from cover and ran downriver toward Camopi and Brazil. As it passed, someone repeatedly fired a shotgun at the gendarmes—apparently to dissuade them from following. Naturally this had the opposite effect. Returning fire with their 9-mm. pistols, the gendarmes took up the chase. So far so good: this was infinitely better than moping around the back roads of France. The problem, however, was that the smugglers had a more powerful engine and steadily pulled ahead. Toward the end, when they got within range of the police post at Camopi, the gendarmes radioed for their comrades to block the river. Some of them tried, maneuvering two boats nose to nose across the center stream, but when the smugglers bore down on them—at full throttle, nose high, intent on ramming—they wisely moved aside and let them escape. The gendarmes were right, of course. It would have been pointless for them to die in a collision. Nonetheless, that night there was a sense among the legionnaires that they themselves would not have given way.
The fight was escalating, and it didn’t matter why. Boulanger’s former platoon was camped deep in the forest astride some of the main smuggling routes, a day’s travel up a narrow tributary called the Sikini. I joined a supply mission to get there; it involved portaging around rapids near the mouth of the Sikini, and then transferring to three small pirogues. Blue butterflies, green jungle, heat, water, flitting bats, stagnation, rot—monotony. The regiment’s motto is “Where Others Don’t Go.” A soldier told me that the most common thought in the Legion has always been “What the fuck am I doing here?” He said his mother had phoned him from half a world away after seeing a National Geographic special on how beautiful the jungle is. “How beautiful is it?” she asked. “It sucks,” he said. First, you can’t see it, because it’s too dense. Second, it’s worse than ugly because it has hostile intent.
We passed a river landing—a former Legion camp where old ridgepoles remained nailed between the trees, and the ground was littered with trash, much of it fresh. The camp was now occasionally used by smugglers as a staging area to transfer their loads from pirogues to human porters for the overland trip past the Legion’s patrols upstream, and on through the forest to the gold-mining camps farther in. The smugglers, it turns out, are highly organized; their spies and lookouts track the Legion’s movements from as far away as French planning offices in the coastal cities.
Toward the end of the day and miles farther up the Sikini, when we got to Boulanger’s former platoon, the Russian warrant officer in command began to express his frustration within minutes of our arrival. He came up to me and said that he did not trust the boatmen, because half of them were on the take. 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. They had hacked it from the jungle two months before and now lived there full-time, sleeping in mosquito-netted hammocks beneath stretched tarpaulins, bathing in the river, and running daily patrols in uniforms that never dried. During the few days I spent at Pogigrad, the platoon captured no one but found an empty homemade pack, a swamped pirogue in excellent shape, a few bags of rice, a cache of diesel fuel in six 65-liter jerry cans, and plenty of fresh footprints and trash. The work was hot, wet, and tiring. Mostly it involved cruising the Sikini, clambering on and off the pirogues with weapons slung and machetes in hand, and conducting innumerable searches of the braided trails and virgin jungle within a few hundred yards of the banks. 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. At the camp’s edge, confiscated goods were burning in a firepit and emitting black smoke, all the better against mosquitoes. Sweat streamed down Pogildiakovs’s face. He mentioned that the latest seizures brought the platoon’s total to several tons over the previous week’s. That was a measure of something, at least. But the conversation was mostly about the strength of the opposition. “Oh, they’re good,” an Ivorian master sergeant said, and no one disagreed.
In a nutshell? They’re not the “enemy”; they’re the “adversary.” They include hundreds of people—no, thousands—most of them from Brazil. Runners, scouts, boatmen, porters, lookouts, A.T.V. drivers, mechanics, miners, machine operators, guards, carpenters, medics, cooks, washerwomen, whores, musicians, ministers—none with the right to be there, and all of them paid in gold. They build whole settlements in the jungle, some with stores, bars, and chapels. These places are so remote that French forces cannot get close without their approach being detected days in advance. Helicopters might help, but there are only six in Guiana, and five of them don’t work. Meanwhile, the clandestine settlers live without fear. On Saturday nights they clean up, dress up, and dance on wooden floors that are level and beautifully joined. And they are gutsy. The miners descend on ropes into vertical holes 100 feet deep to chip at the stone containing gold. They burrow even deeper into hillsides. The teams who support them are equally ambitious. They hack A.T.V. tracks through some of the most difficult jungle on earth and pre-position spare parts in hidden depots where mechanics can fix whatever is required. As for the porters, they carry 150-pound packs in columns of 30 or more, sometimes for 20 miles at a stretch, up and down steep hills, in sandals, often at night. They are not immune to the dangers. Some are bitten by poisonous snakes; some are injured; some fall sick; some die. Their graves are occasionally found in the forest. Nonetheless, the smugglers never stint on the goods they deliver—including, for instance, frozen chickens in Styrofoam coolers, eggs, sausages, women’s makeup, live cattle and pigs, candy, cereals, Coke, rum, Heineken, suntan oil, animal growth hormones (for human use), marijuana, Bibles, pornographic DVDs, and in at least one case, according to Pogildiakovs, a battery-powered dildo.
A big blond legionnaire with an assumed identity said, “As they see it, they are doing nothing wrong. They’ve been gold mining for a very long time. They call us the pirates.”
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. A legionnaire walked into the light holding a long thin snake that he had killed with a machete. The snake was a territorial type that stands its ground rather than slithering away, and had reared up to strike at the legionnaire in his hammock. Somehow he had managed to extricate himself from the mosquito netting and get to his machete in time. The talk turned to that and subsided. There was a heavy thump in the darkness. It seemed to be the sound of Pogildiakovs falling down. The Ivorian got up to check. When the rain stopped, the chirps of the jungle filled the silence.
The next day, all day, I returned to Camopi on a scheduled run. 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.
I said, “It probably depends.”
A Malian sitting at the table said that as a matter of principle the most he had ever spent on partying was $7,000. That was in Bamako, Mali’s capital, and it had gone a long way. The Argentinean told a racial joke. A Polish legionnaire nearly fell off his bench laughing. I wandered down to the river. In the guard tower overlooking the dock, I had a conversation with a giant, warmhearted South African named Streso, who told me that he liked the Malian but couldn’t tolerate his type.
Streso was a Boer and immensely strong. His family had a farm in a remote valley of the Baviaanskloof Mountains in Eastern Cape province. He grew up there going barefoot and hunting baboons in the potato fields. The baboons came out of the mountains and raided the crops in organized groups. To control them you had to sneak past their sentinels and kill their chiefs. Afterward the baboons ran away to the mountains and were so disorganized that they didn’t come back for weeks. Streso joined the Legion for the experience. Now the French were starving him with their breakfasts of coffee and bread. God, how he missed his mother’s cooking, especially the steaks. He would have liked to take over the family farm someday, but there was no future for white farmers in South Africa. Attacks against them in the region have become pervasive. Recently some neighbors were hit. A nice old man and his wife, who were tied to chairs in their farmhouse and murdered. Streso’s father was a former Special Forces commando with an arsenal at home, so he could probably endure until selling out or retiring. But Streso had an entire lifetime to think about. He was going to leave the Legion after five years, that was sure. He was willing to settle anywhere to make his life. He said he had heard good things about farming in Botswana.
At dawn, moisture hung in veils over the river. We left in two pirogues and traveled up the Camopi into jungles so steep and remote that even the Wayampi do not penetrate them. Streso came along, as did the Malian, an Ecuadoran, a Chinese, a Brazilian, a Malagasy, a Tahitian, a Croatian with an enthusiasm for fighting Serbs, four native boatmen, three French gendarmes, and the mission’s commander—a middle-aged Belgian named Stevens who had been a legionnaire for years and had recently become a lieutenant. Stevens spoke Dutch, German, English, French, Spanish, Italian, Latin, and ancient Greek. He was a mathematician and ballistics engineer by training but had decided to become a paratrooper instead. He had orders to stop at every Wayampi homestead along the lower Camopi to make friends and collect information. After that, he was to proceed as far upriver as time permitted, to take a look around.
The homestead visits were predictable. “We are here to help you,” Stevens would say. “We know that Brazilians pass by on the river. Have you seen them?”
“Because they are polluting your water with their gold mining.”
Then we moved upstream past rapids deep into the territory where only gold miners go. It would accomplish nothing—or, at least, no more than the imaginary mission in the imaginary helicopter on the farm. The week passed in a compression of extreme physical exertion, in severe effort, slashing at the jungle to bivouac at night, stung by insects, warding off snakes and scorpions, slamming over logs in the creeks, wading, thrashing, constantly wet, moving through the natural ruins of the forest, through swamps, up muddy slopes so slippery and steep that they had to be climbed hand over hand, falling on the down side, breathless, thirsty, swallowing lousy French combat rations, zipped into hammocks to get through the nights, boots turned upside down on stakes, fighting jungle rot, fighting infections from cuts, heavy rain, digging thorns from our hands, heavy rain. In these conditions even the waterproof G.P.S.’s turned soggy. We came upon trails, A.T.V. tracks, smugglers’ campsites, and two abandoned mines. The closest we came to finding anyone occurred when Stevens got lost with a detachment and stumbled onto the campsite of a lookout, who escaped into the forest. The lookout was equipped not only with a radio and food but also with two shotguns designed to be fired by a trip wire.
Streso took it upon himself to befriend me. He stuck with me when I fell behind, helped me with the bivouacs, and quietly made sure that I survived. Mostly he tried to explain a way of thinking. One day, in a small group, after struggling for hours through heavy jungle and having lost the way, I realized that the leadership—the Tahitian, a sergeant—was plunging ahead blindly without reason. I stopped and said to Streso, “What’s he doing up there? I know this is wrong. We need to stop, go back, and figure out where we lost the track. And I know we need to get up on that ridge.”
He said, “You’re right, but don’t bother about it.” He gestured for me to follow. It was simplifying. Forget your civilian reflexes. The task does not require a purpose. Do not ask questions, do not make suggestions, do not even think of that. The Legion is our fatherland. We will accept you. We will shelter you. “We’re in the Legion here,” Streso said. “Just go with the sergeant. Come on, man, you don’t have to think it through anymore.”
Última edición por ivan_077 el Abril 22nd 2014, 09:35, editado 1 vez
"No hay mas diferencia entre los hombres que el vicio o la virtud" Jose Maria Morelos y Pavon.
No hay raza inferior; solo hay sujetos inferiores
Bendita se la muerte, porque a nadie le concede lo que no les da a todos los demas;alabada sea la muerte que se yergue piadosa ante el hombre que ha cumplido su deber.
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Trata de revisar si no hay ya temas abiertos al respecto
hay al menos tres, pero dos de ellos son videos y el otro es un conjunto de opiniones en diversos.
¿Los fusiono todos?
¿Los fusiono todos?
"No hay mas diferencia entre los hombres que el vicio o la virtud" Jose Maria Morelos y Pavon.
No hay raza inferior; solo hay sujetos inferiores
Bendita se la muerte, porque a nadie le concede lo que no les da a todos los demas;alabada sea la muerte que se yergue piadosa ante el hombre que ha cumplido su deber.
- Cantidad de envíos : 7771
Fecha de inscripción : 14/11/2010
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