SEE The Foreign Legion in Film: A Fatalistic Love Affair* * *
I. The Farm
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 ...