I decided to read Jean Lartéguy’s story about France’s political and military response to guerilla warfare and terrorism in Indo-China and Algeria, after reading General Stanley McChrystal’s testimonial that in 1974, while at West Point, he read the novel as a primer on modern warfare. The General later had command of Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC) and of U.S. Forces in Afghanistan. JSOC’s Task Force 6-26 was credited with the death of Al-Queda leader Abu Musab al-Zarqawi. Task Force 6-26 later was accused of the use of torture in interrogation, and 34 members of the Task Force were disciplined after Abu Gharib. McChrystal was publicly outspoken. It cost him his job, when Rolling Stone magazine reported disparaging remarks, made mostly by his aides, about Vice President Biden, National Security Advisor Jones, Ambassador Eikenberry, and Special Representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan, Holbrooke. Military distaste for political masters is common, but the attitude of Special Forces reflected in this book represents and reinforces that attitude and the distaste of field officers for central command.
As I finished this novel Paris sustained multiple terrorist attacks that resulted in its first state of emergency since Algeria. McChrystal’s testimonial about the book’s description of assymetrical warfare is summarized by his line, “The lands, languages, uniforms and personalities were different but the themes and emotions were constant.”
The title of the novel is cautionary. “A large number of the centurions of the Proconsulate of Africa abandoned the legions and came back to Rome. They became the Praetorian Guards of the Caesars until the day they adopted the custom of nominating them and then electing them from themselves. This was the beginning of the end of Rome…”
The novel is part of the author’s trilogy on the Algerian War; The Centurions being the middle novel between The Mercenaries and The Praetorians.The protagonists of the novel are French soldiers: Major Raspéguy; Captain Glatigny; Captain Esclavier, Captain Boisfeuris, Captain Dia; Lieutenant Marindelle, Lieutenant Pinières; Lieutenant Mahmoudi; Lieutenant Lascome; Lieutenant Lescure; and Lieutenant Merle. All were captured by the Vietminh at the after the fall of Dien Bien Phu. They bond as POWs at Camp One. There they learn from their Vietminh captors about organization, temperament, and strategy of insurgent fighting. This cellular, insular, classless, flat structure, devoid of military pomp and conventional bureaucracy, is translated into a special forces paratrooper regiment. It is employed to do the dirty work of the corrupt local French and Algerian political organization, the incompetent central and conventional field military command, and the duplicitous French government that does not want to lose power because of Algeria. It uses this unconventional fighting unit to succeed at any cost, and then to destroy it.
The prisoners become professional soldiers in Algeria, who disparage and ignore senior command and politicians. Their willingness to fight without rules, based on intelligence, speed and surprise is tolerated, but disliked. Through a range of interrogation techniques, that includes torture, they get necessary information and create fear in the Algerian populace who like most societies under siege will align with the temporal winners that scare them the most. Torture is not what these soldiers learned from the Vietminh. They were treated like Vietminh soldiers who lived on scarcity and were purposed to be enlightened and reeducated as Communists. The captors wanted the POWS to lose their sense of self.
As professional soldiers in Algeria the concept of Geneva rights, as with Sherman’s march to the sea, did not exist. The local community was correctly assumed to be the enemy of France, as willing or unwilling suppliers and supporters of the insurgency. The soldiers were apolitical or otherwise supportive of the aspirations of the Algerians, which they believed was inevitable. Their strategy was simple.
“Yes, and hold all the surrounding villages, collect information at any price and by any means, force Si Lahcen and his men to really take to the mountains, and cut them off from the population which provides them with information and feeds them. Only then will we be able to them on equal terms.”
This is a novel with strong character development. The core of this special forces unit came from different classes with varied education and regional and national backgrounds. Their different and often dysfunctional family and romantic histories and relationships colored their world. At the outset, a chapter is devoted to Captain Glastigny, Lieutenant Pinières, Captain Bosifeuris, Lieutenant Mahmoudi (an Algerian), Lieutenant Marindelle, Captain Dia; and Major Raspéguy. They and the other principal characters are later developed. This is an ensemble cast where thoughts, emotions and ideas are more important than the otherwise engaging plot. It is far more than a war novel; at times romantic, and occasionally even strategically “feminist”.
“How could one awaken the Moslem women, how could one make them feel that their emancipation might come from us? Certainly not by treating them to feminist lectures… At this point an idea occurred to the captain which most of his comrades found extremely odd, not to say unpleasant. On the following morning he had a number of women and young girls rounded up in the Kasbah; he filled three trucks with them and drove them off to a wash-house. There he made them scrub away at the paratroopers’ sweat-stained vests and pants. These women had been hauled off without any of their menfolk raising a finger to protect them. They thereby lost their prestige as warriors, which suddenly reduced the ancestral submission of their wives and daughters to nothing. Bent all morning over their washing, these women felt as though they were submitting to being raped over and over again by the soldiers whose garments they were purifying.
When they came back to the Kasbah without having been molested, when these strong young men had helped them out of the trucks with a courtesy which they were rather inclined to exaggerate (more often than not their fiances or husbands were old, decrepit and ill-mannered), some of them thought of abandoning the veil, and others that they might take on a lover who was not a Moslem.”
The sexual advantages in the recruitment of young men to ISIS and similar causes is at the price of women who could be a weapon in counterinsurgency.
These soldiers are not mercenaries, nor are they devoted to a common cause. Captain Esclavier explains:
“If you were to ask me what I have come out here to fight against, I would say: in the first place, excess. Sophpocles says ‘Excess is the greatest crime against the gods.’ I’m fighting against the savage, lawless nationalism of the Arabs because it is excessive, just as I fought against Communism, because that was excessive.”
Boisfeuras, the intelligence officer who rejected family wealth and connections in Indo-China and spent years in China, thought it his duty to take part in the defense of the individual.
For many, Algeria was an excuse to distance their revulsion of French civilian society and family upon returning from Indo-China. For soldiers returning from war, particularly ones where civilians had no stake, this psychology remains a serious personal and societal problem. Excessive materialism, hypocrisy, bureaucracy and loss of community and the removal of the adrenaline rush of battle, are barriers to reentry.
“What passed through the minds of the Roman centaurions who were left behind in Africa and who, with a few veterans, a few barbarian auxiliaries ever ready to turn traitor, tried to maintain the outposts of the Empire while the people back in Rome were sinking into Christianity, and the Caesars into debauchery?
Elite military units are both the heroes and enemies of failing democracies and corrupt political institutions. Africa, Asia and the Americas are replete with examples, but developed Western nations have had similar histories and threats when economics and political polarization encourage society to look for easy alternatives with appealing narratives.
The novel expresses an interesting, but questionable viewpoint about the reason for the war in Indo-China.
“What does Lenin say? ‘The future of world revolution lies with the great masses of Asia.’ China is Communist, but there still remains India which is closed to China by the Himalayas, to Russia by the Pamirs and the ranges of Afghanistan. The only point of entry is through Bengal and South-East Asia.
‘Among the seething races of the Far East which can hardly be numbered, there’s only one ethnic group of any historical or political interest: the Thais. They’ve got a history, they’ve built an empire. They’re called Chans and Karens in Burma; they’re also to be found in Thailand and Laos. In the Haute Region they represent three-fifths of the population and they’re also established in Yunnan. The capital of this Thai empire is Dien Bien Phu.
The Communists decided to work on the Thais so as to force entry into India. They set up the Thai majority in Yunnan as an autonomous people’s republic and, I can tell you now, it was on that business that I was engaged. The Chinese want to group all the other Thais round their people’s republic. Once that is done, all that is needed is a slight nudge for the whole of South-East Asia to collapse. Then every gateway into India will be open to them. They therefore could not allow the historical and geographical capital of the Thais to be held by western anti-Communists. Mao-Tse-Tung ordered the capture of Dien Bien Phu while Giap was dreaming about the delta.'”
The book is well written and at times the prose is superior.
“The Moslems hugged the walls and avoided running into the Christians; hatred had become a living, a palpable thing, it had its own smell and habits; at night it howled in the streets like a famished dog.”
For some the rabid dogs now prowls the streets both day and night. As humanity does not change, The Centurions will always be relevant and timely.