The Real Story of the French Foreign Legion
by Zev Borow

"Living by Chance, Loving by Choice,
Killing by Profession"
motto of La Lègion Etrangére
(French Foreign Legion)

You have seen nothing until you have seen grizzled men—battle-scarred men, men wrought of iron, men in khaki fatigues, men who crush things for the sheer thrill of telling others what they have crushed—weep openly before a 134-year-old wooden hand locked in a glass case in the hills of Aubagne, France. You have seen nothing. You have known nothing. You have felt nothing. And, to hear these weeping men tell it, you have been nothing.

The hand belongs to Captain Jean Danjou, a legionnaire who lost his life (and hand) in Camerone, Mexico on April 30, 1863. That date, considered sacred by the corps of Legionnaires, is observed, often in secret, under cover of night, accompanied by cheap red wine (cheap French red wine, that is) by Legionnaires past and present throughout the world. They conduct memorial services, get piss-drunk, and retell the story of the Legionnaires who withstood the assaults of 2,000 enemy soldiers and refused to surrender. Of how the last six made a final bayonet charge; of how only three survived. And of how one of those survivors lost his wooden hand, which now rests behind state-of-the-art protective glass in a place of honor at the Legion's Hall of Fame in Aubagne. They don't expect you to understand that this is more than just some old war story, embellished at the very least, more than likely untrue. Even if you do claim to understand, they will simply look at you with an unmistakable combination of disgust and pity, mutter in some damned foreign tongue, and spit dangerously close to your shoes.

Yes, there still is a French Foreign Legion. But forget about sand dunes, bayonets and kepis (their moronic little hats). Today's Foreign Legion is a modern, elite fighting force of expatriated bad-asses, sent to politically-charged hot spots around the globe. Last Fall, the Foreign Legion made international headlines when Legionnaires in speedboats and helicopter gunships engaged the troops of a renegade French mercenary general who had staged a coup in the French-supported Comoros Islands. 1997 finds the Foreign Legion alive, well and sporting Kevlar.

The Hand.

Yet for most (notably, many pathetically stupid Americans) the Legion remains an antiquated, romantic relic of World War II. Few Americans even realize it still exists. Others cling to the silly—and completely unfounded—idea that the Legion does exist but is ineffectual, even impotent. In fact, Legionnaires were part of NATO's Rapid Reaction Force in Bosnia , played a major part in France's military operations in Somalia, participated in the Gulf War and in Rwanda; and even more recently, were added to the 32,000 troops patrolling France in search of radical Islamic terrorists, who, as we all know, are very hard to kill. Petre Lejeane, the Foreign Legion's liaison to the French Government, notes: "The Legion's importance throughout history has been fabled, but its relevance, both within in France and in international politics, is actually increasing. Viva la Legionne!"

Despite the danger involved in its task and the gross misinformation circulating about it, the Legion attracts nearly 10,000 applicants each year from all over the world, most of them non-French citizens. Query a member about the legendary secret selection process (only one in seven gets in) and rigorous training (some of the world's most demanding,) and he will just smile, or spit, and dance around the subject of killing goats with bare hands or drinking human blood. What is known for sure is that new recruits are required to sign on for a binding five-year period. Some try to escape the Legion's storied training grounds on the island of Corsica; a few try suicide. Most stay. And those that don't are never the same.

Meet Donald Sutherland. No, not the famous character actor and father of current not-quite-heart-throb Kiefer Sutherland. This Donald Sutherland was once—almost—a Legionnaire. After graduating from college with a profound longing to use weapons and wear a uniform, Sutherland became obsessed with the idea of joining the Legion, eventually selling everything he owned and buying a one-way ticket to Aubagne. There, he met Jean Trusinte Picagre d' Phillipe, a direct descendant of Louis Phillipe, the man who created the Legion in 1831 as a haven for foreign mercenaries serving in the Swiss Guard (and to assist in the conquest of Algeria). Picagre d' Phillipe is the current Commandant General of the Legion, and a living legend to many.

The Code of Honor.

"When I met him it was like looking into the sun," recalls Sutherland, 28, now a graphic designer living in Walnut Creek, California. "The time I spent there will always be the most important of my life." But Sutherland didn't stay the course. "I just couldn't hack it. You don't understand. The training, it's punishing, it breaks you."

Sutherland describes a multi-headed, multi-lingual fighting beast with its own code, and its own unique sense of style. (Style note: Kenner Toys, manufacturer of the ever-popular G.I. Joe dolls and action figures, has introduced a Legionnaire as part of its 1997 product line. He's wearing khaki fatigues and a fetching midnight blue beret.) Question him about the cliched notion of the Legion being home to a motley crew of international rouges escaping checkered, even paisley, pasts, and his upper lip starts to quiver. Officially, The Legion accepts no known criminals. Could it be then that volunteers are looking for an easy way to score French citizenship, a fringe benefit of Legionnaire status? (There have been a slew of recent, well-documented reports of former citizens of Eastern Europe joining the Legion.) Or are these men simply signing up to play with guns and get paid for it? The question of what type of man (females are still excluded) makes up this peculiar, cartoonish, geopolitically unique brand of European mercenary remains unanswered, even though a few legionnaires have actually put up web pages.

There isn't a man, woman, or child, alive that hasn't heard of the French Foreign Legion—the name alone conjures fantastically vivid images—but there has yet to be any detailed coverage of today's Legion. France isn't talking: "There are no secrets to the Foreign Legion," says Lejeane. "But people must understand, it is imperative that absolutely no sensitive information be leaked." Douglas Pritchard, author of 1993's "What's Up With The French Foreign Legion?" is America's pre-eminent Legion scholar. While Pritchard has devoted a large portion of his life to exposing the secrets of The Legion, he's far from critical. "First off, I want to say I have no pity for men like Sutherland," he says. "They are weak and don't deserve to wear the uniform. I don't care if people like that live or die. Secondly, I believe that today's Legion is in fact the last, best, relic of a time when girls were girls and men were men, and everybody pulled his weight. The public deserves to know more!"

Perhaps they do. But in the end, Pritchard's bluster gives way to the quivering, scared, Sutherland. Both men have been to Aubagne, but only one has penetrated the vineyard-enshrouded lair of the world's best, least-known fighting force—and he ain't talking. "You can't possibly understand the men I saw there," says Sutherland. "They really make a big deal about that wooden hand."   </end>

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