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Wednesday, December 12, 2012

The Modern Reality Of The French Foreign Legion

A NATO French Foreign Legion convoy travels past scores of trucks stuck in a traffic jam on the main road linking Pakistan to Kabul, Afghanistan in 2009. (AP/Jerome Delay)NATO French Foreign Legion soldiers march to a troops review ceremony to celebrate the end of World War One at the Tora forward operating base near Surobi some 50 kilometers (30 miles) east of Kabul, Afghanistan, Wednesday, Nov.11, 2009. (AP/Jerome Delay)Legionnaires dressed in traditional pioneer outfits and holding hatchets parade during the commemoration ceremony of the 1863 battle of Camerone, at the base of Aubagne, near the southern city of Marseille, Saturday, April 30, 2005. (AP/Claude Paris)Unidentified soldiers of the French Foreign Legion patrol the border area near the village of Lojane, Macedonia, 3 miles (5 kms) from the border with Yugoslavia, Monday, April 26, 1999. (AP/Boris Grdanoski)The line up of the French Foreign Legion on maneurvers in Chad, Africa in 1983. (AP/sil)Troops of the French Foreign Legion on duty at Fort Flatters, deep in the Sahara Desert in southeastern Algeria on March 10, 1960. The soldier in white wears the Sahara uniform while the rest are in fatigues. All wear the traditional white kepi or cap. Sandals are their footgear. (AP Photo)The 1st battalion of the world-famous foreign legion arrived in Paris on July 12, 1939. (AP)This is an undated file photo of an old recruiting poster of the French Foreign Legion. (AP)

More than just a fixture in movies from the 30’s and 40’s, according to journalist William Langewiesche, the French Foreign Legion has seen more continuous fighting than any other military outfit in the world.

A Brief History

Founded in 1831 by King Louis-Philippe the Foreign Legion was originally a means to round up criminals and deserters in French territory after the Napoleonic Wars. Legionnaires come from all over the world and are commanded by French officers, as a branch of the French military. Currently 7,286 men (women are forbidden from joining) serve in the Foreign Legion. Records indicate that over 35,000 legionnaires have died in battle.

Allegiance: Pro Or Con?

Though part of the French military, William Langewiesche, says the French Foreign Legion is made up primarily of foreigners.

“Therefore [they] don’t necessarily have a constituency in France,” says Langewiesche, “and are somewhat easier to send off on very, very difficult missions.”

Langewiesche says lack of allegiance to France is “very much part of the Foreign Legion — for better or worse–and many people on the Legion would argue that it is a strength.”

“It’s more of a pure form of addressing the realities of combat and war to get beyond the political rhetoric, and the postering and the rhetoric and that sort of thing,” says Langeqiesche, “and deal with war and battle for what it really is more of a personal-less, grandiose thing than a public patriotism and that sort of thing.”

“Too Tough” For Normal People

Langewiesche points out that “normal” people don’t tend to join the French Foreign Legion. He says that typically something has gone wrong in your life — in many cases this could just mean where you were born.

“Normal people having normal little lives don’t tend to go join the Foreign Legion — it’s too tough.”

– William Langewiesche

“You were born somewhere in the remote corners of Mongolia and you want something better for your life. And you hear, somehow, either through an internet cafe or a friend, that there is some place called the Foreign Legion. And if you can only get to France, they will take you in if you’re tough enough.”

Former inmates and fugitives are also sometimes drawn to the Foreign Legion. Langewiesche “they tend to be people who have been driven by the circumstances of their lives into the legion.”

“Normal people having normal little lives don’t tend to go join the Foreign Legion — it’s too tough,” he says.


  • William Langewiesche, reporter for Vanity Fair

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Robin and Jeremy

Robin Young and Jeremy Hobson host Here & Now, a live two-hour production of NPR and WBUR Boston.

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