21 November 2010

Marching with the Devil

If a man tells you he has never dreamed of joining the French Foreign Legion he is a liar, has no imagination, or both.
So begins David Mason's memoir of his five-year service in the French Foreign Legion.

I have known David for many years and had looked forward to the book finally being published. Many years ago, I read the first draft in loose-leaf form, unbound and held by a ribbon. It was an entertaining read and the original version was a light-hearted account, seen from a prism of good humour.  David was quite surprised that I was able to recount that early draft from memory. It was actually quite good and had left an impression.

The version published by Hachett was not what I had expected. It was a completely new story, providing more insight, not only into David's experience in the Legion but also what he had thought about it all.

In the book, David's five years in the Legion are separated into 28 chapters, each described, under the chapter name, by a French phrase used within that chapter. Over the 28 chapters, we learn about the process of enlistment, training and eventual deployments to Djibouti between 1988 and 1993, all with David's critical analysis of his experience, probably with hindsight written many years later.

If you want to read an account of life in the French Foreign Legion with a view to enlisting, this is not the book to convince you. Rather, it is scathing of the processes used by the Legion during that period, from recruitment, training, day-to-day general duties to field operations. The benchmark for comparison used by David was his experience in the Australian Army Reserve.  Having also served in the reserves, I can't help but feel that David may have been a little generous in that regard.

The most interesting aspect of the book wasn't about the French Foreign Legion itself but David's accounts of the human interactions and his attempt to understand why certain people behaved the way that they did in the situations that he describes. In the book, there were lots of bad behaviour from Legionnaire superiors to recruits, all trying to make what was possibly a bad situation for them, better at the expense of others.

No doubt, some Legionnaires who served with David may disagree with his retelling of his experiences, but knowing David, I suspect there is some truth in his tale.

During October 2010, Australia's SBS TWO channel also screened the four-part series of Bear Gryll's Escape to the Legion. It was a useful insight, albeit somewhat contrived. However, much of it supports David Mason's account of his time in the Legion.

Read it, or as David's Legionnaire colleagues would say "Je m'en fous".

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I have just finished reading David Mason's book about the French Foreign Legion. He writes with a high degree of Credibility, and I would find it difficult to disbelieve what he has written: he is neither overly-virtuous nor self-pitying in the recounting of his experiences, nor is he overly scathing of the people he met there. It's a matter-of-fact tale, and not a pretty one.

His story has the Ring of Truth about it.

I had once entertained joining the French Foreign Legion, back in the late 1980's -- I am roughly contemporaneous with David, and all I can say is I am darned glad I never acted on that particular impulse.

David's story sheds an entirely new light on why, perhaps, the Legion has several times marched itself into perdition. Except, perhaps, the true reasons may have had little to do extraordinary character and courage, and more to do with poor leadership and execrable training...

...Dunno. But "Marching With the Devil" was a great read, highly recommended.