For many, the French Foreign Legion evokes images of adventure, perhaps men traipsing over sand dunes in khaki knickers, and flapped white hats -- tough, and a bit, shall we say, unorthodox in a mercenary kind of way. However, the French Foreign Legion was, and continues to be, a legitimate fighting force, unique to France and the French experience, while still capturing the collective imagination of the world. Yet, the Legion's colonial legacy has in the past, and continues in the present, to complicate other nation's attitudes about the force. Not only does this effect the historical perception of the organization, but its legitimacy in current world affairs.
The Legion was founded in the year 1831 by King Louis Philippe. Although, without question, the Legion is patently French in its ideology, loyalty, and outlook, it is actually an international band of soldiers, joined together to fight for the interests of France. To be sure, because of its rather "eclectic" nature, many consider the Legion to be the essence of mercenary armies, a ragtag band of men of every nationality, race, and even creed -- as well as of every moral and ethical standard, from the brutish thug, to the idealistic soldier, fighting for God and country. However, the true French Foreign Legion is not so simple. In fact, to the French people, themselves, the Legion is a force imbibed with a rich and honorable history -- a representation of the collective French consciousness of the power of France, in spite of its international membership.
The reality of the French Foreign Legion is that it is made up of highly trained elite, volunteer forces, who have historically demonstrated striking courage. Indeed, the Legion is particularly known for its historical willingness to "fight to the death," rather than surrender to their enemies. In fact, the Legionnaire "code of honor," is a strong factor in their willingness to fight with particular ferocity. Consider the following:
THE LEGIONNAIRE'S CODE OF HONOR
1. Legionnaire: you are a volunteer serving France faithfully and with honor.
2. Every Legionnaire is your brother-at-arms, irrespective of his nationality, race or creed. You will demonstrate this by an unwavering and straightforward solidarity which must always bind together members of the same family.
3. Respectful of the Legion's traditions, honoring your superiors, discipline and comradeship are your strength, courage and loyalty your virtues.
4. Proud of your status as a legionnaire, you will display this pride, by your turnout, always impeccable, your behavior, ever worthy, though modest, your living-quarters, always tidy.
5. An elite soldier: you will train vigorously, you will maintain your weapons as if it were your most precious possession, you will keep your body in the peak of condition, always fit.
6. A mission once given to you becomes sacred to you, you will accomplish it to the end and at all costs.
7. In combat: you will act without relish of your tasks, or hatred; you will respect the vanquished enemy and will never abandon neither your wounded nor your dead, nor will you under any circumstances surrender your arms. (Embassy of France in the United States - February 26, 2001)
Further, it is important to note that the very mercenary and voluntary nature of the Legion often entails a kind of isolation or loss of the previous life of the individual soldier -- for, cut off from family, social, and even national ties, the Legionnaire is often in the unique position of "having nothing to lose," and thus, in possession of a strong willingness to die in battle. Again, in the French Embassy's description of the Legion it explains this nature of the Legionnaire:
one perceives the Legion as a large family. A man who has left behind his past, his social and family background, transfers to the Legion his need of an ideal, his affection equating the Legion with that of a homeland, to the point of sacrificing everything to it with a generosity which has astonished the world. That accounts for the motto on the front of the Legion's Museum: LEGIO PATRIA NOSTRA (Ibid).
Although the Legion has participated in many notable battles since its inception, perhaps most notably the battle near Palo Verde, Mexico in 1863, which is represented on the Legionnaire flag, the majority of the world's consciousness of the French Foreign Legion is made up of events during and after the Second World War. The reason for this, many assert, is due to the tremendous "honorable defeats" endured by the Legion after WWII, notably the ninety percent loss at Cao Bang, as well as the massacre at Dien Bien Phu four years later.
To be sure, fighting post-WWII played a significant part in the French perception of the Foreign Legion. Indeed, the Legion took tremendous losses in Vietnam and South East Asia -- numbering more than 10,000. (Jones) Not only did this mark a low point in numbers of casualty suffered by the legion, but, perhaps as a result, it marked a change in the popular French perception of the role of the Legion, as well as the regular French army. To see this fact, all that is necessary is to consider the circumstances surrounding the Battle of Dien Bien Phu.
Of course, the Vietnam War marked a turning point in the world's perception of the reality of war. Due to the unprecedented access of the general public to the actual "on the ground" events of the war due to innovations in media and the wide spread of television, anyone could see for themselves the reality of war. This is especially true of the Battle of Dien Bien Phu.
To be sure, the function of the Legion has, historically been highly "colonialist" in its duties -- often serving to keep France's subjugated throngs in line (especially in North Africa). This was to be the case in Vietnam, as well. However, unlike previous experiences, the Legion was not to fare well.
After the close of WWII, France sought to reestablish its colonial government in Indochina. However, the Vietnamese were not willing to be colonized any longer. Under the guidance of Ho Chi Minh, Vietnamese fighters began battling for the north of the country. Perhaps, like the American soldiers later, the Legion was strikingly rigid in its response to the guerrilla-type warfare of the Vietnamese. Indeed, they simply found themselves unable to successfully counter the unorthodox methods of the Vietnamese fighters. The Legion's fighting style and ability had become dangerously unable to adapt, and, instead, they fell back on old methods of warfare that simply would not work in the milieu of Vietnam.
Specifically, the battle of Dien Bien Phu emerged in 1953, in the midst of impending peace talks between the Vietnamese and the French government. Dien Bien Phu was a small village close to the Chinese border. Falling back on "traditional" war tactics, the Legion commanders sought to block the supply lines of the Vietnamese fighters, while luring them for a fight. (Johnson) The Legion built up a garrison at the bottom of the river valley, to be protected by snipers on surrounding hills. In addition, the French gathered more than 13,000 troops and stationed them inside their garrison, of whom, approximately seventy percent were Legionnaires. (Johnson, 152) However, in spite of their tremendous numbers, strong garrison, and heavy cover-fire, the Vietnamese assault on March 13 made it immediately clear just how inadequate French preparations would be. Not only were their sniper positions overpowered within mere days, but the Vietnamese fighters were able to rain down heavy artillery fire on the now, completely vulnerable, garrison. Further, the Viet Minh fighters used their advantage arising from being on their "home turf," and scaled (with artillery equipment), hills that the Legionnaires had deemed "impossible." Of course, under such conditions, it would prove to be all but inevitable for the French garrison to fall. However the way in which it would fall would be symbolic of the Legionnaire sensibility. (Wilder, 21)
It seems that the artillery commander was so distressed at failing to knock out the artillery gunners, mercilessly shelling their position, that he went into his trench and committed suicide. Soon after, things went from bad to worse, with the Viet Minh taking over the supply route of the garrison (recall, the intended aim of the French), the airport, as well as much of the supplies falling within their reach. Eventually, on May seventh, the garrison fell. Of those who did not die during the battle or the siege, the rest were taken prisoner. However, in spite of these heavy losses, the blow that the battle would deal to the perception of the strength of the Legion among the French in specific would surpass any damage the Vietnamese could visit upon the Legionnaires -- for not only were the French shocked and demoralized by the reports of the battle, bringing an end to the French colonialization of Indochina, but it shifted the French sensibility…