by Chef de Bataillion Thomas Philippe Riou
Légion Étrangère, Armée de Terre
I came across this article a couple of months ago while browsing the U.S. Marine Corps University site. It runs 18 pages and appeared in the first issue (2016) of the The Breckinridge Papers which is a professional journal published annually and featuring the writing of students attending various military schools. The author was a student at the Marine Corps University’s Command and Staff College.
Don’t let the name of this article turn you off. It is NOT another one of those convoluted and impenetrable sociological pieces one might come across from time to time that attempts to explain the inner workings of elite military units. This one provides an amazing insight into the uniqueness of the integration and assimilation process of those who join the French Foreign Legion and does so in a clear and understandable way. There are some necessary references to sociological terms, quotes and theories but these do not get in the way of the author’s personal telling of the how the Legion creates their remarkable espirit de corps and unit cohesion or what the author calls their “collective identity”. The author served in the Foreign Legion for several years as an officer and has a very intimate view into the ways and the culture of this somewhat mysterious organization. He explains the reasons for many of the unique (and strange to outsiders) customs and traditions found in the Legion such as the chants, the kepi, tattoos, and unit celebrations. He touches on the reasons for frequent desertions from the Legion which he attributes to rash decisions to join in the first place and the simple fact that deserters are not really obliged to follow or concerned enough about French laws since they are not French. The article is sprinkled liberally with observances from those (authors and Legionnaires) who have studied and written about the Legion but the most powerful testimonial is that of Lawrence J. Franks Jr. Franks was the American West Point graduate, a 2nd Lieutenant, who did 5 years the Foreign Legion after deserting the U.S. Army in 2009. Franks credits his tour in Legion and the discipline and comradeship for saving himself from suicide. The author of this article was Franks’ company commander for two years.
This is a highly recommended read. Camerone Day is right around the corner and this article will help one to better understand this ceremony and the observed traditions of the Legionnaires by better understanding the processes inherent in assimilating and training men from 150 nations into an elite and highly effective military corps.