SOMEONE has remarked that French institutions don't exist so much to be effective as to provide subjects for witty and learned studies. A post-facto judgment, surely; but, empirically, not without justice. The most recent political failure scholars and ideologues have seized upon is the French Army; the effects of its isolation from the main concerns (and territory) of the French nation during the last twenty years have now attracted their attention.
The Centurions thus appears in an intellectually - charged context; and reading it one is constantly reminded of this fact. For M. Larteguy assumes a great deal of the reader, and will hardly make sense unless one bears in mind the peculiar psychological burden of the Army for a certain group of Frenchmen. (Especially since I'm not sure it makes too much sense no matter what's borne in mind.)
Ever since the first Revolutionary Army of 1792, the French have regarded the military as more than just a combat machine. They respected it as a combination of power and ideology. The close connection between French politics and the French armed forces was encouraged, even after the disaster of 1870, when it first became evident that both had suffered a near-mortal decline. Indeed, after Sedan, French militarism developed the assertiveness that the fear of weakness produces; and the Army's hold on the popular imagination was not destroyed even by its defeat in the Dreyfus Affair.
The two World Wars, however, all but destroyed the Army's prestige as an instrument for spreading an ideology, not merely because of the defeats (one relative, the other absolute) it had suffered, but because of the nature of the Wars themselves ("total war," in Professor Aron's phrase). France could no longer clearly define what she was going to war in defense of.
Out of the Second World War, however, came a new cause: saving of the West from the Communist barbarians, the Slavic hordes. What would be curious anywhere but in France, militarists had been among the most vociferous appeasers prior to the War, precisely because they feared a German defeat would unleash the Communist revolution all over Europe. And the Army conceives of its fight in Indo-China and Algeria, the subject of The Centurions, as a continuation of the struggle against Marxist in humanism begun passively in the late '20's and '30's.
De Gaulle, by contrast, is in the non-ideological military tradition of modern France; the conception of himself as a latter-day Louis XIV bulks larger in him than the Army thought when it helped bring him to power in May, 1958. The Centurions clearly sides with the army (against Gaullist-Louisism): for M. Larteguy, the revivification of the French army has a much more specific ideological purpose than re-capturing la gloire.
THE novel is a tract, written expressly to sell the author's ideas on the role of the army. As a novel, it hardly exists. Although the cover calls it "the sensational bestselling French novel about their paratroops in Indo-China and Algeria," it only describes Indo-China after the defeat at Dien-Bien-Phu, and deals with the Algerian campaign in a curious (and not very exciting) fashion, as though the French army there were Larteguy's model army.
The book is very largely made up of conversations among a group of soldiers it follows from an Indo-Chinese prison camp, to a leave in Metropolitan France, and finally to action in Algeria. These conversations sound totally abstracted from reality, because the milieu to which they refer -- and which gives them meaning -- is not described in the novel. Larteguy neither describes the military frustrations of the Army, nor evokes the corrosive feeling of futility which has eaten away its pride and sense. All this -- like feeling for the historical significance the Army's plight -- is assumed in the reader.
What Larteguy substitutes for a sense of reality is (as I suppose he intended it) a sense of exaltation, induced by being in the presence of
The awareness of the real issue, Larteguy says in effect, is gained on the battle-field (or in the prison camp). For his characters, the indoctrination and intellectual forced-feeding to which their Viet captors subject them is
What was it like out there! Explain all that to them, to these people who have scarcely ever left their valley; explain the Chinese and the Vietminh, the tall elephant grass of the Haute Region and the paddy-fields of the deltas, the mud and the dust, the fighting, the suffering, the dying, and what he and his kind were striving to find behind all this death!
'It wasn't exactly a holiday,' he replied in his rasping voice, 'but it got under your skin.'
He peered at them through half-closed eyes.
Beyond the melodrama in this and similar passages lies a serious, or at least an earnest argument. "Out there the officers and men discovered that military effectiveness requires adopting the techniques used by the Communists: guerilla warfare, total mobilization of the population, and an unflinching dedication to the achievement of the political goal, without military unnecessaries like pomp and show, or indulgence in intellectual subtleties like defining and refining the goal.
In short, what from one point of view the Communists' dehumanization of their followers, is from another a lesson on how to win a war. But more than that, the real Communist lesson is that, by adopting a certain sort of military organization, a people can be reborn.