Soldiers fighting for opportunity and honor
March or Die: A New History of the French Foreign Legion, by Tony Geraghty. New York: Facts on File. 352 pp. $19.95. Unlikely Liberators: The Men of the 100th and the 442nd, by Masayo Umezawa Duus. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press. 259 pp. $19.95.
Inadvertently, these books on the 150-year-old French Foreign Legion and on the US Army's Japanese-American (nisei) infantry units of World War II bear on a question that has been central to the American military since Vietnamese communists were successful against fearsome American firepower:
Why do men (and occasional women) fight? Above all, why do some groups overcome the terrors of battle to fight well, generating sufficient fighting power for victory?
The traditional interpretations are superficial. The politically minded look to ideology, be it democracy, Nazism, communism, or the radical ``zeal'' that textbooks still ascribe to French revolutionary armies. The hardware enthusiasts point to numbers and firepower, logistics, and systematic planning, all the factors that can be created, organized, distributed. The answer actually lies in morale, cohesion, determination - they ``all get up and move forward at zero hour,'' remarked an Army pamphlet about the nisei troops. These themes underlie both books.
Consider the Foreign Legion. Tony Geraghty, a British paratrooper-turned-journalist, gives a simple chronological history from its formation in 1831 as the cutting edge of French imperialism overseas, to its role today as an 8,000-man intervention force for France's clients in sub-Saharan Africa and its remaining colonies. His interest lies in battlefield exploits, and he uses a few secondary sources to paint the customary picture of courage-against-great-odds.
Unfortunately, he offers few hints explaining why these men, recruited from the gutter and despised by society, were so courageous, cohesive, and effective in combat.
Some answers are apparent. The legion offered these outcasts a last chance to remake their lives, with regulations shaping conduct, with victory as a goal, ruthlessness as the means, and acclaim for those with courage. The legendary Col. Pierre Jeanpierre countered criticism from his officers during the Algerian war with ``Why complain? I'm giving you glory, aren't I?''
Glory, however, had become irrelevant. The anachronistic legion subculture, with its customary brutality in colonial backwaters, now roused worldwide criticism. And the legion officers betrayed their own traditions by becoming politicized and joining conspiracies against de Gaulle. The legion, brought to heel after his triumph in 1961, has regained its aloof professionalism, as it waits by the transports for the next parachute drop in Africa.
Consider also the nisei of the 100th Infantry Battalion and the 442nd Regimental Combat Team. Both campaigned in Italy and France between 1943 and 1945, taking high casualties while winning medals, praise, and victories. Masayo Umezawa Duus, a Japanese-born popular writer who is a longtime resident of the United States, has focused on heroics, human interest, and the anxious families back home (often penned in ``relocation'' camps), rather than on key military and political issues, but she is nevertheless informative.
Just as the legion was marginal to French society, so too were Japanese-Americans in this country: Racism and the relocation camps said as much. Yet most enthusiastically embraced the American Dream - upward mobility through education for their children - and their loyalty rarely wavered. Shedding their blood in battle brought true citizenship and self-confidence. The reward came in Hawaii during the 1950s, when such ex-soldiers as the current Sens. Daniel Inouye and Spark Matsunaga began climbing the political and economic ladder. The Japanese-American communities were tightly knit: Everyone knew everyone, family honor was vital, and the samurai tradition was strong. Hence the young men fought, proudly and well.
Conclusion: The best military organizations are those that offer their members support against the terrors of battle plus the opportunity for honor in a skeptical world.
Leonard Bushkoff is a free-lance book reviewer specializing in history and politics.