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The Monstrous Thing

St. Michael and the Dragon: Memoirs of a Paratrooper

by Pierre Leuillette
Houghton Mifflin, 334 pp., $5.95

Pierre Leuilliette’s graceful account of his service in Algeria and Suez was confiscated by the French police. Natrually, since several of the exploits recorded are the kind for which German war criminals were universally execrated and finally hanged. But the police need not have worried. No discredit, apparently, attaches to the French Government, or to the men who obeyed its orders. Only War—“the monstrous thing itself”—is to blame. According to Max Lerner’s Foreword, this book is “bathed in a sense of compassion,” we are invited to read it for “the story of the dehumanizing wrought by War”—but also for “the affirmation of life which is all the more triumphant when set beside the idiocy of War.” Personally, I still don’t know how to “affirm life.” All I find positive in this book is the ordinary sentimentality and rowdyism which we all enjoy when soldiering. It seems that we are meant to respond: “War is hell, of course, but—congratulations, Leuillette. Not only have you won three medals, but you have retained your personal integrity in the most degrading circumstances.” We did not say this to Nazi S. S. men returned from the Russian front, however fresh or subtle their style.

It is not helpful for liberals to shrug sadly about the “idiocy of war.” If the, perhaps, ideal system of a United Nations police force is ever achieved, it will still have to wage a kind of war, and this need not be exactly idiotic. Nor are our present wars idiotic, those in which Arabs, Africans, Asians, Latin Americans, use war as the only practical means they can conceive to extrude foreign mercenaries, conscripts and patriots, in order to transform their economic system and to achieve certain desirable ends, like literacy and shared food. The Algerian war was not idiotic; the participants knew what they were doing, and one of the armies succeeded in its aim. It was merely hideously cruel, worse even than the Kenya and Cyprus repressions, almost as bad as the campaigns waged on behalf of Diem and Syngman Rhee.

Leuillette volunteered. He explains: “The volunteer paratrooper is never, at the start, anything but a grown-up little boy, at best an enthusiastic boy scout, dreaming of cuts and bruises, the glamorous uniform…He lives in a world of marvels which our modern recruiting sergeants skilfully exploit…How resist such an appeal at eighteen?” But some resisted. Plenty of French conscripts ran, dodged, mutinied. The growling of the conscripts is almost the only thing tolerable in this indecent book. Leuillette had to guard some of them after a near-mutiny at Marseilles. The conscripts snarled at the volunteers: “Salauds! Vendus! Mercenaires!” How right they were. All Leuillette can reply is; “Pleasant job for us!”

He had other jobs. “We are going to surround the villages where the terrorists take refuge…We break into these dwellings like robbers, generally at dawn…Then comes the looting…Bright silk kerchiefs gleam and sparkle on arms fumbling in the chests where the women kept their pathetic little treasures…We find old wedding dresses: these we hang on the trees in ridiculous poses; then we drag them through the mud. Some dress up in them. We strangle wretched yellow cats for the fun of it, because they are ugly. By the end of the second day, this prosperous village is a heap of foul uninhabitable ruins.”

Next comes the interrogation of the prisoners, conducted by a lieutenant, “Count M. de V. de L.”; it is a pity the French have no King, to strip this thing of his ludicrous honors. “At each punch, the two men’s hands instinctively go up to their faces. We tie them. Their faces are covered in blood…He kicks the men in the shins and belly with his heavy jump boots.” Finding an Arab monastery, the Frenchmen haul out the grave mystics. “The mere fact that they could live in the heart of this insecure area makes them suspect. Faster! Faster! Along the stony path, young men in uniform jab their bayonets into the legs of the tall, bent old men, while others, in a frenzy of stupidity and cruelty, violently slap the faces of sick men limping in the rear.”

They catch a sniper. The captain “gives him a slap in the face that nearly takes his head off, then has us tie his hands, even the bleeding one…We beat him half to death, and ship him by helicopter to Tebessa where he can be properly interrogated.” Then we move to Egypt, for the maniac aggression of Suez, with a message from a General: “I have full confidence in your Valor and your Faith. Nor should you forget that Egypt has long been our friend. You will represent France. By your attitude and your behavior, you will strive to make known the greatness and the humanity of our Country.” Leuillette comments: “Two many capital letters!” Yet he still participates. And soon, “the usual pillaging begins. Everybody wants to take home his little souvenir of Egypt.” Then there is the shooting of the prisoners: “they’re a nuisance, and they have to be fed…Quite a few women raped in the city, even some very young girls.”

Back in Algeria, many paratroopers are volunteering for the security force, in order to “kill people in the streets with the authority of their government…What a delight to search a trembling woman from head to foot in the street. And what an ecstasy if she is young, supple and naked under her dress. What a joy to humiliate people…Almost every night there are search expeditions into the suburban slums. We prowl through them like wolves…and return in the morning always followed by prisoners half crazy with worry and hatred…” Here now is the filthiest section of the book. “I shall speak of the torture room for the 1st Company of the 2nd R.P.C., my company.” Here Frenchmen, people we might meet in Europe any time, “torture naked, bound prisoners, one after another, from morning to night.” There are zinc-covered tables with workbench vices, “very convenient for squeezing the sexual parts,” buckets of water to immerse the shaven heads, electric wires to scrape over the skin and thrust down the orifices. The sergeant in charge confides to Leuillette that “he’s lost interest. All these rats yell the same way.” Through talking to this comrade, Leuillette has become obscene, and to read his book is to feel dirty.

But who cares? The book is exciting, full of “action”—which means hurting. We all tolerate, or even enjoy, some kinds of hurting, but are disgusted by others. Some find the pangas of the Congolese more hateful than napalm. I recall an American Leftist in London, angry because Bertrand Russell in Trafalgar Square had equated Belsen with Hiroshima. Yet who can say those decent airmen caused any less suffering than the German torturers? Is the difference only that we are more revolted by the personalities of the hurters?

Probably. A man who risks hisl ife trying to kill is surely superior to a torturer who hurts in safety. This antique soldier’s convention will be preserved, so long as war lasts. In spite or because of the nuclear deterrent, modern war is often hand-to-hand; you can see the enemy’s face. Leuillette admires his enemies in open combat. One Egyptian defends a bridge against a whole French company: “a real commando of death, this fellow.” Of another: “heroism is a lonely game. Enemy or not, we admire him.” Leuillette is certain that these Arabs retain more honor than his French comrades, who hang up live prisoners by the feet.

He goes home sickened, not because of combat, “the idiocy of war,” but because, he says, “I have been silent among jailers so long I feel myself becoming vile.” This soldier’s mood helped the French Government lose its war, deservedly. The same disgusted mood makes the Vietnam war impossible to support. We have recently seen, in England, news photographs of Free World tortures at work; it will not now be easy to win European support for the Vietnam campaign, except among those who enjoy cruelty. And they will be no use. (As Hazlitt remarks, cruelty and effeminacy are very close; both overvalue pain.) Leuillette preaches the lesson which it took him too long to learn, that there are certain ways of hurting which are not tolerable, which strip you of your manhood and your will to win.

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