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 …

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