“It is the most touching, the cruelest story of the war that I tell, a story of the purest and most brutal symbolism.” In these words, written in the 1930s, the French journalist Paul Bringuier revealed to his readers the tale of a “living unknown soldier,” the man they called “Anthelme Mangin.” But in his excellent book, Jean-Yves Le Naour shows how much more touching and cruel this man’s real story was, and how impure its symbolism became. Le Naour has achieved the most piercing account I have ever read of the ghosts who crowd the landscape after a modern war.
They found him, so Bringuier related, in a railroad station at Lyon. It was early morning on February 1, 1918. A hospital train bringing exchanged prisoners of war from Germany had arrived at Lyon-Brotteaux a few hours before, but its occupants had long since been welcomed by their families and taken away. Only one man remained, wandering along the silent platforms.
They asked him who he was, but he could only mumble. He was wearing the remains of a French uniform, but the unit tags were all missing. In his pockets, there was no money and no identity papers, nothing but a cigarette lighter made out of an old cartridge case. He was young, perhaps in his late twenties, and had a dark mustache. The railroad staff saw that he was sick, scarcely aware of his surroundings.
They summoned army medics. Equally baffled, the military doctors sent the stranger to a mental hospital at Bron, on the Lyon outskirts. At one point, when asked who he was, he muttered a reply. It was very indistinct, but sounded roughly like “Anthelme Mangin.” So Anthelme Mangin he became.
He was to remain confined in France’s grim empire of psychiatric hospitals for twenty-four years, until his death in 1942. Most of his time was spent in an asylum at Rodez, in the hills of the Aveyron, whose director was Dr. Fenayrou, an exceptionally humane and patient physician. Given the storms of emotion and publicity which were to break over him, Mangin was lucky to have such a protector.
For Anthelme Mangin was about to become a celebrity. The mystery of his identity converged with the grief and guilt of a nation trying to overcome the trauma of the war, the delusions of bereaved families unable to accept their losses, and the fascination of intellectuals who were to construct a small genre of literature around “the only truly free man, as he was without past, without memory, without hatred….” Jean Anouilh wrote a play about him, Traveler Without Luggage, staged in 1937. The Mangin case also became political, as the extreme nationalist right and the liberal left took up the causes of rival claimants to family relations with him. It became a legal legend, as French courts wrangled for years over what should be done with him. And it became a feast for the French press. New “revelations” about him, almost all phony, made regular headlines in the decades between the two world wars. Some good reporters dug up evidence that the bureaucracy could have discovered years before. Others, like the writer Paul Bringuier, invented facts and quotes in sensational articles whose impact often derailed the search for Mangin’s true origins.
The uproar surrounding this lonely victim was one of many outcomes of the most terrible war in French experience. France had lost a million and a half men between 1914 and 1918. But some 400,000 of these had no known grave. Twentieth-century warfare, tearing bodies to fragments or burying them under mountains of mud and clay, had created a new category of suffering for families: they were told that a relative was “missing presumed dead,” or merely “missing.” This in turn created new categories of mourning for the disparus: the cult of waiting in hope, the unofficial search groups with their bulletins and journals, the compulsive public credulity toward swindlers and impostors, the huge boom in spiritualism for communicating with the vanished as well as with the dead. (Both complexes, the new suffering and the new mourning, were to enter New York life after September 11.) Myths abounded. One of them, popular in wartime, asserted that the missing were in secret German prison camps, being used as slave labor and forbidden to write letters home. When they failed to return after the Armistice, rumor spread that the Germans had murdered them.
It was from this need to mourn in new ways that the “unknown soldier” concept emerged. Originally, it was intended to comfort the families of the missing. The tomb of a single unidentified soldier would become a collective grave where the bereaved relations of the lost men could come together and fulfill their need to grieve. It was only later that the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier became in France and other countries a national shrine, in effect dedicated not only to the missing but to all the nation’s Great War dead and their “supreme sacrifice.” As usual in France, politics tripped up the project at several points. The first “unknown” corpse exhumed at Verdun turned out to be Senegalese, so he was reburied and replaced by a white body. Then right-wingers objected to placing the Inconnu in the Panthéon in Paris, because the “unpatriotic” Émile Zola already lay there. L’inconnu ended up at the Arc de Triomphe.
Anthelme Mangin was an unknown soldier too, but he was alive. The doctors puzzled over him, and spent hours trying to coax him into coherent speech or writing. They were convinced that his condition was the result of battle trauma. But in the First World War, the French authorities refused to recognize the condition of “shell shock,” which would have put legal responsibility for him on the war itself and on the state that had declared it. Instead, the official line was that symptoms of deep shock, including amnesia, must derive from a preexisting medical condition which was merely rendered acute by combat. At Bron and Rodez, the staff diagnosed Mangin as suffering from dementia praecox—the early term for what was soon renamed schizophrenia. They listed symptoms—persecution complex, silent apathy, and an apparently total loss of memory—and stated that his condition was irreversible.
For a year or so, French asylums held dozens of shattered amnesiacs who had returned from captivity with no papers and no memory of their past. But gradually almost all were retrieved by their families. A new law in 1919 allowed the missing to be presumed dead after two years of silence, so that their widows could inherit their property and remarry. A kind of normality was returning, but in the Rodez asylum Dr. Fenayrou wondered what to do about the silent Mangin, still unclaimed. For one thing, an absurd bureaucratic impasse had arisen. Mangin had been granted the highest level of war-injury pension by one ministry. But another ministry declared that he was not entitled to touch the pension money because, having no official identity, he did not exist. His case reached the French parliament, where the government was blasted for slighting the needs of helpless veterans who had suffered crippling mental wounds “pour la patrie.” After an angry debate, it was decided in 1922 that the newspapers should perform “an act of sacred patriotism” by publishing Mangin’s photograph, along with those of five other amnesiacs.
A rush of claimants now headed for Rodez. Over three hundred families begged to be allowed to meet Mangin. Most of them were mothers or wives, determined to repossess the son or husband whose picture they had “recognized” in the papers. Some of them were in pathological denial. The nightmarish Brille family, for example, told many lies about their son Victor, who later turned out to have died a fully notified death at the front in 1915, followed by burial in a war cemetery. The Brilles told the press that the man at Rodez had spoken to them and had agreed that he was Victor Brille. When Dr. Fenayrou objected that he had been present at the meeting and that nothing of the kind had happened, Madame Brille called him a sadist and a liar.
But the Brilles were not typical. And, remarkably, none of the claimants seems to have been after Mangin’s money, the frozen pension rumored (wrongly) to amount to a fortune. The motive for almost all of them was love, the stubborn, irrational love that refused to abandon hope or to stop waiting for the dead to return. They would meet the inmate at Rodez and then, although he might be entirely the wrong size or the wrong complexion, or lacking the old scars and birth blemishes of their beloved, they would recognize him as their missing man. They “knew” it was he, and only they could know.
Jean-Yves Le Naour’s book not only rediscovers the details of the Mangin case and the cult that grew up around him, but examines—with sharp critical intelligence—their political, scientific, and literary significance. Self-delusion of a similar kind over missing persons has a long history, and it has always had its place in drama, songs, and novels. Le Naour quotes a sketch by Borges about the “Tichborne Case,” which he assumes to be a Borgesian fiction. But the case was real, and it rocked Victorian England. The heir to the opulent Tichborne estates had vanished in a shipwreck. Many years later, an uncouth figure arrived, claiming he was from Australia, announced that he had survived the wreck, and asserted his right to the family fortune. Nobody would have taken him seriously (he was in fact a failed butcher from Wapping, in London’s East End) if Lady Tichborne, the missing heir’s mother, had not declared that she recognized and accepted the claimant as her son.
A mother’s instinct, English juries supposed, could not be mistaken. It took huge sums in lawyers’ fees and years of litigation before the false Tichborne was exposed and jailed. In contrast, Dr. Fenayrou in the Rodez asylum displayed a combination of psychiatric insight and compassion that puts the Tichborne contenders to shame. Very occasionally, he thought that he might have found his patient’s real family. Mostly, though, he knew that the families trying to cajole a word or gesture out of Mangin could not possibly be related to him. But that truth was not the end of the story for Fenayrou. Grief and love had their own rights, and he understood that some of the self-deluding women might give his patient a happy home. He almost managed to allot him to the Mazenc family from Rodez, well knowing that he could not possibly be their lost “Albert.” But new witnesses appeared at the final release hearing who insisted so fatally that this was not Albert Mazenc (no stammer, no tattoo, no Aveyron dialect) that Fenayrou had to drop the plan.
Later, Fenayrou was moved by the gentle Marthe Mazat, from a peasant family in the Dordogne, whose son Henri had gone missing in 1915. Like so many other claimants, she confronted Mangin and then asserted that he had spoken to her and confessed to being her son. Fenayrou had been present and knew that this was complete fantasy, but he allowed Madame Mazat to go on visiting his patient twice a week (she had moved to Rodez to be near her “child”).
He showed the same kindness to many others, some of whom—like the Brilles—viciously attacked him afterward. But in 1927, almost ten years after the end of the war, Nemesis arrived for Fenayrou, and ultimately for Mangin too, in the form of a tobacco shop manager from Coulonges-sur-Autize named Lucie Lemay. Reading a magazine in a dentist’s waiting room, she saw what she decided was the face of her husband, Marcel, missing in action since 1914. Lucie went to Rodez and convinced herself that the patient had said “I recognize you!” Fenayrou was touched by her, although he knew that this was untrue. But Lucie, tougher than the other claimants, then began a legal, political, publicity battle which would last for the rest of her life, poison poor Fenayrou’s existence, and—worst of all—deny Mangin himself reunion with his real family.
For, amazingly, the real family finally turned up. Le Naour puts it in his own way:
Borges and Pirandello, who… had written of a desire to believe that goes beyond physical resemblances, would never have imagined that the true relatives might hesitate where so many others had convinced themselves so totally. That, nevertheless, is what happened.
On May 13, 1930, a certain Joseph Monjoin from the village of Saint-Maur-sur-Indre wrote to the Ministry of Pensions. He asked that his brother Octave, taken prisoner in the first days of the war but out of contact since 1916, should be declared dead and his pension paid to his elderly father. Joseph had written before, but his letters were ignored. Now, for some reason, a light suddenly went on in the ministry’s office in charge of disputed claims. The connections—the similarity of name, the convergence of physical data and timing—clicked into place, and a rather reluctant Joseph was dragged off to Rodez.
At first he was not sure. He had not seen Octave for eighteen years, his voice seemed different, the moustache confused him. But Fenayrou was convinced, and soon journalists tracked down witnesses who remembered Octave as a prisoner. He had fallen into dementia—or depression—in a camp at Hameln and had been moved to a barracks for the mentally ill. He had been seen in a convoy of sick prisoners at Konstanz on January 31, 1918, due to leave for France that night. There could be no more doubt: “Anthelme Mangin” was Octave Félicien Monjoin.
That should have been the end of the story. But, astonishingly, it was not. The ministry was instructed to recognize “Mangin” as Monjoin. But four out of the nineteen other claimant families, including Lucie Lemay, hired lawyers and challenged the instruction. This meant a trial, which took four years of slothful preparation before it opened in January 1935. These preparations included a number of bizarre experiments. In one, Octave was taken to the railway station at Saint-Maur and dropped off to see what he would do (he found his way to the café and then to the family house, and correctly remarked that the church spire had been renewed). In the second experiment, Octave was deliberately infected with an abscess in the thigh. The idea, invented by Professor Fochier of Lyon, was to induce a high temperature which would overcome “negativism” and help the patient to express himself. Octave developed a temperature of 102, and wrote his own name correctly on a form.
The 1935 trial should have been over in a day. But it turned into an advocates’ carnival. Fresh examinations and confrontations were ordered, which took over two years. Meanwhile new documents turned up. These confirmed Octave’s identity. But they also revealed that Paul Bringuier’s story about his arrival at the Lyon railroad station was journalist’s fiction. Octave had been on a train of mental patients repatriated directly from a German hospital at Königsberg to the asylum at Bron. Undeterred, Lucie Lemay challenged the documents as forgeries. A new trial began in 1937, which gave a verdict for the Monjoin family. At Saint-Maur, celebrations began. But they were premature. Lucie appealed the release of Octave’s pension to his father, and the case went up to the supreme court.
All this time, Octave Monjoin remained locked up in asylums. He was moved to a new ward at Épinay, near Paris. The years of litigation dragged on. Joseph, Octave’s brother, died in 1939, and his father a few months later. Now Octave had no home to return to, and no family to carry on the fight in the courts.
War broke out, the lawsuits were shelved, and most people forgot about the “living unknown soldier.” In 1942, Octave came to a miserable end. In one of the least-known and most disgusting of its crimes, the Vichy regime decided to cut rations of food and fuel for psychiatric hospitals to a level below what was needed for survival. Some 40,000 helpless men and women—certain historians think there were more—perished of slow starvation and hypothermia. An old relative of mine was among them. So was Octave Félicien Monjoin, who died in the Sainte-Anne asylum in Paris on September 10, 1942.
When news of the death reached her, Lucie Lemay was upset but not at all discouraged. She renewed the fight, demanding a post-mortem examination of the corpse. After her death in 1954, her exasperated son burned all her Mangin files. But the latest news, only two years old, is that Lucie’s granddaughter is applying through the courts for an exhumation permit in order to carry out DNA tests.
Nobody else remembers Octave now. As Jean-Yves Le Naour astutely points out, his status as the nation’s living martyr began to evaporate when he acquired a name and a background. Le Naour quotes from Giraudoux’s play about lost memory, Siegfried et le Limousin: “His amnesia gives your Siegfried a past, a nobility…. If he should find his family or his memory, he will become our equal.” Monjoin/ Mangin’s contemporaries agreed that it was necessary to restore him to his family, but they were much less sure that it would be kind to restore his past. Perhaps the European twentieth century was the only time in history when a man could be envied for having no memory.
Octave Monjoin was a victim and a symbol, but he was clearly not a warrior. The experience of war put him to flight, into dark personal recesses from which he never emerged. Warriors exist, all the same. These are the men—and a few women—who are good at war and in many cases find battle exhilarating. Once, personal physical courage was considered the supreme virtue. Now, it is regarded with a certain condescension as an uncool, even uncouth, quality.
This may be a welcome change in some ways. Those who dislike getting hurt are often (though certainly not always) people who are reluctant to see others get hurt. But in a century which has already had at least a dozen wars in its first five years, martial courage and the warrior will obviously stay in demand. Max Hastings, a British editor who has reported on several wars and who knows more about armies than most of his colleagues, has written Warriors to ask the old question: Why do people who are apparently sane deliberately put themselves in harm’s way?
In his clever, absorbing, and vividly written book, Hastings presents fifteen case studies. He begins with Napoleon’s brainless cavalry hero Baron de Marbot, who endured countless charges, wounds, and escapes from Spain through the Russian campaign to Waterloo. He ends with Avigdor Kahalani, the indomitable tank commander on the Golan Heights in 1973 who defeated five hundred Syrian tanks with forty of his own and probably saved Israel. But throughout the book, Hastings uses his examples to draw conclusions and to generalize.
He sees, for instance, that Western soldiers—commanders and commanded alike—have grown much more squeamish in the last fifty years. Perhaps it’s unfair to call it a merciful spread of cowardice. But soldiers today are extremely unwilling to risk death and wounds without what they consider good reason. No officer today could order his men over the top and into direct machine-gun fire and expect to be automatically obeyed. Hastings remarks that, a generation after the slaughter of the First World War,
a consensus evolved among Anglo-American commanders that it was impossible again to make such demands upon their men. The manner in which World War II campaigns were conducted, especially in northwest Europe, reflected an Allied preference for firepower rather than human endeavour… and a reluctance to persist with any course of action that entailed heavy loss.
This determination to husband lives and minimize casualties was striking in the British army’s conduct of the Falklands campaign in 1982 (although that war also produced many examples of high personal courage). But the gulf now separating us from traditional attitudes toward war is deep. As Hastings writes,
Most of the people whose stories feature in this book would find our society’s quest for an existence without peril incomprehensible, unmanly, absurd. They would be amazed by the childlike and increasingly widespread belief that if governments do their business properly, even a soldier in battle can be protected from harm.
This change—or this maturing of self-respect in the citizen—demands a new type of leader in battle, who relies less on formal authority and more on the leader’s own charisma and skill at arms. Avigdor Kahalani, swarthy, wound-scarred, savagely efficient in command of his own tank, was that sort of leader. Baron de Marbot, on the other hand, would have been useless on the Golan. Endurance and resilience counted there, not mad impulsive valor. Max Hastings is very good on the matter of courage, which he treats with respectful irony:
One consequence of mankind’s exaggerated regard for courage is that some remarkably stupid men, their only virtue a willingness to expose their own persons to risk, have been granted positions of responsibility on the battlefield….
Napoleon in particular overpromoted “officers of high courage and small intelligence.”
Hastings goes on to make another anti-heroic but crucial point when he says that “courage is a desirable asset in a commander, but is usually fatal to the interests of his soldiers unless accompanied by some intellectual powers.” The figure loathed by modern soldiers is the gung-ho idiot who rushes about in full view, throwing explosives at the enemy. What happens to him, they do not care. But they care a great deal about the enemy guns and mortars that will soon retaliate on them. Hastings writes: “Many soldiers display a baleful attitude towards officers who are perceived to be excessively aggressive.” This was the case with Wing-Commander Guy Gibson, who led the daring RAF raid on the Mohne and Eder dams in Germany in 1943. He was made a public hero, but his men in 617 Squadron hated him for his harshness and his indifference to danger—their danger. Much the same was true of Audie Murphy, the fearless little boy from Texas. True to the movies he later starred in, he used to charge the Germans alone, firing machine guns from the hip. Murphy, still under twenty, had a charismatic authority over his comrades, and a phenomenal skill with weapons. But his men had mixed feelings about him,
the equivocal feelings which soldiers usually display towards zealous warriors—they respected his courage, but feared that it might prove excessively dangerous to the interests of others.
Like many warriors, Audie Murphy hoped for a life of ease and honor when the war was over. He got that life—twenty-eight medals, Hollywood stardom and wealth, more girls than he could handle—but he did not enjoy it. Hastings calls him “a psychological mess of epic proportions.” In fact, very few of his subjects lived happily at peace. Harry Smith, one of Wellington’s officers, fought with supreme bravery in Spain where he rescued and married the fourteen-year-old Juana de Leon, who marched beside him through a dozen battles to Waterloo. But his postwar career as a colonial governor was a failure, and he died penniless. “Slim Jim” Gavin, the dashing paratroop general who commanded the 82nd Airborne in the Battle of the Bulge, was undistinguished in a Pentagon post, and later as US ambassador in Paris.
Lieutenant John Chard, an officer previously considered lazy and stupid, inspired his handful of redcoats to beat off a charging Zulu host at Rorke’s Drift in 1879. He was given the Victoria Cross and paraded around Britain as a hero, but then resumed peacetime duties, which he performed as lazily and stupidly as before. Kahalani, one of the toughest and most resourceful tank commanders in military annals, became a mediocre general and was thought by some Israeli colleagues to have been promoted beyond his talents.
A few, in contrast, prospered when the fighting was over—especially those who promptly left the armed forces. Eddie Rickenbacker, the air ace who thought that killing enemy pilots “was a wonderful game,” became chairman of Eastern Airlines and had a long, happy marriage. John Masters, a brilliant commander of Gurkha infantry during the war against the Japanese in Burma, quit the army in disgust after India gained its independence and settled down to write novels about the British in India—Bhowani Junction, Nightrunners of Bengal, and the others—which made him famous and even rich. The rumbustious Nancy Wake, a recklessly bold Australian who led maquis fighters in France, discovered in the hour of victory that her French husband had been tortured to death for refusing to betray her to the Germans. But she recovered and knocked cheerfully around the world as a British diplomat, a ship’s nurse, and an Australian politician before remarrying. Joshua Chamberlain, the mild professor whose leadership at Gettysburg probably saved the Army of the Potomac, survived awful wounds to become governor of Maine and president of his old college.
At the end of his book, Max Hastings points out how many of his warriors “were products of bleak childhoods. Ruthlessness of purpose was indispensable to them, and many were fired by a measure of anger.” This is true of the book’s most frightening and tragic character, John Paul Vann. In his first assignment in Vietnam during the 1950s, which was spent trying to make the reluctant South Vietnamese forces fight harder, he came to understand that he was defending a largely worthless regime and he tried to tell the world about it. Hastings writes: “It is hard to overstate Vann’s significance in educating newsmen who became vocal critics of the war about the reality of what was being done in their country’s name in Indochina.”
But in his second spell, between 1965 and his death in a helicopter crash in 1972, the warrior in him took over. He became fanatically convinced that the South Vietnamese could still win, and as the fronts crumbled, showed suicidal bravery as he flew through intense fire from one threatened base to another. Hastings recognizes Vann’s contempt for danger, but is unforgiving about his towering megalomania: “He seemed incapable of pausing for a moment from his frenzied personal struggle to arrest the catastrophe to which his own delusions had contributed.”
In many ways, Vann represented the sort of courage that blinds its possessor to reality and endangers others—precisely the quality that is the central theme of Warriors. Max Hastings sums up:
He clung to a stubborn faith in the doctrine of American universalism, of exactly the kind that guided Washington’s neoconservatives to their blunderings in Iraq…. Vann wanted to persuade the Vietnamese to become Asian Americans. When they declined to do so, he lost his compass. He became too incontinent a human being to deserve command in a war of others who valued their lives more highly than he did his own.
March 23, 2006