One of the novels that most heavily influenced the US military’s approach to its post-9/11 wars did not focus on the Middle East. It did not feature American service members. And it was published four decades before the terrorist attacks that precipitated America’s long involvement in Iraq, Afghanistan, and elsewhere. Jean Larteguy’s The Centurions is a tale of captive French paratroopers in Indochina who later to go on to ascend to the zenith of their profession in Algeria during the 1950s. The book besotted senior American military leaders, including Generals Stanley McChrystal and David Petraeus, leading to its reissue in 2015. The novel’s depiction of professional soldiers confronting the challenges of counterinsurgency resonated with veterans of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. And its depiction of the tragic fall of Dien Bien Phu and its aftermath serves as haunting literary analog to the chaotic fall of Kabul in August 2021. But there is another layer that was too often ignored but must be reckoned with. Larteguy’s novel foretold the challenges that arise when prolonged deployments in a war characterized by nebulous goals estrange soldiers from their country.
The most recognizable excerpt from the book has become the now infamous “two armies” speech. The monologue by Lieutenant Colonel Raspéguy, a central figure in the story, appears in the novel’s first pages and is delivered following the French forces’ capture. It introduces the notion of distinction between classes, between warriors and the others.
I’d like to have two armies: one for display, with lovely guns, tanks, little soldiers, fanfares, staffs, distinguished and doddering generals, and dear little regimental officers . . . an army that would be shown for a modest fee on every fairground in the country. The other would be the real one, composed entirely of young enthusiasts in camouflage battledress, who would not be put on display but . . . to whom all sorts of tricks would be taught. That’s the army in which I should like to fight.
Unsure if he will survive the ordeal, Raspéguy expresses his deepest desire: ascent to the upper reaches of the profession of arms, an ascent which in his mind leaves him free from the constraints that impede mission accomplishment. The experience crystallizes the obsession and asceticism warfare demands and elite practitioners seek. Raspéguy’s monologue served as the literary true north for generations of warriors. Yet far more poignant is what immediately follows. After hearing the monologue, a fellow paratrooper retorts, “You’re heading for a lot of trouble.”
The lean, taut prose yields luscious emotional content. Sculpted sentences convey the horrors of incarceration, the longing for home, and the cunning counterinsurgency demands. But while Larteguy’s work provides a realistic portrayal of lower-level military leadership and the challenges of counterinsurgency, it also illuminates the psychological effects of combatants’ estrangement from their peers and nation. The paratroopers formed their tribe separate and distinct from not only the people in whose name they served, but also those in uniform who they perceived as less capable, less consequential, and beneath them. Their experience as prisoners of war isolated the paratroopers from both their brothers in arms and their countrymen—but their actions and their attitudes as the story unfolds reinforced this isolation.
The Centurions consists of three parts: the beginning in Indochina, an uneasy return to France, and a new mission in Algeria. In part one, both before their capture and even more so as prisoners of war following the fall of Dien Bien Phu, the paratroopers receive a graduate-level course in revolutionary warfare. Part two traces their return to France, where they no longer feel connected to their homeland. Some of the paratroopers indulge in every pleasure and whim, but satisfaction and relief remain elusive. Their reentry into French society proves complicated by the ill-formed strategic decision that led to the fall of Dien Bien Phu and how little French citizens grasps the defeat’s implications. Curious citizens seek out the paratrooper commander, Raspéguy, to explain the ordeal they had suffered. The colonel feels incapable of doing so. “What should he tell them,” he wonders to himself, “these peasants sitting here with their gnarled hands spread flat out on the knees of their black Sunday-best trousers?” Unable to connect with his fellow citizens, Raspéguy is representative of a small class of warriors who remain separate from a population unaware of their sacrifice and ignorant of their purpose. Without relief, the paratroopers grow restless in France.
In counterinsurgencies and small wars, like those in Indochina, Iraq, and Afghanistan, one of the extraordinary difficulties is transforming tactical, battlefield successes into sustainable political outcomes. In such cases, the combatants who earned those battlefield successes may be left feeling alienated from the strategic decisions that sent them to war and determined its conduct. Counterinsurgency blurs both front lines and objectives. With no clear distinction between friendly and enemy terrain, the US forces in Iraq and Afghanistan operated within an unfamiliar physical and human topography where threats lurked at every turn. Murky objectives further confused the implementors of counterinsurgency strategy as measures of success shifted from one day to the next. The prescient themes of The Centurions foretold the difficulty of waging messy wars, their disorienting effects, and how the experience of fighting in them enhances difficulties with reentry into civil society.
In the novel’s third part, a mission in Algeria provides an escape from these difficulties. Raspéguy receives command of paratrooper regiment and hand selects his staff, all veterans of Dien Bien Phu and the period of captivity. The cadre from Indochina will fight together again in Algeria, armed with hard-earned knowledge of warfare and the unwavering resolve forged during incarceration. Absent from their desire to deploy—both individual and collective—is the advancement of France’s strategic goals. Brandishing their bona fides as practitioners in a new conflict takes priority over a strategic end state.
The counterterrorism and counterinsurgency operations that commenced after 9/11 followed a similar cadence and tempo, but over a longer period, as new fronts opened and the initial mission mushroomed. Where Raspéguy’s paratroopers found a new battlefield in France’s loosely connected wars of decolonization, US service members found new theaters in its ambiguously defined global effort to combat violent extremist groups. Some Americans whose service began in Afghanistan and Iraq would move on to missions in Libya, Yemen, Somalia, Niger, Cameroon, and elsewhere. Some did so in uniform, others as contractors. American society largely (although not wholly) preferred not to ask questions about the strategic wisdom of expanding an ill-defined and indefinite conflict, and old hands continued to do their job in new venues.
In The Centurions, the brutality of their experience as prisoners seared one paratrooper to another. Following their return to France, it is this commitment to one another, not patriotism, that animated the paratroopers’ desire to deploy to Algeria. The closest contemporary analogs to Larteguy’s pop culture reflection of a generation of warfighters are films. Movies like American Sniper and Zero Dark Thirty placed elite US special operations forces on a pedestal, though in the all-volunteer force this societal elevation also extends to all those who raise their hands and choose to carry the burden of warfighting while others’ lives continue with little impact from year after year of war. The cost of this professionalism is the same separation from society as the French paratroopers experienced. In both cases, combatants are bound tightly to others who shoulder risk and possess the skills needed for messy missions. Fellow citizens offer their thanks but remain detached from the realities and implications of waging a war in their name.
Larteguy shows how the pain of defeat diminished the horizons of the vanquished. In the first days after the fall of Dien Bien Phu, a paratrooper remarked, “The age of heroics is over.” In place of the heroism they failed to find as the French war in Indochina disintegrated, the French paratroopers adopted a detached resolve as they found a new war in Algeria. For a generation of US service members, it was the elusiveness of success rather than outright defeat that they experienced, but the result was largely similar. Perhaps this explains, in part, the zeal with which many veterans of Afghanistan joined the frantic effort to evacuate Afghan citizens to safety as Kabul fell to the Taliban. Veterans who assisted with the airlift sought to ease suffering and transmute their aguish into one final heroic act. Both Larteguy’s French paratroopers and American veterans coped with tragedy with a familiar remedy: action.
On one hand, the reasons why such esteemed figures as McChrystal and Petraeus would have lauded the book are obvious. Yet on another, its popularity among military leaders might have registered a warning to their fellow citizens. The byproduct of a society divorcing itself from a counterinsurgency fought in its name is a weakening connection between that society and its warfighters. Larteguy’s protagonists were seduced into believing they could dissolve the sinews that tether them to society and focus on the military mission they alone were equipped to complete. Likewise for US service members, prolonged deployments and messy missions place them in a convoluted moral space, where some might feel less bound by service to their country than by adherence to their own code. When battlefield excesses occurred and when the civil-military divide grew, a close reading of Larteguy’s work would have posed a question to citizens: What did you expect?
Major Benjamin Van Horrick is the current logistics operations officer for TF 76/3.
The views expressed are those of the author and do not reflect the official position of the United States Military Academy, Department of the Army, or Department of Defense.
Image credit: Staff Sgt. Mark Burrell, US Army