- The Washington Times - Saturday, August 6, 2005

LEGION OF THE LOST: THE TRUE EXPERIENCE OF AN AMERICAN IN THE FRENCH FOREIGN LEGION

By Jaime Salazar

Berkley/Caliber, $23.95,

243 pages

REVIEWED BY ROGER K. MILLER

“Everyman thinks meanly of himself for nothaving been a soldier, or not having been at sea,” Samuel Johnson said. We might add, as a generality just as glittering, that every man at one time or another thinks how great it would be to run away and join the French Foreign Legion.

How great it is, or not, we can know in some detail, thanks to that oxymoronic literary genre, the youthful memoir, penned by young men who have left the Foreign Legion, often via desertion. There have been many over the decades, including that of Christian Jennings, an Englishman who, at 22, joined the Legion in the 1980s, fled after a couple of years, and wrote about it in “Mouthful of Rocks.”

The experiences Jaime Salazar describes in “Legion of the Lost” are similar to Mr. Jennings’, though the latter was attracted by the supposed glamour of the military force while what Mr. Salazar sought was even more ineffable than that. Both describe many of the same things — discipline consisting mostly of blows to the head and knees to the groin accompanied by curses and verbal belittlement — and both, once they completed the four-month basic training, rather enjoyed the life, made up of days of hard training followed by nights of hard drinking. And both of them, though impressed with the Legion, are, if unconsciously, just a little more impressed with themselves. Presumably Mr. Salazar would not consider himself among the “a collection of humanity’s rejects” that he said described his fellow new enlistees.

Far from being a reject, Mr. Salazar, the son of Mexican immigrant parents, had a degree in mechanical engineering from Purdue University and a high-paying job in Chicago, a job that within a week had left him bored and disenchanted. And so at age 23 in 1999 he threw the job over and took off for France. “I felt drawn to a life of challenge and discomfort,” he writes of his time in Marseille. “I saw the Legion as a way of redemption for disillusioned men from many lands, and I wanted to be part of it.” Once he had signed the five-year enlistment contract, “I felt an indescribable release.”

Formed in 1831, the Legion, part of the French military establishment, accepts only volunteers. Officially, Frenchmen are not allowed to join; nevertheless, they make up a sizable percentage of the more than 8,000-man force. Nor does it accept everyone knocking at its door. The French military intelligence service, nicknamed the Gestapo, had a detailed resume of Mr. Salazar’s life. Recruits are given pseudonyms based on their real initials, so Mr. Salazar became Juan Sanchez.

After a choppy start in the opening pages, Mr. Salazar’s writing settles down to an agreeable narrative — that is, aside from his sexual adventures. They read like a men’s magazine sex-advice column. In his account he appears to have been a magnet for everything French and female, from a daughter of the aristocracy to a fat and febrile long-distance truck driver. Why, some of the women weren’t even French. If the adventures are true, then he is a helluva man but a lousy writer. If they are not true, he is still a lousy writer.

Though it claims to accept men from throughout the world, regardless of race or religion, Mr. Salazar says “the Legion is still largely a European, Christian army.” The best of the book is the kaleidoscope of nationalities: Calderon, “a paunchy pit-bull from Nicaragua” who during free time often studied a Catholic prayer book; Dupont, “a harmless Korean, adopted as an infant by Belgian parents;” Woodman, a former U.S. Army soldier from Tulsa, an untutored intellectual, “a soldiering monk;” Sijfert, a white South African who joined to kill blacks.

Once he had earned the right to wear the kepi blanc — the familiar hard, white, round cap of the legionnaire — Mr. Salazar writes, it “was the finest hour in my life.” Yet within months he was contemplating desertion. After two years and much agonizing about the shame of it, he did desert.

Mr. Salazar says it is too bad it took him “so long to realize that the Legion takes away a man’s soul, his sanity, his blood and sweat, and gives him nothing in return.” Yet it must have given him something he sought, else he would not have returned to France from the States to try and turn himself in. But the Legion wouldn’t have him back. “I am still pondering my love-hate relationship with the Foreign Legion,” the author concludes. That is the truest statement in his book.

Roger K. Miller, a newspaperman for many years, is a freelance writer, reviewer and editor.

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