In 1960, The Centurions, a French novel of Indo-China (Vietnam) and the Algerian insurgency, by Jean Lartéguy (b. Jean Pierre Lucien Osty), a highly decorated soldier and journalist, was a blockbuster in France. The book, a brilliant portrait of those who fight a nation’s dirty little wars, and the craven political class who command them, men who have “never heard a shot fired in anger,” fared less well in the United States where a liberal press scorched the novel’s style and content.
The story in brief: Lt. Col. Pierre-Noel Raspéguy must transform a military unit accustomed to fighting a conventional war into one that can handle asymmetrical warfare. First, the communist Vietnamese, referred to as an “army of termites,” and then the fanatic Islamists determined to force the French colonials out of Algeria.
Based on the real-life Gen. Marcel Bigeard, a very great soldier, Raspéguy and his men serve time in a Vietnamese prison camp where Raspéguy studies his communist enemy and realizes that a new era in warfare has begun. It is a war fought with mind-numbing propaganda, religious political fervor, and the erasing of boundaries between warrior and civilian.
“For our sort of war,” Raspéguy muses, “you need shrewd, cunning men who are capable of fighting far from the herd, who are full of initiative too … who can turn their hand to any trade, poachers and missionaries.”
Thus, it’s no surprise to learn that General David Petraeus has read Larteguy’s novel countless times, and taken its lessons of unconventional warfare to heart. In fact, if one studies the Counterinsurgency Field Manual authored by Petraeus, it’s almost like reading between the lines of the Lartéguy novel.
General Stanley A. McChrystal is also a devoted disciple of The Centurions. The Rolling Stone interview he unwisely granted, revealed the Centurions of his staff who made no secret of their contempt for the political class. Thus, McChrystal’s brilliant career was tragically destroyed.
In Israel, a close friend, a battle-hardened officer, kept a copy of Larteguy’s novel on his night table. “This is the only manual for war that makes any sense,” he told me. And he read a short passage out loud concerning an embittered French-Algerian soldier, speaking to a French comrade:
Well, it seems to me that this defeat at Dien-Bien-Phu, where you,” he laid particular emphasis on the ‘you’ — “have been beaten by one of your former colonies, will have considerable repercussions in Algeria and will be the blow which will sever the last links between our two countries. Now, Algeria cannot exist apart from France; she has no past, no history, no great men; she has nothing except a different religion from yours. It’s through our religion that we shall be able to start giving Algeria a history and a personality.”
In this passage, my Israeli friend, who had fought in the savage 1973 Battle of the Chinese Farm, saw the entire Arab-Muslim world, countries with phantom national boundaries, countries riven by internal ethnic and tribal wars, a land mass united only fanatic, religious fervor, a religion whose real foundation is jihad.
I will bet my house that Barack Hussein Obama has never read, much less heard of The Centurions. And even if he did, his radical leftism would consign it to the oblivion of colonial counter-revolutionary propaganda.
But The Centurions carries lessons not just for the military, but for our entire society.
The Centurions of the title refer to Raspéguy’s band of French soldiers, but the term dates back to the Roman officers who fought barbarian hordes at the outer edges of the Roman Empire — an empire that was crumbling internally through a combination of high taxes, inflation, government corruption, and sexual decadence.
A 1966 film, The Lost Command, based on the novel was produced, starring Anthony Quinn, Alain Delon, George Segal, Michèle Morgan, and Claudia Cardinale. The best that can be said of this movie is that Morgan and Cardinale are very beautiful. The film is painful to sit through. Watch this clip to see what I mean.
It is almost impossible to get a copy of Lartéguy’s novel. I managed to borrow an edition from the library. On Amazon, the book goes for close to $800.00. But I have heard rumors that it might be republished in the U.S. If so, run out and get a copy while you can. It is a stunning portrait of the past, the present, and unless the West wakes up, a grim future.