Cardyn Brooks reviews two new books on the theme of citizenship and immigration
The French Foreign Legion in Its Own Words by Adrian Gilbert
Thistle Publishing 9 August 2018 (first published by Mainstream Publishing in 2009)
non-fiction military history
The French Foreign Legion first registered on my personal radar years ago during my childhood when “He ran off to join the Foreign Legion” was a recurring punchline in skits on “The Carol Burnett Show” in the 1970s. More recently, contemporary fiction series by Laura Florand and Brynn Kelly revived my interest in this mysterious military fraternity. Voices of the Foreign Legion weaves geopolitical facts with an array of personal experiences to explore the evolution of what would become an elite fighting force of mythical legend.
Established in Algeria in the 1830s primarily to make constructive use of foreign nationals labeled as potential rabble rousers for military service outside of France—a 19th-century spin on a combination of The Expendables and The Hurt Locker as a forlorn hope. Initially, this army of non-French mercenaries appealed to desperate young men in search of anonymity and clean slates, with escaping poverty and political repression as the most common motives for joining the Foreign Legion.
The Legion Patria Nostra (Legion is our Country) doctrine to enforce a shared sense of ingrained camaraderie comes through very clearly in each of the personal entries from legionnaires from the inception of the Foreign Legion to the present day. As a tour guide Adrian Gilbert keeps himself almost invisible in deference to the fascinating details of the complicated historical record and the intimate confessions of adventurous boys and complex men who are seeking to understand themselves while creating a place for themselves.
The focus on men makes the few mentions of women stand out in the narrative. Observations about Dahomeyan (now Benin) elite warriors who are female reflect gendered assumptions about military excellence. On page 149 British legionnaire Frederic Martyn says, “These young women were far and away the best men in the Dahomeyan Army, and woman to man were quite a match for any of us.” Even his words of praise for the women’s exceptional fighting performance reinforces the belief that these outstanding traits are inherently masculine.
Footnoting the presence and contributions of women in the military is exemplified in this passage on page 228:
The free French used a number of young French-speaking British women as medical support staff and drivers. One of these was Susan Travers, who became an informal member of the Legion (after the war [WWII] she was formally enrolled into the Legion as an adjutant-chief).
Among the visceral entries about men’s internal and external struggles to transform an international group of misfits into an elite team of military operatives in the midst of sociopolitical whiplash and upheaval, the brief mention of Susan Travers immediately sparked my interest in discovering more about her life and journey into the Foreign Legion, which led me to add Tomorrow to Be Brave: a Memoir of the Only Woman Ever to Serve in the French Foreign Legion to my TBR list.
Universal themes of personal crossroads, conflicting national ambitions, and social progress make Voices of the Foreign Legion a relatable read for people around the world. Being used to enforce colonial imperial oppression, and later to assist and protect some of those same countries demonstrates the ethical tensions of military objectives. Racial slurs are included fewer than a handful of times with “coolie” as the most frequently recurring term in some of the legionnaires’ entries.
At this time the immediate aftermath of celebrating the French team’s 2018 FIFA Championship underscores the advantages of assembling a group of individuals from diverse backgrounds to work together to achieve a common goal. The images of seeing French Pres. Macron and Croatian Pres. Grabar-Kitarovic embrace and congratulate the players from both teams celebrates the best elements of inclusive diversity. Recent comments from Germany’s Arsenal star Mesut Ozil that “I am German when we win, but I am an immigrant when we lose…” reflect the need for much more work on recognizing and valuing the contributions of immigrants as full-fledged citizens who embody significant and essential momentum to the growth of every society.
Three parts describe the making of a legionnaire, life in the legion, and the legion at war, concluding with a postscript, an appendix, source notes, and a select bibliography to assist readers who are interested in a deeper exploration.
The Watermelon Boys by Ruqaya Izzidien
Hoopoe, an imprint of AUC Press 27 September 2018
historical fiction (ca.1910s)
There is a nuanced complexity in the characters, family dynamics, historical context, and sense of time and geographical location that infuses this author’s writing with a fullness of narrative expectation on which she delivers. The trickle-down and radial effects of colonial imperialist patriarchy are intimately explored from Iraq to Wales to Australia and the Arabian Desert. In three distinctive parts, a postscript, and author’s note, The Watermelon Boys explores the intricate connections between international, national, regional, municipal, and neighborhood identity politics.
According to an omniscient narrator, “This time it will be different.” [Page 1] is the hope of every human generation despite all evidence to the contrary provided by even the most cursory study of history. And yet that hope for a different, better future is reborn with each new child. Rebirth motifs flow throughout The Watermelon Boys: an initially unidentified man rises out of the mud as a symbol of primordial ooze, and characters seem to get baptized in blood and water. Ultimately, none of these renewals changes the essential drive of humans to conquer each other.
Change the continent, the country, religion, ethnicity, gender, age or century, but strip humans down to their core and find the same warmongers in every century. Events in The Watermelon Boys occur from 1910 to 1920 and also feel relevant to present-day geopolitical discourse about the Middle East, workers’ rights, gender parity, immigration issues, and the fallout of colonial imperialist ambitions presented as liberation strategies.
Global experiences of “bad paper” betrayals of oppressed indigenous people by outside foreign invaders are included in references to the contradictions in the Sykes-Picot Agreement versus the Hussein-McMahon Correspondence, how negotiations with British colonists turned out for the original North Americans, and in this passage on page 213:
As though statehood was as simple as drawing lines on a map, and as though slapping a title on three different peoples—who had different words, ethnicities, and customs from one another would solve all of Britain’s problems.
That echoes this earlier passage on page 139, “They think they get to decide who deserves to belong, and they’re not even from here!…”
And beneath all the layers of flimsy and entrenched rationalizations for man’s inhumanity against man lies the persistence of sexism and misogyny as found on page 57, “…This is what women have always done, but we don’t write the history books. We rebuild countries, but the stories always end at the victory, so the men, they never talk of our fight.”
As a beautifully rendered panoramic study of some of World War I’s secondary theaters of war, The Watermelon Boys makes a compelling argument for the intellectual stimulation and artistic range offered when authors from marginalized populations write about “mainstream” topics. (The recent Broadway premiere of Young Jean Lee’s “Straight White Men” comes to mind.) Ruqaya Izzidien portrays every character, every situation, and each decision crossroads with deft touches of compassion and vulnerability that amplify the intensity in the scenes of cruelty and terror. There are no saints here.