A copy of Jean Larteguy’s The Centurions, an out-of-print French novel about paratroopers in Indochina and Algeria, can go for more than $1,700 on Amazon. That’s reason enough for its republication this January by Amereon LTD for a list price of $59.95. But when I called the publisher, Jed Clauss, it turned out money wasn’t his primary motivation: “Look, I’m an old guy,” he said, “I’m at the end of my publishing career. I now only do fun projects. But David Petraeus wanted this republished. So I’m doing it.”
That’s General David Petraeus, the man credited with turning around the war in Iraq. I’d read a translation of the 1960 novel, which has cult status among military personnel, not too long ago—and liked it. But after talking to Clauss I began to wonder: What is it about The Centurions that makes it so wildly expensive, and what makes it appeal to our generation’s most influential military strategist?
Since my husband served under Petraeus in Iraq, I was able to suss out his e-mail address and put the question to him directly. In response, he asked me to pass on a “well done” to my husband, and then added, confusingly, “Great to hear this. Best from Kabul—Dave Petraeus.” Did he intentionally ignore the question? Or, more likely, did he read too quickly and think I was merely passing on the news that The Centurions was being republished? Either way, I was tickled by the “Dave.”
“Dave” hadn’t given me much to go on, so I began looking for answers of my own. And as I re-read this dense historical novel, its relevance became pretty clear. The novel follows Lt. Col. Pierre Raspeguy, who must transform a military unit accustomed to conventional warfare into one that can handle the more complex, dynamic challenge of defeating an insurgency. The centurions of the title refer to Raspeguy’s band of French soldiers, but the term harkens back to the Roman officers who fought at the periphery while the Empire crumbled internally, paralyzed by intense political infighting. Sound familiar yet?
Like the real-life Gen. Marcel Bigeard on whom he is clearly based, Raspeguy serves time in a prison camp in Indochina, where he and his soldiers have “their individuality steeped in a bath of quicklime” until all that remains are “the bare essentials.” During this “steeping” process, Raspeguy and his men make a study of their enemy, the Viet Minh. They recognize that the Viet Minh doesn’t play by the conventional rules of war, and motivates followers using ideology and dogma. It is as much a political force as a military one, and defeating this enemy will require a new mindset, new leadership, and new tactics. “For our sort of war,” Raspeguy 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. ”
After an uneasy return to France, Raspeguy and company are sent to Algeria. While the rest of the French military flounders—cordoned off in high-security garrisons, worrying about regulations and the opinions of higher-ups—Raspeguy and his followers realize they must “…cut [the rebels] off from the population which provides them with information and feeds them. Only then will we be able to fight them on equal terms.”
The chapters set in Algeria closely parallel Petraeus’ experiences in Iraq. In 2005, as it became patently obvious that we were losing the war, Petraeus advocated a new approach—one of counter-insurgency or COIN, which differs from conventional war doctrine in that it emphasizes the essentially political (as opposed to military) character of insurrection. Then, in 2006, he oversaw the writing of Field Manual 3-24, the first update of U.S. military counterinsurgency doctrine in 20 years, and the only Army field manual ever to be reviewed in the New York Times. FM 3-24 established Petraeus as a “scholar-general,” and shifted our military’s priorities from brief displays of massive firepower to patience and adaptability, advocating, in particular, the quick incorporation of lessons from the field. Raspeguy would cheer.
The similarities between The Centurions and modern-day COIN are no accident. Not only is Petraeus known to regularly re-read portions of the book, he also was something of a disciple of Marcel Bigeard. As Greg Jaffe and David Cloud note in The Fourth Star (a nonfiction narrative about generals Petraeus, Peter Chiarelli, George Casey Jr., and John Abizaid), Petraeus corresponded with Bigeard for three decades, and keeps an inscribed photo of the French general on his desk.
Yet for all the prescient strategy on display in The Centurions, I’d guess that military men cotton to it for more emotional reasons. Larteguy has a knack for setting up psychologically intense situations that both demonstrate military ideals (loyalty, leading from the front, courage) as well as the anguish of war. He is credited, for instance, with first using the “ticking bomb scenario.” Raspeguy and company capture a rebel leader who knows the location of 15 bombs set to go off in various European shops in Algiers in exactly 24 hours, and they must, naturally, extract this information in time. Many details from this scene, including a prominently featured clock showing elapsed time, were used repeatedly in the TV drama 24.
But in 24, the “ticking bomb scenario” is used to heighten dramatic tension, and some would say, as a justification for doing “whatever it takes” to get terrorists to talk. Whereas in The Centurions, the drama is primarily psychological; and the interrogator makes a sincere attempt to avoid violence. He weakens his captive’s resolve by recounting his own experience with torture: “You won’t hold out; and you’ll know as I do what it feels to be a coward and to be saddled with that cowardice all your life.” (This is far more realistic and sophisticated than what we get on 24. The show’s protagonist, Jack Bauer, is said to have endured nearly two years of torture without uttering a word.) While Larteguy’s centurion does, ultimately, resort to physical pressure, he does so because he has lost control of his own emotions, and the interaction proves traumatic.
Larteguy’s acuity also extends beyond the battlefield, to the fraught relationship between society and its warriors. The paratroopers especially resent armchair quarterbacks who critique their conduct without experiencing their hardships or moral dilemmas. When the centurions find out that legal proceedings are being brought against them for “excessive cruelty,” Raspeguy comments, “now that they are no longer shitting themselves with fear, they send us these little bits of paper.” In The Centurions, the fate of the combat soldier is the fraternity of his comrades coupled with estrangement from everyone else. And, naturally, their alienation is most severe when they try to go home. As Larteguy puts it: “[t]he paradise they had dreamt about so much in the prison camps was slowly approaching and already it was losing its appeal. They were dreaming of another paradise: Indochina … they were not sorrowful sons coming home to lick their wounds. They were strangers.”
Gen. Petraeus seems to have avoided such extreme disaffection. But Gen. Stanley McChrystal, former commander of the U.S. forces in Afghanistan, better fits the Larteguyan mold. It’s clear that McChrystal has read The Centurions and has felt the special soldierly bond that Larteguy describes. In one of his last major interviews, McChrystal told the Atlantic: “We in JSOC [Joint Special Operations Command] had this sense of … mission, passion … I don’t know what you call it. The insurgents had a real cause, and we had a counter-cause. We had a level of unit cohesion just like in The Centurions.” It’s also clear that he feels profound resentment of outsiders. In the Rolling Stone profile that ended his career, he repeatedly mocks the diplomats and politicians who presume to meddle in the war—groaning when he receives an e-mail from Richard Holbrooke (whom he compares to a wounded animal), complaining that he got “screwed” into attending a dinner with French ministers.
When Les Centurions was first published in France in 1960, it was a blockbuster, selling more than 450,000 copies and establishing Jean Larteguy as a household name. Opinions on its literary merit varied.Reception in the United States in 1962—when The Centurions first became available in English—was more clearly negative. The Harvard Crimson called it “a very bad novel,” and the New York Times said “it is difficult at first to keep track of who’s who and it is impossible to care.” But as we enter the 10th year of the war in Afghanistan, debate the merits of COIN, and see the increasing division between civilian society and those sent to fight its wars, the book seems eerily prescient. Modern soldiers use a stock phrase to describe those who have never fought, dismissing them as never having heard “a shot fired in anger.” It’s impossible to fully comprehend the emotional impact of combat without having lived it. But reading The Centurions is a pretty good substitute.