This is probably the most famous, influential book that you have never heard of. From cinema, warfare, politics and philosophy to warfare (our wars today!), The Centurions by Jean Larteguy is one of those books whose influence far out-paces its actual readership. You know all those problems that we deal with today? Insurgency, Islamic extremism, winning hearts and minds, nation building? The French in the ’50s and ’60s where the first to deal with all this. And this is the book that tables that experience.
Because The Centurions isn’t great literature. It’s ok, it’s ok; just not great. I wouldn’t say that this is a must read. It’s the sort of book you read to know more about your society, sorta like Ayn Rand or Playboy. You read it because of it’s influence, not because it’s actually any good at all.
You can’t talk about The Centurions without referencing The Battle of Algiers, the 1966 Italian neorealist (there is only one professional actor in the whole movie) depiction of the Algerian War of Independence. It might be going to far to say that it’s a movie based the book, but it comes pretty damn close. The language, the characters are too closely parallel. I think The Battle of Algiers is probably the most important movie ever made.
It’s visually engrossing. It’s real. So real. It’s as far as you can get from Hollywood and still be utterly engrossed and entertained. The soundtrack is hypnotic; the plot feels relevant and strikes a medium between heroes vs. villains and the truth. There is plot but in the true sense, not in the Hollywood sense.
The Centurions deals with too endlessly fascinating and endlessly relevant episodes in “recent” history. Vietnam and Algeria. Read: communism and Islamic extremism. Larteguy himself fought in Vietnam and was a prisoner of war. This comprises the first half of his book, and it shows. It’s moving and artistic. The experience of the French prisoners, the ideology of the camp guards, the strategies of survival and escape, the effect of imprisonment on the human psyche and a dwelling on the nature and reason for their (French) defeat.
The main characters, ranging from an old-style aristocrat to ex sheep-herder and smuggler, struggle to explain why they lost at Dien Bien Phu; the first defeat of a Western army by an Eastern one. Their responses and their adjustment to their life in prison form the basis of the second half of the book, the Prisoners return to France, and then their redeployment to Algeria.
The climax is the Battle of Algiers, an example of counter-insurgency that is tactically successful, yet cannot fix the actual problem. This book dances around the concept of “winning hearts and minds”. Islamic extremism is not directly mentioned; Communism is Larteguy’s Bugbear in this book. Communism lurks behind a variety of sinister characters and actions. It’s the big enemy, and Western rugged individualism is the great reason for fighting. This ultimately, motivates Larteguy’s heroes. Even as the paratroopers become more and more of a dialectically-flavoured unit, the officers remain flamboyant personalities.
This book is very conservative. Like all conservatives, Larteguy longs to “take the gloves off” of the military. He loathes and disdains hypocritical and shallow popular culture, even as he worships consumerism and the trinkets of contemporary society. He wants western society to dedicated itself to Victory against an insidious and subversive enemy which is both abroad and within. The torture and massacre that necessarily accompanies this is only indirectly depicted. Of course, the half-white, half-Chinese character is the one that actually does the torturing.
Larteguy’s paratroopers verge on being fascists; there is a similar yearning for purity, unity, action, and victory. That’s the most unsettling part; I’m surprised that Larteguy wasn’t accused of being a facists back in the ’60s when he wrote the book. I guess the fight against communism had far out weighted the fear of facism by then. The paratroopers themselves are conscious of the “communists methods” that they have adopted; but they have adopted them in defence of western civilisation. If this isn’t a formula for fascism, then I don’t know what is.
Larteguy also uses a variety of racial and gender stereotypes that are pretty tasteless. The Vietnamese are “sexless termites”. He uses this term – not just once as a poignant descriptor – but ad nauseum. Women are nurses, whores, tarts, and even when depicted as intelligent, they are either deployed as a symbol, insinuated to be lesbian and a traitor, or cannot escape their sexual attachment to men. The women in the book are constantly swooning over the manly vigour of the paratroopers to the point of absurdity. There is a black man – and he is portrayed quite positively – but as a sort of orgiastic, bacchanalian love deity who forgives all of the paratrooper’s sins. He’s not a real human being and is therefore somewhat dismissed in human terms.
I enjoyed this book because of the world and time that it depicted. Post war Europe, French Indo-China, French Algeria. This book is in many ways prophetic. It has a bit of Tom Clancy feel to it; it just has more depth.