With the publication if 1960 of Les Centurions, Jean Lartéguy's name became almost overnight something of a household name in France. Opinions vary on the literary worth of Lartéguy's oeuvre, but there can be no doubt that during the sixties he was among the most widely read novelists in France as well as one of the most prolific, publishing nine novels, a half-dozen book length reportages and countless newspaper columns.
Lartéguy is particularly known, both in France and in the English-speaking world, for three novels that he wrote in the late 1950s and early 1960s about French paratroopers fighting first in the final days of the colonial war of Indochina, then in the Algerian war. As David Rieff writes:
his novels [chronicle] and [celebrate] the French paratroopers' fight against Vietnamese and Algerian revolutionaries, first for empire and then for a metropole stretching from Normandy to the Sahara.... These books, which were very skillfully written, had titles such as The Mercenaries, The Centurions, and The Praetorians, all evocative of the comparison that was central to Larteguy's vision: the French troops as latter-day Roman centurions holding the line against the barbarians, exactly as their Roman ancestors had done along Hadrian's Wall. Larteguy's books extolled the self-sacrifice of commando soldiers who were unappreciated or even reviled at home, but were nonetheless the bulwark between la patrie and anarchy.
The nephew of Émile Osty, a canon noted for a particularly fine translation of the Bible into French, Lartéguy obtained a degree in history at Toulouse, then became the secretary of the historian Joseph Calmette. Volunteering for the French military in October, 1939, just after the start of World War II, he fled the subsequent Germany occupation of France to Spain in March, 1942, where he was interned for nine months. He then rejoined the Free French forces as an officer in a group of commandos and remained on active service for seven years before becoming a captain in the reserves, receiving several decorations: The Légion d'Honneur, the Croix de Guerre 1939-1945, and the Croix de Guerre des Théâtres d'Opérations Extérieures (TOE) with four citations. A reporter for Paris-Presse from 1952 on and a war correspondent for Paris Match, Lartéguy either wrote about or was a direct participant in many of the violent events of the second half of the 20th century, including the revolution in Azerbaijan, the war in Israel/Palestine, the Korean War, where he was wounded during the battle of Heartbreak Ridge, as well as Indochina, Algeria, the renamed Vietnam, and various revolutions in Latin America. The father of the actress Ariane Lartéguy, he won the Albert Londres Prize in 1955.
In his many books of journalism, non-fiction, and novels based on what he saw, particularly the bitterness of the combatants who sacrificed for an ideal vision of France, being confronted by the mediocrity and the absence of vision of the politicians of the Fourth Republic, Lartéguy has been primarily concerned with the processes and consequences, sometimes tragic, of decolonization. He wrote about why the Indochinese populations felt betrayed by the failure to implement reforms promised just after World War II. He also wrote about the origins of the Secret Army Organization (SAO) (the OAS in French) during and after the fiasco of the Algerian War.
Lartéguy has been, for many decades, a nonconformist out of phase with his times, annoying or provoking because he has been, like his near-contemporary George Orwell, both anti-communist (while understanding the attractions of its doctrine) and pro-Western, but having, at the same time, a deep scorn for what the colonial system had become.
His three most famous novelsThe Mercenaries, The Centurions, and The Praetorians, formed a loosely connected trilogy about the struggles and tribulations of mostly heroic French paratroopers; a fourth novel, the 1960 The Bronze Drums, although independent of the others, fits into the same context, focusing, however, on the wars and phony wars in Laos, a component of the French colony of Indochina. A 1966 film called Lost Command, starring Anthony Quinn and Alain Delon, was quite faithful to The Centurions. But, as Rieff writes in his review cited above:
It was hardly surprising that rootless Paris cosmopolitans, homosexuals, self-serving politicians, and traitorous leftists tended to be the villains in Larteguy's books, and far more so than the revolutionaries whom his commandos were fighting. But even the regular French army did not escape his scorn. "I'd like to have two armies," he once wrote... "the real one, composed entirely of young enthusiasts in camouflage uniforms, who would not be put on display but from whom impossible efforts would be demanded and to whom all sorts of tricks would be taught. That's the army in which I should like to fight."
In The Centurions the protagonists are French paratroopers who have been captured by the Viet Minh after their disastrous defeat at Dien Bien Phu in 1954 and taken to a "re-education" camp. They are subjected to months of intensive pro-communist indoctrination (or "brainwashing"), which they pretend is successful. They are, however, only learning the techniques of their captors in order to be able to put them to their own use for they have been greatly impressed by how the communists have used them to indoctrinate their entire population. Released and returned to France, they find themselves a few years later fighting the Algerian rebels. Having used the Viet Minh techniques to completely retrain a paratroop brigade, the protagonists then begin to use some of the other techniques they learned in Indochina. As Kaplan continues:
In the case of Larteguy's heroes, those "tricks," as he called them so disingenuously, included the lavish use of torture. Indeed, one of the principal characters in The Centurions, Captain Boisfeuras, was loosely modeled on Brigadier General Pierre Aussarresses, a hero of the French Resistance and a career officer who became one of the leading torturers in what came to be known as the Battle of Algiers, and whose frank defense in his memoirs of the crimes he and his comrades committed caused a scandal in France in 2001.
The CenturionsOrville Prescott, writing in the New York Times in 1962 found the book deeply disturbing:
So "The Centurions" is a collective novel about group action and group psychology as well as a topical novel. To a certain extent it is a satirical and angry novel because M. Lartéguy shares many of the ideas of his heroes. He, too, thinks that France has been fighting the wrong kinds of war and that most of the people of France have failed to understand and to support even their mismanaged wars....
In Algeria the paratroopers were shocked by the complacency and inertia of the local police and of the conventional military forces. They soon achieved spectacular results—but at the high cost of atrocities committed in reprisal, torture to obtain information and all kinds of treasons and betrayals. It would be impossible to read "The Centurions" without horror and dismay. It is a dreadful world M. Lartéguy describes and he only suggests that it is certain to become more dreadful.
The PraetoriansA year later, Prescott found its sequel even more distasteful. In a negative review in which admitted that one's view of the novel would depend primarily on whether one agreed or not with its political viewpoint, he wrote:
This is a sequel to "The Centurions, which was published a year and a half ago. In that book Mr. Lartéguy wrote about the adventures of parachute officers in Indochina and Algeria. In spite of much confusion and some tedium, he did manage to convey a vivid impression of the horrors of France's unsuccessful colonial wars and of the kind of men the parachute officers became-- tough and resourceful soldiers convinced that only they knew how to wage revolution war and that honesty, loyalty and patriotism could be found only among themselves.
"The Praetorians" continues the story, resuming in March of 1959, but most of its space is devoted to a series of flashbacks that describe the events leading up to "the 13th of May" of 1958, when the coup d'état in Algiers brought De Gaulle back to power in France. Mr. Lartéguy suggests that "the 13th of May" was engineered by a group of disgruntled parachute officers who had no intention of restoring De Gaulle, whom they disliked and distrusted, but who were politically outmaneuvered.
The parachute officers who are Mr. Lartéguy's heroes are dedicated professionals, masters of the techniques of guerrilla warfare, courageous, cynical, cruel and ruthless. A brotherhood of outcasts, they believe only in the friendships they enjoy among themselves and in a romantic dream of a new world purified of corruption by their own violence. If necessary information must be obtained by torture, they torture expertly. Mr. xx seems to admire his parachute officers in toto, not only for their courage and skill, but also for their brutality. "The Praetorians" itself is a symptom of the sickness of our modern world.
The Bronze Drums
In a 1960 novel called Les Tambours de Bronze, Lartéguy warned that for years now the Western powers, particularly France and the United States, had been duped by Asian communists into misdirecting their efforts to contain them. Seven years later when it was translated into English as The Bronze Drums its message still resonated with the reviewer of the New York Times:
The title of "The Bronze Drums" refers to an old Laotian legend. "General Ma Yuan, who lived in the first century of the Christian era, under the Han Dynasty, had been made responsible for the defense for the southern marches of China. But since he had been given no soldiers, he had had the idea of installing bronze drums in all the cascades near the places where the credulous mountainfolk lived. The water falling onto these drums made the metal resound so loudly that the mountainfolk thought they were hearing the innumerable armies of the Son of Heaven. They remained for many long years in their highlands without daring to descend in the valleys."
Lartéguy's theory is that this legend offers us the key to the recent history of Laos. Twenty centuries after Ma Yuan, the Chinese and Vietnamese Communists have tried the same trick, this time on the Western powers. And it has worked.
They engineered a long series of trivial incidents and minor engagements that resulted in a minimum of causalities: "They captured towns and villages from which the garrisons had fled before they were even in sight. With a song and a dance, they organized the Pathet Lao, a communist movement whose existence depended solely on their support.... But the communists never wanted to seize Laos. They don't give a damn about her.... In the meantime, they were hard at work....While you poor innocents were playing with your drums, the Communists were devouring South Vietnam, Burma, Malaya, Singapore and Indonesia."
Historians and strategists may quibble, but here is one reviewer who feels Lartéguy knows what he is talking about.
The talking—all 420 pages of it—centers around one François Ricq, a middle-aged agent working for France in the Neutralist cause. In appearance, Ricq is a "seedy little scholar" bent on tracing a manuscript of the Ramayana. In reality, he runs an efficient network of assassins and informers. He founds policies and fells governments. Students of recent events in the Indochinese peninsula may recognize Ricq, under another name, and many of the other characters in "The Bronze Drums."
Whether they recognize the value of the author's theories or not is another matter. But they same to explain convincingly so much of what has happened recently in the Far East that it is tempting to use them to predict what is to come. Tempting, but not cheering.
- "Jean Lartéguy: A Popular Phenomenon" by David O'Connell, The French Review, Vol. XLV, No. 6, May, 1972
- David Rieff, The Cowboy Culture, a review of the book Imperial Grunts by Robert D. Kaplan, in The New Republic Online, October 6, 2005 
- "Books of The Times; Empty Stomach, Full Mind Lapses Enumerated" by Orville Prescott, The New York Times, January 9, 1962, at 
- "The Reporter as Novelist -- or Vice Versa" by Orville Prescott, The New York Times, July 26, 1963, at 
- "Armies from Heaven", by Jean Pierre Lenoir, The New York Times, November 19, 1967, at