It is common at closed social gatherings to hear even young officers... seething at what they perceive as the decadence and self-indulgence of modern French society. In the southern city of Nîmes, home to the Legion’s largest infantry regiment, the Second, a French officer complained to me about the local citizens. He said, “They speak about their rights, their rights, their rights. Well, what about their responsibilities? In the Legion we don’t speak about our rights. We speak about our duties!”This is a great piece, by the way, well worth reading in full. Why do men join the Legion? It isn't because they are looking for purpose or meaning: the whole history of the Legion is about dying for nothing at all, or at least nothing more than the passing dreams of some French politician. The culture of the Legion celebrates the meaninglessness of their deaths:
I said, “It angers you.”
He looked at me with surprise, as if to say, And you it does not?
An idea grew up inside the Legion that meaningless sacrifice is itself a virtue—if tinged perhaps by tragedy. A sort of nihilism took hold. In 1883, in Algeria, a general named François de Négrier, addressing a group of legionnaires who were leaving to fight the Chinese in Indochina, said, in loose translation, “You! Legionnaires! You are soldiers meant to die, and I am sending you to the place where you can do it!” Apparently the legionnaires admired him. In any case, he was right.I once went as far as contacting the French consulate to ask after joining the Legion, as a young man, but was unable to reach anyone who felt competent to discuss it. What was I looking for, I wonder, in that culture of meaningless sacrifice and death?
Honor is sacrifice, I have argued: 'to honor' is to give of yourself for something you feel deserves a sacrifice; 'honor' is the quality of a man who so sacrifices. But here is nothing but sacrifice for its own sake. Honor is laying aside rights, and taking on responsibilities. "In the Legion we don't speak about our rights. We speak about our duties!"
The tragedy is France. For what is this extraordinary sacrifice made? For what are these extraordinary duties taken on? A society, and a people, that the Legionnaires rightly despise as decadent and faithless.