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Apr 25, 1998
The Legion marches on - Forbes
So, are you ready to join?" the recruiting Sergeant glowers at me. "Can I bring my wife?" I gamely counter. The Sergeant looks at me as if calculating where he wants to stick the bayonet. "No. People come to us to get away from their wives."

Until recently, my mental pictures of the French Foreign Legion had been in black-and-white: the color of the old Hollywood desert movies of the '20s and '30s. Movies like Beau Geste, where Gary Cooper and Robert Preston simultaneously fought both their nefarious commanders and pajama-clad warriors in the Sahara. I, probably like most people, had thought that this unique army of soldiers dressed in funny white pillbox hats had long ago joined the ash heap of history along with France's colonial empire.

But the Legion marches on. Last Bastille Day in Paris, I got a full Technicolor introduction to the Legion as it paraded down the Champs Elyse to its favorite marching song, "Le Boudin. (Click here to listen. Audio is required.) If "Le Boudin's" pace is 1/3 slower than the standard French military marching pace of 122 steps per minute, the Legion had the entire Avenue to itself during the parade. This probably suited the Legion fine because it likes to march, as it does virtually everything else, alone. Every race and nationality seemed to peer out from underneath those white hats, called "Kpis Blancs," as the Legion marched between the cheering crowds to the Place de la Concorde.

Later, as the Bastille Day festivities continued on the large lawns surrounding the Eiffel Tower, I ran across a Legion recruiting station that had been set up in a trailer with the words "Change Your Look at Life" boldly stenciled in front. How could I resist? I wandered inside and watched a short, scraggly Italian tourist brazenly try on a Kpi Blanc that one of the Legionnaires had left on a desk. It was immediately dashed off his head by a towering recruiting Sergeant sporting a dozen tattoos on his sinewy forearms. "Do you really think you're man enough to wear the Kpi Blanc?" he glowered as the Italian scurried out the door. "Do you really think you're man enough to join the Legion?"

"The Legion has always had a great sense of panache," Madame Eurling, the grand old widow of one of the Legions most famous officers, later tells me. Panache, like elan or esprit de corps, essentially means looking good while you are sticking a bayonet in someone elses ribs--or, for that matter, having one stuck in yours. Like a sauce that covers the real taste of the meat, it is a word that only the French could invent. "They will do anything for panache," says Madame Eurling. "They will even die for it."

And panache it has. Despite its long-standing reputation as the last holdout for cutthroats and desperadoes, it is one of the most disciplined and elite forces in the world. Indeed, it is considered such an honor to command this unit that only the top 10% of graduates from Saumur, France's equivalent of West Point, can hope to become officers in the Legion.

More than sixty percent of the grunts they will be commanding will be foreigners. Many of these foreigners will themselves have been officers from other armies. Although almost all of the foreign recruits will become eligible for French citizenship after three years with the Legion, their sworn allegiance, and only obligation, is to the Legion itself, not to France. The legion's motto is simple: "Legio Patria Nostra"--The Legion Is Our Country.

Started by King Louis-Philippe in 1831 as a means of funneling foreign layabouts and criminals into high-risk African garrisons, the Legion exists today as an implicit contract with the world's dreamers, drifters, adventurers and those in a hurry to change identities. The contract says this: Fight anonymously for France's overseas' interests, and we will provide you with a new identity and a new family. And although that family will consist mostly of heavily tattooed polyglots with a fondness for firearms, anyone who has ever worn the Kpi Blanc, knows that he will never again have to march alone: The Legion's lifelong social benefits--generous pensions, French citizenship, dedicated vacation centers and a well-appointed retirement home, to name a few--would put Sweden's social welfare Valhalla to shame.

The Legion today is smaller than it has ever been, with around 5,000 men. It still contains a broad mix of nationalities, with the newest wave of recruits arriving from Bosnia, Croatia, and the former Soviet Bloc. Several hundred British and roughly two dozen Americans are also currently serving under the Kpi Blanc.

The discipline may be tough but there are other perks to being in the Legion. For one thing, the food is famous for being the best of any armed force in the world (we are, after all, talking about the French Foreign Legion). And, second, although the official "Bordels Militaires" that used to accompany each unit have recently been replaced by laxer civilian morality, several foreign-based units still maintain their own whorehouses.

My brief exchange with the glowering recruiting Sergeant now over, I get the distinct impression that I am no longer welcome in the recruiting station, and I leave. The age limit for new recruits is 40, so I still have a few years to decide whether to attempt to trade my wife for a Kpi Blanc. For the time being, I am resigned to being an armchair, or in this case, cyber Legionnaire.

Although Finn-Olaf Jones was never a Legionnaire, he was a very tough Boy Scout.
   
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