Appel: A Canadian in the French Foreign Legion, by Joel Adam Struthers, Wilfred Laurier University Press, Waterloo, Ontario, 2019, $24.99
The silver screen has firmly planted an image of la Légion étrangère (French Foreign Legion) in the popular imagination, à la Gary Cooper in Beau Geste—a trail of footprints marking the slow progress of steadfast legionnaires across shifting sands, their shoulders hunched under the desert heat, their bleached white kepis bobbing amid a shimmering mirage. The men, escaping criminal pasts and broken hearts, are mysterious and slightly unsavory. Fortunately, Appel (French for “roll call”) dispels that inaccurate Hollywood meme with a matter-of-fact account of life in the 1990s-era Foreign Legion, flavored throughout with typical Canadian understatement.
Author Joel Adam Struthers was a knucklehead. Not good enough to be a professional hockey player, not quite big enough to be a goon, finding school little more than an excuse to scrap and starting to slide into criminality, he was at a dead end. Left a reservist following the disbandment of the Canadian Airborne Regiment following a 1993 scandal in Somalia, he knew the regular forces could not satisfy his military ambitions. And so Struthers made his way to Strasbourg, France, and found himself explaining to a Foreign Legion recruiter, “I want to soldier.”
And soldier he did. The book’s most interesting section concerns his training, both initial and ongoing. The author documents the physical demands and psychological burdens of the legion’s training regimen in excruciating detail. Seemingly every exercise and test, regardless of the subject matter, concludes with “and then we ran 8 kilometers.” Notable also are the extensive background and criminal checks to which the service subjects all applicants. Hardly the rogues of popular imagination, legionnaires are members of the French military and subject to French military law. Legionnaires are soldiers, not mercenaries, Struthers makes clear.
Once qualified as a legionnaire, Struthers participated in missions in the Democratic Republic of Congo, Chad and the Central African Republic. Despite the confusion, violence and uncertainty involved, the operations come across as almost less demanding than the training. The only drawback to the author’s factual and fascinating account of life in the modern Foreign Legion is his insistence on recounting the sexual conquests of his each and every leave. Arrêtez, s’il vous plais!