“On Leave”: The Costs of War

on leave

W.J. Astore

Recently, a good friend gave me a copy of Daniel Anselme’s “On Leave,” a book published in 1957 in the early stages of France’s war in Algeria, which ultimately ended in France’s defeat and Algerian independence in 1962.  A novel, it follows three French soldiers on furlough in and around Paris and their desperate (and mostly failed) efforts to reconnect to home prior to returning to a brutal war.

The main themes are disaffection and disorientation.  The gulf in understanding between the soldier-conscripts and their families and the wider public is simply too wide to be bridged.  Instead, the soldiers find comfort in drink, women, and especially in each other. Having relied on each other in war, they come to rely on each other again in the short downtime they have from its brutalities.

What struck me forcibly was the indifference of France to the soldiers.  We see a similar indifference today in the U.S., despite all of the “support our troops” rhetoric. This “support” often is, as the saying goes, a mile wide but only an inch deep.  Another similarity between then and now is the gulf in understanding between what the soldiers know about war and what the people think they know. The soldiers know the horrors; the people only know a few talking points.  Back then it was about upholding the honor of France; nowadays in the USA it’s about fighting them (the terrorists) over there so we don’t have to fight them here.

For the troops, it’s always the same cause: preservation.  Survival.  Saving oneself and one’s buddies.

One soldier gives an electric speech about “when will it end.” How many men is France willing to lose in its attempt to hold onto some smidgen of colonial glory? How long will the wars in Africa go on?  His speech made me think of our own, seemingly endless, wars.

All three men in this story — a sergeant, a corporal, and a private — are unwounded physically from war.  Yet all three are psychological casualties.  War and atrocity has already inflicted a serious toll, as all three suffer some of the less obvious costs of war and extended military service (broken marriages, family arguments and estrangement and resentment, guilt at not being able to conform to family expectations, a growing sense of fatalism).

Recognizing a lost cause, French President Charles de Gaulle eventually smartened up and pulled out of Algeria.  But the U.S. today doesn’t have leaders of de Gaulle’s grit and smarts to recognize a losing hand. So America’s wars just grind on and on.

“On Leave” is a fine book.  Would that it were on President Obama’s summer reading list, or on Hillary’s or Trump’s.  They could all use a heavy dose of reality about war’s futility.

4 thoughts on ““On Leave”: The Costs of War

  1. Yes, if One could only hope… Now I understand a President can’t know everything that is going on all all Subjects all the time, but what of these Assistants, or Advisors that one would think a President & Leader of the Free World would have to recommend such Required reading!? And, not just on this but, on how this Country spends so little Money on Research to Cure & Combat some of our Nations deadly Killer’s such as Heart, Stroke, Cancer, and other Infectious Diseases… Maybe we can convince the Defense People who make out the Budget even that it just might benefit them in the long Run…! Ah, If only Indeed…

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  2. While I haven’t read the book in question, I have some experience as an enlisted man going on leave from a debilitating imperial quagmire of a “war” and later coming home from it in 1972, physically uninjured but with some repressed memories that did not surface to trouble me until thirty years later after I had retired and moved to Taiwan in 2003 — just as the United States governmnent went off the rails again and plunged America and much of the world into yet another debilitating imperial quagmire, or, as it seems now (another thirteen years later) into a whole series of them. No doubt I would understand and identify with the three men spoken of in the book, but I serously doubt that President Obama, You-Know-Her, or Donald Trump would. No one seeks the office of President and Commander-in-Brief just so they can refrain from playing “warrior” with the world, but precisely the opposite. As no less an authority than Nobel Peace Prize laureate President Obama has boasted to his aides, he has “gotten really good a killing people.” Sociopathic personalities such as these seek power in order to exericse it, not to hold it in reserve while they dismantle the imperial presidency and restore the checks and balances of the formerly functional constitutional republic. If these arrogant psychopaths read anything, they read heroic romances of ruthless royalty pursuing ambition without restraint or conscience. As You-Know-Her glibly paraphrased Julius Caesar, one of her literary heroes: “We came. We saw. He died.” Yuk. Yuk. Yuk.

    At any rate, no one cares what enlisted men think. When I enlisted in Uncle Sam’s Canoe Club, a.k.a., the United States Navy, I learned immediately how little my opinion counted regarding any subject whatsoever. Among my very first lessons: “If the Navy wants to know what you think, the Navy will tell you what you think.” I imagine that the same held true in the French Foreign Legion, about which Wikipedia says:

    “The French Foreign Legion (French: Légion Étrangère) is a military service branch of the French Army established in 1831, unique because it was created for foreign nationals willing to serve in the French Armed Forces. Commanded by French officers, it is also open to French citizens, who amounted to 24% of the recruits in 2007. … Although it is part of the French Military, it is the only unit of the military that does not swear allegiance to France, but to the Foreign Legion itself.”

    I mention these facts about enlisted military life generally and the French Foreign Legion specifically, because they would seem to account for “the indifference of France to the soldiers” and “a similar indifference today in the U.S.”, as related in the book review above. Citizens of a country usually do not identify with largely mercenary forces composed, for the most part, of foreigners who agree to fight in far off places for (1) obscure national (i.e., corporate) “interests,” (2) a paycheck, and (3) each other. Take, for example, America’s own de-facto Foreign Legion currently deployed in Afghanistan. As Jason Ditz writes for antiwar.com (August 17, 2016): US Has Nearly 30,000 Defense Contractors in Afghanistan: Over Three Times as Many Contractors as Soldiers Remain. Specifically:

    “While the US officially has just 9,000 troops in Afghanistan, they also have some 29,000 contractors stationed around the country. Two-thirds of the contractors are said to be foreign nationals, with the Pentagon saying they are mostly involved in logistics and maintenance for the ongoing war.”

    “The US has long used large numbers of contractors as a way to have more boots on the ground than the officially publicized figures. This has tended to be rough parity between the two forces, however. At the peak of the Afghan War, the US had 88,000 troops and 117,000 contractors.”

    “Now that ratio is more than 1:3, which underscores administration efforts to present the drawdown as far more substantial than it actually has been. The contractors tend to be quite expensive compared to regular ground troops, but also tend to attract much less press coverage.

    So it looks like the U.S. government has finally managed to achieve almost the same 1:3 ratio of U.S. soldiers to dogs-of-war foriegn mercenaries as that which typically applies to the French Foreign legion which fought and lost two major colonial campaigns in Vietnam and Algeria. How ironic this backhanded emulation, given the U.S. government’s braying contempt for the French “surrender monkeys” at the start of Deputy Dubya Bush’s twin debacles in Iraq and Afghanistan nearly fourteen years ago.

    But, again, no one cares what enlisted Foreign Legionaires think about anything, in any country, at any time. Yes. I think I would understand the book and its subjects exceedingly well.

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