Hamilton – Veteran’s Day: Salute The Centurions, past and present
During the week surrounding Veteran’s Day, we give thanks for those who lost their lives or have been grievously wounded in defense of the freedoms we enjoy here at home. But this Vietnam veteran’s thoughts go back to 1961 and the publication of Jean Lartéguy’s classic war novel, The Centurions.
In the mid-1960s, a generation of Vietnam-bound Army and Marine lieutenants and captains were eager to learn something about the people, the land, and the culture of Vietnam and why the French colonials had failed so miserably in Vietnam — even if such understanding could only be found in the pages of fiction written by a former French paratrooper who served in French Indo-China, fought in Korea, and later became a journalist making his home in Saigon.
By 1966, this soldier had owned and given away to fellow officers at least a dozen paperback copies of The Centurions, to include, unfortunately, my very last copy. Recently, as she often does, Wonder Wife came to the rescue and found, on-line, an original, collector’s copy of this classic. She intended the novel as a secret Christmas present; however, once it came, she could not resist giving it to me. It now resides next to my copy of Professor Samuel P. Huntington’s The Soldier and the State.
Back in the mid-1960s, The Centurions became a cult-like classic at Ft. Benning’s Infantry School. In 1965, as LBJ started landing regular Army and Marine divisions in Vietnam, many “Centurions” were riding along inside footlockers and rucksacks. In our air-mobile infantry battalion, Lartéguy’s characters were so vividly reborn in our minds that we started calling each other by the names of Lartéguy’s characters.
Until the division’s signal officer put a stop to it, we often substituted our “Centurion” names for our official radio call signs. Years later, when Wonder Wife and I got around to writing The Grand Conspiracy by William Penn, we devoted an entire chapter to a fictional annual reunion of Lartéguy’s mythical 10th Colonial Parachute Regiment.
Just for fun, one year after the publication of The Grand Conspiracy, we put an advertisement in the local papers that the 10th Colonial Parachute Regiment would be holding its annual reunion at a certain time and date at a certain local watering hole. The advertisement invited the public to attend.
On the advertised date and time, we walked into the local watering hole, not expecting to see anyone; however, we were astonished to be greeted by a saloon full of local readers who had gotten caught up in the spirit of the 10th Colonial Parachute Regiment. And, one might add, some other “spirits” as well.
In 1966, Hollywood made “Lost Command,” which was intended to be based on The Centurions. While Anthony Quinn was good as Colonel Raspéguy, the film was not nearly as good as the novel.
So, how is a 1961 novel relevant in 2015? The French paratroopers, who had to do the actual fighting in Indo-China and in Algeria, understood what was necessary to win; however, their political masters in Paris were just as clueless about how to win wars back then as are the civilians in charge of the White House and the Pentagon today.
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