The power of stories

I’ve loved reading for as long as I can remember. I read novels and short stories, science fiction and historical fiction, inspirational writings and science and history.

For a brief time, as a teenager, I read romance novels, until I decided they were the literary equivalent of junk food – lacking in any real value, briefly satisfying but leaving one with more hunger rather than less.

I thought at one time that popular mystery novels probably fell into much the same category. Perhaps some of them do, but I have found many of them that are worthwhile reading – and when available to listen to rather than read in printed form, they do an admirable job of keeping my mind occupied while riding an exercise bike or driving a long distance.

One sort of writing that never had any appeal to me at all, however, was military history. I enjoyed fiction with a wartime setting or characters involved in the military, because fiction depicts the human side of war, both the heroism and the tragedy.

Sometimes those stories made me interested in the historical background, enough to read up on the subject from non-fiction sources. It was always the overall history that interested me, however, not the battle itself and certainly not the military forces that were involved.

Until today. I just finished reading “My Name Is Legion,” by David Morrell. I had heard of the French Foreign Legion before - no doubt I’ve read books in which characters were members of the Legion. But I had never read anything describing a battle fought by the Legion, nor thought I would have any interest in such a battle.

I’m not about to go out and buy books on military history, but I did spend some time searching the internet for more information on the battle Morrell so skillfully depicts in this story. It’s not the fighting itself that interests me – I still have very little interest in the details of the battle. But the motivations of the men who fight make many war stories well worth reading.

This story reminds me somewhat of stories about brother fighting brother in the American Civil War – sometimes the brotherhood being not merely metaphorical but literal as family members ended up on both sides of the bloody conflict. But in the case of the Civil War, at least both sides were fighting for a cause (though there is still a great deal of disagreement on what those causes really were).

The French Foreign Legion, however – as I learned from this story – fights for the sake of honor and completing its mission. The legionnaires’ greatest loyalty is not to any nation but to the Legion. They are trained never to surrender, always to keep fighting, because “the mission is sacred.”

Stories of heroism in battle have often appealed to me. As a girl I sometimes wished I were a boy so I could be a hero like those I read about. What is so gripping about this story, however, is the nature of the enemy – another branch of the French Foreign Legion.

I learned the basics of the history of World War II in high school, but I had to go looking for more information to understand how the situation Morrell describes had come about. (He relates it, briefly, in the story, but I know that writers of historical fiction often add fictional details to further the plot.)

The 13th Demi-Brigade split up at the time of the French surrender to Germany, some going to join the Free French fighting the Germans, and others returning to the Legion’s headquarters in North Africa (in French territory). I don’t know the motivations of those who returned to headquarters, but they may well not have realized they would end up being sent to fight for Germany under the Vichy government.

I don’t know whether it was inevitable, but the Free French Legion did end up going to battle against the Vichy Legion, both sides bound by their honor and their loyalty to the Legion to fight to the end for the mission they had been given by their leaders. They fought against men they had trained with and fought alongside, not for any grand cause but because “the mission is sacred.”

Perhaps their story is no more tragic than that of other warriors in other battles. But it takes away the trappings that often make stories of war more palatable – the noble motivations of fighting for one’s homeland or for a great cause. Here, men fight for the Legion which is their only country – and fight against the Legion at the same time.

I have long since stopped wishing I had the chance to be a war hero, and I am sure I would never have wanted to find myself having to fight those I would have rather claimed as comrades.

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