Jean Larteguy (the pen name of Jean Pierre Lucien Osty, 1920-2011) spent time in prison in Spain in 1942, the year I was born. He then joined the Free French Forces and served seven years in North Africa and Korea. In 1955, he received the Albert Landres Prize for his Indochina reporting. He is best known for his Algerian War Trilogy.
The introduction by Robert D. Kaplan to Larteguy’s 1960 novel, The Centurions (Penguin Classics, 544 pp., $18, paper), is superb. The translation by Xan Fielding, the author of several fine war books of his own, is pitch perfect.
Larteguy’s book is a masterpiece on how to fight a war of counterinsurgency. I first encountered that word in a movie I saw at Fort Benjamin Harrison during my training to become an Army stenographer, which I then practiced for more than thirteen months in South Vietnam. Fort Ben had an excellent library that included many on Southeast Asian warfare.
One of those books was this one. I read it and then spent a couple of months wondering why the United States was involved in a ground war in Southeast Asia. President Eisenhower had warned against entering into such a war, and Larteguy makes it clear in this book that guerrilla tactics must be used against an enemy that fights without rules, “tactics out of step with the ideals of just war.”
There are powerful, well-drawn characters in this classic novel. We first meet them in an Indochina prison camp in 1954, immediately after the fall of Dien Bien Phu. Larteguy makes all of his characters come alive on the page, including the Indochinese. We see them, warts and all, and we feel for them.
I reread this book again when I was stationed at USARV headquarters in the Inspector General Section. I loved hanging out in the air-conditioned library in the compound. I read all of the books they had on the wars in Indochina. There was no indication that any one else had read these books. They seemed brand new and unopened.
Reading The Centurions in South Vietnam was a different experience than reading it in Indiana. It really hit home that if our Army leaders—for instance, Gen. William Westmoreland—had read this novel, perhaps the war would be winnable. Or at least we’d be doing better. As the casualty reports and the downed aircraft reports cycled across my desk each day, I realized that we were not pursuing this war in a way that Larteguy would approve.
About a third of the way through this book, the author tells us that the Vietnamese never ceased working to defeat the enemy. “Meanwhile, ” he writes, “we were idling away in the brothels and opium dens.” I witnessed that during the American war, too.
Larteguy called the Vietnamese way of war “termite methods, ” noting that they “never fail to learn from their mistakes.” The French—and the Americans—kept making the same mistakes over and over.
It’s became an all but accepted truth—especially in books written by American Vietnam War veterans—that the U.S. “never lost a battle” in that war. But, as Larteguy tells us, “In the strategy of modern warfare, military tactics are a matter of secondary importance, politics will always take precedence.”
I highly recommend this great novel to those interested in reading about combat and the aftermath of losing a war of counterinsurgency. None better has been written.