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Posted by JEREMY RUBENSTEIN over 3 years

1644 7772

Lost Comand





During the 2000s, after the journalist Marie-Monique Robin's documentary film about the French School (The Death Squads: The French School, 2003), many university students and professors got interested in the influence that the “French doctrine” had had on the systematic massacres carried out by the military in the Southern Cone during the 70s. Some enquired into the origin of that doctrine, others into its introduction in Argentina, some others into the relations between French officers and their South American peers, etc. While the university people, after (re)finding a big amount of manuals and lectures written by French officers in the 50s and 60s, started to discuss the level of the French influence (in comparison with the influence of the American armed forces), or the degree of imagination of the local army, General Petraeus, commander of the occupation troops in Afghanistan and Iraq, and also the main author of a manual of counter-insurgency (2006), had a novel re-published: The Centurions by Jean Lartéguy[1].



I'm afraid that the university people will never reach the level of clarity of an American general: what we were searching through old papers of restricted access, mined with military jargon, frequently hard to digest, was actually close at hand: in any second-hand bookshop of Buenos Aires or on MercadoLibre (an online marketplace), one can find editions of The Centurions for the (careless and sadly sincere) price of two packs of cigarettes. Reading this novel is enough to have it clear what the “French doctrine” consists of. And not only the doctrine, but also its origin during the colonial war in Indochina, and its implementations in Algeria; although, of course, in a fictionalized and epic way, exonerating the French officers -that is, the victimizers-, and turning them into heroes.


Yes, Lartéguy's novel allows us to enter a hidden corner of the murderers' subjectivity, since this cultural product justifies them beforehand: it is the first known envision of the "ticking time bomb" scenario. Replicated ad nauseam since then, we know it because we have seen it on films and TV series, and heard it from some politicians: the security forces capture a bad guy who knows exactly when and where the next bomb will explode, so there is no other option but to torture him in order to save the civilians. Even better, choosing not to torture him would be the less humanitarian choice: imagine schools packed with children torn to pieces or...). So, moral responsibility demands Torture. Obviously, the situation of the ticking time bomb scenario has never occurred in reality[2]. Lartéguy has been the first to imagine this situation when he narrated the Battle of Algiers (1956), fictionally, in The Centurions (1959).


Thanks to the present banalization of the ticking time bomb scenario, it is probable that nobody will get upset when they read the justification of torture in Lartéguy's work. But one can still hope that nausea will reach the reader at the moment when also violation is morally justified under the double pretext of the profound and uncontrollable desires that overcome one of the heroes, and at the same time as an effective “intelligence” tool. In effect, in the novel, captain Glatigny rapes (sorry, he “struggles with”, according to the author's supposedly passionate terminology) an Algerian activist, who, seduced –or conquered, to be accurate- because of that torrid sexual relation, decides to betray all of her comrades. Thus, captain Glatigny gets the information that allows him to break up the dangerous terrorist cell (that is, Algerian pro-independence activists). Last but not least, the poor French captain experiences an overwhelming feeling of remorse, described with the essential empathy: his devouring passion jeopardized his marriage (that, from then on, will be sad and lukewarm) and, besides, it compelled his lover to denounce her comrades, so that in the author's perverse logic it is the captain the one who suffers because of her betrayal. Argentine military, who raped activists kept in clandestine detention camps, suffered exactly the same way:


You don't realize that it is because of you that we don't want to go back home [...] You know how to do everything! You are the kind of women we believed only existed in novels and films, and this has wrecked our families.[3]

But in comparison, the Argentine military had a head-start: they had read The Centurions before committing the same crimes that their French peers did in Algeria, so they had an excuse a priori: their untameable desires and professional aims were justified within the framework of a heroic historical narrative that had explored, fixed and solved all the possible feelings of remorse.