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2024 Travel Reads
I brought three books with me on my Southeast Asia trip, and two are done, so I'll do the book review thing.
Marching with the Devil: Legends, Glory and Lies in the French Foreign Legion (David Mason, 2010; 2017 edition)
The story goes that misfits from around the world end up in the French Foreign Legion, where they are given a new identity and an offer of citizenship. It's difficult to find one book which explains / embraces / examines the Legion. I settled on this book by an Australian who served five years, including time in Djibouti and parachute school in Corsica.
Mason had traveled around Australia and joined their Army Reserve as a restless youth, so he sought out the Legion. Later he would cross Australia by camel and write this book while serving in Iraq, so it almost makes sense
(2022 podcast with the author). He quickly learns the categories of men who have joined out of desperation - the troubled, the Eastern Bloc and third-world seeking French citizenship, the former soldiers who cannot adjust to home life. Mason and others with military experience are disappointed by a training geared to the lowest common denominator. Entitled French officers order menial tasks, not weapons, orientation, and tactics. Until they learn enough French to obey orders, they get smacked or beaten. Shit flows downstream with angry men injuring each other, deserting, or losing money in bars.
On the institution as a whole - Mason notes that because they handle their own cooking, maintenance, policing, and justice, it is easy to bury rot and corruption. He finds it completely contrary to people who suggest the Legion as a model for a UN standing army (this seems far from the current state of the world, but it did circulate in the mid-90s https://fletcher.tufts.edu/news-events/news/why-we-need-international-standing-civilian-protection-service https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/International_Legion_(proposed) ).
It's difficult to tell what the other Legionnaires think of Mason. In the beginning the intake officers psych him out, saying that he's a crazed idealist who will desert and waste everyone's time. And he does get quite miserable. His law degree, interest in health and world events (AIDS, fall of the Berlin Wall, Persian Gulf War), and volunteering information from the Army Reserve irritate the officers, who ask if he is a communist or homosexual. Yet his success in training means that they fast-track him to a higher rank and keep him on as an instructor. Here's an opportunity where Mason could try to interpret the Legion's intention, but instead the focus is on fast-track being confusing and inconvenient (many in the fast-track do eventually desert).
The few deeper friendships, and the end notes where he has counseled desensitized and traumatized former Legionnaires, reminded me of the recent Elan School series about kids in a 'troubled teen' camp. It's not something you should sign up for voluntarily.
Some particularly disturbing content around deaths during a refugee program, and sexual violence.
In doing some research around this, I'll just mention that /r/FrenchForeignLegion is a tripppppp
Pirate Enlightenment, or the Real Libertalia (David Graeber, 2023)
Dr. Graeber is best known for Debt and Bullshit Jobs, but he also did his anthropology PhD research in Madagascar from 1989–1991. Additional research for 2013's Dawn of Everything led him to believe that the pirate kingdoms of east coast Madagascar were ripe for a standalone short book. Graeber died in late 2020 of (Covid-related) pancreatitis; through a tactfully undisclosed process, this book was released in 2023.
In the 1700s, long before Treasure Island, Europe was enthralled by stories of real pirates of the Caribbean, Indian Ocean, and South China Sea. A real colony in Madagascar became so enmeshed in legend that it became a rumored utopian pirate civilization, taken so seriously that governments met with supposed ambassadors. In A General History of the Pyrates (often attributed to the author of Robinson Crusoe) this place was called Libertalia.
It's a tall order packaging this into one book, touching on:
- This is an awesome real-world legend, which has disappeared from our culture [very true, please get this to Ayo Edebiri / Pirates of the Caribbean reboot people]
- Madagascar has a history of incorporating successive waves of traders, migrants, and refugees from around the Indian Ocean; even a group of proclaimed Yemeni Jews who acted as priests of cattle sacrifices. Northeast coastal groups still identify as descendants of the pirates with some cultural significance.
- Pirates were democratic and egalitarian in revolutionary ways for the time. Their documented adaptation of this to a land government, possibly crossed with traditional Malagasy meetings, led to a low-demand participatory government. Awareness of this pirate legend possibly seeds the ideas of the Enlightenment?
- But the Enlightenment as European lightbulb moment is fake! They needed the ideas from the Iroquois Confederation, and like we were saying, maybe they read pirate stories. [This was a cool idea which I think hooked everyone in the Introduction but is it expanded on in other books??? ]
- A complex interaction between Malagasy women and their role and social inheritance. When the pirates came to town, the tradition of marrying to form alliances, was updated for the women to become traders and wash the pirates' plunder. The sections which lean into this suggest that the pirate kingdoms were feminist, relationships between groups were negotiated by women, or some nuanced variation, but it was not clear at all?
Do these all fit together? Eh
Side note: despite consensus that Malay sailors were the first to settle Madagascar, there is a belief in an earlier group: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Vazimba
Updates to Previous Reads
In December, Re:Wild and The Hindu reported that a live Namdapha flying squirrel was seen in April of 2022, but they still need DNA evidence https://www.rewild.org/news/this-flying-squirrel-is-still-lost-to-science-but-maybe-not-for-much-longer
I visited Candi Sukuh, a Hindu temple built in the 1400s shortly before Islamization. This was one of the temples visited by Sir Thomas Raffles, of Singapore fame, during British rule of Java. And that's some of the info which contributed to Wallace's understanding, though the temple he visited was "Modjo-pahit" closer to Surabaya. At the entrance I had to wear a black and white checkered cloth, but I don't know why?
LittleChineseEverywhere did a video crossing from China to Mong Cai, Vietnam, which I've used as an example before as a Google Maps anomaly https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Oe3yBXjk3iU&ab_channel=LittleChineseEverywhere
The next YA book by author Hanna Alkaf will be about an outbreak of hysteria in a Malaysian school: https://twitter.com/hannaalkaf/status/1755576724505649442
I packed some unread issues of the New Yorker from last year, and one mentioned No, a 2012 Chilean film about their 1988 referendum. Pinochet expected a weak and ineffective opposition and hired an Argentinian marketing team. The opposition's team developed a series of idealistic and sometimes absurd messages for their 15 minutes of airtime per day. This was a difficult line to walk because the left wanted to publicly indict the dictatorship on human rights issues, and had to risk everything on musical acts and skits. This was effective for mobilizing young and apathetic voters.
A girl shown singing to Pinochet later became leader of the Galapagos: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Laura_Rapu
It's low budget, but I found this to be much more watchable than the recent Pinochet vampire film on Netflix, El Conde.
A recent 99% Invisible episode discussed the shared courtyards in former Soviet cities, calling them "interblock parks" - though it seems to be a different design and poor outcome in Sofia. https://99percentinvisible.org/episode/between-the-blocks/