GARRISON TALES FROM TONQUIN (Tonkin): AN AMERICAN’S STORIES OF THE FRENCH FOREIGN LEGION IN VIETNAM IN THE 1890s (1895) – Written by James O’Neill. Seven years ago here at Balladeer’s Blog I examined Washington Irving’s 1809 work The Men of the Moon. I wrote about it because of the way it used an extraterrestrial invasion of the Earth as an allegory for colonialism several decades before H.G. Wells would do so in War of the Worlds. Also because it was written at a time when it was not yet fashionable to be thinking along such lines. In 1809 those sentiments were daring, not de rigueur like they would be today.
In a similar spirit, I am now examining Garrison Tales From Tonquin, published in 1895 and written by American James O’Neill, who had served in the French Foreign Legion during the 1880s and early 1890s. Just as Washington Irving was ahead of his time with his sentiments in The Men of the Moon, James O’Neill was ahead of his time in regard to his observations on the French occupation of Vietnam during and after the Sino-French War. Readers in 1895 who were expecting Kipling would have found O’Neill to be virtually his polar opposite.
I found it staggering to read 1890s accounts written by an American fighting man in Vietnam reflecting on the ugliness and ultimate futility of the military situation. So much of O’Neill’s fictionalized accounts of his real-life experiences in Vietnam read like something from an author in the late 1960s or later using such a tableau as an allegory for America’s involvement in Indochina.
Though O’Neill’s writing makes it clear that he is expressing anti-colonialist sentiments, the stories are thankfully free of sanctimonious moralizing. The first-person narrative from his central figure in some ways anticipates hard-boiled detectives and Film Noir. The narrator has found himself in a situation filled with violence, moral ambiguity and constant danger. He no longer has any romantic notions about his own role, he’s just trying to survive.
(To underline that remark about just trying to survive let me point out that O’Neill arrived in Vietnam with just over 300 fellow Legionnaires in his unit. Only 27 of them would return.)
Sadly, James O’Neill was a victim of cosmically bad timing. When this book came out in 1895 it only sold 104 copies. If it had instead been published in 1898 or 1899, amid the Spanish-American War and the heated domestic debates about whether or not the U.S. should establish dominion over the former Spanish colony of the Philippines, it might have been a latter-day Uncle Tom’s Cabin. It may have even tipped the scales AGAINST annexing the Philippines, so close was the political outcome. There was so much public sentiment against “imperialism” that the Senate vote wound up tied, with Vice President Hobart having to cast the deciding vote in favor of acquiring the Philippines.
In his correspondence prior to the Spanish-American War, O’Neill stated one of his hopes for Garrison Tales From Tonquin was that it would engender in his fellow Americans a passion against colonialist and imperialist policies. James’ attitude, at least as reflected in this book, was not anti-French but pro-Vietnamese. His tales are full of observations about the battered people caught between the French on one hand and the Chinese on the other. They are looked down on and abused by both the French AND the Chinese, and often lapse into the default position of siding with the oppressors “who look like them.”
Though O’Neill seems to feel that his fellow Americans would instinctively side with another people reeling as we once did under the thumb of an outside power, he also – often quite ingeniously – observes something that lies at the heart of the Vietnamese character as it had been shaped by history.
That observation? That for literally thousands of years life in Vietnam was often centered around resistance to whoever the outside occupiers of the moment were. From before the legendary Trung Sisters on up through the Vietnam War of the 1960s and 1970s part of their cultural inheritance involved open defiance or subtle undermining of the latest outsiders.
In Balladeer’s Blog’s look at Vietnamese Mythology I pointed out how many of the stories of their gods, demigods and heroic mortals pitted those figures against the invaders from the contemporary dynasty in China. Countless generations of the Vietnamese people practically sprang from the womb immersed in the arts of resistance, subversion and conflict. Looked at in this light, the attitude toward the American forces when they became involved in Vietnam seems like a natural continuation – they were merely the latest in a long line of outsiders to be dealt with, no matter how long it took.
Perpetual conflict was, tragically, their lifestyle, while, to paraphrase an old Dennis Miller joke, “we as outsiders were making the conscious decision to go to war.”
As jaw-droppingly prescient as James O’Neill’s observations were, Garrison Tales From Tonquin does have assorted flaws, of course. He commits the mistake of thinking his readers know more than they probably did about the military situation in Vietnam during that time period. I would have been lost at times myself if I hadn’t already been familiar with the setting from history books and from P.C. Wren’s 1936 novel The Fort in the Jungle, about the French Foreign Legion in 1890s Vietnam.
O’Neill’s brevity may also have hurt his chances of popular acclaim at the time. Some of his tales go by so swiftly they are like forerunners of James Joyce’s epiphanies in Dubliners. Or maybe even like Flash Fiction.
The sensibilities of his time period also necessitated subtleties which may have been reader-unfriendly, as in a story about two Legionnaires who are secretly gay lovers. James could not parade that core concept in an 1890s book but amid the acceptable hints and euphemisms of the age he neither condemns nor lauds the relationship. He simply notes its tragic outcome and moves on. Almost like Sam Spade or the Continental Op would do.
The Tales (includes Spoilers):
ROEBKE – This story about a particularly enigmatic fellow Legionnaire named Roebke serves as what we would today call a deconstruction of the romantic image of the French Foreign Legionnaires. “The Legion asks no questions” as so many have noted during its history and it was known that many an outlaw sought an alternative to hanging or hard labor in prison by enlisting.
Political refugees and broken-hearted men are also French Foreign Legion stereotypes, and here we get a particularly nihilistic twist on such tropes. Our narrator offers an interesting thought: “The right punishment for our evil deeds is to be obliged to keep them hidden.”
PERE LORAIN – During the French invasion of Tonkin our narrator and his fellow Legionnaires interact with a Christian Missionary named Pere Lorain, who has been in the region since the 1860s. As this clergyman feels abandoned and forgotten by the church back in France, so do the French Foreign Legion men eventually feel about their plight.
French popular opinion was, believe it or not, already resentful toward France’s Indochina adventure in the 1880s. It was felt that the Far East colonies and plantations made some connected Frenchmen wealthy but not France itself. As always, the Legion served the Machiavellian machinations of shrewd politicians. Too many French soldiers getting killed in Vietnam might stoke political outrage, but, as the possibly apocryphal French politician supposedly said of the Legionnaires “they’re just foreigners, after all.” (The ultimate expendables.)
Even the Legion’s General Francois de Negrier told his men in Tonkin: Vous, légionnaires, vous êtes soldats pour mourir, et je vous envoie où l’on meurt! (‘Legionnaires, you became soldiers in order to die, and I’m taking you to a place where you can die!’)
At any rate, Pere Lorain provides the Legion with his maps of the area, which are far more accurate than the ones they brought with them. For this act he faces the wrath of his Vietnamese congregation.
HOMESICKNESS – The tale of a homesick Legionnaire named Hugo Heilmann, who deserts one time too many and risks the hellishness of the Legion’s treatment of deserters. Hugo had joined the FFL thinking to escape the suffocating nature of his religious community in Switzerland only to find Legion life to be far more confining.
Amid the other existential elements of this story we readers get a sort of Cool Hand Luke sense of inevitable tragedy, too. Add a little bit of The Last Detail to the mix, as our more worldly narrator ponders the naive young man’s situation.
SLOVATSKI – During a period of heavy losses at Legion outposts up and down the Red River due to enemy action and disease a large detachment of new men arrive in the area. The title character joined the Legion after his father back home refused to let him marry the woman he loved because she was Jewish and she refused to marry him without his father’s blessings on the union.
Both our narrator and Slovatski wind up stricken with disease and are near death. Like so many other characters in these tales, the demons he sought to flee overtake Slovatski. But so, too, may a benevolent presence in the tantalizing finale.
A SPIRITUAL COMBAT – Our narrator seems to be the only Legionnaire who deciphers the hidden meaning behind the performative dance enacted by a former Hanoi stage starlet who is now the Vietnamese mistress of a French colonial political figure, but formerly the mistress of a French officer in the Legion. (The overwhelming majority of officers in the Foreign Legion were French, in hopes of ensuring that the Legion always put France’s interests first.)
In another astonishingly ahead of its time tale, it turns out the dance, often performed at her French “master’s” command to impress visitors, is secretly a symbolic reenactment of Vietnamese resistance to outsiders. Though the woman finds defiant release in this dance, she is ultimately a sad figure who still submits to the Frenchman in all other aspects of her life.
THE STORY OF YOUP-YOUP – An elderly Vietnamese woman named Youp-Youp aids the French Foreign Legion during their early campaigns in Tonkin and is awarded a French medal, which she wears constantly. Most of her fellow townspeople either openly or covertly aid the guerillas in the region and resent her. Youp-Youp tells herself that they are just envious of the ongoing pension to which the medal entitles her.
After years of observing the treatment of her people under the invaders, Youp-Youp has a change of heart and tries to warn the next Vietnamese village targeted by the Legion, only to be killed just as she arrives at the village gates. Her symbolic dying act is to toss the French medal as far away from her as her feeble limbs will let her.
ECKERMANN AND TANNEMEYER – The two title Legionnaires have an odd relationship which seems inscrutable to everyone but our perceptive, poetically introspective narrator. Amid the arrival of a new French politico and assorted military actions along the Red River, events come to a head when one of the men is killed in battle and the other, upon hearing the news, shoots himself to death.
This was still a time when homosexuality was “the love that dare not speak its name” and O’Neill’s euphemistic treatment of the subject matter actually lends it a dignity which would have been lost in a more explicit rendering.
THE COOLY – The narrator and his fellow Legionnaires press assorted Vietnamese into labor, in some cases inflicting such “cooly work” as the Vietnamese call it, upon people whose caste should be above such menial tasks. One of the young Vietnamese men, nicknamed Charlot by the Legionnaires in O’Neill’s nod to Guy de Maupassant’s story Aux Champs, becomes a camp mascot to the soldiers and grows distant from his father.
The tragedy thus set in motion reverses the moral of Maupassant’s story in a decidedly 20th Century way in this 19th Century work.
“LE BUIF” – A former shoemaker named Richet rises from Private to Corporal in the Legion, but his timidity and slow-wittedness make him ill-qualified for the increase in responsibilities. More forceful soldiers use him and hinder him in his duties to the point of nervous breakdown and ultimately insanity. There’s a dark Catch-22 meets Platoon feel to this tale.
A DREAM – In the aftermath of the plundering of a Buddhist temple by some Legionnaires, O’Neill treats readers to an oneiric vignette which dabbles in comparative mythology and ecumenicism and depicts missionary efforts as absurdly futile. This profound story really, really put me in mind of Dubliners.
DE PERIER – This tale explores our narrator’s friendship with his title comrade, who is addicted to opium. This story is incredibly ahead of its time, dealing with the topic of addiction and the desperate measures an addict can be driven to during wartime in order to obtain their fix.
In the touching finale, the narrator spares the dead de Perier’s mother the truth about her son’s demise and instead writes her that he perished heroically in battle. His use of the term “the enemy” as a metaphor for the man’s opium addiction is a very moving touch.
THE WORST OF THE BARGAIN – Amid various military actions and guerilla attacks unfolds the story of two brothers. One fights at the side of the mountain guerillas, the other works with the French and teaches village children under the Legion commanders’ condition that he convert to Christianity. The teacher pretends to have converted but in private continues his Buddhist practices.
The guerilla brother disowns the teacher and condemns him as a collaborator with the outsiders. In a disgusting display of hypocrisy the guerilla winds up turning traitor, saving his own skin by leading the Legionnaires to the secret lair of his comrades. The final meeting between the brothers ends in tragedy.
THE PAGODA – As the French Foreign Legion troops march around High Civilization ruins in the Vietnamese jungle, some of them fall to Black Flag snipers, snakes, tigers, lurking brigands, heat stroke and disease. Our narrator reflects on how many generations of Vietnamese resistance fighters have come and gone never even knowing that the geo-political entity called the United States existed. (Remember, O’Neill was from America, hence that particular observation which would have much different meaning in the 1970s than it did in the 1890s.)
The main theme of this tale centers around the plundering of temples that so often went hand-in-hand with the military operations. The Legionnaires are left looking much less than heroic.
THE GREAT BUDDHA – This essay was not part of the original edition of Garrison Tales From Tonquin but was appended later. James O’Neill vividly describes a temple he frequently visited while stationed in Vietnam.
He also recounts details about an elderly Vietnamese man who – accurately or not – claimed that he was responsible for stopping the French from taking the temple’s Buddha statue to Paris for its Colonial Exposition in 1889. Readers can soak in the pathos of this token victory which comforts the old man in spite of all that was ultimately lost.
Overall, there are so many elements of this book which resonate –
*** For an arriving Legionnaire, one of the first sights of their new posting would be the smaller version of the Statue of Liberty which France had constructed by a Hanoi lake. (The French had such miniature versions constructed in several of their colonies around the world, to “celebrate” the way they saw themselves as bringing “Liberty, equality and fraternity” to the occupied nations.)
*** French political officials persistently send home word of their “successful pacification” of Vietnam despite the mounting death toll.
*** Long before the psychological pressures on military men were studied, French Foreign Legion members had already coined the idiomatic term “le cafard” (the cockroach) for the condition which seemed to suddenly drive soldiers to commit suicide or explode in deadly violence against their own comrades with no warning.
*** Much of the action takes place from Hanoi along the Red River to Yen Bai, with the latter location holding great future significance for the French presence in Indochina.
*** O’Neill refers to Vietnam as “that fatal country” and those words coming from an American way back in the 1890s can send a chill through you.
Though O’Neill does play into the image of Legionnaires as men with nothing to lose and with mysterious pasts, don’t expect the action and adventure found in P.C. Wren’s novels about the French Foreign Legion. Garrison Tales From Tonquin is a much more realistic look at the Legion and at Vietnam.
The disastrous sales of this collection of short stories caused James O’Neill to abandon the second collection he had started, to be titled either Algerian Tales or Garrison Tales From Algeria. Like nearly all of his contemporary Legionnaires, O’Neill had started his career with a tour of duty in the deserts of Algeria. I will always wonder if this writer’s take on the situation in North Africa would have been as perceptive and prescient as his take on Vietnam. +++
FOR MY REVIEW OF WASHINGTON IRVING’S MEN OF THE MOON CLICK HERE: https://glitternight.com/2014/05/05/ancient-science-fiction-the-men-of-the-moon-1809-by-washington-irving/
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