Thursday, January 20, 2011

Book Review: The Pope's Legion

The Pope's Legion: The Multinational Fighting Force that Defended the Vatican
by Charles A. Coulombe

I discovered this book by way of a book review in an issue of New Oxford Review last year. As much as I want to say that it's a military history due to the great part of its subject-matter, I can't quite bring myself to do it. It does recount the history of the Papal Zouaves and recounts their various actions both in service to the Pope and afterward. But I've found it to be more a description of the time and those who lived during it.

To wit: the main strength of the book is Coulombe's attention to individuals and their stories. He details their entry into and exit from the story, interweaving the accounts of the various volunteers into that of the larger regiment and the wars in which it fought. However, the flurry of names, particularly at the beginning as the first volunteers are introduced, is daunting. It's clear though that Coulombe must have sifted through a mountain of material, personal accounts and so on, to bring so much to the narrative.

The main drawback of the book is the lack of maps, which is one of the reasons why I don't qualify it as a military history. Battles and skirmishes are described (some in great detail), lines of march are given, but without maps to show the way, it is hard to follow.

The conclusion of the book does a very good job of bringing together all the threads as Coulombe recounts the final dissolution of the regiment and the endeavors of the veterans and then talks of their legacies, both personally and collectively. The Papal Zouaves and the ideals they embodied represent a facet of the Catholic identity that has been lost due not only to the encroachment of a secular, industrialized world, but also due to changes in the Church's view on war itself after two world wars.

Coulombe quotes Monsignor Ignacio Barreiro's homily at the annual Zouave requiem in 2007, "These soldiers had received from the Church, their reason for living and this is why they were ready to sacrifice their own life for her. We are sons of the Church, too, and for her we have to fight the good battle of our time." The author then remarks that whatever response may be made to the story of the Zouaves, it had better be made quickly as time is urgent.


Samuel said...

"We are sons of the Church, too, and for her we have to fight the good battle of our time."

Especially lately, I've wondered, is it even allowed for a son of the Church to wonder if its time for the Church to reach back?

Just yesterday I was reading something about Fourth Generation Warfare:

"Fourth Generation wars are characterized by a blurring of the lines between war and politics, soldier and civilian, peace and conflict, battlefield and safety."

Jacob said...

"Fourth Generation wars are characterized by a blurring of the lines between war and politics..."

War is just policy by other means. There's always been a blurring.

But what do you mean by your wondering if a son of the Church is allowed to wonder?

Samuel said...

As you mentioned, Jacob, Church's view of war per se has changed since the World Wars. Does that stance make even the thought of armed conflict in defense of the Church, its members and all other denizens of Christendom to be completely taboo?

Jacob said...

I would say yes. Especially as Muslim terrorism has come to epitomize what Western Civilization views to be 'religious conflict'.