When I was a child in Louisiana we were let to play sometimes at an abandoned brick fort on the next island over.
It was sinking into the sand and our imaginations ran wild, scurrying under the arches lapped by sea water, down ramparts, along walls, looking out cannon apertures.
If you saw the last action scenes of the first True Detective series, then you will be familiar with the style of building and part of the world. It was cavernous, mysterious, thrilling.
Everyone called that structure “Jean Lafitte’s Fort.” Lafitte was a local French pirate, an outlaw and a smuggler, but our imaginations of him stopped there.
Jean Lafitte was no longer historical but legend in those parts. His name adorned bars and souvenir shops by that point. No one cared about actual thefts of cargo, or Andrew Jackson’s role in the history of that island, or the defeat of the British at New Orleans in 1815 only due to Lafitte’s help – or the shady mess in Mexico that followed.
In fact, no one even bothered to note that the fort was not Lafitte’s at all, that he was evicted from the island specifically so that the official US military could build the defensive structure which now lay in ruins. The fort which we knew was actually a government construction, not a bootyhunter’s lair.
But we didn’t care about all those details long past. What we wanted was to play in the ruins and pretend to be French pirates while the adults fished in Barataria Bay.
We never considered for a minute that it was only time that protected us from real pirates and real war. Time, that cataract of ignorance which takes many years to form like a patina over memory, insulated us from the harsh realities of the place where we stood and allowed us to feel joy in a building conceived entirely for the opposite purpose.
Any castle was originally a military fortification. We tend to forget that when touring the châteaux and turrets of more ancient structures. However romantically they strike our imaginations now, they were not built for pleasure. Those slit-windows served a bloody purpose. Those thick walls protected what was inside from crude and brutal attack.
The word castle comes from castrum in Latin, a military camp. Fort/fortress comes from the French for strong, or stronghold. The words survive, but the reality is almost impossible to associate with tourist attractions like Château de Menars or Carcassone or Le Castela de St. Sulpice today. We are consumed with photo opps, picnic spots, views on architecture. We are too far removed from their original context to dwell on why they were erected, or the atrocities which they inflicted from those scenic-vista vantage points.
Castles have become the stuff of myth, conflated with palaces and princesses in ballgowns. No one looks at Disneyland’s magical castle and thinks about war or sieges, much less the reality of burning oil poured from the pastel-blue hoardings. The damsels are in no distress, and the plump avuncular kings are not in the business of murder. There is not an actual pirate to be found any closer than the Somali coast. It’s Johnny Depp we love. Robin Hood. The Sequel.
But we spent last weekend on Cap Ferret, and during a Sunday stroll on the beach, we came upon another real ruined fort sinking into the sand with a beautiful vantage onto the sea. And this time we were not far enough removed in time to be insulated by ignorance.
We knew exactly what it was, and it was terrifying.
In a modern ruin such as the Nazi blockhaus at Cap Ferret, the original purpose is still alarmingly vivid. The technology of war has not changed all that much. The height of a soldier, the way a rifle is aimed, the way radar intercepts planes… the suffering that resulted, the blood sinking into the sand of the beachhead, all intimately familiar. It has not been long enough for the blockhaus to seem at all romantic as a ruined fort.
It is still very much a spoil of recent war, a war that threatened everything that modern France holds dear. It has not been long enough to see the Nazi relics in any other way than as the infernal machinery of an occupying enemy. The experience is still quite personal and fresh – the heroes are still our heroes, the dead are still our own dead, the vanquished attackers still reviled. Filmed ravages of death camps and the firsthand words of our own grandparents burn in our minds.
Even the clean, sharp geometric lines of these structures remind you of modern science fiction and video games. There is nothing antique-seeming about them. They seem like a space station crashed to earth. It is just too close to home to venerate or to explore with innocent curiosity. In attempting to do so, you find a scowl on your face, even on a sunny day at the beach. This is not a conflated tale of zany pirates and driftwood swordfights. This is something that even in its derelict state feels supremely dark and dangerous. Real. Live. Nazis.
Evil is not zany. Jean Lafitte may have raped and pillaged his way across the Caribbean and Gulf, but given enough time his deeds were forgotten by the descendants of those who suffered, and his island became a playground.
But fort means strong. And the most recent ones abandoned on the French coastline still are. As still potent bastions of fear and pain, these military ruins, unlike all others in France, are totally ignored.
Let them rot
That slow cataract that obscures memory has barely begun to form over this former stronghold. While it is not enough to insulate the adult visitor, it is enough, in the interim between war and museums of war, to allow rebellious teenagers to cavort irreverently.
On the day we were there the sections farthest from the surf were graffiti’d with colorful juvenile material that in no way addressed the purpose or meaning of the blockhaus. They were just lighthearted scribblings – admonitions to party hard, the names of local surf clubs and rock bands, a cartoon shark’s dorsal fin mapped wryly over a concrete cleat. Empty beer bottles lay in the stairwells, and a pair of French beachgoers were using one big south-facing block as a windbreak.
There was no commemorative educational sign. There was no restoration or even preservation. The ruins that lay closer to the tide were crusted in mussels and a thick green carpet of sea moss. They could have been mistaken for natural rock outcroppings except for the occasional detail.
We are waiting to forget. Any purely historical value of these ruins will require more time.
I climbed up into a gun turret and looked out on the shoreline, thereby accidentally giving myself a creeping out that lasted for the rest of the day. Other men stood where I stood not so long ago, and for very different reasons.
There is weak debate in France about whether to preserve these “ruins” which are still so very alive in personal experience. The debate is weak because any serious person can see that it cannot go anywhere, yet. Older fortifications enjoy the protection of the agencies of the state entrusted to preserve the national heritage. Though they enshrine the memory of similar atrocities, similar defeats and victories, they are safely removed from the modern everyday – too long ago, too faded in perspective by all that has happened since.
In the case of the Nazi blockhauses, that moment is not yet. We are still living their history directly, at least for a little while longer. That may soon change and these structures become the palimpsest backdrop of newer histories, even the names of bars and souvenir shops (it has happened before).
But for the moment, the barnacles and spraypaint serve as a mockery and visceral desecration: Nature and vandals left to pick the bones of the unloved corpse of the arch-enemy. This we do not enshrine. These we do not bury with any rites at all.