Monday, July 26

Grass Roots: A Long Way from Kansas

Who would have thought that, a month after signing up to the French Foreign Legion, I would be lining up on a soccer pitch with my mates in shorts and tee shirt on a cool, dry summers eve? Team-building, cohesion-inspiring activity you say? Alas it wasn’t exactly the jumpers-for-goalposts fantasy entering some of your minds at this point in time. Instead, there we stood - 46 young (and some not-so-young) green recruits - all waiting in single file to pass before half a dozen half drunk corporals. The nature of the inspection? - why, our singing abilities of course. You see, songs play an enormous role in the history and traditions of the Legion, often recounting famous battles (very few victories, mind) and/or characters of note in Legion folklore. Therefore a core element of basic training involves the learning of songs sung either in French or German, depending on the song and its origins. And so, one by one, we marched up to the scrutinising corporal in question, and launched into a verse of "J’avais un Camarade" - a quite poignant song about a soldier recounting the fall of his best friend in battle. Ironically, by the end most of us found ourselves sprawled out on the ground with our faces in the dirt. The only ones left standing were of course those who COULDN’T sing correctly, watching from the sidelines as the rest of us golden voiced killing machines did countless push-ups, all the while being encouraged to scream "thank you" at our camarades who so mercilessly (and dissonantly) squawked us into such a predicament.

Bienvenue à la ferme, bande de chiffons!

The first month of the Legion’s basic training takes place in a small isolated property in the French countryside, affectionately known as "The Farm" . Here, recruits are taught how to lose 10 kilos in 4 weeks (not as great as it sounds, ladies), tackle radically changing bowel conditions brought on by the introduction of military rations into our diet, combat classroom drowsiness by performing handstands while simultaneously dipping our heads into a bucket of freezing water, and of course, the age old Sun Tzu-approved art of singing. It may seem like a slice of intolerably cruel surreality, but all in all it was.....well, exactly that. At this point in our fledgling commando careers, desertion wasn’t entirely impossible, but was certainly made trickier by the banishment of our leather boots from 10pm - 6am each evening, leaving us to perform guard duty in our trusty, standard-issue flip flops. Thank God it was September in the south of France.

During this month of "instruction", we also learned how to set-up camp (not necessarily correctly), how to manipulate our rifles (not necessarily correctly) , survive smoke-grenade attacks (not necessarily correctly) and sing (see above). As it was the very first month of training, levels of French ranged somewhat spectacularly from Proust to Popeye. I was comfortably median and content in my relative anonymity. Respite was had on several isolated occasions when large fires were lit, mulled wine was downed and recruits were asked to belt out a tune from their homeland. Songs ranged from a barnstorming rendition of the Bulgarian army’s "Whiskey BOOM" to the Iranian national anthem and delicate, Chinese pop-chart toppers. A rather moving unplugged recital of U2's "With or Without You" by yours truly went down a real treat with the boys, unlike "God Save The Queen" (no, not the Sex Pistols' version) which was bawled out by a tag-team of Barnsley and Coventry‘s finest. All in good spirits, of course. But such occasions, as I said, only provided momentary respite from the sadistic shenanigans that were to dominate our daily schedules for a whole month.

I suppose it would defeat the purpose (that of trying to profit from a published memoirs in 10 years time followed by appearances on Irish morning television) by delving too deeply into individual instances, but looking back on our time in the farm almost 2 years later, it almost brings tears to the eyes. Most are laughter-induced, but some stem from something a little more jaggedly poignant. We were seriously reduced to starved, semi-delirious animals out in that remote country outpost. But then again, it’s precisely for that reason that we find ourselves here; stronger mentally than ever before, and able to take temporary set-backs or previously-considered harsh circumstances in our stride, forever only a brief shut-eye away from conjuring up enviable relativity to appease any apparent suffering. Out of the 46 guys lined up on that football pitch frantically clearing their throats on that Summers eve, 34 remain within the walls of our beloved asylum. Of the 12 departed, some quit due to medical reasons, some raised their hands to leave and stayed the rocky path until formally released, and some just simply vanished. But for all those who’ve left, and for all of us who remain, none will forget the relevance (or melody, I hope) to that fateful line

"J’avais un Camarade".

Wednesday, July 21

Preventative Snapping: An Introduction

I call it "preventative snapping"; snapping long before things are even allowed to reach a certain point. That point. You know the one. Where fists clench, teeth clench, arse cheeks clench, everything pretty much clenches until the pressure is so great a release is inevitable. Those unfortunate enough to find themselves in the immediate vicinity are usually the ones most likely to be unwittingly bestowed with said release. But you don’t care, because afterwards you feel great. Your fists feel great. Your teeth feel great. Your arse feels amazing. It’s really only those unfortunate enough to find themselves in the immediate vicinity that don’t feel so great. But as I already said, you don’t care. You feel great.

The painter Vincent Van Gogh once said;

"Great things are not done by impulse, but by a series of small things brought together".

Vincent Van Gogh chopped off the lobe of his left ear, before later shooting himself in the chest. That wasn’t very great at all, although some people say his paintings are. Some people also say he had a congenital brain legion aggravated by excessive consumption of absinthe. I don’t think I have any brain legions and if I do, only susceptibility to excessive consumption of chardonnay might prove my downfall. It must be tough being great. But his point still stands. A series of small things brought together; that’s what I need. I’ll form the list in my head as I continue……

Ah yes, so back to "preventative snapping". In movies, they don’t seem to have my wily foresight. Or perhaps it’s artistically discouraged in order to drag the script out beyond the symbolic 90-minute milestone. In any case, time and again we patiently watch characters encounter an increasingly testing series of events (small things brought together, get it?) which raise questions about everything they’ve ever believed in, the rules they’ve followed all their lives up until now, their entire existence. And then they magically sprout a raincoat housing a military-grade armoury and go off in search of greatness. I’ve always quite liked these little adventures, munching on popcorn as I consciously ignore the ironic hypocrisy of fighting fire with fire, justifying the means by way of the end result, basically throwing a bag of cats at the screen (well, if one substituted clichés for cats, but I used cats to be more roundabout but ultimately more effective, well now this is just too roundabout…….). My POINT being that I now find myself in a humorously perplexing inverted situation. That of the man who begins with the armoury he now looks to decommission, along with the Inspector-Gadget-go-go-Goth raincoat. I might keep the shaved head, but that’s just a climatic consideration here in the south of France.

In less than a month I’ll have served 2 years in the ranks of la Légion Etrangére (French Foreign Legion). In that time I’ve come a long way. In that time everyone has come a long way. So I suppose what counts is not the distance, but rather the point of departure and most definitely the destination. I left Ireland aged 22, scared, optimistic, homesick, thin, too thin really, clean shaven (ugh), but essentially hopeful. 2 years on, I find myself bearded, bulkier (well, slightly), less homesick, less optimistic, but essentially retaining hope. Hopeful that my destination comprises a clean, uncomplicated exit from this, the most archaic of military institutions with it’s draconian system of laws, rules, punishments and ridiculously ill-founded rituals thinly disguised as "traditions". Maybe it all depends on thresholds, and mine has certainly not yet been reached, but then we find ourselves right back at "preventative snapping".

In 3 and a half months yet another military plane will leave France bound for Afghanistan, and a 6 month tour of duty during what is arguably the most turbulent time since coalition forces arrived way back in 2001 beckons. I plan to be on that plane. Whether my list of small things will be fully compiled by then remains to be seen, and there’s sure to be a whole lot of me all clenched up as I board. So I warmly invite you all to join in my little adventure as I hold back on the snapping and focus more on the compiling for now. After all, great things are not done by impulse, but by a series of small things brought together.

Enjoy the ride,