E = ETRANGERS
Well now they don’t call it "La Légion Etrangére" for nothing, you know! Drawing on official statistics, the Legion is comprised of soldiers hailing from a whopping 136 countries. All the major players are well represented, such as Brasil, China, Madagascar, Romania, Bulgaria and of course France. Despite this, a slightly comical ignorance reigns over the classification of some recruits. A Moldovan friend of mine was surprised at the end of basic training to find he’d become a naturalised Russian on the Graduation Rankings, due to him constantly conversing in Russian with the other "Russians" (ie. Ukranians, Kazaks, Belorussians, Estonians, Mongolians and Georgians). I’ve actually met very few true Russians. Of course, that particular Moldovan friend spoke Russian, Romanian, French and Portuguese fluently, and finished top of our training section, so he didn’t mind too much (fucker)! Similar to the "Russians", anyone at all who comes from the orient or resembles an east Asian is immediately labelled "Chinese". Many a time have I heard the distinct discontented grumblings of Japanese, Koreans, Taiwanese and Mongolians. Sorry lads, Geography is even further down the priority list than military tactics here in Loopyville.
In my particular 9-man-strong Combat Group heading out to Afghanistan, we shall be quite the colourful collection of flag-wavers indeed. The group sergeant is French, the driver is Bulgarian, the gunner an Algerian, the two team leaders hailing from South Korea and our good ol’ Emerald Isle respectively, with the two guys under my command having trekked from Hungary and Congo (DRC) to sign up, and the Korean’s team containing a Brazilian and an Ukrainian. Lots of exotic vulgarities to be learned over the next 6 months so!
F = FAMAS
The FAMAS (Fusil d'Assaut de la Manufacture d'Armes de Saint-Étienne) is our most trusted tool of the trade. This French-made rifle isn’t the worst of sidekicks, nor is it the finest. There exist lighter assault rifles, with longer range, less moving parts, more easily disassembled, cheaper, etc, but once it’s made in France it becomes OBLIGATOIRE!!! (just like that God-awful cassoulet in the canteen. After a session on the firing range, one can expect to spend anywhere between 2 and 6 hours standing (no sitting allowed) around a table scrubbing every last spring and pin before the sergeant passes inspection. But be careful - Ce n’est jamais propre, c’est que nettoyée!
G = GRATTAGE
The Devil makes work for idle hands. Indeed, inactivity is the most heinous crime imaginable here in the Legion (technically, it can be argued that Facebook qualifies as activity). And so, when all is said and done, the one thing left to do is SCRUB!! On several occasions during basic training we were over 40 young green-gilled recruits packed into the toilet. My God, wall tiles, floor tiles, urinals, pipes leading to urinals, pipes leading from urinals, pipes pointed at urinals (Woo now, steady!), toilet seats, toilet rims, light fixtures. There wasn’t a cleaner toilet in the world. At regiment, however, away from the idiocy of basic training, it’s far more rational. Here we brush the dry dirt off stones, individually dust leaves on the plastic trees dotted throughout the building, among countless other acts of perpetual Spring cleaning.
The vehicles are another kettle of bananas altogether. Now I’m no mechanic, but removing every last drop of grease and oil twice a week, only to replace it with fresh grease and oil can’t be necessary or good for the machine in question. But hey, as long as one remains a lowly private first class, one must shut one’s mouth and display unquestionable loyalty to the......
HIERARCHY (for which, er, H is, er, for)
Welcome to the army - the closest thing imaginable to a human pyramid scheme. You coax in the new recruits until they reach a sufficient number so as to require a leader, and so you move up a rank. And so on and so forth, Hi ho! In 5 years service, a soldier can not progress any higher than the rank of Corporal, UNLESS they have already committed to a contract extension, in which case achieving the rank of Sergeant is possible inside 4 years service.
While spending last Christmas in the deserts of East Africa, our then-Commander-in-Chief gave a startlingly blunt but essentially incontestable analogy of things as they stand. He said (and I translate as accurately as the Franco/Anglo transition allows):
"We, the officers, are the shepherds. You, the sergeants and corporals, are our little sheepdogs. And the Legionnaires are the sheep."
Of course we, the shee....sorry, Legionnaires were not invited to this little bar-room, fire-side reunion.
Well Baa Ram Ewe very much!
More luscious letters to come, stay tuned!