Thursday, March 3

Mon Dieu, Mon Caporal

At a time when the fears of certain long-term dissenters were on the brink of being allayed, I just couldn’t help myself. Three months in Afghanistan is a long time, is not very long at all, or alternatively is sufficiently long enough to have lost sight of the tiresome irks of regimental life back in France. I recently brushed dust off the topic with a correspondent, musing with fluctuating enthusiasm on what has evolved as a Darwinian deposit of soldiers from the homeland to the mountains and valleys of arguably the most war-torn country in history. The last three months have been primarily concerned with life in Afghanistan. Here, there is no room for error, no allowance for slack reactions. Soldiers from various regiments all over France, men and women previously considered strangers have since become our comrades-in-arms along the gentle unravelling of activities throughout this mission. The grizzled grouchy spare parts, those caricatured catastrophes whose one redeeming quality in an otherwise cul-de-sac life is the Képi worn proudly on their heads have remained behind. Those loveable if unsettlingly blank tablets of young men unafraid to stare down the barrel of a loaded rifle (albeit their own) eventually receded to a similar fate. As an institution, the gates of the Legion know not to discriminate. As a military force, some weeding and fine tuning occasionally grinds in to gear. As I said, the last three months have been primarily concerned with life in Afghanistan. During the past six days I fell prey to a timely reminder of the bigger picture, life in the Legion.

Passing time out in the field can be very tiring, be it on exercises in France or on real manoeuvres here in Afghanistan. The food consists mostly of military rations, a technically nutritious but aesthetically nauseating gelatinous concoction best shovelled down at high speeds with breath held. Even if one has the illusion of remaining relatively static, calories are indeed burned. On top of daytime energy consumption, one is deprived of vital recharging during the night due to guard duties and less-than-comfortable sleeping conditions. People can become stressed, irritable. Superiors need to keep their subordinates in check, managing their discontent while retaining a sense of order. Now, insubordination is such a misleading term. Self-conjured images of a refusal to execute orders, of indiscreetly correcting a superior in public, of deserting a post or the army altogether all present themselves untidily in our minds. Personally, I have never encountered a problem executing an order. Moreover, I have never encountered a problem at all during my tadpole-esque two and a half years service here in the famous French Foreign Legion. I guess that number was destined to be called at some point.

An extremely experienced ex-Legionnaire whom I occasionally interact with once remarked on Hollywood’s misleading portrayal of the military hierarchy. A corporal, he commented, enjoys the powers of a captain, a captain those of a colonel. In real life, he continued, this is not the case. Alas, in defiance of his theory I present my case of the almighty corporal here in the Legion. The promotion of a legionnaire to the rank of corporal is completely chronological and subject to two months spent in a state of perpetual physical punishment. No intelligence required. No ability to command respect or speak strong enough French to give clear, distinct orders is necessary. Just a date of enlistment far enough back from the present combined with the completion of the afore-mentioned two-month ritual and one immediately enjoys the benefits of forgetting how to engage in manual labour (daily cleaning aside - that is more a rite of passage for Legionnaires and should not be performed by corporals), avoiding weapons inspections together with a whole host of more-often-than-not unmerited benefits. I say "more-often-than-not" because, like most Legionnaires, I have had the good fortune to have encountered a handful of corporals truly worthy of the respect, obedience and admiration routinely demanded of almost any moron with thick biceps and a thicker skull. These few (in my experience), hailing from Cameroon to Romania, broke balls harder than the others but only when armed with either good reason or a desire to halt an early-sighted slow-creeping malaise. Hollywood might have offered them knighthoods.

My own minor run-in occurred, regrettably, slap-bang in the middle of the search of a compound down in our local valley. It was only the second day. We weren’t very stressed or irritable. Ours had been silently simmering for a while now. Suffice to say I wasn’t too pleased with a comment indirectly directed at me (vertebrae seem to be at a premium with this particular corporal). Inevitably (if somewhat ill-advisedly) I calmly requested that he say whatever it was he had to say to my face. Over he came, galloping to within inches of me, hissing, puffing and threatening to break teeth. In reality he might have buckled under the weight of one of my fillings alone, and again somewhat ill-advisedly I informed him of my theory. This provoked further hissing and puffing, so I calmly lay down my metal detector and unclipped my helmet, placing it on the ground beside my feet. Along came the repeated threat to break teeth. I grinned broadly, like a horse chomping on a cannabis plant, and invited his scrawny broom handle of an arm to try to connect. Alas at this point our squad leader intervened, placing himself between the two gesticulating morons clasping their handbags tighter and tighter. The wave of hostility receded without breaking. Thinking of it now, the ridiculousness flushes the cheeks with more and more potency. Utter absurdity, especially in the middle of a mission (albeit it one launched on poorer-than-poor intelligence involving the destruction of a perfectly good garden and the rifling through harmless and previously pristinely organised personal possessions of yet another unwitting Afghan civilian). Somewhat bizarrely and equally eerily, the two of us have somehow descended into a rhythm of previous unheralded civility, overflowing with "please" and "thank you" and such. It’s entirely possible that our little tête-a-tête inspired a more considerate, professional approach to command in the offending corporal as well as scaring a bit of sense and subordination in to yours truly. My clock is ticking, but there’s no need to fill the remaining time with unnecessary inconvenience. Our squad leader was cool about it, allowing the two years of uninterrupted training and missions together afford me the benefit of the doubt, and the trust to close the chapter then and there. Still, in very quiet moments one can hear the distant hissing and puffing of a pot silently simmering. Who knows if those bubbles will grow any larger or not, perhaps rattling the lid a little, than a lot, until it eventually slides off and it all boils over all over again?

Just a minor incident in an otherwise orderly affair here in Afghanistan. Things like this happen often, and sometimes result in a more "entertaining" resolution. It’s not hard to follow orders, as I said, once the orders are given by men worthy of respect. Some people tend to confuse the terms "obedience" and "respect". For me, to obey is to obey, to respect is to respect. For some of the graduates from the two-month school of hard knocks, even writing these words (in the French language OR their own) presents an insurmountable challenge, so to expect comprehension is asking a little too much. Ironically, this blog began back in July of last year while I was recovering from having destroyed almost every ligament in my right ankle during training. Ten weeks were spent in a combination of intensive physiotherapy sessions and gradually progressive physical exercises undertaken on my own time, all in order to be as fit and ready as possible for my deployment to Afghanistan. Those ten weeks had initially been set aside for my own ritualistic promotion to the dizzying heights of a corporal in the French Foreign Legion. Perhaps it would have been nice to have come here having left behind me all the manual labour, weapons inspections and such. However, I feel I can safely and honestly say that I’m rather glad how things have worked out. It may read a whopping three years service on my file when I finally climb the ranks, but at least I’ll fill the role with a better understanding of what it is to be a subordinate, and what it takes to be a good corporal.

Either way, I’m sure I’ll have all my teeth intact when that day arrives.

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