"Les excuses sont comme des trous de cul - tout le monde en a un". *
One of the things I truly admire about the military hierarchy is the very definite boundaries of responsibility. One's proverbial "limite gauche - limit droite"**, beyond which not only are you not obliged to stray, but in some cases not even permitted to. Of course, initiative is encouraged here in the Legion, but mainly in a retrospective manner. Making a decision to intervene, assist or take charge of something outside your zone of responsibility can only ever be greeted with two outcomes. You either get shouted at for taking too much initiative, for considering yourself too smart for your own good, or you get a rollicking for sticking to your fixed responsibilities instead of using your brain and going the extra mile. You can simply never know. Therefore a wonderful counter-phrase invented by legionnaires frankly states "Ce n'est pas mon niveau."***. Voila! If it ventures outside your perimeter of responsibility, fuck it! Let someone else deal with it. Relief hurtles towards a stressed legionnaire in the form of a buck discreetly passed, a loophole discovered in the list of his objectives.
"I'm not qualified for that."
"I'm not the corporal on duty."
Or the most famous and recyclable of all;
"Moi pas compris."****
Of course this may be a slight exaggeration. Initiative is something that all employers encourage and reward. In that respect, the Legion is no different. But the ever-present option to sit back on a laissez-faire, work-to-rule attitude would certainly appear to be the more popular candidate. A fear of getting something wrong knocks the desire to go above and beyond the call of duty right out of the ring and in to the snarling audience below. A shame, really. But everybody's been guilty at one point or another. I've just begun to realize, however, that while my service record to-date might appear whiter-than-white, it's been more so my personal life outside of the Legion ("What personal life outside of the Legion?" some of the less educated observers of this formidable establishment might ask) that has suffered the consequences of a certain shirking of responsibilities. Let me explain.
Men of every race and religion have, for almost two centuries, used their old lives, lives ravaged, torn, irreparable or just unbearably monotonous, as excuses to flock to France and embark on a military lifestyle quite unlike any other on the planet. We're all told we are volunteers, came to the Legion of our own free will, but the truth could never be further from such a facile and banal statement. Men feel compelled to come to the Legion, to hammer on its gates and demand entry, demand anonymity, demand a complete deconstruction and reconstruction of their very selves. A broken-down marriage, criminal record or crippling tragedy might serve as the superficial explanation, indeed many most certainly believe that it is for this very reason that they were drawn to the gates of Fort de Nogent or Aubagne. But something greater was at work. Something greater is always at work whenever the Legion is concerned. When you join the Legion, you don't just get away from whatever you thought you needed to get away from. You get away from it ALL. Bills, tax returns, rent, DIY duties, they all go "poof" in a cloud of green and red smoke as you suddenly find yourself being led through life by the hand. A whistle tells you when to get out of bed, a whistle tells you when to eat, a whistle tells you when to return to bed before it all begins again the next day. Your passport's out of date? No worries, word will travel down the chain of command until it eventually reaches you, demanding no more than a few photos to be taken during your free weekend in order to remedy the situation. Don't know what to take out in the field for a few weeks' camping and training? Relax, wait until your C.O. prints out a full list of every item to be included in your bag, everything from what boots to take to how many t-shirts and pairs of socks you'll need. Don't forget a change of underwear and spare batteries for your torch either. Ah bless.
So for those who chose to regard it from such angles, Legion life is a breeze. But as I said earlier, it's not life in the Legion that has me perplexed these past few days. It's the life outside the Legion. The life I catch a brief glimpse of for 48 hours a week and again while on vacation. My keyhole voyeurism directed towards all things "real" exhibits a rather rose-tinted Friday-night-to-Sunday-morning non-stop party. Relaxing train rides to Paris, hotel rooms, pubs, clubs, girls, shopping, restaurants, cinemas, all in one nauseatingly high-speed montage that leaves little left in reserve for the return to work Monday morning. But sure Monday doesn't require much effort anyway, does it? Cruise-control, remember?
The problem lies in the inevitable transition awaiting the end of my contract here. A soldier's wage is pittance in terms of modern living standards, but when food, accommodation, heating, electricity and travel is all paid for, that pittance transforms into a rather enviable lump of pocket money. The rate of expenditure would have made my pre-Legion self's hair stand on end, and that was BEFORE the global economic melt-down. What happens when those other five days of the week, those continuously negotiated by my civilian friends enduring challenging careers in all walks of life, return? What happens when bills, tax-returns, health insurance, rent, food, heating, electricity, etc all come crawling back, up the staircase and scratching at my bedroom door like the undead monsters of adulthood? What then?
I can feel a few New Year's Resolutions forming at the back of my mind as I type this now. Cut-backs, budgeting, forward planning. Measures must be taken. They don't teach you that in Castel, however. "Chacun sa merde!"*****. Becoming a Legionnaire is - dare I say - the easy part. It's transforming back in to a functioning member of society that's the real challenge. I guess it'll up to me to show some initiative. The only difference in this case is that there'll be nobody to give me a right ol' rollicking if I don't show enough, or too much…or……. I don't know!!! Guess I better make the most of the 20 months of hassle-free living that lies before me.
Vive la Légion!
* "Excuses are like assholes, everybody's got one."
** (Literally "Left Limit - Right Limit). A term used to designate surveillance sectors in the French Army.
*** "It's not my level."
**** (Literally "Me no understand."). Used incessantly by young Legionnaires when unable to follow orders.
***** (Literally "Each one his own shit)". An expression meaning "Each man for himself".