Sunday, February 5

Powder Dreams

I miss Afghanistan. There, I said it. 

Almost ten months have passed since I returned to Europe, to France, to Ireland, to civilization, and yet little has changed, little has advanced. Like a slowly-souring relationship whose flame was anguishingly extinguished in a floundering, flatulent, apologetic breath, my remaining time here in the Legion holds no shimmering hope-filled horizons other than that final one, the edge over which I shall eventually trip and fall back into the rhythms and stresses of civilian life to replace those finding themselves evermore loathed with each completed day added to the archive of all things "Military Service". It seems rather unfathomable, given the desperation and relief experienced in the final few weeks of a grueling six-month tour in eastern Afghanistan. What on earth could I possibly miss?

For one, I miss the scorching sun beating down on my helmet as it peered carefully out over the length of my .50 cal, along a dust-drenched barrel stretching into barren valleys overflowing with emptiness. I miss the simplicity of a soldier's life over there. A soldier over there has two things to focus on; the mission and the downtime. The mission, no matter what it was, was a glorious thing, shepherding your senses into a neatly symmetric pen of controlled adrenaline, a list of objectives, radio codes, targets, routes, friendly and enemy positions, water, food and ammunition stocks and consumption, all compacted in to a blinking thought as the armored vehicle hurtled along dirt tracks and through irrationally menacing villages. The downtime meant a chance to enjoy the luxuries of washing underwear, shaving your head, exercising and perhaps watching a movie or two or reading the next couple of chapters of a book.

No more, no less. Simple. I maintain that Afghanistan was both the toughest and most rewarding time of my career in the Legion. Never have I felt so exhausted, strained, drained and detached from my friends and family back home. Simultaneously, I have never felt more like a professional soldier, a Legionnaire in the truest sense. A worthy price, perhaps, to justify these five years I'll have spent in the Legion. At the very least, I'll always have those six months to validate whatever amount of fucking around, time wasting and muddled administration gets flung like so many rotten vegetables at me throughout my service.

But does this make me a Legionnaire? Does this make me worthy of the famous Képi Blanc? Compared to some of the excuses for soldiers lining up for morning assembly, maybe. But compared to others, not even remotely. And so I'm lead to the question "Who IS worthy?". Who is worthy of championing, of newspaper articles and photos, of early promotion, of posthumous decoration? Does an entire platoon who comes into enemy contact a dozen or so times during an operational tour deserve to have each individual within its ranks receive the croix de la valuer militaire when, for others, it takes a life-threatening shrapnel wound from an RPG followed by immediate repatriation? Does a soldier, shot down unarmed during a morning physical training session, deserve the same accolades as one who went out in a blaze of bullets in the white heat of a fire-fight with insurgents? Or what about an avalanche; a detached sheet of snow and ice crashing down on the unsuspecting heads of a group of soldiers while out skiing in the Alps? Hardly Hollywood's depiction of a warrior's demise.

Then again, such events only depict how the life was ended, not how it was lived. Chef Simeonov was a fine superior, one of the first I encountered more than three years ago while trying desperately to grasp the basic concepts of skiing. Three years later and word of his death reached us as we were returning from our latest attempt at conquering the slopes. My technique was vastly improved from the last time he screamed venomously at me, outraged at the titters and giggles from onlooking girls as I snow-ploughed my way down one hundred metres of green-level slopes to avoid falling over. I'm sure he would've been pleased at my progress to-date. Gunned down while working out in his sports gear at a combat outpost in Afghanistan by an insurgent disguised as a member of the Afghan National Army, I guess he'll never have the chance to witness it now.

We didn't all return from the recent skiing trip, though, with some staying on in anticipation of the beginning of their team-leader course - a far more intense endeavour requiring a far higher technical level where skiing is concerned. I certainly wasn't ready to be included in that category. Sokol was, though. Sokol, with whom my American buddy and I spent two months negotiating the infuriating and physically shattering Stage Caporal. A young Polish guy with a ropey grasp of French yet an indefatigable capacity to smile through even the toughest conditions. He was the only fatality in a devastating avalanche a few days ago that hospitalized several others with shock, hypothermia and frostbite. Even if I had made a concerted effort to meditate over just how much I might miss him if he was gone, it wouldn't have brought my estimation even remotely close to the reality now that he is.

Perhaps there is no ideal way to go. Perhaps there is no solid definition of a true warrior, an exemplary soldier, un vrai legionnaire. Five years is an extremely long-term investment for the sake of six measly months feeling in any way adequate. But even if I'd never ventured over to Afghanistan in some feeble attempt at self-vindication, to capture some sense of purpose or the right to be called a soldier - a legionnaire - it wouldn't have mattered. If justification-through-association existed, then merely having known two brave souls in Chef Simeonov and Sokol would have rendered me worthy. 

I never fired a shot-in-anger during my time in Afghanistan, never took heavy fire or received subsequent injuries. All I've done is write blogs. Words, typed on a keyboard, instead of bullets sent charging forth from a flame-soaked rifle barrel. It all seems rather pathetic by comparison. Maybe that's why I miss the life over there so much. Maybe I'm still searching for that missing puzzle-piece, that which will allow me to leave the Legion proud of what I've done, proud of what I've accomplished. Maybe that puzzle-piece doesn't exist at all. 

Or maybe it does, but those rare few that found it are no longer around to tell us.


  1. Great read, as always.
    Soldiering is putting your life on the line and being ready to, God forbid, make the ultimate sacrifice. Be it an avalanche, a stray bullet or a downright firefight that gets the last word, or are you one of the lucky ones who walks away with the memories. You are all worthy. You all deserve respect. For doing your dangerous job, for the benefit of others. My tuppence, for what they are worth.

    Enjoy your remaining time in the legion and never ever stop writing.

  2. Hi,

    An interesting perspective of an Irish French Foreign Legion soldier who is so proud of his part played in the US/ISAF operation in Afghanistan. I particularly note the seeming gratitude felt at having been able to justify the five-year haul in the Legion by serving 6 months in Afghanistan, and indeed the craving for more time there. Don't take this the wrong way, but I'm reminded of Dennis Hopper's smell-of-napalm speech. "...Some day this war's gonna end..."

    Could you accept that parts of your post could be perceived (even if at a stretch) as lending a romantic side to war, and would you regret any such perception?

    Finally, I would be curious to hear your views on the controversial way the war started, and indeed continued, and on the seeming control the US have on the entire operation, ISAF included. Just a quiet suggestion for another day's post - I wouldn't attempt to tell you what to write about!

    One last question: As a soldier in the French Foreign Legion, did you choose to go to Afghanistan or was it decided for you?

    Don't want the above to seem cold, by the way. I am genuinely curious. I am also very sorry for the loss of your friend and superior.

  3. To the first commenter, I offer my thanks for a very complimentary and graciously-received comment. I, too (as I hope was conveyed in the post) believe that all soldiers who serve - irrespective of functions, war or peace-time service, etc - deserve the same respect.

    As for the second comment, I certainly accept the existence of the afore-mentioned perception. However the origins of that perception owe as much to the individual reader's own mind as they do my own. I don't make an effort to romanticise, but my particular state of mind in writing this piece brought out those tones.

    As for the origins of the Afghan conflict, I shudder to even consider a qualified opinion on EITHER side. I've always maintained that my presence in Afghanistan served more of a selfish, self-gratifying purpose than that of good vs evil, democracy v extremist theocracy, etc. That's not to say my sympathies didn't multiply upon first contact with the local population and general situation on the ground. But I'm here in the Legion for me alone. Any byproduct of constructive good or world progress is a bonus. Cold indeed, but nothing short of the whole unadulterated truth.

    And regards your final question, as a Legionnaire, you go where you are sent. You are a volunteer for every posting and every mission from the day you sign your contract. Personally, I can't understand anyone who would join the Legion and refuse a deployment to the definitive war-zone of our generation.

    Just my 2 cents. If you've any further questions, feel free to e-mail me.