Saturday, March 10

Bad Rep

It changes you.

The machismo lifestyle, thousands of testosterone-incubator-babies clawing indifferently, mechanically at the perspex walls camouflaged in faux wrought iron; clawing without any tangible ambition to escape; screaming for attention, to be picked up, cradled, told how adorable they are, before drifting off into a deep slumber a million miles from the big bad scary world kept at bay by those undisturbed, unscathed perspex walls. A world still visible, if now somewhat clouded, fuzzy, slowly becoming ever-more distorted with each passing day on the inside, each scraped-away layer of earth leading deeper down, out of sight, fading light, fading hope.

I'm not a violent person, never have been. That's what makes it all the more unsettling, seeing me step so irrationally and triumphantly outside myself on my last trip home, venturing in to unexplored (yet eerily inevitable) territory. I scared my friend whom I was with, I certainly scared the two low-lives hassling us from outside the window of our restaurant, but more tellingly, I kind of scared myself. An event not worth elaborating on, but disappointingly illuminating all the same. Dutch courage is a dangerous toxin, threatening not in its insatiable coursing through the veins of the host but rather through the instantaneous withdrawal, the violent plug-pull of a worthy (or even frighteningly insurmountable) adversary draining every inch of swagger from inside, leaving nothing but a few drops to form around the eyes in accompaniment to the lump already firmly in place midway down the throat. It doesn't take an eventual explosion of violence to realize the potential, to appreciate the escape, to marvel at the mutating mindset and its relentless creep towards irreversibility. This particular train never stops. It's up to you to jump off before it reaches too high a speed, before the tracks buckle and the whole thing derails. 

A fundamental difference exists between every other regiment in the Legion and one held perennially above. The 2ème Régiment Étranger de Parachutistes has always been considered the most elite of all Legion regiments, and perhaps with good reason. The more occasions that present themselves for me to encounter members of this prestigious regiment, however, and the more complex and elusive an accurate understanding of just what it is to be a "Repman" becomes.

More disciplined - check.

These guys used to have to present themselves for morning roll-call on SATURDAYS, until recently. Notorious accounts of white nights spent scrubbing, doing push-ups, or other mindless tasks lent favor to an image of intense control and involvement from superiors, ruthlessly weeding out the weak and forming unbreakable cohesive bonds with the remaining consolidation of troops.

More isolated/self-contained - check.

Corsica is, of course, an island. And Calvi has long been nicknamed "Alcatraz" by legionnaires from both the REP and other legion regiments alike. Waits of over a year to see one's first extended vacation time, an obligation to leave regiment in formal military wear (most other regiments having made the switch to civilian clothes a while ago). 

More operational - check.

Returning to the (now defunct) Saturday morning roll call, it still exists for certain companies concerned by "Alerte Guépard" - a constant state of alert for overseas deployment. The REP is part of a very particular group of French regiments (of which it is the ONLY legion regiment) concerned, and companies prepared for said alert rotate within the regiments (occasionally the entire regiment can be put on alert). For this reason, the Repmen are more conditioned than most to up sticks, pack their gear and head off to potentially hostile zones anywhere in the world at a moment's notice. Hardcore indeed.

The problem I've encountered with CERTAIN Repmen is an unconditional assumption of superiority compared to us mortal legionnaires. This feeds in to the culture bred in Calvi, a culture imperative to the creation and maintenance of modern-day legion folklore and reputation that hit its peak in the 80s and 90s. Unfortunately for the REP, the 21st century has spelled an end to those old ways when a blind eye was turned to disciplinary overkill and bar-brawl mayhem. This new "Playstation Generation" undoubtedly has some of the old guard tearing out ever-whitening hair, but reverting to the opposite extreme is just as damning a development for a supposed "modern, elite fighting force". Here in Castenlnaudary for a truck driving course, I bore witness first-hand to the Repmen and their take-no-prisoners attitude when it comes to representing the Kèpi Blanc. A Friday night in the foyer embarked on a toe-curling spiral out of control as the destination switched to Castelnaudary town centre. Details are sketchy but bloodstains on tee shirts, inflamed eyes from police pepper spray, the military police "escort" back to camp for two legionnaires (since confirmed to be returned to Calvi from the course) tell their own story. 

Disturbingly, it wasn't any of the afore-mentioned ingredients that set my alarm bells ringing. One of the paras managed to slip away from the brawl and sneak back to regiment. Once inside our room, this super-charged alcohol fueled soldier proceeded to quite literally go insane. Frequent trips to the bathroom to wash the pepper spray from his eyes and laugh hysterically to himself were complimented with forays out on to the balcony (a balcony overlooking the parade square in Castel!!) to hurl obscenities at the top of his lungs, presumably directed at the police/nightclub security in Castel. Either way, for the very first time in my Legion career I was well and truly fearful. I decided not to engage him or to even open an eye for fear of catching his. Such was the ferocity of his agitation that I instead opted to play dead under the covers. Such pent-up aggression could only stem from the confined, repressed existence experienced in Calvi. And this is someone with only three years' service to-date. It begs the question of exactly what could accumulate in someone made to endure a career-long supply line of such archaic soldiering methods. It brought me back to my little outburst during the holidays, the perspective belittling it to the point of a non-event. Not surprisingly, I find myself rather relieved.

Relieved and ready and riding that runaway train for another few miles yet. My knees are flexed, my toes gripping the edge of the carriage door through these polished leather boots, wind slicing through my beard and underneath my fingernails as I remain poised to leap into the since re-rendered unknown. There'll be cuts, bruises and disorientation upon landing, sure! But nothing as bad as staying on that runaway train headed for certain disaster.

As I said, this relates to CERTAIN individuals, certain personalities susceptible to stress-induced degradation, personalities seeking a release at all costs. It's a price far too high for me to pay, but luckily I don't think my name's on the billing list.

Best keep it that way.


  1. Great as usual Dermot, but pretty disturbing. Was only re-watching Full Metal Jacket the other night and this reminded me of the chunky guy who is picked on and then becomes insane. As humans theres stuff we're just not designed to do. And in the same token, there's stuff deep within is that is better repressed, but under the right conditions and enough stress will doubtless pop to the surface. Sleep deprivation alone will bring on psychosis in the best of us. Yeah, youre best staying where you are. Or better yet, getting back home. Soon! Ali

  2. The guy wasn't Russian by chance?

  3. It's funny how the fall-out has since lightened the mood purely by making light of the circumstance, but wen I really think about it, I suppose it is a little disturbing. Then again, some of the shit going through my head in Afghanistan was too. The nature of the beast, this life in the Legion.

    And unfortunately I won't be going into any further detail regarding the people discussed in the piece, for identification considerations.

  4. Is there particular hand-to-hand combat training you receive in the legion or is the propensity towards these aggressive situations purely a misguided result of the"machismo" you refer to?

  5. No, no officially recognized hand-to-hand combat training is administered in the Legion. At different regiments, there are various clubs/informal sessions of various martial arts conducted by experienced soldiers with a history in particular disciplines.

    The only thing close to H2H would be a form of riot police/crowd control tactics/techniques, but again this training would be extremely sporadic and not at all fundamental to our training regimes.