Friday, August 3

(B)itch to Scratch

The most effective and comprehensive way to defeat a soldier? Simple - give him absolutely nothing to do. Not a tap, not a single iota of active physical or intellectual engagement. Deny him that which he was designed to do - soldier. Then sit back and watch him crumble.

It has been six weeks since our last mission here in French Guiana, our last mission being only our second mission. And let it be clear that I mean "mission" in the true sense. Not the "mission" of taking this shovel and carrying it to that sergeant over there. Nor the "mission" of overseeing the morning chores by the young legionnaires. For us, the mission in Guiana was always only going to mean one thing - trekking through the jungle and flushing out illegal gold-digging operations.

Twice, in almost two months.

Ever since the killing of two soldiers by the increasingly brazen and formidable "garimpeiros" at the end of June, the reaction has been disappointing yet inevitably understandable. A freeze on all non-urgent raids in order to focus attention and efforts in the infamously hostile area where the two soldiers fell. The construction of an impressively sized advanced operating base is ongoing, the slow expansion of controlled territory radiating outward like ripples in a still pond. Our platoon, based further north these past two months have had LITERALLY nothing to do. The excruciating inactivity owes equally to the scheduled exchange of gendarme platoons based in the locality, with whom we embark on our patrols with this. Such a transitional period could never have fell so unkindly, the gendarmes' orientation further delaying any anticipated return to business.

Enter "Le Cafard". Now I openly admit - in advance - how disrespectful and sensationalist it might be to draw comparisons with battered, tattered, dogged and besieged Legionnaires holed up in Saharan forts more than a century and a half ago, but damn it if the doesn't temptation linger still. The word "Cafard" in French means "Cockroach", but also serves as an incredibly apt expression for a certain type of boredom. Unlike the passive kind, that has you idling aimlessly with nothing more than the faint whiff of discontent, Le Cafard actively grates at the inside of your skull, as if a cockroach itself crawled into your ear canal and set to work burrowing right through to your tortured brain. It's a mixture of restlessness, frustration, depression, and resignation, all rolled into one asphyxiating ball wedged deep down your throat. If the air was difficult to breath in before, the cessation of activities has merely accentuated the pressure. In the absence of a real mission, our superiors set us to work on various dreamt-up construction projects around the camp. Sure, we grumbled upon their announcements but in truth, we were grateful for the distraction. Apart from those menial work details and the occasional guard duty, there is literally nothing to do here. The sole bar for twenty kilometers (located right outside the base) is out-of-bounds except under the surveillance of an NCO, the bar on base is a paltry melange of crappy beer and even worse music, staffed by some of the most uninterested "soldiers" I've had the misfortune of encountering, the WiFi is sporadic at best.

To be honest, I'm not that pushed. Having already experienced Djibouti as a green-gilled recruit and Afghanistan a year later, encountering an overseas tour as disappointing as this one - at this point in my career - barely registers an enduring complaint beyond my usual gripe. The younger, less-experienced Legionnaires however are finding it particularly tough, given their expectations upon departure. Expectations merely whetted even further with the first few (successful) forays into the jungle. Then, in a sudden and violent coup, nothing. They'll return to France with nothing more than a couple of half-finished anecdotes and a slightly swollen bank account (soon to be emptied by the impending three weeks of holidays). I firmly expect the number of lads returning from vacation to notably undercut the figures leaving base with packed suitcases. Budgetary difficulties back in France mean 2013 is a blank space, a calendrical void desperately papering over the cracks with various training exercises and generic courses confined to the mainland. As the last few granules trickle to the bottom of my hourglass, others stare up despondently at a bulging mass of static, stagnant sand wondering if it might not be best to take the fireman's axe to it right now, save themselves the trouble and time. The alternative, of watching painstakingly as each grain slithers and crawls towards the hole, tumbles to the bottom with a hollow glass clink, hardly offers more glamour or inspiration. Slithering and crawling, like our good friend Le Cafard, rummaging around up there for excuses to flee. I've always held deserters with the utmost contempt, yet this generation have - at least to a certain degree - my sympathy.

Watch this space.


  1. Saw this documentary about some Swedes guarding the Rocket-Launcher over there and that was even more boring. One of the Swedes stayed in the Legion for 19 years.

    Enjoy the Sunshine :-)


  2. "I've always held deserters with the utmost contempt" - isn't that a little harsh!?

    I hope you don't mind my saying this, but your blog is not laced with loyalty to the legion, France or any other cause, so why should loyalty be expected from anyone else?

  3. @ The second comment: Of course I don't mind you saying it - I'm a firm advocate of free speech. The ambiguity in my writings is a reflection of sentiments encountered and demanding management here in the Legion. It's basically just really hard to convey the reality here. But loyalty is first and foremost to the contract signed. Beyond that, differing superiors and command structures throughout one's time here will inspire varying degrees of loyalty. There are, of course, exceptional circumstances under which a guy might hit the road (happened to a very good English mate of mine recently) but in GENERAL, lads pack their bags and desert far too easily. It was the distinction between these guys and - given the mind-numbingness of this current tour - those that MAY consider themselves to have a more valid reason to quit, that I was trying to make.

  4. To be honest. I never met a man in the Legion who considered a deserter with contempt. That is dead set. Some of deserters were viewed as having a status beyond that achievable by the others. Others were already held i contempt so their actions changed no perceptions other than "thank god he pissed off". Then there were those that simply went "walk-a-bout" and those that were forced out "ie. they owed money and had threats, they had been told to leave or wind up dead ect. In Castel we had one guy win the Lottery and was offered civil as to prevent the inevitable paperwork of desertion.
    Only deserters held in contempt were those that got caught hanging from their pants on the wire or those that thieved from their mates.
    You are going to have a hard time back in civil life. No one cares there or outside it. Things were intense when I was in. No decision was made lightly. I remember helping a deserter and it was like I was busting a convict out of prison. I wished him luck and told him never to come back.

  5. Hey Mulgarat,

    I think I failed to delve into the details of the particular context in which my disdain for deserters may attain justification. I've already crossed some lads after they'd done the wire, shared a beer, filled them in on how the other lads still inside were getting on. No hard feelings, no animosity, no problem. The problem nowadays is things like Facebook. Things like deserters deserting and then immediately talking shit about the institution. Not in a contrary, analytical or concessionary way, just plain venom-and-bile filled attack, the kind that makes you seem like an idiot for continuing on. Personally, I accept that I may sensationalize some of the remarks on deserters, but my one proper experience with my VAB driver from 'Ghan still has me fuming - some by-the-waysider can feck off and not a brow will be raised but when a so-called "mate" does it without a word, and when he's a senior, valued part of the platoon yet leaves the young lads in the lurch, it's a harder pill to swallow. Maybe one in twenty lads here are planning on signing on beyond the 5 (if they even make it that far) - the disillusionment only being compounded by frequent, ill-thought-out desertions.

  6. so fill us in on how it goes from the day you join im thinking of joining soon as i can , life in ireland is shit !!!!! and depressing!!! i no i can acheave a lot more from life than sitting talking shit drinking and telling each other bullshit , is it hard to pick up french in other words is it true that you get the shit beat outa you if you dont learn french quickly ? how long do you have to learn it ??? is their many irish in the legion ? O and most important do i need a education ? and whats the tests like on the first day ????????????

  7. You give them your promise, they give theirs to you, 5 years. I could not agree with you more