Monday, April 29

Les Fondamentaux

Not only do some things never change but disappointingly, some things never will. That sentence doesn’t make a lot of sense. I know. Neither does what I’m about to say. Such is life. Confusing. Senseless. Jim was right. People are strange. Take yours truly as a case-in-point.

I consider myself a liberal. I consider myself progressive. I consider myself more left leaning than centre. And yet here I stand, frustrated beyond measure at how uneasy people become at the sight of an assault rifle. The various reactions I’ve encountered while strolling the halls and terminals of Charles de Gaulle airport these past two weeks have been rather uncomfortably illuminating. I don’t know what I was expecting, I suppose. Smoldering looks from sunglasses-sporting supermodels? Young kids waving mini French flags as I trundle by with my team, their mothers wiping away patriotic tears crying “Vive la Légion!”? Whatever I was waiting for, it never came.

Now, I’d already completed this very same mission back in November but there was something more – I don’t know – lucid about proceedings this time round. I could literally feel the edgy stares raining down on me from all directions as our patrols snaked painstakingly through the mountains of luggage and loose flip-flops scattered across the polished faux-marble floors. Young men killing time on their laptops or chatting with friends suddenly shifted awkwardly in their seats, looking both us and our rifles up and down with a sort of affronted intimidation, their eyes posing the frank question “What right do you have to put us at such ill ease?”.

I still don’t know the answer.

Even the little kids remain apprehensive. Sure, some tug at their father’s coattails imploring him to “Regardes les militaires!!”, but in spite of winks, flashed smiles, waves and thumbs up, the kids remain wide-mouthed, leaving said smiles and waves unreturned, languishing in the no mans land of unsupported slow claps and hanging high fives.

Many times throughout the past fortnight I found myself grappling with a boisterous internal monologue, my trembling, mumbling lips occasionally betraying the raging arguments bouncing rabidly around the inside of my skull. Do they not realize that we’re only there to protect them? To look out for them? To usher them out of harm’s way? Apparently not. And the guys – why do they go out of their way to walk directly in front of us, to cut across us during our rounds, to brush off our shoulders as they pass, just softly enough to avoid a confrontation? If only they knew that beneath the beret, underneath the uniform, minus the rifle, I’m just a normal fun-loving guy. I’m just like them……. aren’t I?

Various photos line the walls of the building where we’re lodged during the stint up here. One shows the correct formation for the patrolling team, the team leader to the rear with the two legionnaires out front to the sides, forming a “V” shape. Another shows the correct way to hold one’s rifle. “Patrouille Basse”, as in a patrolling stance with the rifle facing downwards. Personally I found it to be a tad aggressive and so instructed my guys to cross their hands and place them on the butt of the rifle, well away from the trigger. Less confrontational, I figured. But here is where we kick it up a notch, so to speak. It’s not exactly classified information, but information that our superiors would prefer undisclosed all the same.

Of the three men patrolling in an airport surveillance team, only the team leader has a magazine with live ammunition actually engaged in his rifle. The other two members have their mag in the pocket of their combat vests. All three rifles have their arming mechanism blocked by a thin metal wire. In order to send their weapons “hot” (ie. Slot the first round in to the chamber, ready to fire) they would first have to break this seal. It would take no more than a good, hard tug of the arming mechanism to achieve, but still presents a significant obstacle to being capable of engaging an adversary. Some team leaders, rather ironically, demand that their legionnaires slip empty magazines into the rifle to lend the appearance of combat readiness. The reality is that ejecting this mag in order to engage the live one would actually cost more time than simply slotting the live mag directly into the empty space where it goes. But hey, for us dashing silver-tongued Legionnaires it’s all about appearances, right? To hell with logic and tactically astute protocol. Sometimes, you have to laugh. It’s a question of sanity, really.

On a recent free day spent in Paris, I got chatting to a cute Lebanese girl in a bar (as you do!). The conversation was flowing marvelously until the unavoidable topic of my presence/source of employment in France cropped up.  Suddenly the tone shifted, like those guys in their seats at the airport. Why would I voluntarily put myself in that position? Why would I fight for another country in a war that’s not my own? Why why why?

Is it not better, asked I, to have one of those pairs of boots in distant, war ravaged lands filled by someone compassionate, reasonable and open-minded than a trigger-happy, blood thirsty strayed youth? Is it not a clearer commentary that pours from the mouth and finger tips of someone having underwent the transformation and experience of serving in the armed forces than someone watching through the TV or computer screen? The stalemate was evident, the spark long extinguished. We made our polite goodbyes without a number or Facebook exchanged.

Much like how I imagine my goodbyes with the Legion will be made. Lately it has become a daily struggle with such questions. The fatigue is slowly enveloping me. Perhaps it’s typical of someone so close to the end of such a profound and revelatory voyage. Looking back in 3 months time when I step through those gates and rejoin the civilian world, I will undoubtedly consider how we were a decent fit on many levels, the Legion and I. But not the essential ones.

Not the fundamental ones.


  1. Its because to most (sheep)people, being safe is not having a gun in your waist but not even needing it in the first place. Seeing the soldiers reminds them that there's actually a war going on, and that it could come home.

  2. Dermot,
    If you want to feel normal walking around public with a loaded assault rifle where no one stares, where pretty girls also carry rifles and will willingly exchange FB details with you and your uniform is a sure way to get a free pass anywhere, move to Israel and join the IDF.
    Yes you are right. Nothing changes. The first time I realized I was not one of "them" and was not an accepted part of "their society", I was confused and hurt. Then I learned that civiles and shlabords can never be one of us, we scare them but we're there to die in their place and their leaders tolerate us at best. Don't expect thanks, and if someone does tell them "Dire rien, c'est le maison qui paye". Ever have a civile buy you a drink? Bet you bought the odd round for civilians that sat at your table and then went home to brag about a close encounter with 'La Legion'.
    In a few months you can say Msr. Dermot, Etudiant and get treated normally.

  3. I really enjoy reading your blog but can't help think this latest blog post has revealed more information to the reader than should be on a public forum.

    Not sure how it works with you in France but in some other places you would get into a spot of bother for one of the paragraphs on this page (read it again and think 'OPSEC'?).

  4. Really enjoyed this article but I thought that the patrol bit was a little too informative. but overall a great read thank you for sharing your experiences with us.