Thursday, June 6

Don’t Ask, Don’t………Ask

I’ve never subscribed to the idea of “hanging out” with my Legionnaire brethren outside of working hours. After having first remarked upon this evident pattern throughout my service, I began asking the question of whether things might have been different had I not established such a solid core of civilian friends in Paris, my destination every weekend I’m free. Would I eventually have ended up passing my spare time in the Legion’s kick-back resort in Marseille with the lads, downing beers and getting in to the odd scrape or two down by the Vieux Port? Or perhaps heading down to the infamous “Dallas” on the French/Spanish border to enjoy the company of some prostitute while my buddies shacked up in the adjacent rooms?

The fact that I couldn’t honestly contemplate participating in these activities has oftentimes led me to question my suitability for the French Foreign Legion. The Legion is constantly referred to as a family, the impossibility of heading home to one’s actual family in the evening obliging legionnaires to rally round and form deep-rooted bonds amongst eachother. The myths and legends allude to a sense of all being in the same boat, seeming eons from our native lands, gelling us closer together and instilling a sense of cohesion unparalleled in any other army or walk of life in general. A noble thought, one that I’m sure catches the eye of more than a few disillusioned and socially excluded young men the world over. However my own sensibilities have taken a knocking these past few months as guys I’d long considered close allies (closer, certainly, than the dozens considered no more than professional acquaintances) have begun showing their true colours. Suffice to say I’m not too enamoured by the revelations. Leopards, spots, and all that jazz.

Racism and principles live out a rather torrid affair within the confines of the French Foreign Legion. A fellow soldier, a brother-in-arms is supposed to be someone to whom you can entrust your life. Surely, in order to bestow such trust one must first know one’s Legionnaire comrade intimately. Surely, the men must be kindred spirits, a kin to real-life brothers. Here’s where what I call “controlled bi-polarity” comes in to play.

There’s a corporal in my section. A nice enough guy, young, a bit of a joker. We get on well, we cooperate on the execution of orders by the younger legionnaires as corporals in the same section should, I even have him as a friend on Facebook. Then one day I showed him a photo of a girl I was dating at the time. She’s French with parents from Ivory Coast and Benin respectively. His face dropped.

“You’re joking!! This is a joke!! Shut the fuck up, she’s not your girlfriend!”

I could tell immediately that the disbelief overwhelming him stemmed from a complete incomprehension at a white guy dating a black girl. I found this so disappointing but not more than bemusing. That was, until his shock gave way to disgust. A genuinely close mate of mine was beside me, and so dissuaded me from causing a scene by laying in to the kid, but the putrid racist bile that spewed forth was, to this young corporal, an honest lack of ability to fathom inter-racial relations. That, plus a regard for anyone black as somehow substandard within the human species. Sadly, guys like this are far from a secluded minority.

The bi-polarity, however, activates in situations such as this. I told him how wrong he was, how backward and offensive he was. I told him to get out of my fucking face before I clocked him, and then I spent the rest of the evening cooling off while he spent it avoiding me. The next day, it was like it never happened. I was still dating a black girl, he was still a racist, but there was work to do and hostilities slowly thawed. He later apologized for saying what he said. I tried to explain that he should be apologizing more for thinking like that in the first place than for simply articulating it, verbalizing it. Impasse reached and accepted, life trundled on. I still think he’s a racist. He still thinks I’m a perverted bleeding heart liberal. We still share the odd beer at the bar after a day’s work.

Recently, in France, debate has been raging (and laws subsequently passed) concerning gay marriage. Now homosexuality must be undoubtedly THE most ridiculed topic within the walls of the Legion. It’s the go-to put-down for anyone not showing enough effort, the primary weapon in the arsenal against a half-second hesitation. Fucking faggots, anyone who renders himself to the infirmary with anything less than a severed limb. Cock suckers, all those who’d rather read a book back in the tent than head to the bar to get shit-faced and engage in ironically homoerotic drunken hugging and such. Colleagues have frequently expressed their disgust at the idea of gays getting married. When pushed to elaborate on their outrage, the sturdiness of argument falters. Marriage? What next? Adoption? Oh……it’s already…….right, well that’s an abomination. Kids shouldn’t be exposed to that. They’ll surely grow up to be gay. What? Gay kids being born to straight parents? Well, let’s just agree to disagree, shall we?


In fact, what I simply adore about the homophobia pervading this and practically every army is that, depending on which statistics one places one’s confidence in, anything from one in seven to one in seventy is gay. This would mean that anywhere between 100 and 1000 current-serving legionnaires could possibly bat for the other team. The irony would be hilarious if it wasn’t so tragic. For every dozen or so bleeding heart liberals such as myself who find themselves having to bite their lip in the face of such sustained bigotry in the work-place, somewhere in some platoon in some bar with some drunken colleagues there must be a gay legionnaire biting his lip a whole lot harder. The shame I feel in not standing up for my principles must be tenfold for someone directly affected by the jokes, the jibes, and the ignorant hatred. And yet, no one unclenches his teeth. Why is that?

Simple. It’s simply not an option if one wishes to continue one’s career in the French Foreign Legion. This isn’t the American military under Obama. This isn’t any other Western army with a government slowly being dragged towards modernity. This is the Legion. A haven of masculine myth and Neanderthal chest-thumping where anything other than a calloused-hand Caucasian weight lifter is seen as somewhat inferior. Piping up in the name of one’s principles might alleviate some of the guilt, the unease, but will ultimately only cause greater problems for the dissenter in question. I’m not proud of it, but……..

No, you know what? I’m just not that proud of it.


  1. Good post mate. I have to ask, is there anyone at all in your section who you get on with unreservedly, who has similar opinions and or level of intellect, or at least isn't a bigoted hard-case? Would you say 1 in 10 or even less? I'm seriously intending to join but my only (absolute only) reservation is the prospect of having to dumb myself down (for want of a better expression) for five years. I find Irish people, regardless of social/economic background, to be bad enough.


  2. @Prosper & Panti: Cheers guys XxX

    @Dan: In my 5 years, I've had one mate who I could honestly say thinks, feels and believes along the same lines as myself. Another has come close, but in general even the most fun and vibrant fellow legionnaires have just managed to display an 11th hour deal breaker of a characteristic trait that left me disappointed and rueing any confidence previously placed in them!

  3. Brilliant piece as always! At first my benevolent (or more correctly naive and unsuspecting) thought was that your fellow caporal was saying something in the line of "get out of here, she's way out of your league". Now that wouldn't be nice either, but a lot better at least.

    Racism and homophobia are hard to cope with as it is, but when people you thought you knew spew out comments like that it's really sad. Good thing you have mates outside of the LE, to balance life a little! I've followed your blog and I also am a member at Cervens, and I've sometimes wondered how you cope with things like the mindset (read prejudice) that seems to flourish within the institution. Glad to see your head is still in order! :) Fin de contrat soon, eh?

  4. @Anon: Thanks a mill, glad you enjoyed the piece! Yep, another 7 weeks and it's all over. I'm on leave back home until end of June, getting my house in order, etc!