Thursday, March 21

The Almighty One


Nearly all men can stand adversity, but if you want to test a man’s character, give him power. – Abraham Lincoln

Kiss ass from the bottom up and the only visible sufferers are your own two lips, scrapping desperately, smacking eagerly against the pert cheeks of the military hierarchy. Down in the gutter, it’s every man for himself. Faceless, nameless, there is no hurt or “fair play”. Climb one tiny little rung on that ladder, however, and the entire landscape changes dramatically. Suddenly we have these things called subordinates, along with these other things called responsibilities. And I just thought I’d finally be rid of those pesky cleaning chores.

I spent three years watching, observing the corporals commanding me. Some inspired, demanding nothing beyond strict obedience, exemplary discipline and no back-talk. Others demoralized, screaming and shouting like obscenely incompetent behemoths, punishing legionnaires for their own poorly camouflaged errors and then forcing them into physical exertion visibly beyond their own capability. It was all part and parcel I guess, another mental gauntlet to stumble scared and hopefully through to the other side. The other side was, of course, my corporal training course (note that I use the word “training” loosely). So body-and-soul-shattering were those two months earning our stripes that - even in the darkest hours of the early morning, collecting rocks or carrying a 90kg comrade on my back for the hell of it – I already knew the divisive effect that graduating from that platoon would have on my various fellow legionnaires. Some, like me, would return to their respective regiments determined to channel their hard work and suffering into a positive example for the young legionnaires to follow. Others, unfortunately, would return with exaggerated tales of the horrors of “Stage Caporal” and live off such inflated myths for as long as they could, all the while heaping misery on the na├»ve, far-from-blissfully-ignorant subordinates. I feel perpetually vindicated in my choice/natural inclination.

That’s not to say it’s always easy.

The past four weeks several identically ranked colleagues and I have taken charge of an internal training course here at regiment. Stress free, so close to the end of my contract, showing the young ‘uns the ropes and what serving in an engineering regiment entails. Piece of piss, I thought. Well, technically it was, from an instructor’s point of view. The young ‘uns, however……….. let’s just say I’m thankful Afghanistan’s finished for several reasons!

You either have it or you don’t. I guess that could be a relevant pithy expulsion concerning my apprentices over the past month. Everybody makes mistakes but the spectacular nature of some of the recent mishaps would’ve been hilarious it if it wasn’t in such serious circumstances. One evening as we were returning from exercises out in the field, I was diligently directing the driver of my armored personnel carrier into his parking space when I felt an abrupt push in the back. Turning around to confront the idiot in question, I found myself slowly being run over by a second APC, one being “guided” into its own parking space right on top of me. The initial shock having passed, I steamed around to the front of the vehicle like a demon, ready to dismantle the runt in question. However upon seeing that it was a French kid - a decent bloke with good potential – I cooled the jets a tad and took him aside for a clear, calm(ish) explanation of exactly how royally he fucked up in nearly squishing me to a pulp. The poor fella looked traumatized to be fair, and so I left it at that. If the message has gotten through, then why prolong the macho drama?

Another budding student wasn’t so lucky, though.

Almost getting run-over is one thing. Accidents can happen anywhere, certainly in a dimly lit car-park after a long day. Never during a live explosives exercise, however. N.E.V.E.R.!

Lesson No. 1: Be careful when squeezing a pyrotechnic trigger, as the small expulsion of gas where the end of the trigger meets the fuse leading to the detonator already placed inside the primary charge can damage one’s hand. Basically, watch how you hold the fucking thing, delicately, not with an entire fat fist gripped around the trigger. Advice scattered over deaf ears for a certain Polish recruit. Only for the lieutenant’s intervention would he have otherwise burned a hole in the palm of his hand. Luckily we corporals were on hand later in the day to ensure he’d never ever make the same mistake twice.

A simple strategy, really. Have EVERY other trainee drop into the push-up position and perform simultaneous push-ups while screaming out “MERCI” in between each one. Meanwhile, the culprit in question had, in front of him, 24 more pyro triggers and 1-meter-long fuses (no explosive charge at the end of the fuse, of course) to help him correctly learn the procedure for squeezing the trigger. Needless to say the other guys were hoarse from yelling “Merci” and sweating a bucket load. I honestly couldn’t tell you if it sank in. I honestly couldn’t care less. Afghanistan’s over. My contract too, nearly. Phew!

2013 holds not a single overseas deployment for the guys from my company. 2014 promises travel and adventure galore. I smell a dangling carrot. Some of the guys have caught the whiff. Others remain in hope or denial of better things to come. That’s the thing with the Legion, no one can ever say if the future really will be brighter. The light at the end of the tunnel grows stronger as the tunnel itself grows longer. So what do you do? Leap out throw a dimly-lit but ready-to-hand emergency exit off to the side, of course.

In preparing for this course, in the guise of instructor, I admit to not having done much…….well, preparation. With that said, the material came back to me quite quickly. I had my pangs of guilt, recognition of half-heartedness, hypocrisy at having previously promised to be a good example, work diligently and to the best of my capabilities on the final day. It turned out to be a lot harder than we thought, us corporals.

Time to hold our hands up and say “Fuck it! – Not long left now!”.