Saturday, November 27

Lost in Translation

They say that your most vital weapon in the fight for survival here in the French Foreign Legion is, in fact, French. Who would've thought it? A decent level of fluency in the language not only helps you avoid embarrassment (and the subsequent punishment) in misinterpreting a command, but can also open many interesting doors by way of career opportunities as well as post-Legion benefits. Becoming an N.C.O. and commanding a squad - while not requiring an enormous knowledge of the French language in order to beast a quivering "newbie" - does still demand a sturdy competency when engaging (as is now the case) with the French Army in either training operations or indeed, the real deal (as is now the case!!). Similarly, when one passes through the gates of Aubagne on that final day as a (serving) Legionnaire ("Once a Legionnaire, always.......well, you get the idea), it is entirely possible to do so as a fully converted French citizen. In order to gain citizenship, however, one must first pass substantially challenging written and spoken tests in the good ol' "langue de travail".

Little did I know that my first mission here in the long-running Afghan conflict would be to play the tactically critical role of translator! You see, upon arriving in Afghanistan all military personnel must first spend a period of administrative quarantine on one of the larger U.S. air bases before shipping onwards to their final destination in the countryside (normally a Forward Operating Base, or "FOB"). In our case, an eye-opening but well-paced transitional 48 hours were spent on the rather monstrous U.S. base at Bagram, just east of Kabul*. As well as collecting our protective vests, helmets and weapons during this stop-over, we also pased through little paper posts where we were ordered to sign here, there and everywhere on top of enduring several information briefings on the principal topics of Rules of Engagement (R.O.E.) and I.E.D. detection. It was during these routine classroom sessions that my nerves were given an unannounced early run-out.

My C.O. had only dumped the news on me the night before. I nodded consentingly, all the while thinking that SURELY there were already countless French officers on site with not only fluent English but also familiarity with the debriefings and therefore greater capacity to intervene as interpreter. Hilariously, I still suffer from these momentarily distracting delusions regarding French officers' willingness to actually earn their over-inflated salaries. And so the little private first class took to the stage in front of roughly 200 mostly higher ranking French soldiers (and the inevitable sniggering, piss-taking Legionnaires) to explain when one can and can't fire one's weapon here in Taliban Town. Fantastic!

Fortune shone brightly enough on my side in the form of Captain Crocker of the famed American 101 Airborne division. These boys dropped in to Normandy to help out the French not so long ago and now the two old allies find themselves reunited once more in the 21st Century's most notorious war. The Americans love the Irish, the French tolerate them, and so I felt relatively comfortable as piggy-in-the-middle on this occasion. The R.O.E. slide-show got underway and things went more or less smoothly. On a few occasions, naturally, some terminology crept its way in to the presentation that I found rather difficult to translate. At a loss, but accurately estimating the unimportance of the terms in question, (bloody U.S. Army and their cool, Hollywood-sounding abbreviations), I hastened to continue ONLY to find myself being calmly corrected by a female captain in the front row. She may have been sporting the bleu, blanc et rouge de la Republique but she still managed to translate for me in the corniest "Days of Our Lives" American accent I'd ever heard trickle across French lips. Once again, we find ourselves back at the French officers/disproportionate salaries slide (unfortunately removed from this particular powerpoint presentation).

At the end, Captain Crocker brought proceedings to a close in a very polite, articulate and well-scripted manner. The applause that broke out a few seconds after I shut my gob for the last time reassured me that I'd gotten the message across well enough. I, for one, was certainly moved and inspired by his words. Not content to leave it at that, however, the Captain then shook my hand vigorously and with his free one tore off his sleeve badges and handed them to me. Instictively, impulsively I imitated the gesture and slapped a big ol' velcro French flag on his arm, unable to wipe my ear-to-ear grin. Granted, it wasn't quite a co-ordinated air-strike on high-priority targets but nevertheless the feeling of successful cooperation was invigorating. Sarko's minions quickly surrounded the triumphant, glamorous anglophones and I suddenly found my hand being shook by bright shiny ranks of the French Army normally deemed a hazard to my eyesight. All in a day's work, I guess.

Later that day we switched over to I.E.D. training and being an engineer (added to the confidence gained from my morning translating debut) gave me the impetus to launch in to the afternoon sessions fearless and fully motivated. These classes were taken by the relatively warm but clearly no-nonsense Sgt.1st Class Washington. Hailing all the way from New Orleans (Crocker himself was a Texan), Washington's deep southern drawl had the French mouths on the floor trying to work out even 1 word in 10. Even my normally "instructive" captain from earlier that day found herself more than a little disorientated. Due to the majority of attendees sleeping for the duration of the class, it too mercifully passed without incident. Washington thanked me afterwards, saying how few of the previous French translators managed the briefing with such ease. I told him that explaining how shit blew up in the Legion was a speciality, hence the linguistic edge. Now, unlike the very proper Captain Crocker, Washington didn't tend to mince his words all that much. On handing out an information booklet at the very end, he stated rather factually:

"Na even if y'all don't understand a damn thang written down, maybuh the pic-chaws can help all y'all git thuh gist, alright?"

Snapping instantaneously in to my superior-pleasing diplomatic mode, I translated as:

"You may not understand every word in the booklet, but the corresponding images should indicate the desired message concernig the I.E.D.s."

A rather astute sergeant from the Legion camp treated himself to a laugh by pulling me up on it afterwards, having more or less understood what Washington had said. I didn't try to defend the gentle manipulation of words, and he wasn't entirely in disagreement with me. We both concurred that, as far as the French love/hate relationship with the English language goes, it was probably the wisest course of action, n'est-ce-pas?

* Let it be noted that from this point onwards, the blog embarks on a new chapter during which I am posted in Afghanistan. I am a serving member of the French Army participating in a NATO-led coalition force in the mission entitled "Operation Enduring Freedom". Any information disclosed in the superseding blog entries is in NO WAY classified, otherwise it WOULD NOT APPEAR HERE. Fin!

Wednesday, November 17

Power in Numbers

"Some of us judge without knowing a man’s inner
And some us find fault in the sin, and not the sinner"

I really do have to stop planning so far in advance. It will more than likely avoid the need, like now, to apologise for retreating on earlier promises.

Alas, my much muted, maligned and essentially unfinished Legion Alphabet will remain exactly that, at least for now. I had intended to finish it before flying off to Afghanistan (honestly!!). That’s what I love about chronology. It’s scientific, it’s proven, unchangeable. Seconds turn to minutes turn to hours turn to mush! Mush is what became of my best intentions and emotions as the air-strip grew unstoppably larger, like a creaking shadowy mud-slide. I now find myself recounting not the letters ‘R’ to ‘Z’ in all things Legion, but instead the final few hours before I get on that plane. That plane. That plane that broke my mother’s heart, that wore away the fingernails of famously faithful friends, that drew these Da Vinci circles beneath my weary eyes. That plane that growls and whines like a hungry, soggy mongrel on rusted chains. The links will shatter, inevitably. The dog shall run free, coughing and spluttering our merry band of soldiers into the gutters and gullies of Afghan mountains decorated by countless watching eyes. Ah yes, that plane.

Since passing through the gates of my regiment for the last time this year, the rhythms resonating from beneath my green t-shirt, camouflage vest, have been carnival-esque at their most tranquil. Torturing myself with mp3 play lists that’d bring John Rambo to a state of semi-pensiveness didn’t help, of course. But as the bus rattled and rolled down the Alpine hillsides tonight, towards the shimmering lights of civilization, night-time hum and that plane, I looked around me for the first real, true and clear time since this mission landed on our calendar like a stray drop of blood from a sudden nosebleed. There I saw, in the bobbing heads, concentrated expressions, slow trance-like movements to their own private play lists not just fellow soldiers similarly dressed (if a little cleaner shaven!!) but real friends. True camarades in the sense the Legion has always intended but perhaps forgotten to chisel out of the increasingly harder blocks of marble dragged in from the streets of the new millennium. Confidantes that could listen to your every gripe and moan on subjects from the food in the regimental restaurant to problems with the public transport back home during holidays. And then, of course, those topics that little bit more personal that tend to trickle out of the end of golden glasses and clouded, volcanic wine bottles emptied into pits of loud music and matching sports gear well in to the early hours of a new day breaking.

Surveying all this on a silver, twilight carriage carting us all off to destiny, all fear and anxiety suddenly departed. These shoulders decorated with the flag of a foreign nation, of depictions of velcro warriors clinging to the walking gelatine versions found themselves miraculously relieved of such crushing weight. Perhaps it was the trip to McDonalds (haha, mood killer I know, forgive me), but I tend to be more philosophical than that, as well you might know by now.

In the toughest of times, you need the best of friends. In the next 6 months I imagine I’ll discover the true meaning of both. The frequency of this blog may suffer, but the clarity and force will not, I should imagine.

It’s been a long ride to get here, but this is just the beginning. The beginning ends with that plane.

Friday, November 12

Back to the Blackboard……..


Dastardly schemes and wicked plots a plenty, Legionnaires tend to bring a startling bag of tricks along with them through the gates. Some involve bemusing combinations of both improvised stretching techniques and drinking games, but most concern themselves with the ancient art of a quick buck. Students selling toasties from their bedrooms pales starkly in comparison to the antics of King Louis Philippe’s finest. Tales have trickled through via the North Atlantic drift of certain Brazilian ex-Legionnaires offering to "prepare" potential recruits from their homeland for life in the Legion by way of instruction in both marching and singing, as well as handy "hints and tips" on how to sign-up, all for a token fee of up to $500.00!!!! In other news, a familiarly rounded and recently retired Romanian Chief Sergeant would collect the weekly "cotisation" (subscription dues) off trainees at regiment, insisting it went towards a washing machine for their use and a small party celebrating the end of their induction course. Most lads I’ve spoken to recount harrowing tales of partying on tap water in dirty underwear come the end of regimental training (although maybe that was just their preference? Hey, it takes all kinds).


Indifference is the name of the game. You see, a very fine balance must be struck between not getting overly worked-up and not appearing like you just don’t give a damn. Seem too stressed and the commanding officers will chip away until you crack in two. Seem too laid back and pretty much the same result ensues. Take saluting a higher rank than you, for instance. Snap to attention like a jarhead jack-in-the-box and you’ll be considered WAY too stressed, and "carré". However, fail to salute a higher rank and you’ll be doing push-ups in a pool of your own perspiration well into the night. Play it cool, but don’t freeze over. Get it? No? Welcome to my world.


This is undoubtedly the most commonly used phrase in a Legionnaire’s first year of service. The more intelligent corporals can find endless amusement in asking confused recruits rhetorical questions that’d bring a tear to Ally McBeal’s eye, sniggering endlessly at the inevitable answers in the affirmative. God only knows how many times I was asked something in basic training and replied with a trembling "Oui Caporal!", not having even slightly understood the initial question. At least for the important stuff, like translating contracts and financial documents, they have a translator on han….. Oh, wait….

P is for PERE

"Mama Papa c’est fini, la Légion est ta famille"

Encouraged to discard all familial ties at the beginning of our service, there remains one parental figure permitted to preside over our spiritual development here in the Legion. Take a bow, General Paul Frédéric Rollet (better know as "Le Père de la Légion"). Rollet served through First World War as well as in Algeria with the Legion. He then became the inaugral Inspector of the French Foreign Legion, a post he had an instrumental hand in creating. He helped modernise (at the time) the Legion and devoted a total of 33 years service to its cause. Portraits of General Rollet can be seen throughout various regiments, the most famous being this one here (and NO, it’s NOT Fidel Castro as one friend politely inquired having seen this picture in the background of a photo of me).

Q is for QUALité, pas QUANtité

The famous statistics on acceptance into the ranks of the Legion vary from source to source. Some say 1 in 8, others 1 in 10 that make it through selection and go on to basic training. Of course I cleverly pick my moments to either explain the true nature of selection/rejection, or to just sit back and pretend I’m in the top 10% of bad-asses signing their lives away. Inexplicably, I seem to have decided that this moment lies firmly in the former category! WTF???

Granted, it IS technically true that roughly 1 in 10 get selected to go on to basic training and hopefully become fabled Legionnaires, but this usually has very little to do with physical strength, hair colour, number and coolness of tattoos, or of course one’s favourite Godfather movie. Instead, guys are booted out on a daily basis during the 2 week (ish) period of pre-selcetion due to:

* Medical problems - Poor hearing/eyesight, dodgy knees, etc.
* Lying - In interviews, failing to mention children, criminal record and
* Epiphany - Voluntarily going home having not liked the look of the place.
* Low IQ - Receiving an unacceptable score in the IQ/psycho-technical
* Insanity - Expressing approval of "The Godfather III".

It’s by no means easy once through, and becoming a Legionnaire is no walk in the park (well, technically it is, but a very steep walk with little sleep and lots of blisters), but once one ducks behind the thin veil of misleading statistics the waves calm ever so slightly and light illuminates the less sensational yet highly respectable truth.

The Alphabet ball’s back rolling straight towards the finish line. Next one’s comin’ atcha soon!!

Wednesday, November 3

Why I Fight

Forgive me, Father, for I have sinned. It has been three weeks since my last blog. The fact that two of those weeks were spent negotiating back-to-back bouts of poxy regimental service should not go unnoticed, and seeing as the third one coincided with a long-overdue (aren’t they all?) return to the homeland I’d say I’m pretty much forgiven for the petite lapse on this occasion.

Let’s cut to the chase on this one, folks. Not that I’m in a hurry. Indeed, with over two and a half years to run on my contract I’m going to need to pace myself concerning the articulate unravelling of dusty tissue paper on this mummified mausoleum of myth-making machismo. Either that, or I’ll face running out of witty, cynical observations on life in the Legion long before my service expires. Nevertheless, a certain question which has often been asked and never quite fully answered came back to haunt me recently. Fortunately, it was a rather intelligent and highly-regarded friend posing the problematic puzzler, and so I thought it only just to attempt a clear and coherent response. As most of my regular readers already know, in a fortnight’s time I ship out to Afghanistan on a 6-month tour of duty. Now, spending half a year sitting pretty perched behind my .50cal machine gun sporting the latest in cutting edge Kevlar is a far cry from four months of midday migration from work to the bar and then bed in Djibouti over Christmas. This time around I’m faced with a real mission in a very real combat zone and with very real dangers. Playtime’s over lads, and the auld senses need to be turned up to 11 from here on in. Bearing in mind the potential hazards lying in wait for me and my fellow legionnaires a couple o’ thousand kilometres east of gay Par-ee, my friends and family once again find themselves (however reluctantly, in some cases) forced to ask the question;

Why did you sign up to the French Foreign Legion?

It’s not that there’s no easy answer. In fact, as far as I can tell, there’s no answer at all. Many, many times before have I been asked this question, and the same tired and cumbersome clichés come tumbling out of a hole in the ceiling on each occasion. “I wanted to do something different”, or “I wanted military experience and my nation’s army weren’t hiring” are two of the more common decoys deployed in action-packed debates, but the more intuitive co-conversationalists tend to guard a thirst less easily quenched than those who ask out of sheer reflex as opposed to genuine interest. The problem for me – and perhaps for the resolution of this matter in general – is that the question itself poses more sub-questions and spin-off scenarios than one can shake a stick at. For instance, how would I react to an on-rushing enemy with my finger on the trigger? Would I be justified in defending myself given that my life would be in danger? And yet, who was it that voluntarily signed up to have his life potentially put in danger in the first place? Do I agree with the origins of the Afghan conflict? How would I feel falling for a flag not my own, in a quarrel I have arguably no place and/or right participating in? Ooh la la - so many questions, so many hypotheses, so..........what!

I don’t dispute the validity of the above questions, or that of their close cousins probing along similar lines of inquiry. However, the only question I find myself inclined to ask is “What does it matter?”. Perhaps my most telling confession regarding my current career is that I have no one reason for embarking on a life in the French Foreign Legion. Once in the door, I certainly discovered quite quickly numerous advantages to serving in this historic and widely revered army. A second language in French, for one. Constant maintenance regarding physical fitness would be a close second (beats paying €70 a month into Jackie Skelly’s sweaty palms). And then there are the quirks of learning about weapons, explosives (it’s mainly a guy thing), not to mention meeting people hailing from all around the world and infinitely diverse cultures, together with the sense of achievement in succeeding to co-work, co-habit, co-exist. On a more personal level, I can boast of having followed in the footsteps of several of my own literary idols in having served with the armed forces in a major conflict. Some of you might find this all very superficial, self-centred and completely circumstantial regarding the long-established conventional reasons for picking up a gun and marching into foreign territory. But then, the debate on morals and universal justice versus self-gratification is a deep, dark, murky one not worth uncorking at this point in time.

All I can say is that the cause of conflict in Afghanistan essentially plays second fiddle to my reasons for wanting to go there. Does this make me a bad soldier? I shouldn’t think so. I’m trained to carry out a mission over there and will do so to the best of my abilities. Why? Because like it or not, no matter how much I attempt to lighten the mood surrounding my purpose here in the ranks of the Legion, regardless of how I dress it up/down, side-step it or bypass it, I’m a professional soldier. Plain and simple. And if a signed contract and monthly wage from the word go wasn’t already sufficient in inspiring loyalty and duty-bound work ethic, responsibility for the eight other guys in my squad would see me sacrifice pay-packet and more again in order to protect them.

At the end of the day, the legitimacy of the coalition’s presence in Afghanistan might never be fully argued to absolution, but here in the lower ranks of the Legion we have a most deliciously slate-wiping saying; “Ce n’est pas mon niveau.”. I can’t say I’d be too phased by stories of politicians profiting from strategically sabotaged elections, or by Islamic extremists defiling either the Irish or French flags. However, threaten the safety of one of my fellow Legionnaires and you better pray to your motherfucking Dieu du Jour that yours is a quick and painless passing.

They say that the Legion is your homeland. Well I say that home is where the heart is, and while some may question the ongoing residency of my own ticker in this tomb of tomfoolery, no one can doubt that it beats and bleeds for those guys soon to be shoved in to a tin-can-on-wheels with yours truly for the next 6 months. We are family. We are Legionnaires.