Friday, March 25

Booty Call

It began quite early. Right at the very beginning, actually. At first, it seemed almost a taboo. Many were too shy to approach their targets, fearing either misunderstanding or outright rejection, while others remained none-the-wiser as to whether or not such behaviour would even be condoned by their commanding officers. Enlightenment gradually unfurled when the COs themselves entered into the fun and games. Some went about it with a startlingly brazen assurance, bragging about their various successful conquests and even flashing material tokens as proof. Others opted for a more covert approach, themselves fearing public rejection and ridicule. In any case, it didn’t take long before almost everyone of every rank had joined in on the act, choosing his or her partner-in-crime before proceeding to tear off items of clothing or rustle roughly through each others’ pockets before arriving at the desired item. I myself managed a rather proud (if somewhat public) "encounter" with a handsome US Army captain from Texas. In today‘s age of modernity, the internet may provide limitless opportunities to execute such carry-on, but there will forever remain something infinitely more satisfying in doing it in person, with our fellow man.

Indeed the collecting and exchanging of military paraphernalia and souvenirs is one of the highlights of any inter-army overseas mission. (Well what on God’s green Earth did you THINK I was talking about?)

The Americans are overwhelmingly the main attraction, the sheer scale of kit as well as the manufacturing quality guaranteeing indefatigable queues for a little swapping action with the boys sporting the stars and stripes. The general flow of traffic sees the newly-arrived swarm around the ready-to-leave, the latter undoubtedly over-burdened with unwanted (and in many cases, unused) articles of kit and clothing. All soldiers, upon deployment, are issued with their own Velcro patches. These patches denote every affiliation imaginable from their platoon, company and regiment all the way up through their battle group and onwards to the nation in question itself. Such patches were quick and constant movers on the market, easily traded against one another with little room to confuse their value against their counterparts. The dollops of trickiness thicken once the swap-shop veers from the egalitarian items into the dimly lit backroom of odds and ends. Here, ladies and gentlemen, is where being a Legionnaire catapults you right to the top of that queue.

Now the French Foreign Legion is probably at its most exposed and transparent in today’s world of high-speed information exchange. Google "Légion Etrangére" and the results cascade into the tens of thousands. Official websites, unofficial websites, message boards, books, films, even blogs (zing!) all seek to unravel the mysteries of life within this enigmatic institution. Settling on a perfect truth is nigh on impossible, but various garnered titbits can still succeed in opening minute portals to life in the legion. For almost every other military force on the planet, however, the Legion will always be the Legion. Through either campaigns served in its company, Beau Geste-style stories regaled by grandfathers to grandsons over a bag of Worthers Originals or merely the sight of Jean Claude Van Damme marching out past those marauding North African tribesmen with his dirtied vest and head held high at the end of "Legionnaire", there’s something about us that draws firm handshakes and photo requests from fellow soldiers the world over. With that said, handshakes and photo requests have found themselves in rather diminished demand on this particular tour.

The success of the hit Hollywood movie "The Hurt Locker" placed the US forces’ IED badges in the upper echelons of the thermometer concerning all things "spoils". My own squad leader had me approach a staff sergeant for his badges back at Bagram. I fully imagined that our guy would offer up his own Legion badges in exchange. How mortified I was to instead watch him produce a handful of various Legion key rings from his pocket, silently allowing the staff sergeant take his pick. It all played out like an end-of-interview scene from "School Around the Corner". I still cringe when I think about it. I managed to obtain my own collection of IED and Airborne badges completely by chance, but not without some hard work as acting translator for the entire French contingent. But as mentioned earlier, the swapping didn’t cease with those Velcro badges. A Romanian chap exchanged his Kèpi Blanc for an entire US Army uniform, a baseball cap and an Afghan SIM card with €10 credit already in place. The American was ecstatic about his brand new acquisition until his friends started in on the guilt trip.

"Dude, do you know what they have to do in order to get that crazy hat?"

"Seriously dude, he’s like gonna go to jail and shit, you can’t give that shit away dawg!"

The poor soldier’s face dropped as he imagined brutal tortures and punishments for the Legionnaire who discarded his Kèpi Blanc, and all for a uniform and a SIM card. Little did he know that most of the guys came over pre-prepared with two, sometimes THREE Kèpis specifically intended as leverage during such exchanges. Personally, I still have my first ever Kèpi and would never consider giving it away (or any Kèpi, for that matter). Sure, one can buy a Kèpi for around €20 either at the regiment or online, but it still wouldn’t sit too well with me. Yes, ME! The perpetually dissenting Legionnaire. What’s happened to me at all over here??

At the FOB and well into our six-month mission, the circus continues. In amongst the various market stalls set-up over here selling local trinkets, an embroiderer has opened a little shop. Catering to those with an insatiable appetite for souvenirs, our thimble-clad hero specialises in custom patches and the stitching of cool, edgy slogans (if you’re fourteen!) on t-shirts, among other things. Soon enough (and rather inevitably so), the race was on for each section, each squad and even each pair of BFFs to set to work on designing their own cute little sticky strip of exclusivity. The overriding trend was to design Platoon t-shirts (or, in our case, hoodies). The plain green hoody itself cost €18, the embroidery an additional €15. It was not optional, all members of the platoon being obliged to fork out, and pressured into its completion/collection before a scheduled platoon barbeque. Several big shots from our company and those of the French regular army were invited, hence the haste to show off our latest wardrobe addition. Of course, such was the unprecedented amount of gear being churned out by the embroidery shop that controls had to be put in place. This resulted in the total prohibition of all unauthorised materials being displayed anywhere outside of our own living quarters. Our platoon hoody included. Merci Mon. Lieutenant.

I was never one for the whole beret-on-a-skull scene, proudly sporting angry, infantile slogans emblazoned on my chest, and so my load will be a little lighter on the return flight than some of the guys inexplicably intoxicated by clothing garments screaming "Taliban Hunting Club" and other such nonsense. I do find t-shirts displaying simple regimental insignia a tad more acceptable, with a mate of mine, Jim’s website displaying some of the better quality stuff out there today. Still, I guess it’s a personal choice. To each his own, let bygones be bygones, and everything else reminiscent of Jerry Springer’s final thought. One thing’s for sure: the only thing greater than one’s pride at being in the army is the desire to shout it from the rooftops.

I just wish that they’d shout it more articulately.

Sunday, March 20

The Lion’s Den

The temperature here has undertaken a sharp incline of late. Meteorologically speaking, for the most part. The fields continue to assume a deeper, more lush green hue as all wait expectantly for the trees and shrubs to follow suit. Beautiful, rich vegetation is the stuff dreams are made of here in Afghanistan, providing they’re the dreams of the department of tourism. For us well fed, homesick and increasingly irate soldiers it represents pure antithesis. Since our deployment last November we have enjoyed hurtling along dusty highways with kilometres upon kilometres of visibility sprawling out in all directions across the valley floor. Scrawny, scraggly trunks and branches embalmed in rusted bark forming an endless guard of honour by the winding roadsides had not previously caused concern, their naked, frosted transparency offering mere peripheral decoration to our surveillance sectors. The onset of springtime bloom however certainly spells trouble for our crucial requirements concerning visibility (not to mention the unfortunate few susceptible to our old foe "Hay Fever"). The upside, as there inevitably is, sees our previous 6-day outings into the heart of the local population effectively erased from the calendar. Strolling through fields searching for hidden Taliban trinkets is all well and good with an uninterrupted view into a dozen successive fields all around. Not being able to see from one side of a single field to the other, however, tends to ring alarm bells for even the most narcoleptic of shot-callers. So hot meals and tepid showers every evening until the curtain falls on this languishing production. Yippee! But.....

There’s ALWAYS a "But"

Suddenly I find myself whizzing around with increasing urgency, assembling this, disassembling that, stocking up on this, throwing out that, setting up the radio on this frequency, switching to that frequency, radio check, hello, HELLO?, Loud and clear, right, done, WHAT? OK, off we go! Less time out in the field equals more shit crammed into the time we do spend outside the FOB. In spite of my moans and groans concerning the seemingly grotesquely long 6-day missions, they did have their advantages. Being cooped up in the one place for the best part of a week meant less stress, less action, less complications in general concerning the day-to-day life. You had your morning outing, your evening outing, and guard duty. Voila! Nothing more, nothing less, life was simple.

Oh my, how the tables have turned. A recent "day trip" described itself as a standard patrol interspersed with opportunistic searches of any fields or compounds that our commanding officers might have a "feeling" about. Wonderful! So as we spent the morning trudging around in sweltering conditions, passing through villages and solemnly shaking our heads to every high-pitched cry for a BIS-CUIT, our French officers’ spider-sense tingled around every corner and through every gate. Swinging our metal detectors from left to right and subsequently dropping to our knees, shovel-in-hand to investigate was hard enough before the thermometer broke the 40°C mark. Now we found ourselves mopping our brow with clay-covered gloves and sleeves every few seconds, trying desperately to unearth the guilty soft drinks can or rogue nail that set us to work in the first place. Spirits soared briefly as our squad leader announced that we had, in fact, covered the entire patrol route and that "normalement", we should be on our way back to base at any moment.

"Normalement" is the single most booby-trapped word in the Legion. Once uttered, even thought, one can be absolutely positive that the exact opposite will occur. "Normalement" we had finished our designated route and nothing remained but to return to the FOB. Alas no sooner had this hypothesis presented itself than the word came through that a well-known Taliban chief had been spotted a few clicks east of our position. The surveillance drone reported that he was ambling around his garden and didn’t appear to be alerted to our proximity. A few clicks. 40°C+. 30 kilograms of gear, hardly any of which was taken up by water supplies we had already all but extinguished. Vive l’Armée Française, off we go. The infiltration was undertaken on foot as the sound of the vehicles’ engines would have most certainly alerted our target to our approach. I feel I could’ve quite rationally argued that the sound of huffing, puffing, gasping and hissing drops of sweat crashing on to the parched rocks beneath our feet might also have alerted our lucky host to our imminent arrival. Either way, Mr. Taliban Chief was waiting. The lead group entered the compound to panicked screams from several women inside. From amongst the confusion sprung the man of the hour himself, RPG launcher in hand and pointed directly at our guys. Click. The rocket misfired, both sides inhaled sharply. The launcher with the dud rocket still loaded within crashed to the ground. Our man spun around and sprinted for the back door, leading out of the compound and in to the fields beyond. He could lose us in to the dense vegetation and escape. That’s when the real ruckus started. Whatever about a dusty relic of an RPG left-over from the Russian invasion thirty years ago, there are rarely misfires from our side. The lead group, who had only recently recovered from that temporarily paralysing "Oh fuck, his rocket aimed at my balls just mis-fired" feeling, let rip with everything they had. Bursts of machinegun fire exploded in the scalding mid-afternoon sun. Rounds of every shape and size tore through the balmy air, 5.56, 7.62, grenades, the lot. Had a specially designed barrel manufactured to eject a kitchen sink existed, then taps, plugs and all would have found themselves hurtling towards our man on the run. And man, did he run. Without stopping. Once the fracas had calmed down some, our lads were left to survey an open gate bordered with more than a hundred bright, smoking bullet holes. No target, no chance of further pursuit. Just an empty, polka dot doorway. Our bearded Bugs Bunny had managed an unlikely escape, leaving our gallic moustachioed Samidy Sam stomping and steaming with indignation. Next time Bugs, next time.

We spent the rest of the day at the compound, our translator trying in vain to eek the smallest bit of information from the abandoned women. A deep-water well provided a timely opportunity to stock-up on water before the long hike back to the FOB. We waited until dusk, the cooler air offering its consolatory caress as we set off for home. Thankfully, nothing befell us during the return, and the ever-dependable team of cooks kept the candle burning until our arrival. One aspect of the war effort that can never be faulted here in Afghanistan is the kitchen staff. No matter how early the mission leaves, or how late it gets back, there’s always a hot meal waiting for the weary soldiers involved. And we were certainly weary as we sat down to eat that evening. Of course, if we had have been on a gruelling 6-day camp out in the local compounds, we wouldn’t have had a juicy, steaming hot meal sitting before us. No sir! We would have already been sound asleep in our sleeping bags.

No rest for the wicked.

Tuesday, March 15

Face to Face

It’s rather a knife edge, this whole business of ideas becoming reality. Until now, the Taliban has represented little more than random shots fired at indistinguishable distances as we make our way from point A to point B. Until now, les sacrés Taleb have been anonymously credited with the placing of various bombs at various bends, bridges and intersections in the dead of night. Until now, the occasional skirmish has unleashed nothing above the odd shadow, a blurry figure visible in the tree line before vanishing a second later. But all in all, this sworn enemy has never ventured beyond anything more than a mere idea. Until now.

Manning the old QRF quarters a few days ago (QRF?...... Quick Reaction Force?...... standby element ready to reinforce a faltering mission where needed?....... Oh DO keep up!), the call came through to suit-up (AWE....wait for it comes....SOME!!!), lock and load, pile into the vehicle and hit the road. The mission brief was as simple as one could hope for, yet the most intriguing to-date. We were to drive a few clicks north and collect a prisoner who was awaiting collection at a crossroads. Naturally, waiting with him was a healthy mixed contingent of Afghan army personnel along with members of the local militia. After all, it would be a stretch to expect the prisoner to show up of his own accord.

Arriving at the location, a babbling, jabbering gander of gun-toting gurus allowed their animated discussions easily overwhelm the engine noise of our trusty VABs. The crowd was dense and compact. All bodies faced inward towards an as-of-yet unseen nucleus. Anywhere else and one might be forgiven for mistaking it for a rousing half-time team talk. But as we pulled up into position, our lads disembarked and contact was made with the men in charge, the rag-tag warriors slowly began to disperse revealing the source of all this commotion.

I’m still not quite sure just what it was that I had expected. Like certain characters in dreams, any thoughts I had had involving the Taliban always threw up images of Kalashnikovs, bushy beards and....well, that’s it really. No face, never an actual, human face. As the crowds parted, he trundled slowly, steadily before the watching pairs of eyes. Handcuffs held his arms behind his back, yet without effort his overall posture seemed almost to refuse to acknowledge such an impediment. Afghan soldiers flanked him on either side as he lapped slowly forward, the one on the left placing a light hand on the prisoner’s shoulder. It was more a gesture of presence than anything else. No force was required to escort him to the waiting vehicle. During all this, our guys were posted on the far side of the road, looking out over the fields and villages below. Similarly, I and the other gunners, perched high in our turrets on the VAB were under orders to maintain surveillance (and the barrels of our trusty .50cal) due east - traditionally the source of practically every single enemy encounter since long before we touched down. Nevertheless, I did manage to spin my head around momentarily, resting my chin on my shoulder as I tried desperately to focus on the man in handcuffs, his hands, his feet, his eyes.

His eyes. God how I STILL can’t decide just what it was that they might have been saying. His whole expression was one of calm. Acceptance? No. Defiance? I honestly don’t know. You see, there was this glint. Not a smirk, nor a grin. Just a fleeting glint in his calm, untroubled eyes. Calm, untroubled eyes staring straight ahead, acknowledging nothing and no-one around him. As my neck-muscles began to burn and tiny cracks could be heard emanating from my collar bone, I decided it best to return to my sector and try to forget about this prisoner, this sworn enemy.

The spectacle now well and truly over, the Afghan soldiers and militiamen alike began returning to their respective vehicles, no doubt more than a little pleased at having presented the French forces with a gift in the form of an apparently high-value target. Our boys loaded back up into the VABs and in minutes we were back at the FOB. The vehicle transporting the precious cargo disappeared from site, making its way towards the gendarmes who would take control of custody and, I expect, see him onwards to the next stage of his personal journey. What that might entail I have absolutely no idea and even less desire of being informed. For me, at least, it proved a brief yet profound chapter in my Afghanistan diary. The idea of the Taliban, of a Taliban fighter has now been violently upended and replaced with those eyes. Will every enemy encounter from here on in produce the same image? From now on, will every shot fired or bomb detonated come from those same calm, untroubled eyes? Time will tell, but if I never see those eyes again it certainly won’t be too soon. There rests two months in this tour of duty. Plenty of time for many more blindfolds to loosen, slip and crumple to the ground. All I know is that my eyes will be staying permanently peeled.

Sunday, March 6

Sole Brothers

The strangest thing happened to me the other day (apart from waking up to discover I was serving with the French Foreign Legion in Afghanistan, of course). It was forty eight hours or so from the end of our six-day camp-out in one of the local villages. Evening was tumbling rather fast. The night always comes crashing down here, leaving little time to prepare for its glistening skies and bone-chilling winds. We had started a plucky but tepid fire. I had already begun planning the retreat to my sleeping bag.

Earlier in the day we had been called upon to check a stretch of road for IEDs between a freshly raised COP and our own utopian mirage of a FOB shimmering like a metropolitan oasis amongst the sand and mud of our commandeered compounds. The only explosion during our check was that of celebration as the announcement over the radio informed us of a little thirty minute break back on home turf before returning to the hijacked hovel to see out the final stretch of stasis. Time being at a premium, I immediately made for the mini market. Orange juice, biscuits, chocolate, any little sugar-coated luxury item I could get my hands on went into the plastic bag as the clock chipped away at the remaining minutes before loading into the vehicles and rolling back down to the valley. Brief but profitable, the spirits soared once more as suddenly, forty eight hours seemed little more than a trifle (hmmm, if only there had been trifle).

Daylight started to slip sinisterly behind the mountain ranges, slowly pulling a blanket of darkness up around the neck of hills and peaks everywhere when a knock came on the door. Nothing out of the ordinary, however. The owners of our humble abode tended to present themselves two or three times throughout the course of the day. Most visits concerned the recovery of essential items left behind and since required during their enforced exile. Cooking pots, stoves and kettles would all be tentatively hunted out while at the same time, remaining animals would be fed. Several pairs of eyes would be assigned to watch over the visitor(s) to ensure nothing by way of military equipment/weapons was interfered with. Heaven knows the designs they might have on our binoculars and flak jackets, what with water to be heated and a dinner to cook in an intensely overcrowded neighbour’s house. The intruder on this occasion was a seven year old little girl.

If there’s one English word that Afghan children have managed to squeeze in to their fledgling vocabulary, it’s "BISCUIT". Every patrol that leaves a compound to explore the surrounding area is greeted by streams of kids strung along the sides of the roads and pathways. All hands stretched out, all mouths uttering the same two syllables, BIS-CUIT. An unwritten rule amongst the soldiers is "If you don’t have enough for everybody, then don’t give to anybody". Supplies running short in a sea of sullied faces and clawing pea-sized fists can render even the most battle-hardened shell-shocked. Contrarily, if we’re in the comfort of our own borrowed fortress when the mini-minions congregate then the handouts flow generously from the stocks of ration leftovers stored within. Nougat bars, sugared jelly bars, the occasional chocolate bar and, of course, the inevitable BIS-CUIT get distributed among the rejoicing group of kids. Nevertheless, permission must be sought before we hand anything over to the local population, even if only a solitary BIS-CUIT. More often than not, the COs take it upon themselves to play the role of Mr. Generosity, basking in the paper-thick affection of the temporarily satisfied faces gazing up from beneath them.

On this occasion, we watched this curious little girl from around our little pile of smoke and twigs masquerading as a fire. Quietly, delicately she stepped around the randomly placed rucksacks, ignored the rifles and rocket launchers and tip-toed in to the kitchen. The translator and another soldier were never more than a metre or two behind, watching her every move, but she remained steadfast, seemingly determined to appear defiant and not in the least bit intimidated by the scores of stubbly white faces glancing at her from over zipped-up jackets and scarves. One of the COs from my group began preparing a little sack of
BIS-CUITS and other rejected items from our military rations. I couldn’t help but think how even these Afghan kids might have reached their tolerance limit concerning the "goodies" discarded by the occupying troops. I suddenly remembered a large back of chocolate chip cookies I’d taken back with me from the FOB. I rummaged through my backpack until I’d located them. Turning to the little girl, already weighed down with a battered pot and kettle, I held out the bag. Her eyes contained no hint of surprise, joy or disdain. Her tiny fingers slipped around the bag without so much as rustling the paper it was made of, and she turned towards the door. Once closed behind her, I found myself under observation from almost everyone in the compound.

"Jaysus, you’re awful charitable altogether. You could’ve kept them for us for later." cried one with alarmingly genuine indignity.

"Hey, that was a seriously good gesture there. Seriously, bravo. Lovely gesture." came another perplexed yet exageratedly humbled voice.

Other faces regarded me with varying emotions, from indifference to confusion and even jealousy. The cookies cost €1.50. I suddenly felt like absolute shit.

Since being here, I’ve watched guys pilfer their way around market stalls, lifting merchandise costing anything from €2 to €200. I’ve listened in on conversations concerning the price of digital cameras in relation to mega pixels, zoom, battery life and then some. The chief debaters, for the most part, don’t even know how to work the flash. In the Legion, it all comes down to money. We cry over our wages, we cry over taxes. We sneer in the face of fellow legionnaires who buy something we managed to pick up for a few cents less. We bum smokes off our comrades with a full packet nestled quietly in our breast pocket. But top of my list in all that is the scheming scoundrel ways of this misfit montage misplaced in a modern conflict of importance far beyond the comprehension of their back-alley poker-pot minds will forever be the looks of disbelief encountered upon the handing over of an €1.50 bag of cookies to an innocent child. Apparently, charity is fine once it doesn’t cost us anything. How does anyone expect progress to be made in this country with attitudes of that nature prevailing? Some might consider this a slight over-reaction. No need to turn suicidal over some fucking jaffa cakes, you might say. Well they may seem like simple cookies to you or I, but for every child’s extended hand demanding a coveted BIS-CUIT, there’s a less visible, less pronounced hand reaching out for all its worth in demand of something greater, something more permanent, something to offer hope. If we can’t sacrifice a tiny bit for a tiny hand, that doesn’t leave much hope for the larger one, growing more and more tired every day but remaining as empty as ever.

Thursday, March 3

Mon Dieu, Mon Caporal

At a time when the fears of certain long-term dissenters were on the brink of being allayed, I just couldn’t help myself. Three months in Afghanistan is a long time, is not very long at all, or alternatively is sufficiently long enough to have lost sight of the tiresome irks of regimental life back in France. I recently brushed dust off the topic with a correspondent, musing with fluctuating enthusiasm on what has evolved as a Darwinian deposit of soldiers from the homeland to the mountains and valleys of arguably the most war-torn country in history. The last three months have been primarily concerned with life in Afghanistan. Here, there is no room for error, no allowance for slack reactions. Soldiers from various regiments all over France, men and women previously considered strangers have since become our comrades-in-arms along the gentle unravelling of activities throughout this mission. The grizzled grouchy spare parts, those caricatured catastrophes whose one redeeming quality in an otherwise cul-de-sac life is the Képi worn proudly on their heads have remained behind. Those loveable if unsettlingly blank tablets of young men unafraid to stare down the barrel of a loaded rifle (albeit their own) eventually receded to a similar fate. As an institution, the gates of the Legion know not to discriminate. As a military force, some weeding and fine tuning occasionally grinds in to gear. As I said, the last three months have been primarily concerned with life in Afghanistan. During the past six days I fell prey to a timely reminder of the bigger picture, life in the Legion.

Passing time out in the field can be very tiring, be it on exercises in France or on real manoeuvres here in Afghanistan. The food consists mostly of military rations, a technically nutritious but aesthetically nauseating gelatinous concoction best shovelled down at high speeds with breath held. Even if one has the illusion of remaining relatively static, calories are indeed burned. On top of daytime energy consumption, one is deprived of vital recharging during the night due to guard duties and less-than-comfortable sleeping conditions. People can become stressed, irritable. Superiors need to keep their subordinates in check, managing their discontent while retaining a sense of order. Now, insubordination is such a misleading term. Self-conjured images of a refusal to execute orders, of indiscreetly correcting a superior in public, of deserting a post or the army altogether all present themselves untidily in our minds. Personally, I have never encountered a problem executing an order. Moreover, I have never encountered a problem at all during my tadpole-esque two and a half years service here in the famous French Foreign Legion. I guess that number was destined to be called at some point.

An extremely experienced ex-Legionnaire whom I occasionally interact with once remarked on Hollywood’s misleading portrayal of the military hierarchy. A corporal, he commented, enjoys the powers of a captain, a captain those of a colonel. In real life, he continued, this is not the case. Alas, in defiance of his theory I present my case of the almighty corporal here in the Legion. The promotion of a legionnaire to the rank of corporal is completely chronological and subject to two months spent in a state of perpetual physical punishment. No intelligence required. No ability to command respect or speak strong enough French to give clear, distinct orders is necessary. Just a date of enlistment far enough back from the present combined with the completion of the afore-mentioned two-month ritual and one immediately enjoys the benefits of forgetting how to engage in manual labour (daily cleaning aside - that is more a rite of passage for Legionnaires and should not be performed by corporals), avoiding weapons inspections together with a whole host of more-often-than-not unmerited benefits. I say "more-often-than-not" because, like most Legionnaires, I have had the good fortune to have encountered a handful of corporals truly worthy of the respect, obedience and admiration routinely demanded of almost any moron with thick biceps and a thicker skull. These few (in my experience), hailing from Cameroon to Romania, broke balls harder than the others but only when armed with either good reason or a desire to halt an early-sighted slow-creeping malaise. Hollywood might have offered them knighthoods.

My own minor run-in occurred, regrettably, slap-bang in the middle of the search of a compound down in our local valley. It was only the second day. We weren’t very stressed or irritable. Ours had been silently simmering for a while now. Suffice to say I wasn’t too pleased with a comment indirectly directed at me (vertebrae seem to be at a premium with this particular corporal). Inevitably (if somewhat ill-advisedly) I calmly requested that he say whatever it was he had to say to my face. Over he came, galloping to within inches of me, hissing, puffing and threatening to break teeth. In reality he might have buckled under the weight of one of my fillings alone, and again somewhat ill-advisedly I informed him of my theory. This provoked further hissing and puffing, so I calmly lay down my metal detector and unclipped my helmet, placing it on the ground beside my feet. Along came the repeated threat to break teeth. I grinned broadly, like a horse chomping on a cannabis plant, and invited his scrawny broom handle of an arm to try to connect. Alas at this point our squad leader intervened, placing himself between the two gesticulating morons clasping their handbags tighter and tighter. The wave of hostility receded without breaking. Thinking of it now, the ridiculousness flushes the cheeks with more and more potency. Utter absurdity, especially in the middle of a mission (albeit it one launched on poorer-than-poor intelligence involving the destruction of a perfectly good garden and the rifling through harmless and previously pristinely organised personal possessions of yet another unwitting Afghan civilian). Somewhat bizarrely and equally eerily, the two of us have somehow descended into a rhythm of previous unheralded civility, overflowing with "please" and "thank you" and such. It’s entirely possible that our little tête-a-tête inspired a more considerate, professional approach to command in the offending corporal as well as scaring a bit of sense and subordination in to yours truly. My clock is ticking, but there’s no need to fill the remaining time with unnecessary inconvenience. Our squad leader was cool about it, allowing the two years of uninterrupted training and missions together afford me the benefit of the doubt, and the trust to close the chapter then and there. Still, in very quiet moments one can hear the distant hissing and puffing of a pot silently simmering. Who knows if those bubbles will grow any larger or not, perhaps rattling the lid a little, than a lot, until it eventually slides off and it all boils over all over again?

Just a minor incident in an otherwise orderly affair here in Afghanistan. Things like this happen often, and sometimes result in a more "entertaining" resolution. It’s not hard to follow orders, as I said, once the orders are given by men worthy of respect. Some people tend to confuse the terms "obedience" and "respect". For me, to obey is to obey, to respect is to respect. For some of the graduates from the two-month school of hard knocks, even writing these words (in the French language OR their own) presents an insurmountable challenge, so to expect comprehension is asking a little too much. Ironically, this blog began back in July of last year while I was recovering from having destroyed almost every ligament in my right ankle during training. Ten weeks were spent in a combination of intensive physiotherapy sessions and gradually progressive physical exercises undertaken on my own time, all in order to be as fit and ready as possible for my deployment to Afghanistan. Those ten weeks had initially been set aside for my own ritualistic promotion to the dizzying heights of a corporal in the French Foreign Legion. Perhaps it would have been nice to have come here having left behind me all the manual labour, weapons inspections and such. However, I feel I can safely and honestly say that I’m rather glad how things have worked out. It may read a whopping three years service on my file when I finally climb the ranks, but at least I’ll fill the role with a better understanding of what it is to be a subordinate, and what it takes to be a good corporal.

Either way, I’m sure I’ll have all my teeth intact when that day arrives.