Wednesday, January 18

Nuit Blanche

Never underestimate the power of context. The places one goes to, the things one sees, the people one meets here in the Legion all retain the distinctive whiff of exceptionality. Living life through the eyes of a legionnaire is a very particular experience. Crawling through fields and trotting hunched over through crooked, narrow village streets in the south of France with a camouflage-painted face and assault rifle tends to provoke unfathomably different reactions to, say, a tanned blond backpacker in cut-offs and Converse asking for directions to the nearest windmill. Therefore after almost 4 years' service I can safely say that I've travelled extensively in the south of France. But my own excursions still might not quite align themselves too seamlessly with those of some retired English couple seeing out their days in Nice or Montpellier together with a trusty Ford Focus wheeling them all the way across the riviera. Such is life, certainly life here in the Legion.

The benefits do tend to come in the form of some very exclusive travel destinations, however. Countries like Djibouti and French Guyana might not seem too appetizing to anyone outside of scuba diving or rainforest conservation circles, and yet we legionnaires find such exotic locations almost perennially pencilled in to our calendars. Afghanistan, on the other hand, rarely reaches out to anyone not either a soldier or a journalist. Sure, building contractors and humanitarian organizations occasionally make the slog from far afield, but restricted movement on the ground presents little opportunity for this demographic to truly see the country and its people in the same detail as our merry band of rifleman 'n reporters. It might not be the most agreeably tinted light, but it shines brightly enough all the same.

Context. That's the name of the game, a name worth retaining in the fore of one's thoughts whenever things are going poorly OR well. A name whose significance is not lost on our superiors, try as they might to confuse us with their foundation-lacking, contradictory banter. Take this ski trip, for example. Ten days in the French Alps and all the while, all we've been hearing as we sweat and pant our way up soaring snowcapped peaks has been;

"Wo, les gars, qu'est-ce qu'il y a?? Hey, les civiles paient pour ça!"
(Wo, what's the matter lads? Hey, the civilians pay for this kind of stuff!")

So let's get this straight then; civilians (or "tourists" as I'm sure they prefer to be referred to) spend considerable money to be issued with bog-standard (oftentimes inoperable) ski equipment before being made wake-up at 6am to set off on a mountainous excursion with a rather heavy army backpack, all the while being yelled and shouted at for not understanding the very basics of ski manipulation that have never actually been properly explained to them? That's………that's essentially what we're saying here, yeah???

Of course I sensationalize. We can't be expected to don the very latest in cutting edge ski gear on such a populous level. France won't be reclaiming its triple A status by haphazardly dishing out top-of-the-line adventure gear to immigrants. Similarly, ski instruction adopts more of an on-the-job philosophy here in the Legion - something that I actually believe is not such a bad thing. Proper, regulated instruction takes time we simply don't have to spare, whereas being thrown in at the deep end encourages, well, courage, quick adjustment and quicker improvement. That, or face severe haranguing from grumpy, ski-competent superiors,. You'd be surprised with what startling speed one can learn to do almost anything in such an environment.

Now I hadn't skied in three years. Back then, it was the first time in my life, lasting a measly three weeks. Needless to say I wasn't exactly at ease up on the slopes. But then, we weren't on the slopes too often. Nope, our outings were of the off-piste variety, consisting of reaching the top with synthetic seal skins on our skis, and reaching the bottom by, well, any means possible. I've never fallen so hard and so often in my life. But that wasn't what was concerning me. Back in 2009 when I first completed this course, we had to spend a night in a self-dug "igloo" - an underground snow cave dug in 3 metres of ice. During the digging, the entire thing caved in, leaving me trapped under a rather heavy slab of snow for several minutes while the muffled cries of my mates above indicated that the rescue mission was underway. Nothing life-threatening, but not too comfortable either, I've since held a rather nervy reluctance to repeat the experience. Inevitably this course involved the same little exercise, although this time -being a corporal - I sent the young lads in to dig while I shoveled the snow way from the entrance. Delegation, one of our key responsibilities. Indeed.

That evening though, context came back in an ironic, snow white veil. While standing the early guard shift (6pm-7pm) I suddenly found myself in the most serene of settings. It's hard to notice in the heat of a march (or igloo dig!), but once night and temperatures fall in unison, the silence high up in the mountains is of the most profound and ear-ringing nature. There I stood, well protected against the freezing cold, all alone under the most infinite of star-filled skies, and I thought to myself; "If the tourists could, they'd probably pay throughout the nose for this.". And there I stood, basking in the moonlit silence until a random fox trotted by, his white-tipped feet disappearing into the powdered ground as he passed. The idyl was only broken by the first fart, followed by some rather aggressive syncopated snoring patterns. Typical!

For a brief moment I feared that the reverberations might bring down the igloo, but to my good fortune it held, as did my spirits through the chilly night's sleep. It really is all about context.

Wednesday, January 11

Flood the Pain Away

Now, I never pass up the opportunity to jot down a few words on page or screen. But then, most of you already know that much. I was nevertheless surprised and mindful when recently asked to pen a rather exceptional letter to the Chef de Corps just before Christmas. The purpose of the letter was to convince our cher Colonel not to kick a friend of mine out of the Legion entirely. My friend (who I'll call "Chico" in order to protect his identity) came to me begging for my assistance in drawing up this written plea for mercy. I simply couldn't refuse. Camaraderie is a particularly potent strength possessed by any legionnaire worth his salt. Chico's also an English speaker, a rather infamous if painfully likable member of my particular regiment's Mafia Anglaise. This added a further layer of obligation on my shoulders. We're all brothers-in-arms at the end of the day, but the mafias are traditionally expected to help each other out to a slightly higher degree than the general populous.

Besides, me and Chico go WAY back……

The culture in the Legion is composed of many things, but alcohol must surely be among the leading contenders for "Most Ever-Present". My first encounter with the Legion's drinking culture didn't leave me particularly shocked, just pining for a cold one myself. The incident described in a previous post had most of the guys in fits of laughter, if the truth be told. Doing push-ups for being able to sing a melody correctly while the cat-stranglers in the section continued to serenade us as per the corporals' drunken orders has to go down as one of the funniest and most bizarre memories of my time in the legion so far. Of course the now infamous documentary aired in 2009 exposing the "barbaric" and "dehumanizing" treatment of some new recruits at a different farm has since put paid to all but the most isolated incidents of a similar nature these days. It is indisputably for the best, as despite the humorous nature of most rites of passage such as my own, the line found itself overstepped a little to frequently and, in certain cases, with rather grave consequences.

The treatment of new recruits is one thing. Some see it as giving a poor image to the legion and encouraging head-ache-inducing desertion rates. Others see it as a mandatory gauntlet from which only those worthy of donning the Képi Blanc emerge. Others still might rationally argue that it serves as an instructive prelude to life at regiment. For you see, "Les Presentations" begin immediately upon one's arrival at their designated/chosen regiment, and continue throughout one's career, reappearing at each professional milestone - notably a climb in rank. Young legionnaires are requested to present themselves before the door of each corporal's room in his section. Knock once, open the door, slide a case of beer in to the centre of the floor, close the door, knock a second time, await the order to enter, enter, present yourself. Open a beer and serve the corporal, open one for yourself. Then it's cheers, beers and a get-to-you-know-you chat. Now, what I've described is probably the most basic, no-frills presentation a young legionnaire will have to make. The majority of presentations tend to take on a more inventive - daresay interactive - guise, of which I'd rather leave to your respective imaginations.

Time goes by, the Corvée Log fills to overflowing through countless hours spent sweeping, mopping, scrubbing and polishing, and eventually the young Legionnaire becomes "Legionnaire de 1ere Classe". The venue switches, the bedroom giving way to the company club, playing host to the presentation of this new entity - this 1ere Classe. The routine is simple, classic, and very very effective. The newly ordained stands himself on a stool while his comrades fill a standard-issue helmet to capacity with beer. My calculations may be slightly awry but that equates to around 2 litres of the good stuff. The 1ere Classe takes the helmet and begins pouring it down his throat. The goal is to drink it all without stopping. Any stop for breath is chastised and derided mercilessly. Any stop to vomit your guts up, however, is greeted with deafening cheers from all present. Well, all except the young legionnaire forced to hold the bucket just beneath the helmet throughout the entire ordeal. Again, this is a bog-standard description. A friend in another regiment whose company specializes in aquatic combat described a rather elaborately choreographed episode involving scuba gear. Don't ask!

And then comes my most recent encounter with the Presentation timeline - that of a newly crowned corporal. Unlike its predecessors, this one takes on a bit more significance as the captain himself is found in attendance. Your rank - a small velcro square with two green stripes - is rolled up and slipped down the neck of a waiting Heineken bottle. 

"Caporal Legion-eire, à vos orders Mon. Capitaine"

Clink goes the bottle and down goes the beer. In one go, of course, but then we're no young legionnaires or chest-puffing 1ere Classes. We're corporals now, the shepherds to the sheep, sharing a ceremonial beer with the farmer employing us to watch over his herds. With the captain out of the way, we move on to the deputy captain. Same process, same polite toasting, another bottle downed in one. This continues through all the superiors present, including a collective effort for all the current corporals. That left me with 2 captains, 3 lieutenants, an adjutant, 3 platoon sergeants, 3 squad sergeants, 2 corporal chefs and one more beer for my new family, the corporals themselves. Of course we didn't stop drinking once the official presentations were concluded, and of course I've no idea how I got to bed that night (or how I finished the 8km run the next day without throwing up - many weren't so lucky with their gag reflexes), but we somehow made it through and are apparently the better, stronger soldier for it. Perhaps.

The problem with alcohol in the legion doesn't stem from these occasional binges, however. It's origins lie closer to its startlingly ready availability in regiments. Whereas the Americans have strict prohibition enforced throughout their bases (if not entirely on home soil then most certainly overseas), the French armed forces have boxes of wine beside the water jugs at midday and evening meals. It's sale in stores in Legion regiments also has many unashamedly buying a cheeky mid-week crate and knocking it back in a bedroom full of compatriots. In communal situations the danger might be less, but then there are the legionnaires who happily (or not) lock themselves away in their rooms chugging back can after can relentlessly. "Alcoholic" is a seldom-used term in the Legion. One would more often hear something along the lines of "Ah he like's a drink". Being Irish, I'd venture that I've a rather refined eye and ear for such thinly veiled excuses. The truth is that there is an alarming level of alcohol abuse throughout the legion, and almost every single case goes either unaddressed or conveniently disguised as incompetency or a joker-like nature. Nobody cares how much you drink as long as you remain "operational", but when the booze takes control, dependability inevitably falls by the wayside. No recognition, no treatment, nothing but blind scolding at an unstoppable slide in professionalism.

And so we land back with Chico. A man who, the morning after my very first presentation here at regiment, helped himself to the remaining 12 beers from our presentation stock. It was around 7.15am. The guy has spent the equivalent of an entire month in jail for every year of service. Every single slip-up, fuck-up or "banane" as we call them here has been a direct result of his being in the most incredible state of inebriation that it would make Keith Richards look like Mother Teresa (actually, that's not too dissimilar a pairing, aesthetically!) The most recent episode (touching briefly upon it) involved a poker game-gone-sour and a few subsequent black eyes for all parties concerned. Proving the straw that broke the camel's back, the colonel decided enough was enough. Chico had to go. That was, of course, until I stepped in with some rather poignantly articulate handy work. Chico came to see me on Christmas day, as I was preparing to head off for 2 weeks of holidays.

"Dude, the colonel loved your letter!! He……he said 'Chico, I really liked your letter'. You fuckin' saved me dawg. Fuckin' awesome letter!" 

(cue drunken hug - yep, Chico was once again under the influence, 10am on Christmas morning).

I was absolutely delighted for him, though. For all his mistakes, the lad's got a heart of gold and deserves to be allowed see out the relatively short time left on his contract, therefore earning a sense of completion and achievement in having served a 5 year contract in the Legion that will hopefully inspire him on to bigger and better things. Not that I hadn't mulled over the rather paradoxical nature of an institution looking to kick someone out for alcohol-related disciplinary discrepancies when the institution itself may very well have been instrumental in the development of his dependancy. In any case, the colonel seemed to soften his stance while having a brief chat with Chico on Christmas eve.

Over a cold beer, of course.