Sunday, March 25

The Thin Red Line

Occasionally, the state of affairs here in the Legion can be confusing. At least, from a financial point of view. The world continues to slowly drag its wounded wallet out of the darkest caverns of recession and into the fledgling rays of recovery, and the gold rush chomps at the bit in anticipation of a fresh spending spree. Rather surprisingly, though, it is the French Army leading the pack in a consumerist binge on individual equipment for her faithful soldiers. The only thing overshadowing our delight at having such gifts bestowed on us is our sheer bemusement at the generosity of a military kitting us out to the nines at a time when involvement in Afghanistan is entering its epilogue and the African former colonies are, for now, relatively calm. Strange days, in the most subdued and suburban sense.

Standard-issue kit and supplies were never intended to descend from the upper echelons of manufacture quality in order to facilitate a soldier's life enormously. Soldiers get by. Marines make do. "Légionaires se démerdent". Basic - sometimes incomprehensible - equipment infuriates and raises stress levels each time it malfunctions out in the field. Furthermore, excuses hold little weight with superiors demanding explanations for why a strap snapped or a zip broke, and the incessant cursing of the failing apparatus-in-question offers little consolation. Conversely, these added challenges tend to reinforce one's rusticity, tend to prepare us to expect the unexpected, to survive unassisted during a perilous morning at the firing range or on a token, short-distance march. Rusticity galore, rusticity toujours!

There was a time, not too long ago, when desertion was greeted with mischievous glee by the remaining legionnaires. Officially, a deserter can not be so classified until a certain period (normally 7 days) has passed. Only then can the Legion's military police enter the deserter's room to recover his personal effects. Naturally there remains very little to recover, the absconding party's loyal comrades having long-since polished off his wardrobes in a clinical mission of pilfering and profiteering. Certain items were to be found in higher demand than others. The gold buttons off of our formal uniform were usually close to the top of the list, a swift swish of a swiss army knife sending them tumbling in to cupped hands, ready to serve as loyal emergency replacements should disaster ever strike minutes before a ceremony or parade. Goretex jackets are another hot commodity due to their lamentably short lifespan and tendency to disintegrate upon reaching a certain number of opening/closing manoeuvres. After come the decorations, with no sane legionnaire passing up the opportunity to double up on shiny badges should one ever go walkabout. In fact, the only things to remain in a deserter's locker come the visit of the MPs are usually unwashed linen and trashy literature published in the native tongue of the deserter.

My how the tables have turned! A recent apparent splurge by l'Arméé Française has seen new weapons systems, new uniforms, new backpacks, sportswear, field utensils such as camping cutlery and cooking pots, headlamps, you name it, we've been issued with it. In a delicious ironic twist, we now find ourselves bemoaning the overloading of new items where once we pounced on the first glimmer of an abandoned trinket. A running joke here has been how, in preparation for a desertion, the remaining soldiers will fill a few sacks full of unwanted crap for the fleeing man to carry off in to the sunset with him. It has gotten to the stage where I now find myself with no less than seven (yes, SEVEN) daypacks, or "musettes". Between the standard issue one (rather impractical and effectively useless), the "proper" one we are all encouraged to buy as a viable solution, the discreet "civilian" one to enable maximum discretion on weekends (certainly in light of the Toulouse killings recently), along with various company and regimental Christmas presents combine to encumber in a rather grotesquely excessive manner. Only a few weeks ago, I felt inspired and obliged to fill a wheelie suitcase to near-bursting with unneeded/unwanted/unusable clothes and useful tidbits before dragging said suitcase all the way to the doors of the Red Cross' Paris headquarters. I gain more space for the next wave of issuances, and some homeless chap wins a new sleeping bag and pair of finely pressed trousers. Everyone's a winner!

I suppose one can't complain too much, although there is a sense that the excess of goods volleyed towards us by the Ministry of Defense is a slight mismanagement of funds, when things like food quality and the "mandatory" monthly contributions from soldiers remain constantly prickly topics where financial fair play is concerned. But at the very least, it has pacified the previously rampant culture of post-desertion looting. Money might not be able to buy you happiness, but it might just push some legionnaires that little bit closer to civilization.

That, at least, is a small victory.

Saturday, March 10

Bad Rep

It changes you.

The machismo lifestyle, thousands of testosterone-incubator-babies clawing indifferently, mechanically at the perspex walls camouflaged in faux wrought iron; clawing without any tangible ambition to escape; screaming for attention, to be picked up, cradled, told how adorable they are, before drifting off into a deep slumber a million miles from the big bad scary world kept at bay by those undisturbed, unscathed perspex walls. A world still visible, if now somewhat clouded, fuzzy, slowly becoming ever-more distorted with each passing day on the inside, each scraped-away layer of earth leading deeper down, out of sight, fading light, fading hope.

I'm not a violent person, never have been. That's what makes it all the more unsettling, seeing me step so irrationally and triumphantly outside myself on my last trip home, venturing in to unexplored (yet eerily inevitable) territory. I scared my friend whom I was with, I certainly scared the two low-lives hassling us from outside the window of our restaurant, but more tellingly, I kind of scared myself. An event not worth elaborating on, but disappointingly illuminating all the same. Dutch courage is a dangerous toxin, threatening not in its insatiable coursing through the veins of the host but rather through the instantaneous withdrawal, the violent plug-pull of a worthy (or even frighteningly insurmountable) adversary draining every inch of swagger from inside, leaving nothing but a few drops to form around the eyes in accompaniment to the lump already firmly in place midway down the throat. It doesn't take an eventual explosion of violence to realize the potential, to appreciate the escape, to marvel at the mutating mindset and its relentless creep towards irreversibility. This particular train never stops. It's up to you to jump off before it reaches too high a speed, before the tracks buckle and the whole thing derails. 

A fundamental difference exists between every other regiment in the Legion and one held perennially above. The 2ème Régiment Étranger de Parachutistes has always been considered the most elite of all Legion regiments, and perhaps with good reason. The more occasions that present themselves for me to encounter members of this prestigious regiment, however, and the more complex and elusive an accurate understanding of just what it is to be a "Repman" becomes.

More disciplined - check.

These guys used to have to present themselves for morning roll-call on SATURDAYS, until recently. Notorious accounts of white nights spent scrubbing, doing push-ups, or other mindless tasks lent favor to an image of intense control and involvement from superiors, ruthlessly weeding out the weak and forming unbreakable cohesive bonds with the remaining consolidation of troops.

More isolated/self-contained - check.

Corsica is, of course, an island. And Calvi has long been nicknamed "Alcatraz" by legionnaires from both the REP and other legion regiments alike. Waits of over a year to see one's first extended vacation time, an obligation to leave regiment in formal military wear (most other regiments having made the switch to civilian clothes a while ago). 

More operational - check.

Returning to the (now defunct) Saturday morning roll call, it still exists for certain companies concerned by "Alerte Guépard" - a constant state of alert for overseas deployment. The REP is part of a very particular group of French regiments (of which it is the ONLY legion regiment) concerned, and companies prepared for said alert rotate within the regiments (occasionally the entire regiment can be put on alert). For this reason, the Repmen are more conditioned than most to up sticks, pack their gear and head off to potentially hostile zones anywhere in the world at a moment's notice. Hardcore indeed.

The problem I've encountered with CERTAIN Repmen is an unconditional assumption of superiority compared to us mortal legionnaires. This feeds in to the culture bred in Calvi, a culture imperative to the creation and maintenance of modern-day legion folklore and reputation that hit its peak in the 80s and 90s. Unfortunately for the REP, the 21st century has spelled an end to those old ways when a blind eye was turned to disciplinary overkill and bar-brawl mayhem. This new "Playstation Generation" undoubtedly has some of the old guard tearing out ever-whitening hair, but reverting to the opposite extreme is just as damning a development for a supposed "modern, elite fighting force". Here in Castenlnaudary for a truck driving course, I bore witness first-hand to the Repmen and their take-no-prisoners attitude when it comes to representing the Kèpi Blanc. A Friday night in the foyer embarked on a toe-curling spiral out of control as the destination switched to Castelnaudary town centre. Details are sketchy but bloodstains on tee shirts, inflamed eyes from police pepper spray, the military police "escort" back to camp for two legionnaires (since confirmed to be returned to Calvi from the course) tell their own story. 

Disturbingly, it wasn't any of the afore-mentioned ingredients that set my alarm bells ringing. One of the paras managed to slip away from the brawl and sneak back to regiment. Once inside our room, this super-charged alcohol fueled soldier proceeded to quite literally go insane. Frequent trips to the bathroom to wash the pepper spray from his eyes and laugh hysterically to himself were complimented with forays out on to the balcony (a balcony overlooking the parade square in Castel!!) to hurl obscenities at the top of his lungs, presumably directed at the police/nightclub security in Castel. Either way, for the very first time in my Legion career I was well and truly fearful. I decided not to engage him or to even open an eye for fear of catching his. Such was the ferocity of his agitation that I instead opted to play dead under the covers. Such pent-up aggression could only stem from the confined, repressed existence experienced in Calvi. And this is someone with only three years' service to-date. It begs the question of exactly what could accumulate in someone made to endure a career-long supply line of such archaic soldiering methods. It brought me back to my little outburst during the holidays, the perspective belittling it to the point of a non-event. Not surprisingly, I find myself rather relieved.

Relieved and ready and riding that runaway train for another few miles yet. My knees are flexed, my toes gripping the edge of the carriage door through these polished leather boots, wind slicing through my beard and underneath my fingernails as I remain poised to leap into the since re-rendered unknown. There'll be cuts, bruises and disorientation upon landing, sure! But nothing as bad as staying on that runaway train headed for certain disaster.

As I said, this relates to CERTAIN individuals, certain personalities susceptible to stress-induced degradation, personalities seeking a release at all costs. It's a price far too high for me to pay, but luckily I don't think my name's on the billing list.

Best keep it that way.