Wednesday, April 11

Cast Adrift

No man is an island entire of itself,
Every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main

Naivety, it seems, is my preferred crux. It pumps the essence of Legion existence through my twisted, engorged veins perennially throbbing from the eleventh hour u-turns that have come to define this famous institution and all she holds dear. Granted, disillusionment is a feisty and relentless foe to the military hierarchy, sabotaging endless battles to retain soldier morale, fought heroically by our superiors with increasingly outrageous and unrealizable promises. Some wars, I guess, are waged dirtier than others.

Such was the gaseous atmosphere of conflict lingering throughout our company these past two days, as hopes, dreams, promises and, occasionally, contracts mercilessly evaporated, forming thin, toxic clouds transforming the previous week's sunshine in to an obscure, almost macabre omen for even the most meticulously planned, glitteringly imagined, now catastrophically disfigured careers. If God existed, and one wanted to make him laugh…..or something to that effect.

Our annual appraisals - or "Revue d'Effectifs" - are rather like a ceremonial game of Chinese Whispers; a confused, physics-defying set of Russian dolls where the small grows ever bigger until we eventually arrive at the end of the line - a gigantic, inevitable nothing. A private discussion with one's platoon leader swells to absorb the company captain, who in turn reels in the regimental top dog - the colonel. Different doors to increasingly more important offices swing open, swing shut, the drafty progression inflating gleaming Hindenberg smiles that plough through young legionnaires' minds, whetting the appetite for long and prosperous careers in the world's most elite fighting force. The reality is a far cry from the dreamy imaginings flinging candy floss nooses around the necks of desperate young men throughout the world come to sign away their lives for a decent wage, European papers, or the odd shot at glorious redemption. How little they know. How little the puppeteers care. How little it really matters in the grand scheme of things.

Dwindling funds are resulting in less off-site training and - crucially - less overseas missions. Furthermore, troop numbers in the French Army (of which - let's not forget - the Legion is 100% an integrated part) are found in excess of budgetary capabilities. The cull is in full swing, and recruitment to the Legion is tougher than ever before. The current emphasis is on a careful, oftentimes incomprehensible selection process aimed at identifying long-term prospects; men ready to give 15 to life for the Legion's flame and, by extension, the desired steadying of the French Army personnel records. Trying to reduce the admission of eventual deserters while simultaneously encouraging those in the twilight period of their first (mandatory) 5-year contract to sign-on is a tricky business. Hence the discontent felt by certain soldiers upon exiting these appraisals, where a year earlier they'd been promised certain training courses, embarkment on specialist wings, or career progressions, only to now discover that said training course is no longer running, or said speciality has no more room to accommodate new additions, or how that career progression will have to wait another year. 

Morale hasn't been this low since I've been here, and my objectivity can be validated through my complete removal from the unfolding dog-eat-dog race for survival and (maybe) some semblance of prosperity in today's military world. I passed before the colonel as fully aware of my intentions and convictions to serve out my 5 year contract before moving on as he was. My 4th such "review" in little under as many years, I encountered no opposition, no thinly veiled contempt, no waxed-up persuasive techniques. Just the odd curious question concerning my plans after life in the legion before I was calmly, neutrally told I could go. Faced with scandalous revocations bestowed on my comrades, I can't help but feel my empathy diluted by relief at the straightforwardness of my own situation. In the end, it's your own reflection staring down from the top of the food chain. 

"Chacun sa merde", if you will.

Nobody comes to the Legion to serve France and her proud military traditions, her people, her part in global conflicts. They come to serve their own selfish needs. It really can't be explained any simpler than that. Any sense of the collective good is nothing more than a byproduct, a fortunate ricochet from their heat-seeking egos repelled by insurmountable blockades to their toy-soldier fantasies. In war, as Hemingway might well have told you, every man essentially dies alone. For the new waves of legionnaires arriving in to despondently static combat companies, theirs is a slow, excruciating, tantalizing, spirit raising, spirit crushing one, administered by an awesomely hubristic behemoth sporting five gold bars on each shoulder. In terms of career aspirations, they may all die alone. It's just an unfortunate coincidence that they all happen to die at the same time.

Aux morts……