Sunday, May 20

Tunnel Vision

Don't be fooled by my excitement. Only I can be allowed that particular luxury at this moment in time. In twenty four hours I ship out for what will indisputably be my final overseas tour with the French Foreign Legion. When I return in four months' time, only a further ten months will separate me from the looming civilian world. Life - as you know it, and as I shall too, once more. So far on my little Legion adventure I've travelled to the Republic of Djibouti in east Africa and, of course, Afghanistan. Contrasting climates, on-the-ground situations, different colleagues owing to the inevitably impacting turnover of personnel in our unique "family", have all contributed to the wonderful diversity which I initially sought out by signing up. The final foreign excursion sees me whisked away to the jungles of French Guyana in South America. The next four months will be spent undergoing acclimatization to the tropical climate followed by immediate immersion in foot patrols through the rainforest in an ongoing bid by the French Armed Forces to disrupt, undermine and eventually eradicate the gold-smuggling trade currently rampant in this minuscule equatorial nation. While not quite child's play for an Afghanistan veteran, it's certainly not the most straightforward of missions. Let's be perfectly clear here: machete-wielding gold smugglers don't scare me one bit. But malaria and giant spiders…………that's a different kettle of bananas altogether!

So back to this excitement then. I guess I felt it before and during the four months in Djibouti, I certainly felt it in the build up to Afghanistan, climaxing (if you will) on the ground over there in what was undoubtedly the highlight of my entire military career. And so it rears its welcomed head on the eve of my departure to French Guyana, completing a rather unlikely trinity of overseas missions to speckle my acceptably eventful five-year-stint in the Legion. These overseas missions give one the opportunity to focus SOLELY on work - "le boulot". No distractions, no sense of returning to work on a Monday only to immediate realign one's sights on the forthcoming weekend. In fact, no sense of weekends, Mondays, time in general. There is only the mission. It's finished when it's finished, the next one comes around when it comes around. No structure, no clocking-out time. No time. Only time. I can't wait.

The closer I get to the end, and the more I reflect back upon my time spent in the Legion, I find it increasingly more difficult to decide upon my presence here in France these past four years. Has the Legion been the ultimate adventure from which my weekends in Paris have provided steady civilian reprise? Or has the Legion mutated in to some painstaking obstacle-ridden gauntlet at whose completion my sacred weekends await? The answer - I've come to realize - is a bit of both. Life at regiment is mundane. There are no two ways about it. Life overseas is awesome. It's THAT simple. Of course with the current worldwide economy slump combined with the looming end to combat operations in Afghanistan, opportunities to stretch the legs in foreign climes are rapidly reducing, alarmingly almost out of sight on the horizon of any current-serving Legionnaire. A career of confinement to interminable training camps in the French countryside beckons for those arriving at the gates of this fabled institution and, as a result, many decide to pack their bags and do a runner soon after being accepted. In the past two weeks our company has had five or six deserters, all deciding that slumming it in the mosquito-ridden mud of some uncontested jungle is not the glitzy, glorified image of war heroism that transported them on fluffy dream-filled clouds all the way to France. I don't blame them for the clouds that carried them here. The same clouds brought each and every one of us here. But once those clouds burst, and the naivety rained down in shattered shards of fun-house mirrors, the choice is either made to plough on regardless, or turn around and scurry for shelter. Either way, you get pissed on along the way. I guess it's just a matter of stubborn pride then.

Among those recent absconders were several cases of "young love"; a beautiful seductress discreetly pulling them back across oceans from a signed, dishonored contract to a warm bed and fresh struggle to make ends meet. Personally, my problem has never been the inescapable charms of a woman, rather the romantically suicidal escapades encompassing as many women as possible. Hence my division of loyalties while here in France: the job, the wage, the hierarchy on one hand, and the sheer chaotic emotional randomness of forty-eight hour blasts of freedom in arguably the greatest city on earth. It can all get quite exhausting, requiring the cushioning sanctuary of AT LEAST one week back in the comforting, steady rhythms of regimental life. I need a break, and that's where the Guyane tour comes in. Four months without distractions, no clubs, no pubs, no deliberations over which shirt to wear, which cologne to mist around my meticulously maintained beard, no flirtatious touches, no winks, blinks, thoughts to over think, nothing. Just the jungle. Just a rifle. Just the man in front, the man behind, a one-way trail and focused mind. The levels of concentration that rendered me firmly in a perennial adrenaline zone throughout the tour of Afghanistan await me once more. Perhaps not to the same profoundly draining and perversely euphoric levels, but of a similar strain nonetheless.

I won't deny that my time on French soil is primarily preoccupied with my hedonistic, passive-misogynistic rampages through magnificently lit Parisian streets for two days a week, as many weeks as my schedule allows. But once those coveted overseas tours come around not a single troubled, confused soul simmering beneath their Kèpi Blanc hesitates to shake out their distracting, suddenly irrelevant thoughts and switch focus to the job at hand, the dream finally approaching realization. This is what brought us here, what takes us there. Life, for now, gets put on hold, as the dream takes a hold of us. The ultimate awakening rushes towards the horizon, into view, the slow-rising sun creeping towards the afterlife as another darker, redder star slowly sets on this grand adventure. One final sleep awaits, however. One last chance to close my eyes, pull moist, camouflaged fingers over soft, flickering eyelids and dive one last time down the rabbit hole.

The jungle is calling. I'll see you all in the morning.

Friday, May 11

Check-In or Check-Out

The Generation Gap - mankind's final, insurmountable frontier. Everybody thinks they know it all. Those gone before us are outmoded and cranky has-beens spewing forth nonsense wrung out like a crusty sponge of sanity expiring its final drops. Those to follow are nothing more than insolent pretenders to the throne, disrespecting the experience and authority of their elders. 

I swore I'd never fall foul. I swore that the infinite stores of knowledge and sarcastic wit would trump all before me, proving wrong those who insisted I too would one day understand. Understand the frustration, the resignation, or rather the superior calm accompanying such hard won wisdom, held loftily over the emerging spawn of the future Légion Étrangère.

Yet fall foul I did. The sheer stress of dealing with impudent little know-it-all pups is proving my toughest challenge yet. Now I'd be the first to hold my hands up in recognition of my physical shortcomings in the face of the more intimidatingly muscular recruits turning up at our regiment these days. But as one astute (if slightly irritating) fellow corporal remarked;

"Guys come here thinking it's the fuckin' Olympics! There's a lot more to being a soldier than being the fittest man on earth!!"

He had a point. Of course fitness plays a key part in the life of a Legionnaire, but doing push-ups hardly contributes to a soldier's knowledge of weapons, basic tactics, field commands, and other brain-engaging activities. Too often too recently have we been on the receiving end of bulky, ripped, throbbing-vein-sporting trolls arriving at regiment unable to understand even the most basic of commands. Far from being concerned by this, the grunts in question simply display an explicit nonchalance that almost takes one's breath away. If they weren't so inherently moronic, one might actually suspect a thinly veiled plot to win impromptu physical exercise sessions throughout the day,  thereby eating in to valuable working hours. Substantiated or not, such suspicions have forced our hand and that oldest of Legion traditions comes galloping to the rescue, offering a fabulous form of rehabilitation in the ways of martial discipline - corvée!

Mops and brooms have never been more plentiful (or in such continual usage) so long as I can remember. Nowadays, ordering legionnaires to do push-ups (no matter how receptive they might be to the idea) is officially against the rules. (I know, I know)! So scrubbing the shit out of toilets seems the only logical rerouting option. My new Ukrainian roommate learned all about that the morning he tried to pull the wool over my eyes. Designated to clean the toilets and showers, I only realized that he hadn't reported back at the end of his duties after having departed towards the toilets for my morning business and encountering a still-drying tiled floor. I called him up, merely to calmly (mercifully, if you will) explain the important task of "rendre compte" (or "reporting in") after finishing morning chores. My little speech delivered, I then proceeded to a random stall to enjoy some quiet time. Upon opening the door however, the grizzly gnarly brown-speckled sight that greeted my eyes turned me on my heels and back screaming the name of the little fucker responsible.

"You said you cleaned the toilets!"

"Er, yes Corporal.."

"Well what the fuck do ya call this then???" (showing the stall in question).



Opening the other five stalls, I encountered a similarly disastrous sight, my slight-framed comrade having done nothing more than pass a soaking wet mop along the floor.

Naturally I made him start all over again. And low and behold the second time round it was gleaming - toilets, urinals, mirrors, the lot. Rather fortuitously for me (and less so for the toe-rag-in-question), I only then remembered that he had also been charged with cleaning the showers as well. I marched determinedly - expectantly even - towards the door. It swung open. The incoming draft of air was just strong enough to send the crusty pair of underwear tumbling off the ledge above the first shower door. I exhaled profoundly, trying to calm my rising blood pressure. It was almost time for morning assembly. I promised to revisit the "problem" later in the day.

And so, as the clock struck 18:00, I apprehended the culprit and issued the instructions.

Bucket - check! Scrubbing brush - check! Sponge (with coarse green side for deep-scrubbing - check! Rubber gloves - check!

There are five shower stalls, and my little janitorial prodigy was set to work, stall-by-stall, tile-by-yellow-stained-tile, door, floor, ceiling, the works. After each stall, I demanded a "compte-rendu" upon which I thoroughly inspected the stall in question before authorizing progression to the next one. By the end (I let him off at around 21:00) the showers were gleaming! All the guys in the platoon were delighted with the results, taking especial pleasure in their next bathing session. My student has since become incredibly more diligent in his cleaning duties since the episode and overall, I consider it a lesson well learned.

Unfortunately, it doesn't change the fact that the new waves of legionnaires arriving at regiment are overwhelmingly inept and rather glaringly unsuited for a military lifestyle. I'm just relieved that they've arrived AFTER the return from Afghanistan. Sure, a deployment to French Guyana sits restless on the horizon two weeks from now, but an non-combat overseas mission of that nature will only provide further controlled hardships to help align the newbies with the demands of legion life. If it was another tour of Afghanistan awaiting us, the pressure would be ten times what it has been to-date. I honestly never thought I'd be actively trying to break soldiers' moral to see their reaction. But the freeloaders and apathetic drivel flooding in to our ranks these days has demanded a reaction. Soon enough I hope to see some of these guys reach breaking point, and how they pick themselves up - either by hopping the fence or mending and strengthening their ways - will determine just how enjoyable their time in the Legion will be.

Patience is wearing thin.