Friday, August 3

(B)itch to Scratch

The most effective and comprehensive way to defeat a soldier? Simple - give him absolutely nothing to do. Not a tap, not a single iota of active physical or intellectual engagement. Deny him that which he was designed to do - soldier. Then sit back and watch him crumble.

It has been six weeks since our last mission here in French Guiana, our last mission being only our second mission. And let it be clear that I mean "mission" in the true sense. Not the "mission" of taking this shovel and carrying it to that sergeant over there. Nor the "mission" of overseeing the morning chores by the young legionnaires. For us, the mission in Guiana was always only going to mean one thing - trekking through the jungle and flushing out illegal gold-digging operations.

Twice, in almost two months.

Ever since the killing of two soldiers by the increasingly brazen and formidable "garimpeiros" at the end of June, the reaction has been disappointing yet inevitably understandable. A freeze on all non-urgent raids in order to focus attention and efforts in the infamously hostile area where the two soldiers fell. The construction of an impressively sized advanced operating base is ongoing, the slow expansion of controlled territory radiating outward like ripples in a still pond. Our platoon, based further north these past two months have had LITERALLY nothing to do. The excruciating inactivity owes equally to the scheduled exchange of gendarme platoons based in the locality, with whom we embark on our patrols with this. Such a transitional period could never have fell so unkindly, the gendarmes' orientation further delaying any anticipated return to business.

Enter "Le Cafard". Now I openly admit - in advance - how disrespectful and sensationalist it might be to draw comparisons with battered, tattered, dogged and besieged Legionnaires holed up in Saharan forts more than a century and a half ago, but damn it if the doesn't temptation linger still. The word "Cafard" in French means "Cockroach", but also serves as an incredibly apt expression for a certain type of boredom. Unlike the passive kind, that has you idling aimlessly with nothing more than the faint whiff of discontent, Le Cafard actively grates at the inside of your skull, as if a cockroach itself crawled into your ear canal and set to work burrowing right through to your tortured brain. It's a mixture of restlessness, frustration, depression, and resignation, all rolled into one asphyxiating ball wedged deep down your throat. If the air was difficult to breath in before, the cessation of activities has merely accentuated the pressure. In the absence of a real mission, our superiors set us to work on various dreamt-up construction projects around the camp. Sure, we grumbled upon their announcements but in truth, we were grateful for the distraction. Apart from those menial work details and the occasional guard duty, there is literally nothing to do here. The sole bar for twenty kilometers (located right outside the base) is out-of-bounds except under the surveillance of an NCO, the bar on base is a paltry melange of crappy beer and even worse music, staffed by some of the most uninterested "soldiers" I've had the misfortune of encountering, the WiFi is sporadic at best.

To be honest, I'm not that pushed. Having already experienced Djibouti as a green-gilled recruit and Afghanistan a year later, encountering an overseas tour as disappointing as this one - at this point in my career - barely registers an enduring complaint beyond my usual gripe. The younger, less-experienced Legionnaires however are finding it particularly tough, given their expectations upon departure. Expectations merely whetted even further with the first few (successful) forays into the jungle. Then, in a sudden and violent coup, nothing. They'll return to France with nothing more than a couple of half-finished anecdotes and a slightly swollen bank account (soon to be emptied by the impending three weeks of holidays). I firmly expect the number of lads returning from vacation to notably undercut the figures leaving base with packed suitcases. Budgetary difficulties back in France mean 2013 is a blank space, a calendrical void desperately papering over the cracks with various training exercises and generic courses confined to the mainland. As the last few granules trickle to the bottom of my hourglass, others stare up despondently at a bulging mass of static, stagnant sand wondering if it might not be best to take the fireman's axe to it right now, save themselves the trouble and time. The alternative, of watching painstakingly as each grain slithers and crawls towards the hole, tumbles to the bottom with a hollow glass clink, hardly offers more glamour or inspiration. Slithering and crawling, like our good friend Le Cafard, rummaging around up there for excuses to flee. I've always held deserters with the utmost contempt, yet this generation have - at least to a certain degree - my sympathy.

Watch this space.