Sunday, June 30

Regress (Part Deux)

True colours shall eventually be shown, or show themselves if the universal need is sufficiently pressing. And so it was with my lieutenant throughout the course of this past week. I may not smell entirely of roses myself (certainly after four days in the mountains) but my scent is a hell of a lot more appealing than that of this petty excuse for a C.O.

Let’s recap, shall we?

LT wanted me back early from my end-of-contract holidays to go traipsing around the mountains. I told him where to go, leaving me with the dreaded anticipation of some sort of confrontation.

Still waiting…….

However, after having arrived back to regiment on the Sunday night, I awoke Monday morning with the sobering news that I had one hour to prepare my gear before grabbing the next bus up to our regiment’s camp in the small alpine town of Valloire. It seemed that he would stop at nothing to stamp his authority on my already-frowning forehead. Obedience comes easy to me, if that can be interpreted in any way except self-deprecating, and so I packed my bags and loaded up for the six-hour road trip to “le chalet”. The first familiar face I encountered upon disembarkation was that of my captain.

Salut, O’Shea, ça va?” he exclaimed, greeting me with a hearty handshake and a pat on the shoulder.

“Ca va, Mon. Capitaine” I replied with an ironic smile.

“Listen” he continued, pulling me gently aside, “A departure time is a departure time, OK?”. The look in his eyes and his tone of voice was unmistakable, even he knew this was bullshit but at the same time he wasn’t about to undermine a lieutenant’s call in front of the corporal in question. I kept it short and professional.

“Oui, Mon. Capitaine”, and no more was said about it.

Next I sought out my LT to let him know I’d arrived. I must have surprised him somewhat, as he instinctively shook my hand before apparently immediately remembering his devout promise to play hard-ball with me, reverting to short, uninformative answers to my questions regarding the issuing of my rock-climbing gear and where to leave my bags. I decided to cut our reunion short and seek out the guys in my platoon. This childish petulant “tough love” was proving too much. Oh the laughs I got, stumbling into view with my backpack on my back and a less-than-impressed look on my face!! Well my mood soon lifted in the company of the lads, all half-slagging half-disbelieving that I was even summoned up to join them on this little mountain challenge.

The disbelief even spread to some of the NCOs, the reason being more than just disciplinary. It was a tactical matter.

You see, our platoon was split into two neat, symmetric squads of seven: one squad leader (sergeant) together with two 3-man teams, each headed up by a corporal team-leader. Enter me, becoming an 8th man on one team and introducing a head-scratchingly unnecessary disequilibrium to proceedings. It was already evident that the LT was shooting himself in the foot on this one. Fuck it – I decided to take a backseat and let the younger (actually, only-just-out-of-corporal-school) corporal take the reins in our team, while I played the order-executing grunt in the shadows. The irony was not lost on me.

Despite all my grumblings and the fall-out with my CO, I actually really enjoyed my time in the mountains. For me, it was one last opportunity to bid farewell to the slopes and peaks that made me the soldier I am today. Over the past four and a half years I’ve skied, tumbled, climbed, slid, crawled up and down these mountains countless times. This particular requiem took in night rappelling, marching non-stop uphill from 10pm until 4am, day-time rock climbing with full kit, backpack and weapon (the old forearms took a beating on that one), a 70 metre day-time abseiling exercise, more climbing. The weather was fantastic, the pace not too hectic, the craic with the lads ninety as always, I was happy to be there. It was the principle of having been dragged up there for no other reason than to “show me who’s boss” (even at the expense of tactical rational) however that grinded my gears. Still, the LT was the one constantly coming out with egg on his face, in one instance misinterpreting a training scenario given by the instructors leading to him sending men into a heavily mined zone without preliminary detection.

My energy to justify my opposition generally waned as I realized any future discourse whatsoever between us was no more than a crazy fantasy. Upon our return to base on Thursday I decided to go all out in search of some sort of resolution to the juvenile tension between us. Despite having only returned from a 4-week vacation, I still had three days left to take before my contract’s up. What better time to put-in for my dates and provoke some sort of reaction than now, fresh from a dispute over …….. holidays!! I entered the office and unflinchingly stated the reason of my visit.

“What days are you looking for?” he asked reluctantly.

I gave my dates. He replied that due to the impending change of captains at the company, he’d have to wait until the new head honcho was in place before requesting the days on my behalf. That was it. No discussion. No dressing down from my LT over a perceived breach of discipline, failure to execute orders, however you’d like to word it.

I left the office, closed the door behind me and, for the first time, fully accepted the departure of the final tiny morsel of respect lingering within. Had he yelled my ears red, formally sanctioned a punishment for me, or at least told me that despite my impending exit I still had a contract and a hierarchy to respect, I may have bitten my tongue and said “Fair fucks, kid’s got balls”. Instead I was left ruing his lack of leadership and grateful that my guys were only redeploying to French Guiana this September, not Mali or Afghanistan. Whatever anyone says, graduating directly from officer school with the rank of captain a matter of crossed-out calendar days away does not make for a good leader. It seems I’m getting out at the right time.

Whether he decides to sit on my holiday request until the last moment (like the last time) or not is irrelevant. My stance is simple: I’ve three days left and I’ll be taking them on the specific days I’ve demanded, regardless of whether they’ve been authorized or not. The LT will then have to decide together with the new captain whether to justify my absence by using my 3 remaining holidays or whether to mark me as AWOL less than 7 days before I’m due to arrive at HQ for my final administrative hoop-jumping routine. My obedience has its breaking point. This particular lieutenant’s ineptitude, it would seem, does not.

5 weeks, tick tock………….

Sunday, June 23

The Showdown (Part 1)

A former squad leader of mine had a saying. He wheeled it out whenever fundamental differences no longer refused to remain hidden in the shadows between two colleagues. He called it “une histoire d’hommes”, which basically meant that rank went out the window and whatever was boiling over between two guys needed to be spilt on to the kitchen floor for the men-in-question to mop up. Come to think of it, this ex-squad leader wheeled this little nugget out a lot. Mais ça c’est une autre histoire.

And so, I suppose, have I reached my very own “histoire d’hommes” with my platoon commander. I don’t lay the blame for the situation arising solely at his door, nor do I believe for one second that he wasn’t entirely capable of diffusing it before it reached breaking point. We are both, to an extent, culpable. We are both, after all, only men.

It all started a while back now when, 2 months in advance, I had submitted my desired dates for my end-of-contract annual leave. All legionnaires are required to consume all remaining holidays before their contract ends, thereby avoiding the sticky issue of being reimbursed in cash for days not taken as they leave the Legion through the front gates of Aubagne. My reason for submitting my request so far in advance was to make it back to Dublin for my niece’s First Holy Communion. With two months’ notice, I felt confident that my high standing with my superiors and this lieutenant in particular would see an obstacle-free route to confirmation of my leave. Little did I know that my LT was a master procrastinator suffering from a chronic fear of bringing anything whatsoever up the line. Fantastic!

A month after my request was submitted, we found ourselves once again back in Charles de Gaulle airport for another bout of VIGIPIRATE. Here, I approached the LT to enquire as to the status of my request. He bashfully informed me that the captain was hard to get hold of as he was always away in Paris on day-leave. This reeked of BS given the fact that a holiday request is small fries for the captain and that a simple phone call could have accorded my dates. Still I remained patient, imagining that the request would be dealt with upon our return to regiment. Ha! Quelle imagination!!

Back at base with only 3 weeks until my niece’s communion and gradually augmenting plane fares, I delicately pressed for progress once more. To clarify, I was seeking to be released on a Thursday evening in order to fly home the Friday and be present for the church ceremony on the Saturday. I was now informed that the colonel would be reviewing troops on the Thursday and Friday and that he wasn’t sure if I’d get out as early as desired. I informed him of the rising ticket prices and that any confirmation/clarification would be much obliged. I was met with “Pfff, what rising prices?? Easy Jet fly return to Dublin for €30, don’t give me that!!”.

My plane ticket had risen from €140 to €260 since my initial request was submitted.

Still I waited, until the week before I was due (?) to hit the road and the Thursday evening the LT drops in to my room, informing me that due to the colonel’s presence in the company over those two days, it would not be possible to leave before the Friday evening. I expressed my disappointment but confirmed my understanding of the situation, and thanked him for dealing with my request (through clenched teeth, I might add). Right so, shitty news digested, time to book my flights. €280 out of pocket, but both home and my little niece were in sight.

The next day we had our traditional Friday room review, and upon passing inspection over my own quarters (of which I was the sole inhabitant as the other two lodgers were away on long-term training courses) the LT casually drops the bomb that I’d more than likely be finished with the colonel on Thursday and could head off that evening if I so desired. Not even 24 hours after I’d booked my €280 flights home, of which the cost of changing would’ve equaled the original price. Slightly less patient, I explained the redundant timing of his generous announcement.

He shrugged. I expected no more, no less.

Jump to the Friday of the following week and I’m packing the last few toiletries into my bag when in walks the LT.

“O’Shea, when are you due back in France at the end of your holidays?”

Rummaging in my head for the exact date, he rephrased his question.

“Will you be flying back on the Saturday/Sunday or earlier?”

I should’ve twigged it, but didn’t, and proceeded to reassure him.

“No no I’ll be back on Friday. I always give myself a few days in Paris before heading back to base.”

This pleased him, as he proceeded to inform me of a sports day up in the mountains for which the company was leaving early on the Sunday morning at the end of my holidays. He required that I be at base the Saturday evening. I paused, worked through the information I’d just received, and then politely asked him what the fuck a sports day happening while I was still technically on holidays had to do with me, 6 weeks before I was due to go civvy.

“The captain said the whole company was to be involved”, he said. Indeed when saying that, the captain was hardly thinking of my individual circumstance, I responded. Surely he need only be reminded that I was on holidays until the Sunday evening and all would be clarified.

“The captain said everyone goes, meaning you too”.

For fuck’s sake, use your little head, man. But no, master procrastinators and auctoritasophobes would never dream of using their heads. And so I left on holidays, destined to miss my niece’s communion and with a cloud of potential insubordination hanging over me. Let’s be honest, I had no intention whatsoever of cutting my holidays short, even by a day, in order to go running around the mountains in some typically idiotic and ceremonially misconceived nonsensical event, a speciality of the Legion.

Not that my LT didn’t have his chance to win me over one last time. While back in Dublin, I embarked on a tedious, oftentimes torturous and unfathomably competitive house hunt with my friend. Every landlord wanted references, both previous landlord and current employer. The former was impossible for me, having been off the grid the past 5 years. The latter was tricky, but not completely beyond my limits. I text my LT asking for a letter of reference (good character, etc etc) and received a reply telling me he’ll get around to it tomorrow. 9 DAYS LATER (and after already – SOMEHOW – securing a fabulous little place in Dublin) the letter arrives by e-mail. Now it WAS written in more-than-acceptable English, it WAS extremely complimentary, but is was ALSO 8 days late. Legion officers are hardly bogged down with paperwork. I took it as a prime example of where this “commander”s priorities lay.

I weighed up the pros and cons. Pros – nice letter. Cons – so late as to render it completely useless. If any doubt remained, it was mercilessly extinguished there and then. Fuck the sports day, I was going to soak up every last drop of holidays before heading back to base on the Sunday night.

I texted him to confirm receipt of the letter, and - perhaps in one last attempt to allow him see sense and scratch me off the sports day list - I asked if I was still included in this little outing up in the mountains. The reply was unambiguous.

“We leave early Sunday morning, you aswell.”

I wrote back to him: “With the greatest respect, LT, I won’t be back in regiment until late Sunday evening. This is to inform you now, so that you’re not waiting around for me wondering what’s happening.”

He replied: “OK, so you’ve basically fucked me over. No problem, I’ll remember this for the next time.”

What next time? I’ve 6 weeks left!!!

I replied: “I don’t enjoy doing this, LT, but perhaps better that we discuss it face to face, because I too feel like I’ve been royally fucked over. See you next week at regiment, Cpl O’Shea.”

End of transmission, and here I now type on the TGV back down to base. I predict that the company (and my wonderful LT) will be back by tomorrow evening or Tuesday latest. Interesting times ahead. I feel calm and relatively prepared. Either he’ll nip it in the bud or he’ll continue to ride his precariously high horse leaving a spot free at the pulpit for some venting from my side. Let’s see how this “histoire d’hommes” unfolds.

To be continued……..

Thursday, June 6

Don’t Ask, Don’t………Ask

I’ve never subscribed to the idea of “hanging out” with my Legionnaire brethren outside of working hours. After having first remarked upon this evident pattern throughout my service, I began asking the question of whether things might have been different had I not established such a solid core of civilian friends in Paris, my destination every weekend I’m free. Would I eventually have ended up passing my spare time in the Legion’s kick-back resort in Marseille with the lads, downing beers and getting in to the odd scrape or two down by the Vieux Port? Or perhaps heading down to the infamous “Dallas” on the French/Spanish border to enjoy the company of some prostitute while my buddies shacked up in the adjacent rooms?

The fact that I couldn’t honestly contemplate participating in these activities has oftentimes led me to question my suitability for the French Foreign Legion. The Legion is constantly referred to as a family, the impossibility of heading home to one’s actual family in the evening obliging legionnaires to rally round and form deep-rooted bonds amongst eachother. The myths and legends allude to a sense of all being in the same boat, seeming eons from our native lands, gelling us closer together and instilling a sense of cohesion unparalleled in any other army or walk of life in general. A noble thought, one that I’m sure catches the eye of more than a few disillusioned and socially excluded young men the world over. However my own sensibilities have taken a knocking these past few months as guys I’d long considered close allies (closer, certainly, than the dozens considered no more than professional acquaintances) have begun showing their true colours. Suffice to say I’m not too enamoured by the revelations. Leopards, spots, and all that jazz.

Racism and principles live out a rather torrid affair within the confines of the French Foreign Legion. A fellow soldier, a brother-in-arms is supposed to be someone to whom you can entrust your life. Surely, in order to bestow such trust one must first know one’s Legionnaire comrade intimately. Surely, the men must be kindred spirits, a kin to real-life brothers. Here’s where what I call “controlled bi-polarity” comes in to play.

There’s a corporal in my section. A nice enough guy, young, a bit of a joker. We get on well, we cooperate on the execution of orders by the younger legionnaires as corporals in the same section should, I even have him as a friend on Facebook. Then one day I showed him a photo of a girl I was dating at the time. She’s French with parents from Ivory Coast and Benin respectively. His face dropped.

“You’re joking!! This is a joke!! Shut the fuck up, she’s not your girlfriend!”

I could tell immediately that the disbelief overwhelming him stemmed from a complete incomprehension at a white guy dating a black girl. I found this so disappointing but not more than bemusing. That was, until his shock gave way to disgust. A genuinely close mate of mine was beside me, and so dissuaded me from causing a scene by laying in to the kid, but the putrid racist bile that spewed forth was, to this young corporal, an honest lack of ability to fathom inter-racial relations. That, plus a regard for anyone black as somehow substandard within the human species. Sadly, guys like this are far from a secluded minority.

The bi-polarity, however, activates in situations such as this. I told him how wrong he was, how backward and offensive he was. I told him to get out of my fucking face before I clocked him, and then I spent the rest of the evening cooling off while he spent it avoiding me. The next day, it was like it never happened. I was still dating a black girl, he was still a racist, but there was work to do and hostilities slowly thawed. He later apologized for saying what he said. I tried to explain that he should be apologizing more for thinking like that in the first place than for simply articulating it, verbalizing it. Impasse reached and accepted, life trundled on. I still think he’s a racist. He still thinks I’m a perverted bleeding heart liberal. We still share the odd beer at the bar after a day’s work.

Recently, in France, debate has been raging (and laws subsequently passed) concerning gay marriage. Now homosexuality must be undoubtedly THE most ridiculed topic within the walls of the Legion. It’s the go-to put-down for anyone not showing enough effort, the primary weapon in the arsenal against a half-second hesitation. Fucking faggots, anyone who renders himself to the infirmary with anything less than a severed limb. Cock suckers, all those who’d rather read a book back in the tent than head to the bar to get shit-faced and engage in ironically homoerotic drunken hugging and such. Colleagues have frequently expressed their disgust at the idea of gays getting married. When pushed to elaborate on their outrage, the sturdiness of argument falters. Marriage? What next? Adoption? Oh……it’s already…….right, well that’s an abomination. Kids shouldn’t be exposed to that. They’ll surely grow up to be gay. What? Gay kids being born to straight parents? Well, let’s just agree to disagree, shall we?


In fact, what I simply adore about the homophobia pervading this and practically every army is that, depending on which statistics one places one’s confidence in, anything from one in seven to one in seventy is gay. This would mean that anywhere between 100 and 1000 current-serving legionnaires could possibly bat for the other team. The irony would be hilarious if it wasn’t so tragic. For every dozen or so bleeding heart liberals such as myself who find themselves having to bite their lip in the face of such sustained bigotry in the work-place, somewhere in some platoon in some bar with some drunken colleagues there must be a gay legionnaire biting his lip a whole lot harder. The shame I feel in not standing up for my principles must be tenfold for someone directly affected by the jokes, the jibes, and the ignorant hatred. And yet, no one unclenches his teeth. Why is that?

Simple. It’s simply not an option if one wishes to continue one’s career in the French Foreign Legion. This isn’t the American military under Obama. This isn’t any other Western army with a government slowly being dragged towards modernity. This is the Legion. A haven of masculine myth and Neanderthal chest-thumping where anything other than a calloused-hand Caucasian weight lifter is seen as somewhat inferior. Piping up in the name of one’s principles might alleviate some of the guilt, the unease, but will ultimately only cause greater problems for the dissenter in question. I’m not proud of it, but……..

No, you know what? I’m just not that proud of it.