Forgive me, Father, for I have sinned. It has been three weeks since my last blog. The fact that two of those weeks were spent negotiating back-to-back bouts of poxy regimental service should not go unnoticed, and seeing as the third one coincided with a long-overdue (aren’t they all?) return to the homeland I’d say I’m pretty much forgiven for the petite lapse on this occasion.
Let’s cut to the chase on this one, folks. Not that I’m in a hurry. Indeed, with over two and a half years to run on my contract I’m going to need to pace myself concerning the articulate unravelling of dusty tissue paper on this mummified mausoleum of myth-making machismo. Either that, or I’ll face running out of witty, cynical observations on life in the Legion long before my service expires. Nevertheless, a certain question which has often been asked and never quite fully answered came back to haunt me recently. Fortunately, it was a rather intelligent and highly-regarded friend posing the problematic puzzler, and so I thought it only just to attempt a clear and coherent response. As most of my regular readers already know, in a fortnight’s time I ship out to Afghanistan on a 6-month tour of duty. Now, spending half a year sitting pretty perched behind my .50cal machine gun sporting the latest in cutting edge Kevlar is a far cry from four months of midday migration from work to the bar and then bed in Djibouti over Christmas. This time around I’m faced with a real mission in a very real combat zone and with very real dangers. Playtime’s over lads, and the auld senses need to be turned up to 11 from here on in. Bearing in mind the potential hazards lying in wait for me and my fellow legionnaires a couple o’ thousand kilometres east of gay Par-ee, my friends and family once again find themselves (however reluctantly, in some cases) forced to ask the question;
Why did you sign up to the French Foreign Legion?
It’s not that there’s no easy answer. In fact, as far as I can tell, there’s no answer at all. Many, many times before have I been asked this question, and the same tired and cumbersome clichés come tumbling out of a hole in the ceiling on each occasion. “I wanted to do something different”, or “I wanted military experience and my nation’s army weren’t hiring” are two of the more common decoys deployed in action-packed debates, but the more intuitive co-conversationalists tend to guard a thirst less easily quenched than those who ask out of sheer reflex as opposed to genuine interest. The problem for me – and perhaps for the resolution of this matter in general – is that the question itself poses more sub-questions and spin-off scenarios than one can shake a stick at. For instance, how would I react to an on-rushing enemy with my finger on the trigger? Would I be justified in defending myself given that my life would be in danger? And yet, who was it that voluntarily signed up to have his life potentially put in danger in the first place? Do I agree with the origins of the Afghan conflict? How would I feel falling for a flag not my own, in a quarrel I have arguably no place and/or right participating in? Ooh la la - so many questions, so many hypotheses, so..........what!
I don’t dispute the validity of the above questions, or that of their close cousins probing along similar lines of inquiry. However, the only question I find myself inclined to ask is “What does it matter?”. Perhaps my most telling confession regarding my current career is that I have no one reason for embarking on a life in the French Foreign Legion. Once in the door, I certainly discovered quite quickly numerous advantages to serving in this historic and widely revered army. A second language in French, for one. Constant maintenance regarding physical fitness would be a close second (beats paying €70 a month into Jackie Skelly’s sweaty palms). And then there are the quirks of learning about weapons, explosives (it’s mainly a guy thing), not to mention meeting people hailing from all around the world and infinitely diverse cultures, together with the sense of achievement in succeeding to co-work, co-habit, co-exist. On a more personal level, I can boast of having followed in the footsteps of several of my own literary idols in having served with the armed forces in a major conflict. Some of you might find this all very superficial, self-centred and completely circumstantial regarding the long-established conventional reasons for picking up a gun and marching into foreign territory. But then, the debate on morals and universal justice versus self-gratification is a deep, dark, murky one not worth uncorking at this point in time.
All I can say is that the cause of conflict in Afghanistan essentially plays second fiddle to my reasons for wanting to go there. Does this make me a bad soldier? I shouldn’t think so. I’m trained to carry out a mission over there and will do so to the best of my abilities. Why? Because like it or not, no matter how much I attempt to lighten the mood surrounding my purpose here in the ranks of the Legion, regardless of how I dress it up/down, side-step it or bypass it, I’m a professional soldier. Plain and simple. And if a signed contract and monthly wage from the word go wasn’t already sufficient in inspiring loyalty and duty-bound work ethic, responsibility for the eight other guys in my squad would see me sacrifice pay-packet and more again in order to protect them.
At the end of the day, the legitimacy of the coalition’s presence in Afghanistan might never be fully argued to absolution, but here in the lower ranks of the Legion we have a most deliciously slate-wiping saying; “Ce n’est pas mon niveau.”. I can’t say I’d be too phased by stories of politicians profiting from strategically sabotaged elections, or by Islamic extremists defiling either the Irish or French flags. However, threaten the safety of one of my fellow Legionnaires and you better pray to your motherfucking Dieu du Jour that yours is a quick and painless passing.
They say that the Legion is your homeland. Well I say that home is where the heart is, and while some may question the ongoing residency of my own ticker in this tomb of tomfoolery, no one can doubt that it beats and bleeds for those guys soon to be shoved in to a tin-can-on-wheels with yours truly for the next 6 months. We are family. We are Legionnaires.