Occasionally, the state of affairs here in the Legion can be confusing. At least, from a financial point of view. The world continues to slowly drag its wounded wallet out of the darkest caverns of recession and into the fledgling rays of recovery, and the gold rush chomps at the bit in anticipation of a fresh spending spree. Rather surprisingly, though, it is the French Army leading the pack in a consumerist binge on individual equipment for her faithful soldiers. The only thing overshadowing our delight at having such gifts bestowed on us is our sheer bemusement at the generosity of a military kitting us out to the nines at a time when involvement in Afghanistan is entering its epilogue and the African former colonies are, for now, relatively calm. Strange days, in the most subdued and suburban sense.
Standard-issue kit and supplies were never intended to descend from the upper echelons of manufacture quality in order to facilitate a soldier's life enormously. Soldiers get by. Marines make do. "Légionaires se démerdent". Basic - sometimes incomprehensible - equipment infuriates and raises stress levels each time it malfunctions out in the field. Furthermore, excuses hold little weight with superiors demanding explanations for why a strap snapped or a zip broke, and the incessant cursing of the failing apparatus-in-question offers little consolation. Conversely, these added challenges tend to reinforce one's rusticity, tend to prepare us to expect the unexpected, to survive unassisted during a perilous morning at the firing range or on a token, short-distance march. Rusticity galore, rusticity toujours!
There was a time, not too long ago, when desertion was greeted with mischievous glee by the remaining legionnaires. Officially, a deserter can not be so classified until a certain period (normally 7 days) has passed. Only then can the Legion's military police enter the deserter's room to recover his personal effects. Naturally there remains very little to recover, the absconding party's loyal comrades having long-since polished off his wardrobes in a clinical mission of pilfering and profiteering. Certain items were to be found in higher demand than others. The gold buttons off of our formal uniform were usually close to the top of the list, a swift swish of a swiss army knife sending them tumbling in to cupped hands, ready to serve as loyal emergency replacements should disaster ever strike minutes before a ceremony or parade. Goretex jackets are another hot commodity due to their lamentably short lifespan and tendency to disintegrate upon reaching a certain number of opening/closing manoeuvres. After come the decorations, with no sane legionnaire passing up the opportunity to double up on shiny badges should one ever go walkabout. In fact, the only things to remain in a deserter's locker come the visit of the MPs are usually unwashed linen and trashy literature published in the native tongue of the deserter.
My how the tables have turned! A recent apparent splurge by l'Arméé Française has seen new weapons systems, new uniforms, new backpacks, sportswear, field utensils such as camping cutlery and cooking pots, headlamps, you name it, we've been issued with it. In a delicious ironic twist, we now find ourselves bemoaning the overloading of new items where once we pounced on the first glimmer of an abandoned trinket. A running joke here has been how, in preparation for a desertion, the remaining soldiers will fill a few sacks full of unwanted crap for the fleeing man to carry off in to the sunset with him. It has gotten to the stage where I now find myself with no less than seven (yes, SEVEN) daypacks, or "musettes". Between the standard issue one (rather impractical and effectively useless), the "proper" one we are all encouraged to buy as a viable solution, the discreet "civilian" one to enable maximum discretion on weekends (certainly in light of the Toulouse killings recently), along with various company and regimental Christmas presents combine to encumber in a rather grotesquely excessive manner. Only a few weeks ago, I felt inspired and obliged to fill a wheelie suitcase to near-bursting with unneeded/unwanted/unusable clothes and useful tidbits before dragging said suitcase all the way to the doors of the Red Cross' Paris headquarters. I gain more space for the next wave of issuances, and some homeless chap wins a new sleeping bag and pair of finely pressed trousers. Everyone's a winner!
I suppose one can't complain too much, although there is a sense that the excess of goods volleyed towards us by the Ministry of Defense is a slight mismanagement of funds, when things like food quality and the "mandatory" monthly contributions from soldiers remain constantly prickly topics where financial fair play is concerned. But at the very least, it has pacified the previously rampant culture of post-desertion looting. Money might not be able to buy you happiness, but it might just push some legionnaires that little bit closer to civilization.
That, at least, is a small victory.