A Canadian in the French Foreign Legion
Apr 23 2014
For nearly an hour, as Dave and his friend made moves on a chessboard carved into a stone bench, a group of Russian thugs huddled around watching a battle they couldn’t comprehend. They would reach over, knock down the pieces, and laugh. They were sitting in a gravel-filled compound surrounded by barbed wire-capped fences with 300 ex-cons, foreigners without status, eastern European gangsters, and a collection of multinationals looking to sell their souls for a European Union passport and a clean slate in life. New arrivals were trucked in every couple of days by the busload, and they sized each other up in penitentiary-style fashion, as roving gangs of brutes picked fights with each other attempting to establish some sort of pecking order.
It was rumoured the chessboard had been for around 25 years, with various unique stones gathered from the surrounding gravel representing the rooks and pawns. It was just one aspect of an unchanging nature that has guided the French Foreign Legion to train anyone regardless of nationality into what they call a "closely homogenous and tightly knit group.” It was part of the mystique that led Dave to buy a one-way ticket from Ottawa to Paris, to join the French Foreign Legion, where he was guided through an intense training regiment that involved widespread corporal punishment. It was a decision that would eventually lead into the jungles of South America where he was paid a high premium to make up for the chances of contracting malaria and other tropical diseases. And it was the unchanging structure that partly drove Dave to make a decision that resulted in his virtual banishment from France, for fear of serving time in Legion prison were he to return.
"There was a general rule in the Legion that the best way to cope with corporal violence was to just tense up your muscles, show no pain, and wait until the deliverer got bored and moved on," Dave said in reference to the three kicks a Romanian corporal administered to his chest at the end of a day in basic training—anyone who moaned or showed reaction would only get it worse.
The Legion's website describes itself as "the military aspect of the ancient tradition of welcome and integration into French society"—a welcome that has led to the deaths of 35,000 legionnaires since the unit's creation to supply reinforcements to the French army in 1831 a year after the French conquered the city of Algiers. The Legion describes them as “Foreigners who have become sons of France not by blood received but by blood shed." They have been involved in both World Wars, as well as every other battle in which France has committed arms.
In Dave's experience this "ancient tradition of welcome" often manifested in punches, kicks to the shins, or one time, by throwing rocks at his face after a corporal punished him for taking a sip of his tin cup without permission. It took three tosses to connect.
"To be fair to the legion, there's a hundred new assholes every day that they are seeing," Dave said. In training they were all given French lessons but in the beginning there wasn't a lot of communication between the dozens of Russians, British, Germans, South Africans and other nationalities. "It’s easier to punch them in the head and point to the door," Dave said in relation to the language barrier. "They’re going to get the picture pretty fast."
Unlike many applicants who sign up in the hopes of escaping debt, a poverty-stricken country, a criminal record or even a spouse, Dave's initial decision to join one of the world's most hardcore military outfits came down to boredom. The Ottawa native was as an infantryman in the Yugoslavian civil war after joining the Canadian military at 17and later served in the intelligence branch in central Africa. He quit the military again with a wave of others due mostly to dissatisfaction with the way the government responded to conflicts in Somalia, Yugoslavia, and Rwanda. But a couple years into civilian life had him "so fucking bored it was unbelievable," and he missed the kinds of adventures he'd already experienced in his military life overseas. He tried to get involved with an aid organization running in Africa, but when that fell through, he decided to join the Foreign Legion.
When he first arrived at a recruitment center at the Fort de Nogent east of Paris, it was cold, misty and "kind of romantic." He gave up his passport—the last time he’d see it—and the gate closed to a lock behind him. He was "in the fucking legion."
Dave and his fellow new recruits were taken to a room where they undressed so someone could take notes of their bruises, tattoos, or scars. Stripped of their possessions and basically naked, they were seated and presented with a five-year contract sign. They are also given a new identity. David Clouds—itself an alias Dave uses because he wants to remain anonymous to the Legion—was given a random name chosen off a list based on his actual initials. As long as he lasted the five years in the Legion, he would be given a French passport under an assumed identity. David Clouds had already ceased to exist.
For the next three weeks, while wearing a tracksuit too big for him, he passed the physical tests in a consistently hungry state due to the appetizer-sized meals they were given—at points it got so bad that he ate from the garbage can.
Dave was then asked a series of questions by French special police officers that apparently already knew his life story. "They knew the school my brother's kids went to in Alberta. It was fucking impressive." They wanted to know if he'd ever done anything stupid, or committed a crime. He told them about a time when he'd caught huge shit for getting drunk in the Canadian army and stealing a car on a Belgian airforce base. The officer laughed and said that was hilarious.
But things didn't get any easier at that point. The 18 “volunteers” were soon taken to “The Farm” for initial training at the foot of the Pyrenees Mountains. They spent a snow-clad December in a long stone building around 200 years old that was almost completely unheated. Here the meal sizes improved, but they were only given three minutes to eat them—Dave never managed to finish a single meal in the 30 days he was there. The trainees spent their time learning Legion history, basic operational procedure, taking French language lessons, training on weapons, and working up to a 50-kilometre march at the end of the initial training.
"The unique singularity of the Legion takes root in its capacity to animate and maintain this specific state of mind which permits the ultimate and unusual sacrifice," the Legion's website says. But to Dave, it was more like a cult than a professional military organization. The way he sees it, if you superimpose the Foreign Legion's characteristics on top of a cult, there's a lot more similarities than if you superimpose it onto a military outfit like the British Parachute Regiment. The physical punishment, hardcore work, disrupted sleep, and lack of food combined with the fact that they were constantly telling you to forget your past, created what Dave sees as a kind of brainwashing.
One of the training staff's favourite things to do was to line everyone up in the morning on the parade grounds, sometimes in their underwear, and let them freeze for 40 minutes—the only time they were allowed jackets, gloves or toques on their shaved heads was during their regular night marches. Most people were constantly in some form of sickness and while the corrective beatings continued, corporals sometimes punished transgressions by forcing people to jump into a pond called "Le Petit Lac."A week before their time there ended, the whole section was ordered to strip naked and dive into the ice-rimmed pond. One Moldovan guy named Mozes—"known for being a bit of an individualist”—refused to get in and the rest of the group watched from freezing water as the Romanian corporal "motivated" him through combat-boot clad kicks to the guy's thighs. "It was right out of a World War II, concentration camp film," Dave says.
Once Mozes's rampant string of individualism had been curbed, the group was ordered to stand by the pond and chant Legion songs—but Dave committed the heinous crime of clattering his teeth too much to sing as frostbite settled in on his nose, ears, and hands. A lieutenant slapped him in the face and stated: “You can't sing.”
They eventually completed the 50-kilometre march over the course of a night and day and were officially graduated in their shiny white kepi hat and traditional dress uniform. In a kind of twisted Legionnaire sense of vacation, they were then all made to march up the slopes of a mountain in the Pyrenees with a heavy pack, skis, and an automatic weapon; then spent the next few days learning out to ski "black diamond routes with an assault rifle on your chest James Bond style."
Three more months of basic training followed, and the only marked improvement was that the troops received longer meals. They were slowly guided towards the combat regiments they wanted—some would go to Corsica, a mountain unit and cavalry unit would stay in France and some to Djibouti. After six months without contact with friends, family, or anyone in the outside world, the new legionnaires were given a three-day vacation in Marseille. Afterwards, they began to be packed off to their regiments. Dave, was off to French Guiana, where he would gain a specialty as a sniper and a secondary in demolitions.
As for Mozes, a sergeant who took offense to the Moldovan's individualism took him into a room and "used his body as a punching bag" in the last month of basic training. Dave heard he deserted shortly after.
They called it a Deep Mission. Around 100 legionnaires were based in the small town of Kourou in the middle of French Guiana's coastline. They were divided into sections that rotated month-long shifts patrolling the border to watch out for cocaine smugglers and people conducting illegal gold mining operations in the jungles. Shortly before Dave arrived, a man was nearly killed from a poisonous tarantula bite on a mission. The man's fellow legionnaires immediately submerged him in a nearby creek to cool the skyrocketing body temperature the venom caused and blasted open a landing pad with explosives after radioing for help. A chopper guided by a red smoke saved him just in time—if you aren't treated within six-eight hours of the bite you can die.
The jungle patrol missions could involve any number of run-ins with snakes, spiders, armed drug traffickers, or in one case a column of marauding ants that was around 4.5 meters wide and nearly a kilometre long that made a chattering noise as they swamped the camp "like a blanket." In the face of such an army, even the mighty legionnaires couldn't do anything except get out of their way and wait until they passed. Dave went into his first Deep Mission weighing 80 kilograms and came out at 64, covered in a shaggy beard, due to the fact accidental razor cuts could quickly lead to infection in the jungle.
Nonetheless, Dave said that the Deep Missions were a relief because you got to escape the strict regimentation of the base. Back in Kourou there would be almost daily room inspections and you had to deal more with the "bullshit politics" in a base Dave says was full of racism.
Otherwise they spent their time in Kourou going through a strict jungle routine to limit the chances of catching malaria. They were always on anti-malarials and the routine involved covering up as dusk settled in and getting off the ground into hammocks. “Everything in the jungle hunts at night,” he said, and to lower the chances of scorpion stings or malaria, the legionnaires were made to be extremely strict about getting in sync with the way the jungle operates. They were even given an acne medicine because bugs hated the smell of the stuff. "You have great complexion in French Guiana—you have no pimples on your face," Dave says. But nonetheless a mosquito somehow always made its way through. “Tons and tons of legionnaires get malaria for life from going to French Guiana," Dave says.
One of the reasons for the constant training is to be ready if something happened, and France's involvement in the aftermath of the coup d'etat that removed Jean-Bertrand Aristide's from power in 2004 provided just such a happening. Dave spent four months in Haiti securing the French embassy and Port-au-Prince airport, evacuating diplomats and monitoring a new presidential election. It was during this time that one of his friends in the outfit got shot. Although there was always a sense of danger, this intensified the reality of the scene for Dave.
"It was a reminder that I could lose my life in this organization and it wouldn’t be for anything romantic—it would be for something stupid," Dave said. Others had also died in French Guiana—mostly from drowning during river crossings. The high points of life for Dave was a trip to Central America to train with the Salvadoran army and the odd day guarding a perimeter around the European space agency site during a launch and the daily regimentation began to weigh on his spirit.
"The regimentation is there because it’s a tradition that’s worked for over 150 years," Dave said. And while he admits that if they took the regimentation away, it could lead to fighting or worse problems, he had personally had enough of a place where the whole group continued to lose their days off, among other collective punishments, for the transgressions of an individual. While he understood the Legion was an escape for a lot of people, for him it started to be the opposite. With two years left on his contract, he started to look at escaping into Paramaribo in Suriname, but there was no Canadian embassy there and the Legion had taken his passport when he first joined.
His opportunity came when he received a seven-week vacation in France. He spent his first day getting blotto, then the next morning he began to look for ways to cross into Spain on Lonely Planet's Thorn Tree Forum. A few days later he was on a train to the border. He knew if he was caught trying to leave the country he would face possible jail time and be sent straight back to Kourou to finish his contract. But he was determined to get to the Canadian Consulate in Barcelona. He crossed the border overland through the Pyrenees and caught a bus in the Spanish side. A tense moment passed when some border police got on and checked for a passport he didn't have. He made an elaborate and drawn-out show of shuffling through his bag in the hopes that the man would eventually get bored, and for some reason, it actually worked. The guard continued on and exited the back of the bus.
At first, the Canadian Consulate in Barcelona refused to help due to the fact that he voluntarily gave up his passport to another country, but the woman at the desk was German and a few words in her native tongue softened her up to Dave’s case. After two months of hanging around in Barcelona, he was once more David Clouds, the Canadian—passport in hand.
Dave can never return to France, and is still wary of traveling to countries such as Mali where he may come into contact with the Gendarmerie, who would see his name come up on the Interpol as a Legion deserter and potentially arrest him. “I regret not being able to go back to France but it’s just something I had to give up," he said. "France is a beautiful country and it has a beautiful history, and beautiful people that live there."
In search of the kind of adventure that had initially pushed him into the structured life of a legionnaire, Dave set off on a life-changing one-year trip that took him from Morocco to Jordan overland then from Kenya to the Democratic Republic of Congo—he'd always wanted to travel through Africa. His career in the Legion had left him equipped for most danger—so much that to this day he still has random companies phone him up to ask him to do contract security work for jobs with varying degrees of sketchiness. It had also left him with loads of salary built up over the last three years and tax-free due to the fact that he was "a fictional person that didn't exist." He'd received a €15,000-bonus the Legion gave for French Guiana volunteers due to the risk of malaria and other diseases.
“I had the attitude that I could do anything,” he said, and besides all the bullshit, his experience with the Legion is not a legacy that has left him badly. “I joined the legion ultimately for adventure and I definitely got that," he said.
Now he skydives, plays guitar in a band in Ottawa and bartends at a tiny, boisterous pub that attracts a random assortment of characters from the surrounding neighbourhood. He pours drinks with military precision and falls back on a kind of bartending tradition sometimes lost in today's world of generic Irish pubs and cellphone societies. He engages with the regulars in a humble friendliness that imbues the place with a charm that goes beyond its scattered decor of hanging lobster traps and old armchairs. Every surface is kept sparkling clean and every glass sits in its place.
As I sit on a stool on a relatively empty night he first tells me a story about Africa shortly after he left the Legion. In Uganda, a guy jumped out of the bushes while he was walking down the road and tried to snatch his bag. Dave turned and open-palm struck him in the throat. "I fucking dropped him in two seconds," he said.
The guy picked himself up and escaped into the bush, but it was unclear whether he'd realized a valuable lesson about fucking with an ex-legionnaire. In fact, he probably had no idea what he was up against.