Among the Legionnaires

Times Online, August 25, 2006
There are lawyers and there are legionnaires. Rather worryingly, the former are increasingly provoking the ire of the latter. I learned this on a recent trip to Calvi, Corsica, to see an old friend who, perhaps foreseeing the hell of life as a trainee solicitor, opted out of conventional routes to status and acclaim and, in 1988, enlisted with the French Foreign Legion.

I found my long lost friend, Adjutant James Cunningham, to be in fine fettle. His 18 years in the Legion’s crack parachute regiment have included many tours of duty to places not recommended as holiday destinations for lawyers, such as Sarajevo, Chad and Djibouti, and yet Cunningham is clearly a man in his element. He never once regretted joining the Legion, and nor did he worry that he did not understand a word of his first contract (which, as with all La Legion Etranger’scontracts, was written in French). "I fitted in right away, and I loved every minute of my job," said my friend, a man whose thousand-yard stare is so finely honed that it works even in the dark.

Cunningham gave me a guided tour of the 2nd Régiment Étranger de Parachutistes’ base in Calvi. Discipline is super-strict in the Legion, and failure to salute a superior in rank can have disastrous consequences. As we walked around the base, various Legionnaires unfailingly saluted my friend, who, as an Adjutant, is one of the regiment’s senior NCOs. One, though, seemed to salute in a less than courteous manner. He raised his arm just a tiny bit too slowly – not so slow as to be an insult, but slow enough to convey that he had an attitude problem.

My friend acknowledged the salute, but did not say anything. "Surely that was a tad cheeky?" I asked. "Yes, it was," said Cunningham, adding that in the old days he wouldn’t have let such subtle insubordination go, but that now he operated with a light touch. "It would have been acceptable to smack him one a few years ago, but you can’t do that sort of thing anymore," he explained.

I sensed the dread hand of European human rights law, and I was right. "We can’t do half the things that the Legion used to do for fear of being sued," said Cunningham. This was not, to him, a problem on the base, for as he said, "If you have to hit a Legionnaire you haven’t done your job properly."

But the existence of laws and lawyers riled him when on tours of duty to former French colonies, which often require the intervention of the Legion:"You can come under fire and face imminent death, but you can’t shoot back in case the lawyers scrutinize what happened later and say it was wrong. You have to check with the platoon leader, who has to check with his colonel, who has to check with a General, who then rings Paris to get the all clear. By the time you finally get the order you could be dead. I suppose they must talk to some bloody lawyer to get the all clear."

"Lawyers are everywhere," I said. "They control the world." Cunningham thought about this for a minute before knocking on the door to the armoury.

While we waiting he said that, yes, maybe I was right – the 2nd regiment even had someone who, though not technically a lawyer, looked after legal issues. "What would they be?" I asked. "Disciplinary matters and desertion," he explained.

Eventually the door to the armoury was opened and the intricate workings of a series of deadly weapons were illumined. So, too, the fact that a Legionnaire had recently failed to be present while on duty at the armoury, a serious disciplinary offence.

"How will you punish him?" I asked. With a glint in his eye Cunningham said that he would think of something, and then his phone went. He looked preoccupied, and then said that someone had deserted. "That’s two in as many weeks," he said.

Desertion is greeted with relative equanimity by Legionnaires. Life is so tough there that desertion is not a sign of cowardice but a reasonable decision. But a putative deserter must succeed. A bungled attempt to flee is greeted with derision and, of course, a punishment that may, or may not, be proportionate to the offence.

Cunningham called the Legion’s quasi-avocat, and discussed the matter in French. I was unable to comprehend exactly what was being discussed. But I couldn’t help but enquire whether one particular punishment was still deployed. "I heard that sometimes the Sergeants announce a game of football, only to surprise an errant Legionnaire by making him dig a large hole. They then make him climb into the hole up his neck, and fill it in. Then the game starts, and his head is the goalpost. Surely that’s not true?"

Cunningham smiled. "Of course not," he replied, "the lawyers would never allow it." As he went off to make another phone call with that mysterious glint in his eye, it struck me that, when all is said and done, life as a lawyer isn’t so bad.