The “Absolute Freedom” of the Infantry: Reflections on Martial Training
“Men of war are of the kind that shave to die. They believe in the redemption of man by the virtue of exercise and the rhythmic step. They cultivate physical strength and good looks, offering themselves the luxury of waking up early in the cold mornings and going on exhausting marches. They are the last poets of absolute freedom.”
— Jean Larteguy, The Centurions
Loading ammunition (or ‘bombing up’, in squaddie vernacular), pressing rounds against the spring inside the cavity of an empty magazine, the pointed tip of a 5.56mm projectile slides underneath a fingernail and pierces the blackened, frozen flesh beneath. In mid-February, at 4:30 am on the howling murder moors of North Yorkshire, it takes a few seconds before the pain hits, forcing its way through the cold-induced numbness like a man trying to make himself heard from the other side of an interior wall.
The training area at the Infantry Training Centre Catterick is open civilian land used for sheep farming. This renders the ground a limish, green-yellow mire due to the urine and faeces from the livestock. As infanteers whose mission statement is to ‘close with and the kill the enemy’ under all circumstances, this poses no barrier; the mud and excrement soaks our combats, clogs the moving parts of the rifle and later festers inside our sleeping bags.
This is an exercise, and the enemy is not real. They are, in fact, Gurkhas in North Face jackets and private purchase Gore-Tex trousers. Nonetheless, this desperate faecal-covered, scrambled attempt to load magazines in the pitch-darkness and sub-zero temperatures before the move-off onto a dawn ambush (I am part of the ‘right cut-off’ – we kill anyone attempting to escape in this direction) is a real window into a carnal, semi-Hobbesian existence – one at far remove from the lifeworld of a locked-down metropolitan information worker.
In the first episode of Civilisation, Kenneth Clarke, cheerily ruminating on the nature of barbarism, states that primitive society can have a certain primacy and immediacy of emotion that civilisation often lacks, but its ultimate essence is “that there is no break from it. No light after dark. There is no escape from the hierarchy, the cold, the violence, and the dirt.”
Today, one of the few legitimate means of experiencing anything like this, at least while remaining a functioning and accepted member of the social order, is a military exercise. Under tactical conditions – which can last for consecutive days, sometimes weeks – not a single second, nor an ounce of mental or physical energy, is spent on anything other than the immediate survival tasks of the group.
In order to create conditions safe enough for men to sleep (and never for more than two or three hours at a time), the creation of a defensive platoon ‘harbour’ is first of all necessary.
Once the relative security of the area is determined, a triangular system of two-man shell scrapes is dug into the frozen earth with picks and shovels. ‘Snap’ ambush points are manned on the approaches. Watch positions, three to six of them depending on the time of day, are manned continuously according to a strict rota system. Overlapping arcs of fire are calculated. Roving patrols are sent around the perimeter to survey the land for range calculations, to scout for potential avenues of attack, and to observe for signs of enemy or civilian activity. A network of communication cord is attached along the tree lines. A one-way system is established, with the track periodically destroyed to avoid detection from the air. Weapons and soldiers are maintained in strict pairs – one on/one off – to avoid having too many inactive firearms or inactive bodies at any one time. Entry and exit points are demarcated, with the passwords changed regularly. Latrines are dug. All of this has to be done in silence, mostly at night, often in abject conditions, with no sleep, and as low to the ground as possible.
The ‘harbour’ is, then, a complex system that requires the absolute attention and rigid discipline of its component parts. The soldiers are no longer separate entities, but the arteries and organs of a single being. One man is reprimanded for appearing to have nothing to do – for dithering. He is instructed to get into his sleeping bag for warmth and comfort. Even this is framed as an act done for the benefit of the group. His duty, he is told, when the harbour tasks are over, is to see to his body and his morale.
“Nobody gets into their bag and thinks – oh my god – I am sad now,” states one of the training staff.
Which is correct, of course. Even in a fake war like this one, there’s little potential for existential angst when conducting extended harassing operations against an enemy in such conditions. Pain, joy, relief, pride – they are all causally linked to the immediate physical and temporal environment. The stresses of an exercise contain the psyche within the present, on the task and the purpose at hand, concentrating and simplifying the emotions and the senses. To be on the edge of hypothermia, wrestling with exhaustion, hunger, and cold – painfully aware of the vulnerability of the body – is to be violently forced out of the patterns of thought, value systems and false certainties of a particular time and place.
The effect also has an afterglow; in the week following an exercise, clean bedsheets, warm pubs and relaxed conversation are uncomplicatedly blissful, in a way that few will ever truly realise.
The rifle, the SA80A2, is never to be let out of sight, which means it goes in the sleeping bag too. Though a complex, highly engineered object, the technology is comprehensible. The constant drilling through which the soldier acquires the required muscle memory and repetitive finesse, both for its offensive purpose and its maintenance, creates an artisan’s familiarity.
Assault rifles are anachronistic. Largely unchanged since the Germans first successfully chambered an automatic platform for an intermediate-sized cartridge carriable by a single individual, these weapons are – like the combustion engine – one of the few widely-used modern technologies not enveloped in a digital sheen. Through its mechanical nature and the level to which one becomes intimate with its use, the aura of ‘gun’ retreats. The rifle is simply material taken from the world, arranged in a certain manner for a particular purpose, placed on a continuum with the physical environment, and to be classified alongside a horseshoe or a sweeping brush.
Through the relation he has with his tools (somewhat antithetical to that of the graphic designer and his Adobe licence), the physical trials and mimicking of the tribe, the infantryman acquires a certain prudence. He may often not be able to articulate it; but, in his mind, the social and the temporary are often clearly distinguished from the transcendent and the universal. And when on leave, he is one of the few who can truly, without guilt, enjoy and appreciate the physical pleasures and comforts of the 21st century. This uncommon state of mind is, perhaps, something of the “absolute freedom” described by Jean Larteguy in The Centurions, his tale of military ethics, collapsing Western myths, and counterinsurgencies set in the French Indochinese and Algerian wars. A work that later saw battered and expensive out-of-print translations pass through the hands of US Special Operations units during the War on Terror, before a reprint was issued in 2015.
Throughout the novel, Larteguy’s characters – doubtless like many of today’s professional infantrymen – begin to question to whom and to what they are in service. They are well aware of the terminal decline of the European empires. They know, despite what they tell themselves, they do not fight and die in the jungles of Asia and the deserts of North Africa ‘so that Rome may live’.
Attempting to assuage these misgivings, they conceive themselves as warriors fighting a war of abstract values, with hazy friend/enemy distinctions. The strategic war aims themselves are somewhat immaterial, but the Vietminh and the Algerian communists, with their vision of humanity as “a breed of sexless insects without contradictions and therefore without genius,” are indeed the enemy. The struggle, however, is not necessarily won with battlefield success. Instead, by upholding the values of heroism, discipline, and sacrifice; by extolling the benefits of adventure, of long marches, of lithe bodies, taut muscles, and of group belonging, they hope to offer the example of an alternative, of a higher vision of humanity, to a France and a West whose culture is rapidly descending into a mixture of frivolity and righteous indignation.
“We centurions are the last defenders of humanity against those who would enslave it in the name of original sin.” Reflects Captain Esclavier of the 10th Parachute Regiment, referring to both the guerrillas and their own bourgeoisie, particularly the student radicals. Fellow Captain, Julien Boisfeuras, however, sees it differently, wondering if the crusade is analogous to “the guard mounted by a motionless sentry over the walls of a deserted citadel, the porch of an empty church, or the bars of a museum or library in which nobody set foot any longer.” Such a task, believes Boisfeuras, would always be a thankless, demeaning one.
The training regimen of Britain’s Army Reserve, years after the end of combat operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, is, admittedly, far from Dien Bien Phu and the Casbah of Algiers – especially so when the bayonet with which one has been trained to prize open the ribs of Her Majesty’s enemies has likely been exchanged for a nasal swab and face shield. On a miserable Tuesday night, however, when a few weary commuters, driven by a motivation they only half-understand, reject the afterword drinks at the Slug and Lettuce, change out of smart-casual attire and into uniform, turn out beneath the regimental colours, oil paintings, and the names of the fallen, the axis of Boisfeuras’ and Esclavier’s martial symposium is still, just about, detectable.