He grew up in the woods and rivers of the county, fishing and swimming and hunting under sprawling blue skies and driving his rattletrap car insanely and lying on the moss with his girl and watching the branches above groping the sky and marveling as the young do at the strangeness of life, and the war came in a far country. It doesn’t matter which. It was just a country.
His father, an angry man emitting the foul stench of patriotism, said his duty was to become a soldier and kill whoever it was in the far country, wherever it was. His father didn’t know or much care. It didn’t matter. Somebody would know. A man’s gotta do what a man’s gotta do. It would be a grand adventure, an uncle said.
He enlisted. In the aching humid heat of a hot state he drew toothpaste and seven-eighty-two gear and green clothes from supply and learned to march in squares while a sergeant said Lef-rye-lef-rye-lef. He felt the sense of power and invincibility that comes of rhythmic camaraderie with thudding boots. He learned to use grenades and flamethrowers and the proper placement of a bayonet in a kidney. He learned obedience and various forms of likely suicide, but it was for his country, dulce et decorum est, and he sang fierce cadences on the march. If I die on the Russian front, bury me with a Russian cunt, lef-rye-lef-rye-lef-rye-lef. It was a grand adventure, calling to a young male’s desperation to defy existence, to cross the mountains, to see the dragon, to overcome. The colonels at Training Command had calculated this nicely.
He felt the romance and variety and absurdity that men love in the military in time of peace, and collected the stories that soldiers tell in bars. See, we was in TJ at the Blue Fox, and Murphy was getting a lap dance from this senorita with frigging water-melon tits, I mean those hangers just wouldn’t quit, and this owl flies in, some kind of freaking bird anyway, and she screams and falls on Murphy and… He felt the freedom of being away from the county, in wild bars nobody back home had ever heard of. It was the life.
Then he was on the late-night tarmac of the airfield, staging out for the remote country of which he knew nothing. Wind swirled and jet wash smelled of aviation kerosene and he was fit and hardly noticed the weight of his pack. Heavies roared in and out, taking troops. He savored a new phrase, FMF WesPac. Fleet Marine Force Western Pacific, alive with hormonal appeals of armies on the march, of foreign legions and Marcus Aurelius on the Rhine-Danube line, though he had never heard of the man, and he was part of huge events happening in the night.
On the first day in-country he went to his posting in the remote land, in a convoy of open six-bys. The heat and strange people along the road exhilarated him and he was really, truly out of the county and he took it all in with wide eyes and the mine went off under the lead truck and the driver landed screaming by the road, his legs gone. Mines do that. Marines ran to him and said Jesus, oh Jesus. F__k. F__k, f__k, f__k. Get a corpsman. Oh s__t. Oh Jesus. The screaming stopped, that being the nature of femoral arteries.
Three months passed. He now hated the people of the remote country, though he still knew nothing of it. Soldiers hate. He killed some enemy soldiers and some who may have been enemy soldiers and then some he knew weren’t but who were in the wrong place after his platoon took casualties from a sniper. It didn’t affect him, not that he knew. Dead people were just dead people, so what. He hated the scuttling cockroaches anyway. Light’em up. Light’em all up. Let God sort’em out. He had never heard of the Albigensians, but soldiers vary little.
One day the platoon approached a town and a sniper fired at them. “Light’em up” said the lieutenant, who hated the locals. Ten minutes later thirty-seven villagers were dead and the reporter who had been there got pictures of it all. They appeared around the world. The platoon didn’t know why they were being picked on. If villagers didn’t want to get shot, they shouldn’t let heavily armed insurgents come into their village. At a thousand legion halls, members said war is war, people get hurt. You gotta expect it. The press are wimps, comsymps, unrealistic idealists. We need to unleash the troops, let them win.
Officers, knowing that reporters were the most dangerous of their enemies, said that it hadn’t happened, that the enemy had really done it, that it was an isolated incident, and that there would be an investigation. The commanding general in what interestingly was called “the theater” had presidential aspirations, and so sacrificed the lieutenant, who eventually received three months house arrest.
The soldier from the county almost made it. He was approaching PCOD, Pussy Cut-off Date, determined by the germination time of gonorrhea, when his truck hit the mine. Nothing new here. Men in agony, exposed bone, crushed lungs, and the dying crying out for the trinity of the badly wounded, mother wife, and water. This time the soldier from the county was half gutted.
It was a grand adventure, though.
On the ward where they removed a length of his intestines, he saw many things. He saw the soldier with his jaw shot away who fed through a tube in his nose. He watched a high-school girl of seventeen from Tennessee as she saw her betrothed, stone blind, his face a hideous porridge that would gag a maggot.
He left the hospital with a colostomy bag and instructions never to eat anything he liked. Women do not like colostomy bags, so he had time on his hands. He read. He thought. He came to hate, to hate with a shuddering intensity that unnerved his friends, who learned not to talk about the war. Like soldiers since before time existed, he learned that the war was not about the noble things it was supposed to be about, God and country and democracy, but about money, power, contracts, and the egos of the men who, on the principle that s__t floats, always rise to the top. For the rest of his life, he would really, truly, want to kill.
He had come a long way from the county. It had been a grand adventure.
Fred Reed is author of Nekkid in Austin: Drop Your Inner Child Down a Well and A Brass Pole in Bangkok: A Thing I Aspire to Be. His latest book is Curmudgeing Through Paradise: Reports from a Fractal Dung Beetle. Visit his blog.