Monday, October 29, 2007

Ten Seconds

Ten Seconds

The wind is cold and damp against the flesh of my face; the only exposed skin on my body. My shoulders ache under the strain of a thirty pound armored vest, the back of my neck grows raw from the constant friction of my rifle's heavy canvas strap. My antiquated pistol holster constricts my lungs and digs painfully into my ribs, my hips are tender and bruised where they've been jarred against the edge of the turret. Every few minutes I fall asleep for a moment, a fraction of a second, awakened only when my chin touches the bulky kevlar neck guard that is fastened tightly over my throat; I’m the only one in my platoon who still wears it. The cloth is oily and slick and brown, coated with two months of sweat and filth, has it really only been two months? I am utterly exhausted, I think of nothing, my mind is vacant.

A shot rings out, I ignore it, I'm so tired I don't even care, and besides, someone is always shooting at something around here, I wish they'd just fucking quit, this is so stupid. Another shot, followed by a few more, a bullet glances off something in the road and screams over my head, the spark remains in my eyes. I am awake now, totally awake, the kind of 'awake' that cannot be described and most people never have to feel. It's four in the afternoon right now back home, my friends graduated from high school a few months ago when I was still in basic training, their faces flash through my mind, I can barely recall them now. I know my mother is thinking of me, can she sense what is happening to her only son? More bullets, closer this time, and these do not glance off the road but fly straight past my face, coming straight on now. I can almost sense their heat, like sitting too close to the fireplace, and the sound of a thousand bull whips cracking all around me. So this is what it's like! Just what I expected, which in turn surprises me. No fear though, I always thought I'd be afraid, thought I’d be the one to lose it, but there's no time to be afraid now.

I drop down inside the humvee and glance around at the faces of my comrades, they stare at me apprehensively. Someone asks if I've been hit, "No. I'm fine, I'm fine." We're moving swiftly now, the road is uneven. I lose my balance for a moment but catch myself on the 'butt strap', a canvas strap that is hooked into the turret for me, the gunner, to sit upon, though I've rarely been allowed to use it. In fourth platoon we stand fully erect with eyes scanning back and forth 180 degrees; from shoulder to shoulder, completely exposed for all the world to see and kill.

He's still shooting. I notice that his weapon is on semi-automatic, they never use semi-automatic, but not this one, his aim is true, he means to kill me. I respect him now, it's easy to admire a man like him. After all, he is not like me; a soulless mercenary who kills on a three year contract, this is his life. He hates me, I cannot hate him, but I must try to kill him. He continues to shoot at me, I wish he'd just run on home like the rest of them.

Them... how I hate them, we all do. They are so easy to hate, so vile and treacherous, subhuman even. It's because of them that I am here in the first place, God how I hate every inch of every one of them. We will all fight to the death, we are prepared even to take our own lives, rather than fall into their hands, to be tortured, raped, and humiliated. They thieve and lie and have killed boys who were once my friends. People with whom I used to carry on intelligent conversations, laugh with, live with, and when I saw them last I never knew it would be the last. They have transformed them from men into cumbersome heaps of cold flesh, no longer anything more than a sanitation problem to be solved with the aid of a plastic bag. The blood and entrails must be scrubbed away with Simple Green and scratch pads. My first true friend in the Army was cleaned up in this way. Thank God I wasn't there, had I seen it I wouldn't be able to remember him as I do now; always a smile, always a comment worthy of note, always something interesting in mind; a husband and a son. And when he died I didn't even bother to cry, I wanted to, I even tried a little bit, but that was stupid and wrong. No need to lie to yourself my friend, you are no longer human and everyone knows it.

Pulling myself up using the butt strap I bring my head up just far enough to peer over the lip of the turret ring. Where is this motherfucker? I take a look around.... there he is. Not 'him' per say, but a tiny flash of light, followed by the report of a rifle and the sound of a bullet striking concrete or metal, I never learned to tell the difference. I look down at the orange handle which will unlock the turret and allow me to swing it around, pointing the machine gun in his direction. No, there's no time for all that, the way this humvee is leaning and rocking I'd never be able to do it. The gun alone weighs nearly eighty pounds, it's the old kind, a "fifty cal". Besides, he’s standing on the roof of an apartment building, and I am imagining a family huddled inside their cramped home. They are poor and the weather is cold so they sleep in the same room, probably without beds. I will not send a score of fifty caliber bullets into that building, to grind and shred the flesh of three generations with one flick of my pathetic thumb, my thumb that is only eighteen years old. I'm not that inhuman, not that cruel, not yet at least.

No, but I will use my rifle. Now I am ready, now I have a purpose. No longer will I cower inside this armored hull and take whatever he chooses to give me, now I will give him something, I will take control, I will kill him. I bring the rifle to my shoulder, the same kind my father and uncles carried when they were in the service. What a gruesome object, it's black steel and plastic lay cold and lifeless in my hands, much like the corpses it was designed to create, incapable of human warmth. I place the tip of my nose on the charging handle, shut my left eye, and peer into the sight hole.

Now I am in a different world entirely. A still, silent void that has but one entrance. You cannot reach it through meditation or by ingesting some strange plant, not even in death can one find it. This man-made world can be glimpsed only through the sights of a rifle, only when it is pointed at a living thing. Here there is no God, no Hell, no consequences and certainly no remorse, those will all come later. For the time being he and I are completely alone, oblivious to the outside world.

Now the moment of truth. Am I really going to go through with this? Can I? Oh yes, I can, and I will, I must. This man is attacking you and your comrades, it is your duty as the gunner of this vehicle to kill him as soon as possible. You are the gunner, you are responsible for the lives of these men inside this humvee. I hope... I know that they would do the same for me. Now I'm nervous, my knees tremble, I feel like a kid who's just been caught stealing. For an instant I can clearly see his bullet coming for me, flying straight towards my face, I vividly imagine the impact. Switch the safety off, take a moment to blink your eyes and breathe. Let me wait and see one more muzzle flash before I strike, let me wait for him to show me where he is just once more. Oh what sweet satisfaction I am about to receive! Two months of misery and a lost childhood because of you, damn you, I finally get to kill one of you now. I will use you as the object of my vengeance, this is for everything you have done to my life and to my family, you alone will pay the price, tonight. I think of nothing else now but my own misery and suffering, selfish I know, to kill a man and not even think about him. Then my wish comes true, I see another flash, he has revealed himself. Instantly I readjust my hands, he's fairly close so I aim a little lower than usual, just like they taught us at Ft. Knox. And now I can feel the trigger. In this moment I think of my father, who always taught me to 'squeeze' a trigger, never to 'pull' it, so, ever so slightly, I begin to squeeze. The movement of my index finger is barely distinguishable to the human eye, it curls inward only millimeters per second, when the rifle finally discharges it's almost unexpected. A shell casing jingles against the floor, I taste smoke, and the finger now points at no one but me.

My enemy, my peer, a man who I have even come to admire in the last few seconds, stops firing immediately. I raise my cheek from the rifle and look at him. I see him for the first time, nothing more than a black silhouette against a midnight sky, but I see him. He goes down behind the edge of the roof. I never see him again, I never learn his name or his lineage, I never learn what became of him.

Later the next morning, when the patrol is over, after I've refueled the humvee and put away the weapons, I'm congratulated by my friends. I am quiet and expressionless, though I'm not upset. I sit down alone on my cot and disassemble my rifle, the one I used against my enemy, the brother I never had, the only man who has ever faced me as a natural equal. The smell of the spent bullet is strong, but the weapon is mostly clean, after all it was only one shot, I push a piece of paper through the barrel with a thin rod, the paper empties out into the breech, bearings it’s little sunburst of black residue. I wipe off each metal part, coating them with fresh CLP, and reassemble them carefully. This rifle did not fail me in my hour of need, it may have even saved my life. I imagine the next soldier who will carry it after I have gone on, will he ever know of the sin it has committed this night? How many people did you kill before I took you off the rack? I push such thoughts aside and am asleep in a matter of minutes.

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