(Short Story) Keep Calm And Kill

There is Us. There is Them. And in between… there are Echoes.

Originally post­ed on CampusDiaries.

Intro

I wrote this sto­ry in a day, with­out prepa­ra­tions, on a giv­en theme for Words’ Worth com­pe­ti­tion at 30th of December. Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to fin­ish the sto­ry in time. That’s total­ly okay, because I was only in it for the chal­lenge, and I’m hap­py.

The theme was dichotomies and bina­ry words (exam­ple: Hot-Cold, Big-Small, etc.) where one can be esti­mat­ed in com­par­i­son with anoth­er. Considering I’ve been voic­ing about a cer­tain dichoto­my in our very lives for a while now, the “Us-Them” bina­ry has was the first thing that hit me, which result­ed in me writ­ing this sto­ry in my stream-of-con­scious­ness. This is also an exten­sion of my poem “Imaginary Lines”.

Hope you enjoy read­ing this as much as I enjoyed writ­ing!

Disclaimer: This is pure­ly fic­tion­al. None of the char­ac­ters or set­tings rep­re­sent any­thing or any­one in real life, nor does it por­tray accu­rate­ly how the mil­i­tary func­tions. I’m tak­ing artis­tic lib­er­ties here. Also, despite the fic­tion­al set­ting, I do take inspi­ra­tion from real events – such as sol­diers being aban­doned after their ser­vices, CIA tor­tures, sex­u­al war-crimes by armed forces, etc. – to get a point across. I’ve inten­tion­al­ly left most char­ac­ters name­less to keep them amor­phous, so it becomes eas­i­er to imag­ine them as just about any­one from any group, race or polit­i­cal lean­ing.


 

Scene 1

Dichotomies make me laugh.

Sure, we all love to be called bet­ter things, and not be regard­ed as the worst of the lot. But con­sid­er a case in some schools: Even psy­chol­o­gists believe that when you call a child a “Tactical Genius” if they suc­ceed, and a “Practical Idiot” if they don’t – even if it sounds like you’re only encour­ag­ing good per­for­mance – are both like­ly to be bad for that child’s devel­op­ment. They call it a “Fixed Standard”, that is, peo­ple believ­ing that things hap­pen because of what they “are” and not what they “do”. If you are a Genius, why both­er work­ing hard when suc­cess is always just a step away? And if you are an Idiot, why both­er work­ing hard when suc­cess will nev­er come, no mat­ter what? Performances suf­fer in both cas­es, and both make way for life-long dis­ap­point­ments. Very strange indeed for us all to per­ceive some things as so dif­fer­ent, so Black and White, when they inevitably have things that are so much in com­mon.

Yet, day after day I am remind­ed that “Wars” are not the way towards Peace. Not co-inci­den­tal­ly, this opin­ion comes from those who have nev­er expe­ri­enced the true hor­rors in the bat­tle-field.

What do they expect?” I asked aloud. “Terrorists just blow them­selves into extinc­tion?”

Seriously,” Sergeant Buffalo scoffed. “Your bick­er­ing with the pub­lic gives you more trau­ma than blood in the bat­tle­field.”

It’s one thing fac­ing off against those you don’t like than the ones you actu­al­ly care about.”

As if you’re bring­ing real war to your own peo­ple, are you?” He refilled his beer. “For God’s Sake man, this is a vaca­tion! Can’t you let it go for one moment?”

If I had a wife like yours, maybe I would. At least there would be some­one to under­stand me.”

Eh, don’t you dare look at my wife like that, or you know what’s com­ing.”

Sorry.”

No, you’re not. I know you well.”

I grinned, get­ting to my feet, ramp­ing my vol­ume up on the music play­er. “I’m going to need a bet­ter sound sys­tem. My house might need some dis­trac­tion.”

Wait, is there a joke com­ing? Like, you know, the walls have ears?”

Maybe mouths too. I hear whis­pers, Buffy. Echoes. Trying to tell me some­thing, and I keep look­ing but I can’t find them. Or maybe it’s just all this empti­ness that’s start­ing to freak me out.”

 

Scene 2

Mister!” I called to an old man pass­ing through, with a wal­let in hand.

He did not hear me. So I chased after him.

Mister, you dropped some­thing,” hand­ing his wal­let back to him, which he quick­ly grabbed.

You know, some­times there are pick­pock­ets who pre­tend to be nice peo­ple,” he sug­gest­ed in a mock­ing tone. “I ought to be very care­ful with my things.”

Well, good evening to you too.

He eyed me sus­pi­cious­ly. “You’re a sol­dier.”

Excuse me?” I looked con­fused.

The old man con­tin­ued. “I’d rec­og­nize you lot any­where.”

You mean by my medal?” I point­ed to my bare T-Shirt.

Your pos­ture,” he looked at me from head to toe, “it’s some­thing about the way you lot stand that I just can’t stand.”

Posture? I think I look pret­ty fan­tas­tic!”

Of course you do! So much mon­ey goes into defens­es, so you can go kill more peo­ple instead of tak­ing care of the poor and home­less here. You look very fan­tas­tic indeed.”

You don’t seem like a very patri­ot­ic per­son,” I joked. “Where’s your National Pride?”

It died the day my son was left aban­doned, home­less and with­out finan­cial aid.”

Your son doesn’t sound like a hard work­er.”

He was a SOLDIER.”

I stopped in my tracks. “What?”

The day he enlist­ed, it was under the idea of Freedom, Honor, Glory. Some sort of Heroism, a priv­i­lege to be able to serve the coun­try. That in return, he’d get cheap­er edu­ca­tion, and sup­port from the gov­ern­ment for his valiant duty. But he returned with noth­ing. Lost his arm. Lost his san­i­ty. Now? He tastes blood, smells gun-smoke, hears echoes, and sees ghosts of his friends and ene­mies every day of his life.”

…hears echoes…

Wow, the man real­ly needs help!”

Don’t you wow me, Mister Soldier. My son screams to be for­giv­en. Screams to have not pulled his trig­ger again and again, if he could turn back time, but Soldiers are not mir­a­cle work­ers. They can­not turn back time. They only inflict loss after loss, hop­ing it could fix what’s bro­ken. God knows what the fam­i­lies on the oth­er side of the bor­ders are going through.”

What they are going through?” I scoffed. “Don’t you remem­ber the days when they set foot in our neigh­bor­hood? Each step they took away what’s pre­cious to us, leav­ing blood and flames in their wake, shoot­ing death towards every­thing they saw mov­ing. What, in their depraved minds, do YOU THINK is going on, when they allowed them­selves to be the cat­a­lyst to det­o­nate the bombs wrapped around their tor­so, tak­ing a whole com­pound of hun­dreds of inno­cent civil­ians and police offi­cers with them? I was there, old man. I was there as a kid, and I watched it hap­pen with these eyes. Every kid that was with me watched it too. And every kid who saw this decid­ed that we would make sure that such a thing will nev­er hap­pen again, not in our homes, not while we’re still breath­ing.”

While you do the same things in some­one else’s home­land?”

There’s a dif­fer­ence between them and us. WE are not your boo­gie-men. WE do not kill civil­ians. We only shoot mon­sters, not peo­ple.”

I hope you tell that to those who protest­ed against the dis­crim­i­na­tion in Police Departments, when YOU MONSTERS brought in guns and tanks to attack then when they were unarmed.”

Those guns shot RUBBER BULLETS! They were warned. The laws are meant to PROTECT YOU. Why do you need to protest when there are ways to solve sit­u­a­tions peace­ful­ly?”

Then what makes you think there is any need for a sol­dier out there?”

I paused, at a loss of words. This man was real­ly test­ing my patience.

He con­tin­ued. “I know you guys get very filthy with blood out there. But why don’t you leave that filth where it belongs? Don’t bring it home.”

Sometimes you HAVE to let your hands be dirty. That’s how a home is built in the first place. You’re wel­come, Grandpa.”

I left the old-man and went on my way.

 

Scene 3

I got off my vehi­cle and rushed towards an aban­doned build­ing, from which a Private emerged and greet­ed me with a salute, fol­lowed by an Intelligence agent.

What are you doing here?” I asked.

The depart­ment is curi­ous about how these peo­ple com­mu­ni­cate with the rebels, how the resources are sup­plied,” said the man in the suit.

I raised my eye­brows. “I thought you knew?”

Had a hunch,” he shrugged.

Hunch?” I stopped on my tracks. “We lost some of our men, and killed twice as many in order to round them up for inter­ro­ga­tion. Did we just go bru­tal towards com­plete­ly inno­cent civil­ians, with no shred of evi­dence they have any­thing to do with the rebels? Just so you could ver­i­fy a hunch?”

You asked them to sur­ren­der to peace­ful ques­tion­ing, they resist­ed, so you had to attack. What’s the big deal? Are you… by any chance, feel­ing some­thing for these ter­ror­ist-sym­pa­thiz­ers?”

I peeked through a one-way win­dow into the room where the pris­on­ers were held. Most of them were stripped of their top clothes. Some had scars on their bod­ies. Some drown­ing in sor­row and some cradling their rage, but all of them seemed to have lost hope.

So you’ve been ask­ing ques­tions,” I asked. “What did they sing?”

Strangely, noth­ing.”

Not what you expect­ed?”

Pretty much what I expect­ed,” he took off his sun­glass­es and huffed on the lens­es. “Which is why you need to – nay, you must – take the gloves off.”

Take the gloves off. That was the code the Intelligence uses as a ges­ture of going off-the-record.

I’m sor­ry, I don’t fol­low your log­ic,” I assert­ed. “Right now, we’re deal­ing with guess­es and uncer­tain­ty.”

Precisely why this is impor­tant, General. Take the gloves off, and let’s get this over with.”

These are civil­ians. They might know some­thing, they might not. But we don’t hurt civil­ians, that’s been our prin­ci­ple for this war. For a coun­try who hates ter­ror­ism, we sure love to do the same damn shit to oth­ers. Remember when those jets hit the tow­ers?”

General, do not com­pare minor tor­ture to the hor­rors they unleashed upon us. That is false equiv­a­len­cy.”

Do you seri­ous­ly, even remote­ly believe this is eth­i­cal –“

Do you see those sol­diers who are with you right now? What are they fight­ing for? What made them all come here, in this hell? They’ve all been through suf­fer­ing and grief way before they enlist­ed them­selves. They have lost those who were close to them, time and again, some­thing that hasn’t stopped ever since the hijacked plane hit the tow­ers. They are aware that there are mon­sters that need to be exter­mi­nat­ed, even if the world sees them as mur­ders. It’s a small casu­al­ty for a greater good. Sometimes, you have no choice but to let your­self be cov­ered in filth to make your home a clean­er.”

But…”

Look, General. You don’t get to make free choic­es here. You are noth­ing more than a geopo­lit­i­cal weapon, and you agreed to that the day you enlist­ed. We rea­son that, on our path towards jus­tice and to make sure we don’t suf­fer as many loss­es, we can’t afford to lose effi­cien­cy out of sen­ti­men­tal dis­agree­ments. You know what we call those who dis­agree here? We call them trai­tors.”

I looked him in the eye. “Who do you think are you call­ing a trai­tor?”

The man in the suit did not flinch, and instead pen­e­trat­ed my vision with his eyes.

If you are not against ter­ror­ists and mon­sters, then you are with them. If you stop and do noth­ing, if you remain neu­tral, then you ARE the prob­lem. Don’t let your peo­ple down, General. Don’t let this go in vain. Do the right thing. Take the gloves off.”

I bit my lip. “… Understood.”

He smiled, placed his hand on my shoul­der. “Save some chick­en for me when I get back.”

He left. I took a moment to com­pose myself. Then marched into the hold­ing.

Get buck­ets of water and some cloth ready. Also, bring one of the pris­on­ers to adja­cent room. Put some cam­eras on, and let the oth­er pris­on­ers see what’s going on.”

Everyone, save for two pri­vates by the door, left me alone with the pris­on­er. This cock­roach seemed to have some strange inter­est in my eyes.

Nice look you’ve got there, offi­cer,” he said. “Everyone’s asked me things in their own spe­cial ways, and I keep telling them the same thing – same hon­est answers – and they’re still not sat­is­fied. So they send you in.”

In oth­er words, you know what ques­tions need to be answered.”

I don’t know any­thing any­more. The lead­ers we elect­ed used to be pret­ty con­fi­dent that your coun­try would be a great friends with us. Then you all killed him.”

He was cir­cu­lat­ing arms to the rebels. He was oppress­ing his peo­ple.”

Oppressing us, you mean? Ooh, being a vic­tim and all, I don’t think I ever real­ized that! Thanks for let­ting me know. I’m pret­ty sure that you – con­fin­ing me in this scary place, with my hands tied, and body bruised – are my heroes that will save me from all this.”

You’ll have to par­don me, I’m run­ning on low sup­ply of patience today. Still wait­ing for your answer.”

We were help­ing those who no longer have homes.”

Why do they no longer have homes?”

Someone rained hell from the sky. I’d hate to sound cliché but – dis­re­gard­ing these hand­cuffs and pris­ons – don’t you think that you have a lot in com­mon with… erm, not us, but… them?

Except we fight for jus­tice and order, while they fight for some strange reli­gion and mis­guid­ed moral­i­ty.”

He laughed. “You must be very spe­cial a snowflake to believe they’re fight­ing for some reli­gion.”

You seem to know an awful lot about how those ter­ror­ists may be feel­ing.”

Maybe it’s because I’m suf­fer­ing the same thing they suf­fered, which led them to take arms in the first place.”

Ah, now we’re get­ting some­where! Private, get me that cloth.”

Wait… What are you doing?”

Oh, dear Gods of your reli­gions,” I wrapped his head with the cloth while the oth­ers held him in place, “ques­tions, ques­tions, ques­tions, ques­tions, ques­tions! Don’t you peo­ple ever get tired of ask­ing ques­tions? What are you doing? What is any­one doing? Where did we come from? Where do we go? I swear, all this spir­i­tu­al non­sense might be pre­cise­ly why you’ve all lost your shit enough to start a shootin’-bombin’ spree. Don’t want to answer my ques­tions straight, do you? Fine, I’ve got oth­er ways. I can’t promise your com­fort though. Guys, hold him down, not-so-nice and slow.”

I grabbed the buck­et and began pour­ing.

 

Scene 4

There is Us. There is Them. And in between… there are Echoes. Can you hear the echoes, General?

Stop it.

Can you hear the echoes, General?

Stop it!

Can you hear the echoes, General?”

For cry­ing out loud, shut the hell up!”

My breath raged as I stood. It took me a moment to real­ize where I was. I had acci­den­tal­ly tipped over my wine glass onto the floor, where it now lay shat­tered. My old – or should I say, young – com­pan­ion, an army doc­tor, looked at me puz­zled.

Shut what up?” He asked.

The echoes,” I snapped.

I didn’t know school choirs haunt you that much,” he closed the win­dow, and brought me some water. “I per­son­al­ly find them very sooth­ing. We real­ly have gift­ed chil­dren in this area. Are you okay?”

Yeah, just… day­dream­ing.”

No. Flashbacks,” his calm voice had a sud­den sharp tone of warn­ing. “I believe you should take an appoint­ment.”

I will be fine,” I gulped down the water. “Ugh, what is this? Champagne tastes more refresh­ing than this. Yes, I’ll take some cham­pagne.”

But it’s all get­ting to you.”

Do you see how these kids look up to us? They made action fig­ures out of this war, encour­ag­ing them how glo­ri­ous being a sol­dier is.”

Action fig­ures,” he chuck­led. “I guess doc­tor-fig­ures aren’t glo­ri­ous enough, huh?”

Hey, I don’t hate or doubt my job.”

I nev­er said you did.”

You know, I think I had a lot of good days and bad days, but most­ly good days,” I lied. And I knew he could sense it, but some­thing in me stopped car­ing.

Good days?”

You know, three years back? Turns out the civil­ians we held cap­tive real­ly did send resources to the rebels – except these cap­tives, them­selves, were inno­cent. The rebels had a strange ral­ly­ing cry, ‘You are not above our God’, decry­ing the gov­ern­ment for not allow­ing their anar­chist moral­i­ty.”

On the con­trary, I think they were angri­er because our gov­ern­ment seemed to be – in some way – sup­press­ing their free­doms, and dis­crim­i­nat­ing against them. This wasn’t about anar­chy, but lib­er­ty.”

But what’s the point?” I ask. “They could elect a leader and send in for del­e­ga­tion, but they chose to arm them­selves. What were they expect­ing? We roll red car­pets and greet those sav­ages to kill more of our peo­ple?”

I’m not sure how those are Good Days in any way, though.”

The chick­en, man! The chick­en! Specifically, the exot­ic, for­eign chick­en. How many times do you get to have it?”

Huh? But don’t they all taste like chick­en any­way?”

I’m not talk­ing about that chick­en, man, I’m talk­ing about THE chick­en. The Rebels chick­en, in the regions we stepped into. See, most of our men were dying there. Some morons even blew up our camps in the north­ern regions and chased us off. So we had to go off-record again, because we need­ed a way to real­ly break their morale. You remem­ber how we were on a mis­sion at the north­ern moun­tain, and the towns it con­tained. They were all right there, dressed and mar­i­nat­ed under the moon. I’m pret­ty sure they were glad to see us. So we just took ‘em.”

I know, I was there,” His eyes widened and neck stiff­ened, as if a hor­ror loomed above him. “How many of them did you have, General?”

Five, or… six, maybe? I’m not sure if I can remem­ber their faces, let alone their names, but I do remem­ber how feisty they were! You, on the oth­er hand, didn’t even approach the loot.”

Loot? We’re pirates now?”

I laughed. “You know what’s com­ing, don’t try to change the sub­ject. I saw you there, like a lit­tle ted­dy bear at the side, hav­ing sym­pa­thet­ic pup­py-dog eyes. While the rest of us were done, you instead decid­ed to get them food and blan­kets, heal their wounds, and what did you get in return? Backlashes. Lots of them. They took advan­tage of your pas­sive­ness, pounced on you, scream­ing, with every chance they got.”

I won’t hold it against them. Not one bit.”

Come on, man, what’s with you? You don’t get to have exot­ic chick­en all the time, and they were all yours to begin with, lying in wait. It’s not like your wife might show up at some oth­er con­ti­nent to find you cheat­ing on her.”

He sighed. “With all due respect, what I did back then I did out of human decen­cy. Those chicke…” He stopped sud­den­ly, rubbed his tem­ple, and shook his head. Then con­tin­ued. “Those women were trem­bling when I exam­ined their health. As a doc­tor in the army, I believe it’s my job to save as many lives as I can, keep as many peo­ple as func­tion­al as I can, but I’m afraid I can only heal their wounds, not their hearts. They had noth­ing left in them but fear, grief and rage. I may not have cho­sen to be as close to them as you were, but I won­der if you saw what I saw reflect­ing from their eyes – the image of us as mon­sters, and not heroes.”

I raised my eye­brows. What a sen­ti­men­tal bas­tard.

With all due respect, dear doc­tor, I think we just saved them all from their sav­age and vio­lent way of life.”

As if almost instinc­tive­ly, his eyes careened towards my col­lec­tion of hunt­ing tro­phies, as if try­ing to fig­ure out if there is any life left in the hol­low heads mount­ed on the walls.

You seem to love ‘em!” I looked around with pride. “Worked real hard for these in my ear­ly days, always going for the tough­est and rarest of species. Hunting’s always been in my blood, which explains why I enlist­ed: to hunt down the bad guys. One day, if the gov­ern­ment allows, I might just mount the head of that ter­ror­ist leader, right over –“

The doc­tor got to his feet abrupt­ly. His breath sped, as if he was revolt­ed at the thought of some­thing, but was still try­ing to keep his com­po­sure with his eyes now on the floor and not once glanc­ing up.

Shit, don’t you puke on my fine car­pet!

You know, General,” he said soft­ly, “through­out my time in the army, I nev­er once felt like I’ve been fight­ing for any­body at home, no mat­ter what I’ve been led to believe. It always seemed like I was just fight­ing to pro­tect my broth­ers in arms, save their lives when they bled, from flesh or soul. Sometimes those we fought seemed like mon­sters. Sometimes, they were just as afraid as we were. It’s like a cycle of vengeance: They hit us, we hit them, they get stronger and strike back, and then we decide to punch hard­er, like some­thing only a lit­tle more com­plex than a school fight. Only this time, we have state-of-the-art weapons instead of bare hands. Only this time, our teach­ers encour­age it.”

And you’re telling me that the best way to stop this war is to just stay at home, delud­ing your­self into think­ing it’s not hap­pen­ing?”

The doc­tor looked offend­ed, attempt­ing to speak a few times but seemed to have lost his words.

I dun­no,” he decid­ed, turn­ing to leave. “Maybe I do. Good day, General.”

As he passed the door, I aimed my fin­ger at him like I was hold­ing an imag­i­nary gun. If I real­ly had the gun, I’m pret­ty sure I could shoot through his over-sen­ti­men­tal heart from six­ty-yards away.

Bang.

A ter­ror­ist-sym­pa­thiz­er like him would hes­i­tate too much. He won’t sur­vive in the bat­tle-field for long. Even if he does, the gov­ern­ment will make sure he doesn’t, con­sid­er­ing how these days very few sol­diers receive any sup­port at all from the lying politi­cians – or what the com­mon­ers would call, “Old Men In Comfy Armchairs, Rallying Young Men To Go Die Gloriously In Battle”. He will be left aban­doned by the very gov­ern­ment he serves with great devo­tion. Good rid­dance. If he isn’t on our side, then he is the prob­lem, isn’t it? Really?

Dichotomies make me laugh. We like to hear sto­ries about “Heroes slay­ing Monsters”. We’ve been hear­ing them since child­hood. We still do. And yet one man’s Hero is anoth­er man’s Terrorist, if you inter­nal­ize these “Fixed Standards” that this world enforces upon you, then whether you’re a Hero or a Terrorist you will end up pick­ing a weapon any­way. You will spill blood any­way. I scoff at peo­ple when they do not under­stand this. I scoff at peo­ple when they do not under­stand the truer nature of real­i­ty.

But do I under­stand this any bet­ter than them?

Through my rifle scope, I can see my tar­get clear­ly, no mat­ter how far they may seem. But I can’t seem to locate the echoes close-by, scream­ing that I’ve tak­en things too far.

 

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