(Short Story) Keep Calm And Kill
There is Us. There is Them. And in between… there are Echoes.
Originally posted on CampusDiaries.
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.
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.”
“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.”
“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.”
“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.
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?”
“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.”
“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.
There is Us. There is Them. And in between… there are Echoes. Can you hear the echoes, General?
Can you hear the echoes, General?
“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.
“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.
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.