No Longer Men
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No Longer Men is a pair of short stories that are connected by the theme of war, or more specifically the War on Terror in Iraq. Both stories are bound together by a linear plot; each story follows the same incident, yet offer insight from distinctly individual perspectives. Fireworks in the Night delves into the world of an Iraqi civilian and notes the detrimental effects of war on their life, whilst Step One follows the thoughts of an Australian soldier during the war. Both texts provide an exploration into the affects of war on the mind of a human.
Chapter 2, Step One
You’d think that sweating would be helpful in such hot temperatures, that a gust of wind would cool it and release you from the stinking heat even for just one second. Yeah right. Instead, as the desert sun punches into your back and waterfalls of sweat roll down the spine, the stifling heat just warms it up, and by the end of your patrol shift you feel like you’ve been steaming in your own juices for ten hours. And the sticky hot gusts that you could call wind just make breathing troublesome. I already have enough trouble staying alive out here without having to worry about my insides being cooked. Night is like an ice-cool bath after a long day in the relentless heat of the sun, but it’s the worst time for the war. It’s at night when patrols are strengthened. When the sun dips below the horizon and the stars shine like fireworks, that’s when you have to worry about getting ambushed by the Taliban. That worry will come later though. Right now, I’ve gotta concentrate on the task at hand. I lift the scope of my rifle to my eye and search out through the quivering ripples of heat along the horizon, looking for anything out of the ordinary against the caramel coloured sand. Nothing again, just the exact same desert the last fifty times I’ve checked.
The smell of musty tents enters my nose and once again I know I’m home. Well, not home, but home for now. Base camp will be my home until we get ordered to move, which won’t be for a while yet; we still haven’t flushed out the Taliban from this sector. Until we do, this little khaki tent will offer me the only peace for kilometres. I hold my F88 Austeyr, like a father holding his child. The icy metal is familiar in my hands. Slowly and surely, I remove the case. My pace quickens as I remove the barrel followed by the clicking of the pin and inner firing mechanism. Click, click, and click. My mind drifts as I clean each section of the rifle. Click, click and click. I run my hand along the smooth metal of the gun before laying it on the rickety table next to my make shift bed. I can’t sleep, not yet, but I close my eyes and think about why I’m here. I always ask myself what has led me to this forsaken hellhole, and my answers always provide justification.
1. A reason, fact, circumstance, or explanation that defends.
I’m doing what is right. I’m doing what my father and grandfather and his father and his father have done before me. I’m protecting those who can’t protect themselves, the ones back home; the kids, the elderly, the disabled, the families. I am keeping them safe and I am keeping my country safe, and that’s all the information I need to blow the brains out of every enemy of freedom that I come across. This is my place. If my father were here to see me say that today, he would be the happiest man alive. He’d often say to me, “Son, whatever you have to do to protect those you love, do it! Even if it means risking your own life; fear is not acceptable, you hear me?” Fear is nothing and fearing death is irrational. Fear makes the wolf bigger than it is. Fear is useless.
"The only thing we have to fear is fear itself - nameless, unreasoning, unjustified, terror which paralyses needed efforts to convert retreat into advance."
The bark of gunfire is my alarm clock in the middle of the dark nights, and it always wakes me. I never bother to get out of my combat gear, because out here, you never know when you’re gunna be ripped from your tent in the middle of night and thrown into another fire fight. The generals say there is a distinct pattern of attacks, but we’d be lucky to pick it, so it’s best just to be prepared at all times. The cold metal of my gun feels familiar in my hands, and within moments the cool night air wisps against my face. Lights flicker everywhere. Soldiers all uniformed and unified run next to me, a surging wave moving towards the fight. I can hear and feel the bullets whizzing around me, pinging into the sand and off the tents and tables that litter our camp. All of a sudden, hell is around us. Men clad in black uniform are everywhere, emerging from the darkness. Slaughter is the only word I can use to describe this scene, and I’m in the centre. I would be right to be scared, but I must not fear. Fear is the mind-killer. Fear in combat brings total obliteration. All I can do is think, and feel. Feel the cold metal of the gun in my hands, feel the tightness of the trigger under my finger. Everything has a method. I melt into myself and follow the method. I raise my gun and fire. Raise and fire, raise and fire. The motion becomes a natural instinct. Blood sprays against my face, warm as it rolls down my collar. All I can hear is the popping of the guns, of our guns and their guns. Blood explodes from my targets, their bodies flying back like ragdolls before they have a chance to think of pulling the trigger. My actions are automatic, like in training.
Thou shalt not kill
My radio crackles in my ear and a soldier by the name of Deacon, a young Sydney boy from my platoon, speaks to me.
“Tango Seven, do you copy?” His voice is shaking.
“Copy Delta Eight, what can you see from up there?”
I’ve always held a soft spot for the kid, being in the war for his brother who died here a few years back. The convoy his brother was travelling in was hit by a IED, and the car at the front copped the worst. D’s brother was in that car. D has no idea about anything, so as a part of his team I’ve taken him under my wing. Bet I regret that decision soon.
“They came outta nowhere Jay, I swear. One minute I was looking at the dark, and the next there were soldiers. They blend in. I didn’t have enough time to warn anyone. They were just there.”
“D, calm down mate, it isn’t your fault. Are you still on the hill?”
“I haven’t left position. I just couldn’t, but I just feel like all the boys...how many are dead?”
I’d seen two already and had our resident JTAC call for medical and air support from the CAS Apache. The fight wasn’t going our way but I wasn’t about to tell him that. Heart attacks are rare at this age, but I am sure he is on the verge of having one.
“Mate, I dunno, it’s not over yet. But our boys are tough, you know that. Relax, where is Tom?” D’s spotter is closer to his 30’s and cooler in a fight. Hopefully I can get some more information from him.
“He...he...He left Sir. He said he wanted to actually do something to help. I told him not to. Didn’t you see him?”
“I’m coming up. Tango Seven over and out.” Sometimes I just wanna knock his block off for caring so much. The only person you should look out for out here is yourself. Maybe I should knock my own block off for caring about him, but then who would keep him safe, keep everyone safe? Some friggin’ General Know-it-all who hasn’t seen a real fight in his life. No thanks mate.
"One of the things which danger does to you after a time is, well, to kill emotion.”
“I swear rocks are on their own little mission to hurt me. They get everywhere!” I say through gritted teeth as I reach D on the top of the hill. I couldn’t find him if I didn’t already know where the snipers are positioned. Lying amongst red rock and dirt, next to a boulder the size of two large men for easy cover, D lays with a scope to his eye searching toward the battle raging below. The ground crunches beneath me as I drop next to him. “Having a good night mate?” I smile at him, hoping it’d take the look of discomfort off his face.
“Could be better to be honest, but I think I’ll survive. You didn’t have to come up,” he replies, but his face remains pale.
“You need a spotter, and I’m the best one for the job. It’ll be right Mate. Just don’t cry okay, I don’t wanna have to explain that to the others.” The corner of his right lip rises. I think that’ll be the best I can do for now. Scope raised, I look into the burning camp below. Spots of darkness, the bodies of fallen men, the soft sand spraying in the air and other men still in the fight fall and use the bodies as cover. Good tactic. Heartless, but good nevertheless.
I prefer sniping to being down in the action. When you’re in the middle, the brain gets jumbled. You start thinking about what would happen if you were too slow or you were outnumbered. If you got shot, would the medics reach you in time, or would it be instant death? Feelings and emotions swell in like a tide. Images, just quick flashes, of your family and home invade your mind and lower your chance of surviving a fight. Everything moves quickly and your decisions have to be two steps quicker so it’s better not to have any of those distractions when you come to war. No family, no implications and no one to be upset if something does go wrong. Being a sniper, however, means you can keep away from all that nonsense and keep your mind clear. See a turban, shoot it. Simple really. You don’t even hear the squelch as their brain flies out of the exit wound caught on the bullet. I like it better this way. Reload and pull the trigger again and again and again.
Light bounces off the sand as the sun rises, the battle only just ending. My body is stiff, and my finger cramped from repetitive shooting, but it’s over and I can finally move from the dirt. Deacon fell asleep hours ago, although I don’t know how; the sounds echoed up from the valley, drifting into our ears. I’m tempted to just leave him here, he looks peaceful, but I can see someone from the village in the distance walking up to the hill and I don’t know how they’d react if they came across a motionless soldier with a sniper rifle this close to their village. So I gotta wake him.
“What?! Why are you kicking me? Get lost Jay!” D groans, like a whinging little kid who doesn’t wanna go to school.
“Jesus D, can you try not to be a sook for one day maybe? C’mon, fights over. Now the fun part comes,” my laugh echoes around and D follows suit.
“Since when is cleaning up corpses fun?”
He has a point; this is always the worst part of the fight. Trying to pack up all the bodies before they begin to stink in the hot sun can be real nasty work.
I don’t regret many things I do in my life, but telling D to come down the hill with me is definitely going to be one of them. He doesn’t need to see the carnage. I’ve never seen as much blood as there is covering the sand now. Pieces of bodies scatter the ground, and the stench is so putrid it near bowls you over as you reach the battlefield. Flies gather on the bodies, turning them into wavering black heaps. And they aren’t just the Taliban soldiers’ bodies. Our men scatter the desert sand too. Well, pieces of our men. I can hear D sobbing behind me, swearing through his breath. If I was as young as him, I’d be like that too. He hasn’t seen battles like this, only ones that our elite battalion has won. This wasn’t a win; it was a major God damn loss.
“Tango Section, Delta Section!” Soldiers from both patrols assemble slowly in front of the Commander. Most are bruised and exhausted and some injured. Together, the survivors barely make a whole patrol group.
“Well then boys, aren’t you just a sad bunch of suckers. It was an ambush, boys. We were prepared for an ambush. So can someone please tell me why half of my men are dead? Because I am a little confused, and I’m sure the Sergeant will be too,” His words are like a disappointed fathers; words that good soldiers need. “No answers? Good.”
I look into each of the men’s tired eyes. I should feel something. Should I feel sorry for them? I don’t, and frankly I don’t give a toss because people are useless. I can only rely on my rifle. I know which parts work, which parts don’t and if they don’t I can fix them. You can’t do that with people. Once they are broken, it’s over.
“Delta team, clean up this mess and Tango team call for medical assistance and a support patrol.” They are looking at him like a deer in the headlights. Where have the soldiers gone? Why am I left here with scared unsure little children?
“Move it ladies!” Like ants, we begin to scuttle about the places, moving roasting corpses and crackling radios to get signals. The day will be long, and fear of another ambush is starting to settle in the men. Not me. I don’t bother with that crap.
1. Asudden assault or attack, as upon something to be seized or suppressed: a police raid on a gambling ring.
2. Military- Asudden attack on the enemy, as by air or by a small land force.
“Stand to attention troops. The Sergeant has requested that we take matters into our own hands. At o-nine-hundred we will enter the town west of our camp to perform an extraction. The targets are considered extremely hostile Taliban members and that’s all you are required to know. Take caution, as there will be civilians. However, do not hesitate to shoot. If you do not, your own life is at risk. You know the plan. Ninth Platoon, move out!”
The sound of the troops consumes the silence of the desert, annihilating it like we were about to annihilate our targets. In one unified swoop, we come down on the small market town. Iraqi civilians scream in terror and run for cover behind dilapidated stalls, and we raise our rifles in return. Troops disperse down the mazes of alleys, and shots begin to sound around us.
“Tango Seven, this is Tango Two, you copy?”
“Copy Tango Two,” I reply.
“I’ve got two hostiles in the eastern half of the town firing. Delta Four and Tango Twelve are down. I need backup, copy?”
“Copy Tango Two, sending medics and backup. Over and out”
I have a feeling our backup is gunna need backup.
“Delta Eight, eastern side hostilities, need backup. Copy?”
“Already on it Jay,” The boy may be a wimp, but he is the only one here I trust with my life. The other men only understand how to protect themselves. They haven’t realised that if you provide cover for those around you, you will be covered in return because they haven’t been shot in your negligence. D knows that, and I have never doubted him.
Making my way to the east side of the town is slow. You gotta check every window, down every corner and shoot the whole way. Herding through the civilians spreads them and makes visibility hard as they panic and run, but it is necessary to sort the hostile from the innocent. Any sign of hostility, any gun drawn, you destroy it. Men, children and women alike fall. The age and sex don’t get taken into account. They have a gun, and they are likely to shoot you if you don’t kill or even just maim them first. It’s war, what can I say? Each building is the same. The walls are encrusted in red dirt and tower over the top of me. I can hear my heartbeat in my ears. It matches my footsteps as I run closer to the targets; targets that want to kill me. I’m running towards possible death, and I feel....I feel nothing.
‘Emotions get in the way, they compromise position, tactic, everything. They ruin plans and lead to deaths.’
I tell myself that emotions don’t matter as I run closer to death, but they do. Courage is not the lack of emotion, but the ability to face the emotions and forget them.
“Tango Seven, this is Delta Eight, do you copy?”
“Copy Delta Eight. What is it mate?”
“I need backup here. Now.”
“Almost there D. And you better be shooting buddy.”
Mud flies off building walls when the bullets hit, sending flying shards into me. I can see D hiding behind a wall outside the alley where the hostiles are based, and I join the fight opposite him.
“Nice of you to join us.”
“I took the scenic route,” I laugh. “Give me a run-down.”
“Taliban sniper on top of that building to the left and another two buildings away.”
I check in my scope. Not that I doubt his abilities, but I just like to make sure for myself. It makes it easier to develop a plan in the heat of battle. I survey the scene and assess the task before me: two Taliban fighters, one to the left and another two buildings back, both armed and ready to kill on sight. Our situation was shocking: no cover. My objective: remove hostiles. Its times like these you need miracle.
“Jay, what’s the plan?”
One step changes everything
14th November, 2008
You don’t know me, but I had to get into contact with you to tell you. You may have heard already, but I wanted you to hear it from me. Your brother is dead.
A few weeks ago, our platoon was sent to a village in search of some members of an underground terrorist group. We had most of them, and D and I were about to get another one. We had two hostiles on the roof, and two civilians in the alleyway on the ground. We’d been called in as back-up by some wounded men retreating to get medical assistance. They left, and I thought we could take care of it.
He was a good kid. He trusted me, and I let that get in the way. I wanted to prove to him I was as great as he thought. We didn’t have enough cover, and I didn’t have a plan. I should have told him to leave. We both should have left. But I wanted to get the hostiles. I was selfish. I wasn’t ready to cover him.
Back when he first came to me, he told me about this girl, the only girl he could ever trust. The most beautiful and caring and trusting and forgiving girl he knew. I thought it was his girlfriend, but he told me that day that it wasn’t. It was you. He said he just wanted to get home to make sure his little sister was okay.
I stayed with him. I’d never leave a man behind, especially not him. He was my man. And it was my fault. When I was sitting there with him, I knew he was already gone, but I just kept wishing that I’d wake up, or that I would at least get my head blown off too. He was braver than I was. He wouldn’t have been sitting there feeling sorry for himself. He wasn’t that pathetic.
It’s strange. When I was there, time went so fast. That moment went so fast. I didn’t really know what had happened until afterwards, but now I see it. I can’t escape it. It’s in slow motion. There was a little girl in the alley we were taking cover near, and she was running, running away from a man with a scarred face. I couldn’t think, and to be honest I didn’t care about her. But D did. He didn’t even consider the hostiles on the roof. He just took one step to save her. That was all it took. That one step changed everything.
I hate myself for this. I was covered in his blood and instead of thinking of him all I could think of was killing the enemy. One casualty and three possible threats. I let it take over. There was movement, I lifted my gun and shot. Not once, but twice just to be sure. I was like a machine, and as cold as one too. I would have kept shooting if I hadn’t heard the Apaches flying over ready for the airstrike. I knew what I had done then. I could finally hear and see and feel what happened. The young boy fell to the ground with a thud, and my legs shook out from underneath me. Somehow I dragged myself to D.
I hope one day we can meet, so I can tell you about how courageous your brother was, but I don’t know if that can happen. I’ve been court marshalled for shooting a civilian. I’m not sure what will happen to me. You don’t have to write back, but I’d feel better if you did, just so I know you have it.
3rd December, 2008
I found out a day or two before your letter, but thank you. I wasn’t going to write back, I’m not even sure why I am now. But I am, and that’s that. I knew who you were. D did send me letters. He looked up to you. It’s strange to see now that you were the one that was looking to him.
Could you let me know about your trial? D would want to know. His body arrived here on Tuesday.
Write back if you can.
“A phoenix will rise from the ashes”
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