I still see them as we found them, the first torn open with pattern of punctures from M-240 impacts, small holes in front that blew open in back; further effect of burst tearing and leaving neck opened wide. Blood was everywhere, most dark and some still bright when we reached him. You could read the death by signs left in place. The back wall of the canal with blood smear and scratches where he spun and fell then struggled to rise after eating the brunt of the burst—heart and adrenaline racing to live, which only killed him faster. His garments were saturated, and blood mixed into mud with the yellow-clay soil as he strained in spasm then thrashed as bodies do when dead but not yet out of life. His neck bent to the side, making the gash tear more pronounced as he lain contorted from the ending pulse and pulls of straining muscles.
We didn’t see the death, only heard the change in sounded report when our fires returned, tracers lighting and marking target as machine guns hammered and buried in on the hide with change in enemy trigger pull—longer drawn and change of tone as barrel direction swung—before falling into after-silence. The PKM was still on the ledge; stock shredded from effective returned fires. From splintered stock and impact pattern on the body and bloody mess, you knew who ran the gun.
The second, if he had not lain beside the first—and you did not stop to look closely—you would’ve sworn he’d never been struck and lain in a deep but living sleep and not one of eternal order. When you searched closer, you saw it: a single blood tear caught and hanging in long dark lashes of closed eye, its lid showing sign of depressed shape beneath. You opened the lid, and there you had it. The cavity hollowed out from velocity, and when you followed the line of travel, a single 5.56 punctured neat, clean and almost bloodless out the back.
He lain in collapsed slump, arms splayed wide with chest folded over thighs and bent legs beneath. His garments were clean aside from edge that dammed the mess of the man beside. The blood of the first absorbed into the gray-tan cloth of the second and in absorption in the second’s cloth was the first to crust in drying desert air.
Neither were old—upper teens and low twenties for all we could tell. In lands absent western comforts—that exist every day among life’s elements—age weathers differently and, to eyes of conditioned comfort, becomes more difficult to judge.
Of the two men, the second died quickest. His death was instantaneous; but what are seconds to ends that come by such means? One only knows if lived, and to know the answer necessitates its never being shared.
The thought of dying and time rose in me as I looked at them side by side. It was the kin of thought you resolve to never think of it again, but some days they return from shadows—same as the sight.
If successful, the fighters would have received a fair reward in a land where little opportunity existed beyond war and narcotics; each cultivated for the rich and high-minded who speak to their eradication and then proceed to abuse more than any. They were peasants in a feudal world doing what they knew to survive.
Kill or be killed. They flipped the coin. They lost and paid the counter-cost.
As we searched the bodies, the Captain sat on the ledge of the canal staring down with studying eyes that were somewhere else: not in a distance, but seeing something to the scene we could not make ourselves.
He smoked a cigarette asked for from a Corporal. We’d never seen him smoke, and we never saw him do so again. He blew the smoke and tapped its top with finger as the cigarette ashed embers into beginning evening wind when desert sky and earth diverge in thermals and stir the air around. The ash caught in the wind before hitting dead space behind canal’s wall where no wind stirred. In the dead space, the ash descended straight and absorbed, losing heat and self, in the mess below.
When the cigarette burned out, the Captain spoke to one of the younger Marines—Kinsley. He was a Corporal, but one of the best—sharp, tough, and fearless (He would eat a bullet seven years later from the pull of his own hand, but who could see that then? Then, there were more immanent dangers than ourselves. We never considered what happens when the gunfights end and the only enemies left to war against are those within ourselves).
“Why do you think they shot at us?” the Captain asked Kinsley.
“Sir, they think we’re here to take over and be occupiers,” Kinsley answered.
“What have we done to show them any different?”
No one answered.
The Captain turned next to a squad leader, Sergeant Michaels, “Why are we here?”
“To fight terrorists, sir,” Sergeant Michaels responded smart and sharp in response.
“Have we found one yet that was a threat to America?”
No one answered. We just looked at the bodies then scanned for further threats. The sun touched the horizon line as crepuscule took hold, bleeding colors of light and life until darkness hinted through the shadow of day.
Two weeks earlier, Bin Laden was killed in the next country over, and while Americans danced in streets, we patrolled to assess and measure local reactions in the nation that harbored him at the time of his attack. What did the locals think? How would they respond?
The Captain turned to a second squad leader, Sergeant Ramirez, twenty-two from Queens, whose multi-lingual upbringing aided us to communicate with locals even when absent an interpreter.
“When we asked everyone about Bin Laden, how many’d ever even heard of him?” the Captain asked Ramirez.
Ramirez laughed, shaking his head side to side.
“Not a fucking one, sir!”
Most of us laughed. Sometimes, after violence, men need diversion. They need a lightness and reason to laugh—however ridiculous—to come down from the edge that hangs after sudden end to carnal viscerality.
The whole after-revelations in Bin Laden’s death were ridiculous.
Ridiculous—there was no other word for it. Bin Laden was an American—not an Afghan—obsession. What had been the beginning focus for incursion into a foreign country, was entirely unknown to the people we intervened on behalf to help—whatever “help” came to be defined in new and changing missions and redefined purpose of focus. Progress required quantitative metrics that could be measured and referenced in reports and spoken to before Congress and “the people.” From this reason, progress became roads, projects, money spent, control of ground, body counts. We invented quantitative metrics to display everything but the qualitative truth that is peace—inaction and non-necessity of prosecutors of war—something that make experts in strategy and diplomacy irrelevant.
Once experts find a foothold, few will willingly relinquish deifications in empowered in defined but limited realms. Experts will find their limited realm actually affects far greater scopes of society and social considerations; then act, shape, and effect accordingly. There will always be new threats to keep their prominence and power. We remained in that country another eleven years because experts proclaimed necessities and threats beyond common and simple eyes too stupid to know reality through knowing eyes; and when we departed twenty-one years after our first action in that nation, the experts still had no plan for peace, only a changed spin in message.
Of such experts, a child would shout, “The Emperor has no clothes!” but we are conditioned to, and do, defer to experts whose messaging conflicts with our own eyes: empowering self-doubt and professional deceptions to the demise and denigration of truth and self-assertion. It can maintain foreign wars for decades, keep societies in fear and masked for years, compliant, reactionary, afraid; and the next day, all can be forgotten when the only change to any of the driving fear or action is the message.
Effect, not truth, is the purpose of the message.
In days—before egress of American assets even completed—the country restored to what it had been on the day we entered.
I like to believe our presence through the years brought a humanness to the ruling spirit of the restored Taliban; something that, while still harsh, at least learned an element of love—something seen in the way we served even when there was no geopolitical purpose in the whole grand campaign after the first sixty days that neutralized Al Qaeda’s operating abilities from that land—but I admit my hope is likely nothing more than foolish and unrealized ideal.
“How many years have we been here?” the Captain followed in question to Ramirez.
The Captain looked up from the bodies. He would never look at them again. He flicked the butt of the cigarette into a dry stand of grass on canal’s crest. He watched it land, ensured the glow died and last of its fire would not set the world to flame as the last of skylight burned in frame around his silhouette.
“In ten years, how many times have we cleared, controlled, then abandoned this single village?”
No one answered.
The Captain answered, “Six.”
He looked into each of our eyes, his stare speaking more than searching.
“Want to know the secret to peace?” the Captain asked to none and all of us at once.
“Yes sir,” Kinsley answered.
“Want it. Show you do. Say you do. Mean it. Be a good dude. That’s it. If you say you care, mean it. If you don’t, save everyone the time and bullshit; but when you learn to really care, you begin to see how all deserve to be cared about in their own ways—and not always for the reasons we or they believe.
Fights will still come, but when we look for different ways first, and others see from strong men such ways exist, others will try them too before returning to the killing.
It takes a Strong Man to temper the full capacity of his violence and shape it into a force of peace. Be the Strong Man first…Be the other when we must.”
Crepuscule neared its end and the bleeding colors of sky died violet black. Our return patrol began: dispersed columns and steady sweep for IEDs, under light of stars that broke in show above.
When darkness fully took, the light of the stars shone green through gathering optics that illuminated into depths of an infinite universe I would never see again.
It was a different world.
They were the last we ever killed.