“Older men declare war. But it is youth that must fight and die.”
As the sounds of tattered boots stomping and disturbing the disgusting mixture of mud and vine echoed through the swampland, something clicked among the men of the lonely platoon. Perhaps they had been in these scrotum chocking starchy uniforms forever stained with blood and tears, or the heavy packs of "necessities" and munitions that, if anything would just slow them down should something actually attack them, or maybe it was the thought they had been trotting through the godforsaken jungle for little under a decade, but one thing was certain: something in these men just snapped. They felt a desire for death. Perhaps the sudden clicking and whispers in the fog set them off.
Someone screamed "Bouncer!" and the whole platoon started running in every direction. Some dropped their packs and ran for the camp, others felt the adrenaline rush completely overpower their own tiredness and just made a mad dash for the fog. Others couldn't react fast enough, while others just ducked out of sight until the all-to-familiar rattatatat of machine guns finally sounded. Johnny was one of those people. After the battle sounded far away enough he jumped up and made a b-line for the camp. When the explosion hit all he managed to feel at first was the stone dig into the back of his skull with a swift wet crunch.
Blackness. What's happening? Am I dead? Something burns...
A flash of comprehension explodes in my mind, it disappears just as quickly. I hear the generic screams and war cries of men, as well as the all-too-familiar sounds of bullets flying and swamp exploding, before I'm stolen away to the soundless and lightless void I had previously resided in.
I can see again. Where am I?
Oh God, now I remember. Gotta run. They need me. Go, go, go, GO. FUCK!
Who the fuck hit a toe popper? Get up Johnny.
Can't get up. Oh God it hurts. The medic's tent is over there, maybe if I crawl...wait.
Did anyone else hear that? That whiz? Why is my...oh God. Well, there goes that arm.
Shit. Now there's a bullet in my shoulder. Never thought a small piece of lead would be so noticeable. Keep going. Just keep going.
Footfall. It's close. Don't look back.
I hear the screaming. It's somewhat sudden, I guess that mine took my ears out for a bit. Feels like tinnitus. I shift my head to the side. I see the bloodbath lay before me. People shouting, screaming, some are terrified whimpers. Some are looking to the sky holding themselves. Some are screaming for their mama. Then I see Bob. He's…husky, yet somehow manages to be faster and stronger than all of us. He's running towards the fray, he's crying too. Except, there isn't terror or sadness, it's anger. He's full of rage, but why? Then I remember he's part of the scouting platoon. Where are they? He's toting two M16's and carrying several dog tags around his neck. In any other circumstance he would've seemed badass as all hell. He's just firing into the mist, until the mist fires back. He's pounded with a barrage of bullets and he falls to the ground. He's laughing now. He laughed until he just…ended. So unsettling. Oh God, Gary. Gary where the hell are your arms??
I still hear it, it just keeps getting louder and louder. Don't turn around, it could be one of them.
I can't resist. I look behind me and see Mike. He's just running towards me. He looks like he's crying. Why is he crying?
What was that sickening noise? Why is my face suddenly wet?
Mike stops for a moment, then I see the blood. Then I taste it. He just...flops over. There's a hole in his head. I can see his...
Calm down Johnny. Calm the fuck down, you can't take this.
I can't...I can't.
Johnny don't do this to yourself.
Hopefully you got something in here to calm you down.
And everything turns white.
I always remembered my father. "Whaddya wanna be when ya grow up?" was the question of the day. I'd always say I'd be an astronaut. More often that not, a familiar voice chimed in, saying that NASA wasn't sending chimps into space anymore. That was my brother, and we had a mutual friendship. Not to sound corny, but he was a lovable kind of guy. We'd cruise in his brand new Camaro all around town, we'd play, and we'd stay up on the roof looking at the stars. That's always what intrigued me, them stars. Somewhere, millions of miles away, there was just a flaming ball of gas, gratuitously sharing it's pinprick of light with us. I'd always ask him what he thought was up there. He'd usually give me an all show-no go response, but it never seemed to bother me. As he and I got older and the things we learned helped us, things seemed to shift. At least, with him. Don't get me wrong, we still maintained our friendship. But I started to notice some...changes. The one that most confused me was his behavior during our roof camp-outs, if you could even call 'em that. Sometimes, while I just closed my eyes and let myself become lost in my thoughts, I'd hear him cry. I'd always just shoot him a look, but all I ever managed to see was a tear streaming down his face.
I never understood why.
But hey, we're brothers, at the end of the day we're all tight in the family, even my other friends couldn't compete with that. When he was happy, I was happy. I was happy when he aced his classes. I was happy when his first college of choice accepted him. And when he brought home his new Bessie...I...I don't know. She wasn't menacing or suspicious and was auspiciously friendly and seemingly kind-hearted, she almost had a child's naïve sense of wonder and tolerance. Something just always rubbed me the wrong way with her. Maybe it was the announcement those many months later they were getting married.
When the draft kicked in, I didn't try anything. I knew when my date was called I was going. Some friends of some friends of mine sprayed goop in their eyes to flunk the physical. Do I wish I joined them? I don't know.
Boot camp wasn't nearly as bad as it sounds. True, it could easily have been some nightmare-inducing shit, but I just didn't see it. Let me tell you, we had to shave everything. Everything. We were informed of our targets as well. Some country born from a rebellion against France, oddly enough, was in a civil war. It was a fairly infantile country, how the U.S. had formed such diplomatic relations that it felt obligated to step in, I'll never know. We weren't even to refer to our enemies by their, I guess politically correct, names. We called 'em gooks, some dinks. That still gets a chuckle.
When we finally got overseas, it was just…bad. Boggy, rainy, like the Bayou, except, like a hundred times more depressing and boring. That was when I met Jack.
Jack was a lot like me. Clean cut, fair-haired, well built and bespectacled, Jack was a bit of a coward. He just couldn't bear being out in the field, maybe it was the killing or the possibility of seeing brutal gore. He was profoundly talented in one field though, he was the medic. It's odd, if he was squeamish due to gore, how he'd be comfortable with healing the gore...whatever. We set up camp, somewhat of a stronghold, and tried to hold down. We had night watchmen, each man had a shift, a shift lasted a night. Most of the time we were too paranoid to sleep anyhow, so this wasn't an extraneous task for any of us. The one night I did sleep I got my first taste of hell.
Screaming. Crackling. Popping. I awoke with a jolt to find the silhouettes of men falling over, sudden fountains appearing over their bodies, small lights lighting the barrels of MAT-49's. Our watchmen fell asleep. I heard a loud shriek, and turned to find a...gook, struggling with one of my comrades holding a knife. I don't know what came over me, but I tackled him and ripped the knife from his hands. I plunged it into his head, I had taken my retribution. As my unbridled rage died off, I snapped out of it. I turned to find my comrade on his back, staring at me. He was grateful, no doubt, but he looked...bewildered. I'd like to say from that point I fought tooth-and-nail for my brothers, but I didn't. I ran. I ran spewing vomit and with tears pooling out of my eyes. The Bible says "Thou shalt not kill", and yet I did. Maybe it felt good? I don't know, the aftermath sure as fuck didn't. I turned to see I wasn't alone. Jack had ran too. We stopped to catch our breath, and waited. After a while, we went back. Cover story: Jack found me while sweeping the grounds for survivors, my victim's blood was in fact from my own wounds. It worked. The Bible also said don't lie. All is fair in love in war, I guess. That night I had a horrid nightmare. The same scenario played out, only when I came to stabbing the gook, he wouldn't die. He'd flop, come back up, and try to kill my friend. I kept cutting him down, but each time he released an increasingly bloodcurdling guttural scream. Finally, when I found I no longer had the energy, the man finally stayed down. I turned to my comrade, only to find...he was my brother. He looked at me, smiled like a demon, and said, "Congrats. You're a killer now." I didn't sleep much for the following weeks.
Things just got worse as we went north. Soon, the group noticed some men diverging from the path while we went past villages. In retrospect, it wasn't hard to figure out what they were doing. One night, Jack decided to tag along. I waited up for them, saying I'd cover a man's shift. They all returned in the dead of night. I'd kept myself lively whistling some patriotic tunes. What nearly scared me half to death was the sound of some men suddenly joining me in the midst of the Star Spangled Banner. They all looked ungodly. They had a demented and rapacious look in their eyes. They seemed angry. All except Jack. His bug eyes open, remaining diluted and non-diverting, his skin as white as snow. He was shaking, perhaps. He sat down next to me, looked at me, and started trembling. He was trying to say something like "I didn't do anything" but all he managed to get out was little more than a chattering blubber. He was shocked, he seemed off. I say off because there's no real word I can muster to describe it. Picture mortification to the n'th degree, and then some. All I could think about what he "didn't do". He simply raised a quivering arms and pointed to an ever so slightly orange glow in the distance. What, the sun? What's so bad about the sun? …then it hits me that the sky is still dark as hell. That ain't the sun, what is it then? And then, it clicked. Fire. In the distance. The village. As if I had been teleported to the very site of the burning I heard tiny shrieks. They set the whole place on fire. I looked back at Jack and the final piece of the puzzle clicked. They had been raping them.
The next day I saw one of them walking a bit faster than usual. No, not diverging from the path, coming towards us. He was the ring leader, without a doubt, and he came up, chuckled, and nudged Jack on the shoulder. "Some party last night eh?", he said playfully. "Ya know if you keep acting like a pussy people will think ya don't like girls." Jack didn't respond. I clenched my fists. "Don't wanna talk faggot?", and he starts laughing. And laughing. AND LAUGHING.
Now, ask me what happened next and I'll tell you I blacked out. I saw all red, lost control of my senses. But no, no I was totally cognizant. I turned towards him and cold cocked him square in the nose. Crunch, blood flew, he just flopped on his back writhing, in more confusion than pain I guess, just sorta grunting, "God why did you break my nose?!" The rest of us just sorta stood there. I didn't make a sound, I didn't meet the glances of others, I just turned around and began walking our current path. I shoot half a look at Jack, and he just solemnly nods.
As we toured the rivers paranoia was rampant. You didn't know if the sweet old lady with the tarp-draped basket was going to rip out a grenade or offer us some fruit. When we were ambushed we got the hell outta dodge. All except Derrick. Oh, poor Derrick. After we fended the fuckers off we found him, writhing on the ground, screaming, "They took my legs! They took my goddamn legs! Help me!". Suddenly, he began sobbing like a child. Then he lifted his head up slightly and pointed at me. He begged me to end it. All I saw was the dead gook with a knife in his head and my brother congratulating me. I shook, but eventually I just looked away and fired. I had at least aimed for the head. I didn't look when I heard the lead meet bone and flesh. I didn't look when I heard the shocked gasps and skeptical murmurs of my comrades. And I didn't look when I heard Derrick choking.
Jack and I stayed close for the majority of the tour. Once we came here, I mean, where we are now, I took some time to write to my family. Jack sorta avoided doing the same, I never knew why. I'm not too sure how long we can all keep going. I don't think I even remember why the hell we're fighting this war.
Calm. Calm. Calm. Calm. A few more feet. Calm. Calm. Calm...
Just repeat. Just repeat and you'll be fine. Just keep crawling.
Stop crying godammit.
You're almost there.
The last of the screams have died out. Though, in this calm, as I altercate with this voice in my head, I seem to pick something up. A growling? No, maybe it's the distance. I'll try to get to the medic's tent and get patched up before I...
It's Jack's whimpering. It's painful.
Jack's alive. Oh my God Jack's alive. I have to help him. I need to help him!
Go you motherfucker.
Look at me, I have my limbs, I have my strength, I have my life! And I...
I see Jack now. The tent is in shambles. He's slumped up against a pole. A slight rain falls. It had rained for a near thirteen days at one point, but the pitter-patter is soothing. Until I hear splashes. As if there's a puddle. I look to see a long red streak leading to Jack. It's a bit easier to see now. His head slumped down, glasses sort of hanging loosely by his ears, and the streak emanating from...
...Jack's leg is gone. His arms are down, charred no doubt, his hand curled upwards towards the torn felt of the tent's surface. I only now see the tent is riddled with corpses. Corpses of our comrades, still frozen in a crawling position. Seems I wasn't the only one with the intent of finding the medic. Some of them still have a scream of agony frozen on their faces. As I inch closer I make a sudden shuffling noise. Jack momentarily stops crying, suddenly jerking his head up and lifting his handgun straight to my face. I freeze. Once he sees it's me he lets his arms drop. A weak "hey" escapes his lips. I manage to pull myself up and sit beside him. It hurts, but I really don't give a fuck at this point. We speak,
"I guess we're the only ones left huh?", I inquire.
"Yeah", he says sniffling. "I...I couldn't save them Johnny."
I put a hand on his shoulder and say, "Jack, come on now. You know you can't stop the Reaper. Look at me, I couldn't save 'em either."
He jerks away, or at least tries to, but even then I get the hint. I take my hand from his shoulder and he looks at me. "Well it isn't your job to save them."
He looks down at his gun. "Some...made it ya know. To this tent. They looked at me, begged me for help. But I couldn't. I just couldn't. The few who lived long enough to realize this just looked at me, and then begged me to make it stop. So, I did what I could." He motioned to the gun, and I understood.
"Jack, listen, you think I didn't want to help anyone? Look at my face. Mike's fucking brain is in my hair, I have blood on my teeth, and some stupid dick hit a mine and torched my back."
That's when I heard his quivering voice turn into a full-out weeping.
"Johnny, I was that stupid dick!"
I was shocked.
"I went out there to fight, and die, with my brothers, and I fucked everyone. I lost my leg, man!"
I almost cried too.
He continued. "WELL, THIS IS IT JOHNNY. THE END. WE'RE BOTH GONNA DIE, BECAUSE I FUCKED US ALL. I FUCKED US ALL!!"
With that, he suddenly threw his gun up and fired once into the air. The thunderous bang echoed throughout the barren wasteland of smoke and corpses. The recoil caused Jack to wince. Then, we heard a nightmarish sound. Voices. Voices and footfall. There were more of them. And now they knew where we were.
Jack looked mortified.
"Oh God, Johnny, Johnny! I'M SO SORRY!", and with that he put the gun underneath his chin.
"I got one bullet left, Johnny."
He closed his eyes, "Listen to me, to your right is a box of rounds. It's not much, but at least you'll die a hero's death. I guess...save one for yourself?"
I was terrified, quickly I responded, "Jack don't do this, they...they would've had to sweep through here anyway and they'd find us. Don't do this man."
Jack turned to me, his gun still firmly in place. "Johnny, listen. I know I got duties. I fucked us all because I...I tried to feel like something...I'm just not; a hero. Sure, my family will be sad 'n all, but really, we'd die anyways. They know that I love them and that I'd never think otherwise. So really...who's left to care about what happens to me?"
Jack slowly turned his head to align the barrel with his chin again. He cocks the gun.
"Well, I care about you."
Jack opens his eyes again and just looks at me. It seems like an eternity before he says something.
"Well maybe you're the only one."
The blood cakes the dirty felt behind us. Jack slumps over onto my lap. His head rolls over and our eyes meet again.
And yet, it's peaceful. I hear the footsteps and voices grow ever louder. I shut Jack's eyes and shed a tear or two. I grab the gun. I don't even bother putting in the mag. Rhythmic and sickening sklop sounds ring through my ears. They're in the mud, which means they're right outside. I close my eyes, look up to the sky, the rain has finally stopped. The sun is out, I can tell, I feel the heat on my face and the light illuminating my closed eyelids. I chuckle. As I hear the tent's ripples fly open...
...I'm at peace.
"Two fatalities sir. Looks like they got to 'em, goddamn dinks."
I know that voice. Is that...
"Wait, one's opening his eyes! CORPORAL BISHOP! WE GOT ONE!"
A pair of hands suddenly grip my shoulder, another lifts my head up to meet theirs.
"It's alright son, you're safe now. We're taking you to a doctor. You're gonna be fine."
They were....our men?
I look to Jack, two men dressed like him are around him. One grips his wrist, the other kneels beside him. One of them shakes their head.
Oh God no.
One of the men before me carefully takes me and throws me over his shoulder. He and the others start running from the tent. I see everyone. I see Gary, even without arms and a leg he still has a peaceful look on his face. I see Mike, I see Bob, and Jack's body just seems to fall away.
Oh God no.
I'm in a chopper now, they say I'm headed south for treatment.
Oh God no.
I overhear chatter that their forces have secured the capital city. It's all over.
Oh God no.
We were given no thanks when we returned home. We were ignored. We were essentially abandoned. The Home of the Brave can't get over a loss, and so they blame the kids, not men, kids, that fought for them. You see a man from Iraq or the Middle East you thank him. For what? What will happen to America if we lose one of those wars, huh? Shit that would happen there anyhow, happens there anyhow.
I found love. We were married, we have kids. My brother and I are still in touch. A day doesn't go by where I am not plagued by the things I saw. A day doesn't go by when I don't tremble at the memories of the war, the familiar smell of smoke. And a day doesn't go by where I open my box of mementos, carefully remove Jack's dog tags, and cry. I weep for the end of innocence. I weep for the needless lose of life. I weep for the boys that were scarred because of them.It makes me wonder why we ever went to Vietnam.
Written by The Zog.
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