The social psychology of this century reveals a major lesson: often it is not so much the kind of person a man is as the kind of situation in which he finds himself that determines how he will act.
―Stanley Milgram, Obedience to Authority
I stand at ease on a wide asphalt road in line with everyone else in Baker platoon—three sergeants, and ten privates, including myself—a hundred metres or so outside a town somewhere over a hundred kilometres north-east of the capital, a place to the far north of my hometown.
To our left, a field of greenish-yellow grass about knee-high, continuing up a small hill roughly a metre tall and two-hundred metres away. To the right is similar scenery; a relatively flat grassy field going out for a kilometre or so before stopping at a distant tree line.
The chilly air sweeps past my neck and I hunch forward, trying to keep the cold out.
Shit, it’s really cold out today. Hear about it all the time—Winter up north is much worse, but does it usually get this cold? It was tolerable yesterday, the day before was fine, and it suddenly drops this morning. Colder than fifteen degrees, that I’m sure of.
I pinch my rifle’s sling in between my thumb and the side of my index finger and rub into it. The little warmth the friction provides for my fingertips is a welcome relief, but it isn’t enough.
I only have two layers on; a shirt underneath my uniform. We’re not allowed to fiddle with the uniforms either. The level of discipline is too impractical.
I stare, eyes tired, at the back of Sergeant Nine’s helmet, and then his dark grey woollen scarf, thick grey coat, and gloves, a thin mist obscuring my vision each time I breathe through my teeth.
The winter gear is only for the higher ranks—foodstuffs and materials have been rationed. Hell, our backpacks are only half full, holding only the essentials; sleeping gear, rations, and a mess kit. Our country will have to surrender sooner or later. The quicker we surrender the better—today would be best. Then we won’t have to fight, and we won’t have to die.
Too optimistic, but…
Hope lingers on in my thoughts.
I sniff the runny mucus up.
Autarky, national pride—it’ll end up the same as it did thirty years ago; a sickening waste of human life and resources for an unjustifiable cause. I was born nine years after that war, but the stories dad started telling me from eighth grade helped me understand—they either left out or whitewashed everything in the textbooks.
It was obvious back at home—propaganda in the classroom, issuing ration books even before the war began, and now they’re drafting anyone and everyone who fits the bill—all males between fifteen and fifty, no exceptions.
Recently, cities on the coast had been bombed, and the enemy has managed to hijack a radio station—it was surprising to turn on the radio at seven in the morning and hear a man’s voice asking us to surrender.
Our country never stood a chance, so learn when to quit, you nationalist idiots!
The politicians are out of their minds, and we’re going to have to die for their ideals. Fuck your conditions! Just accept the loss and surrender!
It’s frustrating, not being able to do anything but follow their orders.
You had no choice. Die then and there refusing the draft or take a chance on the front lines.
Martyrdom. I know that doing this is wrong, but I’m not willing to—I don’t want to die.
Besides, what can a single person do by himself?
A rhetorical question. I know the answer already.
Nothing. Not a damn thing.
The chattering of my teeth snaps me out of it. I clench them and take in a deep breath.
Home. Definitely warmer back at home. Still cold during winter though, but better than it is here.
I slowly let the air out from my throat, creating a thick mist and clouding the figure standing at the front of our platoon—the Lieutenant, busy giving us the same briefing for the fourth day in a row: relieve Able platoon. Yesterday, they had successfully captured the town we’re about to go through and pushed back the front line, just a few kilometres from here. We have to make our way toward them through the town via the main road—on foot.
Looking down at my feet I watch the leather of my black boots bulge and sink as I move my toes around.
Better than they were the day before. Stung really bad at the time. Now they’re just sore thanks to the calluses.
I prefer this to what’s waiting for us at the end of this ridiculous trek—the front line.
I’m a little thankful we’re on foot. Transport means we’d be at the front line in a day. Bought four days’ worth of time. Was hoping it would end by now though.
Melancholy and hopelessness take turns at jabbing me over and over again.
If the battlefield is anything like what dad says it’ll be like—a politician’s playground, one littered, in some cases filled, with human corpses—I want no part of it.
If I can help it, I don’t want to have to point this rifle at another human being.
“ARE WE CLEAR?” I look up—the Lieutenant observes us sternly.
“SIR, YES SIR!” The more enthusiastic voices smother my response. The Lieutenant looks down at his watch, as always. Everything begins at seven in the morning.
I left my watch and everything else with mum and dad when I found out I would be drafted.
Mum, dad, I wish I could send you letters. Then I could at least say a proper farewell.
I hear the other side gets to send letters every week, even now, while we’ve had to ration paper. For that I envy them, just a little.
The front line…
The thought of running away has crossed my mind countless times, but I know the end result.
He’ll shoot you if you run.
A town a hundred metres ahead and grassy fields on either side. There’s the tree line, but—
A rifle can punch a hole through a man from several hundred metres away, our green uniforms would stand out like a sore thumb in this grass and the platoon itself is a walking alarm. If I make a run for it, everyone will notice. He’ll give the order, and they’ll probably all shoot. There isn’t a chance in hell that they’d all miss several times over.
Doesn’t he ever get tired? Same routine, same instructions…
Teachers probably have the same job. But there’s a difference, and one that shouldn’t be overlooked—teachers should be teaching their students how, not what, to think, unlike that cold-blooded psychopath.
My eyes move to the pistol he brandishes at his side.
I don’t want to be placed in the same boat as him—someone who can mercilessly execute a fellow human being begging for mercy—Fourteen, a conscripted soldier who tried to run away on the way here.
Two bullets to Fourteen’s back and the Lieutenant threatens us.
“If any of you want to help this traitor, you’re welcome to!”
Fourteen screams out in pain as if he’s out of breath. No-one moves. No-one speaks out. He’ll kill us if we do.
He turns his attention back to Fourteen. As Fourteen begs for mercy, the Lieutenant aims at the back of his head, and fires, silencing him.
I didn’t act.
I couldn’t act.
You couldn’t save him.
You couldn’t risk your own life.
You want to teach and help others?
You won’t lead by example?
My body jerks into motion. We all stand upright, eyes front, arms fixed to our sides, heels together, toes apart, as drilled. A repulsive aftertaste floats around in my mind.
I bring my left foot forward, my boot landing with a soft thud in synchronisation with the other soldiers, and begin the walk into the town, sandwiched in between the men of my assigned platoon. We’d been forced to march thirty kilometres a day, four days straight—no-one is marching anymore.
The sniffing and phlegm-filled coughs of someone towards the back of the line breaks the silence—Fifteen, our medic and the only other conscripted soldier left in this platoon besides myself.
The cold has gotten to him, huh?
Four days of sleeping out in the open with nothing but the uniforms on our backs, so it doesn’t really come as a surprise, but he’s been really diligent with hygiene and catching a cold in this weather isn’t something to laugh at. Knowing the Lieutenant, he probably doesn’t care.
I hope one of the sergeants would at least be kind enough to lend the poor guy a coat to wear. Sergeant Nine might. I’ll ask him later.
I take a deep breath in—
—out. A thick mist rushes into view and dissipates.
All it would take to end all of this would be for our government to capitulate.
They’re continuing the war despite the food and material shortage.
They haven’t batted an eye at the aerial raids.
They won’t surrender unconditionally.
They don’t care about how many soldiers die. They’d rather watch the country burn than lose face. There’s no way out of this. Just a few more kilometres, and then it’s the front line. Chances are I’ll die. We’ll probably all die, and I’ll be lucky to die an instant, painless death.
But I don’t want to die.
I dig my nail into my sling. The fear of death lingers in my mind—the anxiety a constant weight on my chest.
My eyes wander left as we pass the first building on the outskirts of the town—a large one-storey house. Bricks painted over a creamy colour, aged roof tiles turned mostly dark grey, with traces of brown still left on some of them. A pipe runs down the side of the house, the rust staining the wall holding it in place. The wooden window sills have been painted white and the glass is mostly clean; it’s been well-maintained.
The front door, facing the road, is partially open, most of it still on the hinges but large pieces of wood lay scattered across the ground. The doormat is slanted, half of it inside the house, and the other half out. Dirt-caked shoeprints lead to the house from the pathway.
Soldiers probably forced their way in. Hope the residents are okay.
The house itself isn’t all that different from my own. When they came to notify me of the draft, they knocked—before threatening mum and dad.
Technically volunteered. I don’t regret it—I wanted to protect them, but…
I don’t want to die. The time and effort you’ve put into becoming a teacher up until now has been for nought. You’ll die soon, in a war you don’t want to fight—the idea is almost too much.
Why the hell do I have to do this? Why do I have to risk my life?
If I refuse, I die.
If I resist, I die.
If I run—
It isn’t fair.
This war…This fucking war!
My fingernails dig into the flesh of my palms, warmth wells up in my face, the hot, almost burning friction between my thumb and the cotton webbing permeates into my skin.
A sharp sensation irritates the back of my throat, and I swallow what little saliva there is in my mouth to try and relieve the pain. Wiping my eyes, I slowly give in to the feeling of resignation.
I look ahead at the next house. Two-stories high, made of brick and painted over brown. The windows on each floor are large; taller than they are wide, and the panes have been damaged; some riddled with bullet holes, cracks running out from the point of impact.
As I get closer—shallow holes, some small and some large, dot the walls. The front door has been knocked down, mostly intact and partially attached to a jagged and broken bottom hinge. Streaks of paint are missing from the wall facing the road, revealing a dark red underneath.
Littered along the road are bullet casings, spent magazines, rubbish, rubble, splintered wood, shards of glass—there is no respite. It’s a mess.
If I hide in one of these buildings—
You’ll just be caught and killed.
Inside another house, three storeys tall, it’s pure chaos. Torn curtains, blood-stained walls, broken mugs and plates, a khaki-uniformed body—
I grimace, turn away.
His body—his skin was—a hole in his—
Nausea. I lean forward and cough, almost throwing up the slice of bread and soup I had for breakfast. The acid burns the back of my throat, solid bits of food and the sharp taste reaches the back of my tongue—I swallow, forcing it all back down.
I take in a deep breath, the loud sound of air passing into my runny nostrils fills my ears.
And out. In—
“You alright there, Ten?” Sergeant Nine asks in a barely audible voice.
I nod, staring down at the ground, my feet going at the same pace as him.
“Yes, yes sir. I’m fine, sir.”
Avoid the houses. Look away. Don’t look inside.
Something solid hits the back of my calf, turn back and receive a violent shove in response. I don’t bother facing him.
“Hurry it up, footscrap.”
How many times—
“Grow up, fatboy.” I retort, in a quiet but audible voice.
“What the fuck di—!”
I can feel the stares of the other platoon members.
“Ten, Eleven, shut your mouths!” the Sergeant says in a hushed voice, glaring at us, “And Eleven, enough with the insults!”
“What? He’s a scrippy fresh out of training, ain’t he?”
I jump and grip tightly on my sling as the Sergeant immediately turns to the front.
“Sir, yes sir!”
“SHUT YOUR SQUAD UP AND KEEP THEM MARCHING!”
“Sir, right away sir!”
He turns back to us.
“If I hear another peep from either of you, I swear I’ll confiscate the day’s rations and a week’s pay. Understood?”
“Sir, yes sir.”
Food and money are the last things on my mind. There’s still the front line, and getting into trouble and drawing the Lieutenant’s attention is the one thing I have to avoid.
It grows silent again, with the soft thumping of boots being the only sound.
Just listen to what he says. If you don’t, you will die, frontline or not.
The sound of a small pop echoes from somewhere above us. The entire platoon stirs, some soldiers ducking with their rifles drawn and looking around for the source of the noise. I keep my eyes on the windows surrounding our platoon—
A piece of paper slowly makes its way toward the ground. I look up again—hundreds of sheets tumble through the air in their descent, and beyond them are several dark specks in the sky.
The thumping sound of distant guns travels through the air. Smoke and bright streams of light fill the sky in a futile attempt to overwhelm them as they slowly turn around.
A bomber? —They aren’t dropping bombs…why paper?
I look down at the white sheet and pick up a piece propped up against my boot.
IF YOU ARE MEANING TO SURRENDER, READ THIS CAREFULLY.
The war is all but over. For the past few weeks, we have experienced continued resistance from your forces. They have been few in number, poorly trained, poorly fed, and many of them are but young boys, given old equipment and told to go out and die for their country. If at all feasible, we do not wish to shed any more blood. Our enemy is your government, not the lives of the men and people that they have chosen to abandon. If you wish for an early end to the war, and if you wish to live and go home to your families, follow the instructions below.
GRANTED THAT YOU ARE UNARMED, THIS LEAFLET MARKS YOU, THE BEARING SOLDIER, AS A NON-COMBATANT. IF POSSIBLE, WITH THIS LEAFLET IN HAND, KEEP BOTH ARMS RAISED IN THE AIR WHEN APPROACHED BY OUR FORCES. WE GUARANTEE YOUR SAFETY AND KIND TREATMENT IN ACCORDANCE WITH INTERNATIONAL LAW.
ANY AND ALL OTHER ACTIONS WILL BE DEEMED AS RESISTANCE AND SHALL BE DEALT WITH PROMPTLY.
I hold the thin piece of hope in my hand as if it were fragile, ready to crumble with even the slightest amount of force. Tears well up in my eyes again, my heart races. This is it.
If I surrender, I’ll live.
The thoughts of what I could do when the war ends fill my head. Seeing my mother again, starting my teaching career, living peacefully—all the things I’ve been forced to abandon because of this war.
If we surrender, we’ll be spared until the war is over. I won’t have to kill a single person. If I can show this—how will you do it?
‘We’ can’t surrender. Most of the soldiers are volunteers. Nationalists.
They’ll report you.
There’s no guarantee they won’t turn on you.
He’ll shoot you.
I look around—an atmosphere of pessimism runs throughout the platoon. There is quiet chatter among the soldiers. Some read through it while pointing at the pictures to see if they can pick out someone they know, while others tear it up and throw it away.
I remember hearing rumours about how they sometimes shoot surrendering soldiers regardless of whether they’re trying to do so, and press my nail into my sling.
They’ll probably shoot you on sight——hopefully they won’t.
But this is my best bet; the only way I can hope to survive.
Do it once you get the chance
“DROP THOSE FLYERS RIGHT NOW!”
My heart skips a beat as I shove it into my pocket, muscles tense, heart throbbing. The sound of the flyer crumpling as I force it down seems so loud. The chill running down my body drowns out my thoughts.
“IF ANY OF YOU EVEN THINK OF BETRAYING OUR COUNTRY, I WILL PERSONALLY SHOOT YOU!”
The Lieutenant emerges from the front of the line and holds the flyer up high in the air, his glare passing over each and every one of us.
He begins shouting something, but it goes in one ear and out the other. The anxiety nagging at me from the back of my mind overwhelms me. My eyes dart left and right, trying to find anyone who might have seen me, but all eyes are on the Lieutenant, their fear of, or respect for him getting the better of them.
No-one. No-one saw you. You’re fine.
“DON’T BELIEVE WHAT THEY SAY! WE ONLY NEED TO PUSH THEM BACK ONE LAST TIME AND THEY’LL BE SCURRYING BACK TO THEIR MOTHERS!”
Slowly, I loosen my sweaty grip from the now damp leaflet and bring my hand out from my pocket, making sure my arm moves as little as possible. I can’t afford to draw any attention.
Need to keep this. Need to find a way to surrender. Without this, you’re a dead man.
My arm now at my side, I let out a weak and slow breath, my heart still thumping.
“Just one more push!” the Lieutenant says in a raspy voice and clears his throat, “The enemy is becoming desperate! They are using whatever they can to deceive us! To break our morale! Including methods like THIS!”
He shakes the flyer in the air, crushes it and throws it on the ground.
“THEY are the ones that need to fear US! THEY are the ones who will surrender! For the sake of our homeland, WE WILL WIN THIS WAR!”
Reaching the eastern end of the town, near a makeshift checkpoint; a few guards, damaged cars, a supply truck, and barbed wire, are several khaki-uniformed soldiers—probably the same as the number of soldiers in our platoon—lined up against the wall of a large building—a hall? All of them on their knees with their hands behind their heads.
Enemy sol—the corpse—
I cough, clearing my throat, and swallow the brackish saliva building up in my mouth. My stomach tenses up, ready to empty all of its contents at a moment’s notice.
He was in a khaki uniform as well.
A few paces closer and it’s easier to make out their finer details.
Different heights, grey dust cakes their clothes skin, a few tears in their uniforms here and there, some of them are scratched up and bruised. They don’t look like they’ve been treated yet.
I stop dead in my tracks. The Lieutenant walks over to someone a few metres ahead to our right. Looking at his rank—
He’s probably just getting permission to move on—our death warrants.
The Lieutenant comes back.
“Men, we have our orders! Bravo platoon, line up, five metres from that wall behind those men! Fifteen, you’re with me!”
“SIR, YES SIR!”
A chill runs down my body.
We all move to line up. Now, each one of us has a khaki-uniformed soldier in front of him.
I turn to Sergeant Nine.
“Sir, what are we doing sir?”
I already know the answer, but—
“Sir!” I urge.
“Ten, just shut your mouth and follow orders!” he says in an irritated whisper.
I clench my teeth, feeling the tension in my face, the pain in my throat.
“MEN! RIFLES READY!”
Firing squad. We’re going to execute them.
I won’t do it. We’re not meant to be killing prisoners. It’s the only way to guarantee the other side will treat prisoners from our side well.
The brushing of fabric, the clacking of bolts.
I look left and right. Everyone else in the platoon has their rifle to the ready.
Even if you all follow his orders, I won’t. I won’t do it.
Clutching tightly onto my sling with both my hands, I can feel their stares weigh down on me. Shoulders back, chest out, I take in a deep, shaky breath.
I can’t. Not just morally, but because of international law. If I go through with this, the enemy will be justified if they decide to kill every single one of us.
“I SAID! RIFLES READY!”
I will not do it.
“DID YOU NOT HEAR ME PRIVATE TEN!? RIFLES! READY!”
Shut up. I won’t do it.
“What are you doing Ten!? Hurry up and ready your rifle!” sergeant Nine whispers to me.
Shut the hell up!
I shake my head.
“I can’t sir.”
“Yes, you can! Just do it! Or he’ll place you up against the wall—”
“THEN YOU DO IT! BECAUSE I CAN’T!”
I’ve had enough.
“WHY THE HELL DO I HAVE TO KILL SOMEONE JUST BECAUSE YOU TELL ME TO! OUR COUNTRY HAS ALREADY LOST THE WAR! YET YOU IDIOTS STILL THINK WE CAN WIN!? WAKE UP! Do you know why we’re meant to treat them humanely? IT’S SO THAT WE AREN’T TREATED LIKE ANIMALS WHEN WE SUR—!”
Something hard bashes against the side of my skull—the Lieutenant stands there, pressing something to my head—his pistol. I breathe, heavily, my heart racing.
“Private Ten, I’ll say it once more. Rifles. READY!”
I hold onto the sling, my arms trembling, mist clouding his face. Shaking, I bring my shoulders back and chest out once more.
I won’t do it.
He cocks the pistol.
I won’t do it.
I will not.
But I don’t want to die.
“READY YOUR RIFLE!”
He shoves his gun into my head, and my mind goes blank. Slowly, I lower the sling from my shoulder and hold the rifle in my hands.
“We don’t have all day Private!”
Teeth clenched and glaring down the side of the pistol’s barrel, I grab the bolt handle with my left hand, bring it up, pull it back, push it forward, bring it down. The round is now in the barrel.
“Good,” he says calmly, almost as if all he was never furious in the first place.
I jerk and slowly bring the rifle up to my shoulder. My breath shallow, shaky, I can’t keep the rifle steady. The iron sights wobble, and everything in front of me blurs.
I shut my eyes, my face burning up, the cold chilling the corners of my eyes. Sniffing the mucus running down my nose, I feel the grimace forming on my face as I try to hold back my whimper and my entire body begins to shake.
The cold runs down my cheeks and I squeeze the trigger. The rifle kicks back into my shoulder, and the blast of every rifle rings in my ears. The heavy thud of several bodies hitting the ground follows.
“Fucking pathetic. I’ll have you court-martialled when the war is over!”
He shoves me and I fall on my side, dropping my rifle. The sound of his boots gradually becomes distant, going further right. I open my eyes, coughing as I try to stop myself from crying out. In front of me is a bloody stain against the wall, and the body of the soldier, hunched forward and bleeding from his lower back. The other soldiers have bullet wounds in their backs and heads.
I killed him. I killed the prisoner. I couldn’t save any of them. They’re prisoners!
I clench my teeth, my hands, and raise them.
You hypocrite! You fucking hypocrite! You…!
I push my fists against my head.
Why did you listen to him! Why did you pull the fucking trigger! You fucking idiot! If you do something like this, you deserve to die!
I’m so sorry.
“Sir, he’s still alive!”
I look up and ahead at the direction from where the voice came.
It was Eleven, checking the bodies ahead of Fifteen. He looks over at the Lieutenant, then down at the soldier I’d killed.
Is he alive!?
Suddenly, he moves, stretching his left arm out and trying to crawl away.
To my right, the Lieutenant makes his way toward the soldier, hand on the grip of his pistol. He draws his gun——my hands are gripping onto the collar of his coat as I drag him away and throw him to the ground. The recoil travels up my arms and into my torso—a wake-up call. His face, shocked, twists and reddens with rage.
This is it. I’m a dead man.
“WHAT ARE YOU DOING PRIVATE TEN! GET OFF OF ME IMMEDIATELY!”
I glare and bare my teeth at him, not allowing him to shake me off. From the corner of my eyes, I spot his handgun several metres away.
“FUCK YOU!” I retort.
I’ll stop you, kill you if I have to!
Mounting him, I raise my fist and bring it down, again, and again, and again. He throws several punches at me, but without any momentum behind them, I manage to brush them off and continue my assault. The pain in my right hand begins to grow, but I ignore it. I know that once I stop, the prisoner will die.
“GET OFF OF ME RIGHT NOW!”
I can’t let him!
Blood runs from his nose, his mouth, dying his teeth red, and streaks across his face, his face burning up more and more with each blow. Someone tries to restrain me, pulling on my clothes, my collar, wrapping their arm around my neck, and grabbing my right arm, but I resist, pull my arm away and keep going, keeping my hand on the Lieutenant’s collar as an anchor.
“GET OFF!” orders Eleven.
“You human scumbag! Don’t think you can do whatever the fuck you want just because you’re a Lieutenant!” I shout through my teeth as I struggle to continue my onslaught, two people trying to pull me off of him. My fist is numb now. I’ll keep going for as long as I have to.
“HURRY UP AND GET HIM OFF!”
“TEN! GET OFF OF HIM!” Sergeant Nine shouts, his arms hooked around my shoulders. I know that I die whether I get off of him or not. I have nothing against Sergeant Nine, but—
Sorry Sergeant, I can’t do that.
Just as I pull my arm back for another strike, something blunt strikes the side of my head, the world shakes, and my vision goes fuzzy. I lose my strength and they pull me away from him and throw me down. I watch as Eleven and Sergeant Nine help him up.
“Private Eleven, get me my gun!”
“Sir, yes sir!”
As Eleven’s footsteps fade, the Lieutenant walks toward me. I look at the soldier, still bleeding, but he isn’t trying to get away. His eyes are on me.
You probably hate my guts. If this is your way of getting revenge, I’ll accept it. I’m sorry for shooting you. I should have just died then and there. I’m sorry.
I look up at the Lieutenant looming over me.
“You had a single order, Private Ten. Shoot the enemy. They’ve killed our people, bombed our cities…why can’t you follow a single order? This is why I don’t want traitorous sacks of shit like you in our army!”
I can barely make out his face, but—
The amount of pleasure I get from being able to curse at him—he swings his foot into my stomach, and it knocks the wind out of me. I lurch forward, arms over my head and cough, barely able to breathe as he continues kicking me.
I hear Eleven’s footsteps jogging back.
“Here’s your gun, sir.”
“Thank you, Private Eleven.”
I’m going to die here. Now that I think about it, tackling him was a bad idea. If I wanted to keep the soldier alive, I should’ve just shot him.
Looking up at the Lieutenant, he cocks his handgun and points it at my face.
“For disobeying my orders, assaulting your commanding officer, attempting to murder your commanding officer as well as treason, you die here Private Ten.”
A wet snap, blood sprays from a bloody hole above the Lieutenant’s left eye, a distant clap, and his body goes limp, dropping on top of me.
I look around, dazed. Soldiers are ducking, running around, lying on their stomachs, looking for the sniper, looking for cover as bullets snap past—chaos. I look around for Fifteen——he is hiding behind the corner of the hall, watching the hills beyond the makeshift checkpoint.
“Medic!” I shout, the pain in my stomach cutting my call short. I gradually push myself up with my left arm and look around.
He looks this way.
He looks around, still cowering behind the wall.
“Come here and help him!” I shout, irritated.
I can’t let the prisoner die.
Still dizzy, I push the Lieutenant’s body off and get up on all fours. It feels like I barely have enough strength to get up. Another soldier drops, a bloody patch on his back.
I give up and slowly crawl over to the prisoner, my eyes on his injury.
“Put pressure,” I say, “Keep pressure on it!”
If he doesn’t, he’ll bleed out.
“OPEN FIRE! SMOKE HIM OUT!” the Captain shouts.
As I’m about to reach him, our forces begin to engage the enemy, firing east beyond the town’s exit. A moment later, a hail of bullets pummels the corners of each building, suppressing some soldiers and mowing down others, the popping of several machine guns echoes from the distance.
I look to my right, and surely enough, there are several enemy soldiers in a firing line on the grass and sides of the road, many of them only visible from their muzzle flashes.
Take it out! Surrender or they’ll shoot!
I grab the flyer from my pocket and hold it up.
“I SURRENDER! DON’T SHOOT!”
A bullet snaps past my head, I flinch and wave it again.
“DON’T SHOOT! DON’T SHOOT!”
Fuck! Please look at the flyer!
A gunshot—from my left. Eleven has his handgun trained on me. I duck and another bullet snaps past.
“I’LL FUCKING KILL YOU, TRAITOR!”
“Fuck you, asshole!” I retort and look around for a weapon. Just behind me is the Lieutenant’s handgun.
I dive for it and take aim—Eleven’s body lies against the corner of the building, arms down by his sides, staring lifelessly at the ground. Another short burst of fire knocks his body to the ground. I stare at it, panting.
“FALL BACK! FALL BACK!” the Captain shouts and the others begin to retreat. A loud sound, like paper being torn, rips through the air and an explosion takes a chunk out of a building further in the town a second later—mortar fire. Several more rounds make their mark, sending up dust and debris into the air and pounding on the earth beneath my hands.
Shit! The soldier!
I get back up on all fours and crawl over to him. His breathing is erratic and there’s still blood coming from his back. Looking at the hall, I see Fifteen looking back at me.
“Fifteen! Get the fuck over here! You’re the only one with bandages!”
He peeks around the corner and shakes his head.
“I can’t!” he shouts.
Fine, if you won’t come willingly—!
I point the handgun at him.
“If you don’t come here right now, I WILL SHOOT YOU!”
He glances at the corner again, looks back at me and slowly begins walking, crouched low with his hands up.
“Hurry up and treat him!”
“Okay, okay!” he replies and scurries over. He coughs into his sleeve before opening up his medical pouch and begins to treat the prisoner. I throw the gun away and go back to waving the flyer around, making sure that the enemy sees it.
“WE SURRENDER! DON’T SHOOT!” I scream, at the top of my lungs.
“FIRE!” says a voice in the distance, and I duck, but the bullets don’t come flying.
Several mortar rounds make their way through the sky and onto their targets. I look up—enemy soldiers approach us, rifles to the ready.
“ROLL IT! ROLL IT!” says a soldier, his crouched silhouette visible from behind a tree.
I keep my arms raised, the flyer in my hand.
“WE SURRENDER! PLEASE DON’T SHOOT! PLEASE DON’T!”
“KEEP YOUR HANDS UP!” shouts one of the soldiers, his weapon still trained on me.
I look back at Fifteen and the prisoner.
“Wait! We’re treat—”
“Shut up and keep your hands up!”
I flinch and lower my head, turning away as if doing so would somehow save me from a bullet. Several more mortar rounds rip into the town.
“Okay, I understand! But don’t shoot the medic!”
Two of the enemy soldiers run up to me and shove me to the ground, putting their weight on my back and forcing my arms out. I look at Fifteen—they have their rifles aimed at his head.
“I’m treating him! He has lost a lot of blood, so if he isn’t treated quickly, he’ll die,” he says, keeping his hands off of the prisoner.
“Keep going then. If you try anything funny, we’ll kill you,” replies one of the soldiers.
Another barrage of mortar fire comes in. The vibrations travel up from the ground and shake my body to its very core. The amount of devastation each round can deliver is clear.
“Medic! We need you over here!” shouts the other soldier. A regular-looking soldier with a medic’s insignia on his helmet rushes over and kneels down in front of Fifteen, opens up his pouch quickly and begins work on the prisoner.
“Is he going to be okay?” I ask, looking at the blood on the ground. It looks like he’s lost a lot.
“He’ll probably be fine,” the enemy medic replies, “the wound is clean, and it doesn’t look like he’s been hit anywhere bad. We just need to stop the bleeding and then send him to a field hospital. They’ll take care of him.”
The guilt of pulling the trigger is a little lighter now. Knowing that he’ll probably live is a relief. But the fact that I pulled the trigger still gnaws at me.
Explosions continue to echo throughout the town. The rumbling of the earth continues to travel through my body, but it’s getting further.
“This guy shot him though, sir.”
I look up. A man with a sniper rifle in his right hand looks down at me.
“You know that executing prisoners of war is against international law, don’t you?” says a man next to him, his sergeant.
“…I’m sorry,” I reply, eyes on the ground. I didn’t want to die, I still don’t, but at this point, I can’t expect any mercy from them. I shouldn’t have listened to the Lieutenant. I shouldn’t have pulled the trigger. If I were in their position, I’m not sure if I could bring myself to forgive them either.
“Your guys have killed all but one of them. Why should we spare you?”
They don’t have to. We’re being held at gunpoint and can be considered war criminals at this point. If he kills us, no-one else will know or care. I remain silent, knowing that I can’t reason my way out. Even if I had a gun to my head, I shouldn’t have fired.
“Well?” he asks.
I take in a shaky breath, and let it all out.
“If you’re going to shoot me, shoot me in the head,” I say, “I know what I did was wrong.”
I’ve thrown out any hope of surviving. I’ll probably die here, and if I’m going to die, I’d rather have it be a painless one.
I shut my eyes and rub my forehead into the asphalt. My head is blank, black. I lie still, waiting for everything to end.
“We aren’t going to. If you’d just watched your CO execute one of ours, however, you wouldn’t be alive right now,” says the enemy sergeant, “lucky for you, my sniper saw what you did.”
My head remains blank for a few seconds. He continues on about keeping Fifteen alive, but most of his words go straight through one ear and out the other.
They’re not going to shoot?
I open my eyes and look up.
“Do you have any weapons on you?” the Sergeant asks.
I pause. My thoughts race through my head. I have to tell the truth, and I have to remember everything I have. If I forget something, they might kill me. Anything that can be used as a weapon—
“…I have a steak knife in my mess kit!” I say, desperately.
I don’t have a handgun or an army knife or a grenade, and my rifle is on the ground where I’d dropped it. He looks at me, then at his sniper. They smirk, and then both them and the soldiers on my back break out into laughter. If I had made one mistake, I might’ve been shot, and they’re laughing.
“Anything else?” he asks, smiling and still trying to stop himself from snickering.
“No,” I reply, still nervous.
He shakes his head.
“Should’ve said fork too,” he says, still smiling, “Get him up. We can send these two back to base camp once we take care of the rest of them.”
The soldiers grab me by the arms and get me up on my feet.
“Start walking,” one of them say, and I do as I’m told. I look back—they’re still having Fifteen help with patching up the wounded soldier.
I almost can’t believe it. I thought I’d die on the front lines, and I was sure that I’d die when I failed to stop the Lieutenant, but I’m going to live. I’ll be sent to a POW camp, but I’ll live.
Mum, dad, I hope that you two are okay. And I hope that the war ends soon.