by Richard Champion
At high noon under a blazing equatorial sun a high pitched wail from the village square reached the infantry soldiers of 2nd platoon, deployed along the interior lanes of the sprawling provincial village.
“Teller,” Lieutenant Waters said to his radiotelephone operator, “find out what that hideous noise is, will you. It’s going right through me.”
“Wait one, sir,” Specialist Teller said, extending the handset. “It may be connected. Captain Reddy is on the horn for you.”
Lieutenant Waters listened to the company commander while staring into the dust at his feet. After a moment he handed the horn back to Teller.
“There is trouble in the square, Teller,” Lieutenant Waters said. “Saddle up. You and I are heading that way.” He turned to Platoon Sergeant Birley, who was lounging in the shade of a tree. “Sergeant Birley, there is some sort of commotion in the village square. The company commander wants me there. You hold the fort here with the platoon.”
A few minutes later Lieutenant Jake Waters followed by his radioman, Teller, entered the nearly empty central square of the village. The unremitting glare of the noonday sun and the presence of foreign troops had forced the living to seek deeper shade. Lieutenant Waters surveilled the area looking at the hooches giving out onto the four sides of the commons. White sand lanes led from the square to the agricultural areas and clustered hooches of the sprawling village. Another wail drew the lieutenant’s attention to a spot on the far side of the square where Bravo company commander, Captain Reddy, towered sympathetically over a keening villager. The old man appeared distraught, as though he’d been cleaved from this unforgiving world only to find himself arrived in another of inconsolable grief. To the left of the old man and the company commander Lieutenant Waters spied, in a bit of shade, the outlines of two small bodies lying in the dust. They were covered with fronds from palm trees.
“Damn, Teller,” Lieutenant Waters muttered. “It’s those boys we killed last night.”
Teller followed the lieutenant’s gaze. “Sir, there was no way those boys were going to go unnoticed or unmourned.”
Lieutenant Waters nodded. This was his third sighting of the children in less than twenty-four hours. The boys first came to light the previous night as a pair of crouching fighters, weapons at the ready, exposed in the illumination of a bursting aerial flare. A four-man position to the left of 2nd platoon’s command post immediately opened fire from the shadows of their fighting positions, a volley of M16 fire tearing into the pair of fighters revealed beneath the inconstant light of the descending flare. After a mad minute of rifle fire the disciplined troops ceased fire. Silence reigned. No clash of weapons, no frantic scramblings, no sign of the pair of enemy fighters as the flare fizzled, leaving the lane in darkness. Seconds later another flare burst flooded the lane with shifting light. The pair of enemy fighters were gone, their automatic rifles discarded in the lane. The platoon slunk deeper into the shadows for a night of uneasy watches.
After stand to in the murky dawn twilight Lieutenant Waters, Private Teller, and a fire team from 1st squad stepped onto the lane, picking up the abandoned enemy weapons before following a pair of blood trails leading off the sandy lane to a narrow downhill footpath. The search ended in a low swamp when the sweep team came upon the spot where the wounded pair had given up the ghost.
The fire team gazed dispassionately upon their quarry with little satisfaction. The inert fighters before them were mere boys, perhaps ten years old, dead in the attempt to flee the fury of the kill zone. The farce on display this time, another macabre act in a war that to 2nd platoon had become a modern death circus, was both grim and hateful.
And now this, thought Lieutenant Waters, the third sighting. The boys were impossibly small in the full glare of the sun, lying inescapably motionless before him in the village square. In their death the boys had been ceremoniously recovered from the swamp and removed to the village square where their loving grandfather stood grieving for them in calamitous tones. The keening wail penetrated Lieutenant Waters’ chest cavity making him suddenly want to flee the village, the platoon, and the war. Instead, duty chimed dimly and with radioman Teller in tow. Lieutenant Waters struck out across the square for the armed group surrounding Captain Reddy.
“Lieutenant Waters,” Captain Reddy said, “I take it you know something about the death of these boys.”
“I do, sir. My platoon took them under fire last night and found them where they died this morning. Now they are lying here, sir, as dead as when we found them. I had no need to see them again.”
“We have to see them for the time being, lieutenant.” Captain Reddy pointed to the grandfather. “The old man does not understand why they were killed. These boys were the future of his family.”
“Excuse me a moment, sir,” Lieutenant Waters said before turning to Teller. “Get Sergeant Vickers on the horn. Tell him to bring the captured weapons to the square on the double.” He turned back to the company commander.
“Sir, here it is in a nutshell. After 2nd platoon took up positions last night we sat back in the shadows watching the village lane alternate bright and dark by flare light. One moment a spent flare fades on an empty lane. In the next moment, presto chango, two figures carrying automatic weapons at port arms are crouching on the lane, blinking into the light of the sudden flare burst. The fire team to my left opened fire. The flare faded. When the next flare burst the lane was empty. No bodies. No fighters. Nothing. The only proof that someone had been there was a pair of AK47s dropped on the trail.”
“What happened next?” Captain Reddy said.
“Well, sir, we had some anxious moments wondering where in hell the two fighters had gone to without their weapons. After several more flares came and went without response we relaxed. The rest of the night for 2nd platoon was quiet watches. At first light I took a sweep team onto the lane, scarfed up the abandoned automatic weapons, found some blood trails and followed them to a footpath leading off the lane.
“They were down a draw at the bottom of the footpath in a small swamp with a hill beyond. Boys out on a lark at night, sir. That’s all I can figure. Decidedly not fighters. We could see that plain as day. They must have turned for home once they were wounded. Some hope. When we came upon them they were out of luck, life, and blood. One of the crawling boys found a tree blocking his path. He tried to stand, got wedged in the crook of that tree and died on his feet. The other boy dragged himself to the near side of a footbridge spanning a pond. He became snarled in strands of discarded barbed wire. That snare proved his undoing.”
“They were kids, lieutenant.”
“I didn’t know that during the contact, sir. I learned that this morning when we found them. But I see your point, sir. Their death pains me. When the flare exposed their presence what we saw in that uncertain light were two crouching soldiers, weapons at port arms. It’s the quick and the dead in 2nd platoon, sir. We do not second guess the sight of enemy weapons. We took them out. You are correct, sir, in one respect. They were children…children with weapons.”
Captain Reddy looked at Lieutenant Waters for a long moment before turning back to the abject old man.
Sergeant Vickers came into the square, spotted Lieutenant Waters standing with Captain Reddy and brought the captured weapons to the group. Lieutenant Waters took the two automatic rifles over to the bodies of the boys. Before placing a captured weapon alongside each of the dead children he held each aloft and yelled to the slumping old man.
“Papasan! Old man! Papasan! Look at me! Look at me!”
For a moment the old man stopped moaning to look at the lieutenant standing over his dead grandchildren. Lieutenant Waters pointed at the first boy, then at the AK-47 held aloft before laying it next to the body. Pointing at the second boy he repeated the same motions. The old man’s gaze drifted far away, a refutation of any theatrics or rationale to explain the pageant of loss before him.
“Alright, lieutenant,” Captain Reddy said, “you’ve made your point.”
“Sergeant Vickers,” Lieutenant Waters said, “round up the weapons. Teller, saddle up. Let’s get back to the platoon.”