Ever We Fight On

// Noah Munier

No catalogue of horrors ever kept men from war. Before the war you always think that it’s not you that dies. But you will die, brother, if you go to it long enough.” – Ernest Hemingway

In the moment, I don’t think we processed how close we had come to death. It travelled quickly, hundreds of meters in seconds, driven by blind eagerness and longing to burrow clumsily in our flesh. We knew its face; a small fragment of metal propelled by violent combustion and hateful thought. It had taken many a life before, and yet there we stood, declaring ourselves untouchable and immune to its devastation. In our minds, the pull of a trigger had been reduced to nothing more than the tapping of a telegraph; mechanically the same, and simply another way to impose your will on someone else.

My body tensed, and my stomach churned as the shockwave reached me, violently rattling the chassis of our truck and the rugged steering wheel in my hands. The half-inch thick armor surrounding us suddenly felt as though it were made of paper, destined to be consumed by the inferno ahead where seconds earlier a vehicle just like ours had stood. We were instantly and unwillingly immersed in a shameful facet of the human condition, and I could almost hear the cackles of those who had come before mocking our inability to learn from the mistakes of our predecessors. If it were the heat of embarrassment – or simply thermal discomfort radiating from the charred husk of the vehicle ahead – I couldn’t say. I could hear the tapping of shrapnel as it came down like a shower of hot steel onto the roof of my truck. I wished it had been rain; that I could expect the tranquil scent of petrichor, and not be forced to endure the nauseating odor of burning rubber and fuel. Amidst the rapidly unfolding chaos I attempted to make sense of some strange and unidentifiable stench, though my mind implored me not to find its source, concealed somewhere behind that wall of roaring flame.

All this time ignorance had shielded us from the realities of our profession. We remained ever captivated by tales of heroism, never looking closely at the words on the page; scribbled in blood and marked by the pain of realities we hadn’t yet experienced and didn’t understand. In our minds we were desensitized – or so we believed – to the horrors of war before we had ever witnessed them.

Roughly fifty meters ahead of us an inferno on wheels rolled lethargically to the side of the road. Our comrades within would be alright; a truth we had convinced ourselves of in defiance of the fiery evidence we were presented with. Despite the searing heat ahead and the pounding in my chest, I remained frozen in my seat.

Drive, drive, drive… My mind implored action that my limbs wouldn’t obey.

I had been hypnotized by the chaos around me, and the lieutenant in the passenger seat had apparently fallen under a similar, inevitable spell. Not a word was uttered from the men in the rear, or the gunner above. For what felt like an eternity we observed, as if we had read the heartbreaking prelude of a story we didn’t want to finish.

I slowly pressed my boot down on the gas pedal, and was immediately interrupted by the lieutenant, who had apparently managed to escape the stasis that held us all captive.

“Reverse out,” he said sternly. “Bring us on their right side, then we’ll disembark and evac.” His words were concise and unchallenged by doubt, as though he had formulated an intricate strategy as we waded through the shock and inaction that had consumed us.

Our convoy had been cleverly ambushed within the confines of an entry control point; a labyrinth of barriers and narrow lanes specifically designed for the inhibition of vehicular movement. A suicide bomber had rammed the truck ahead as it escaped the maze, effectively trapping us between walls of concrete. As I reversed, I couldn’t help but feel impressed at how ingenious it was. It felt strange knowing that someone had dedicated such a degree of effort to our assured destruction, that our routes had been observed so thoroughly by an enemy that hated us so. It was almost flattering in a twisted way, and I wondered what we could accomplish had we allocated such faculties to the pursuit of peace, and not the promise of war.

Behind me I could hear the commotion of weapons being readied and helmets being clipped, the ripping of Velcro and the crunching of dried dirt underfoot. The lieutenant relayed our evacuation plan to the rest of the convoy over the radio and reiterated the details to our crew as I pulled us alongside the burning vehicle. The smell of fuel and oil had become more prominent now, carried on black smoke. I could feel heat on my cheek as I looked out the window to my left, taking in the sights of destruction. It was bitter – this taste of war – and I knew it would linger forever; that these tragic scenes would haunt my days, and poison my dreams.

As the driver I was forbade from leaving the vehicle. All but myself and the gunner above had dismounted, and I watched them as they cautiously made their way to the burning vehicle. I knew many of the men inside, and my heart raced as the doors were pulled open by my crew. A stream of thoughts invaded my mind, sped forth by adrenaline and boundless fear. What would be left? Would the faces of our friends within be unscathed and recognizable, or would they emerge mutilated and lifeless? Would the flames burn their visages into my mind as they once were, or as they are now?

Remarkably, a gloved hand had appeared in one of the blackened windows, and I could make out the silhouette of a thumbs-up gesture behind those panes of charred glass. I watched as shaken men stumbled from the truck, struggling to find their footing as children do when they take their first steps. They seemed unsure, as though they were unconvinced that they hadn’t perished or been violently torn from the world they knew.

In the flood of relief, the confines of my tunneled vision had been washed away, and I found myself capable of analyzing our situation more thoroughly. We were taking sporadic fire from a cluster of buildings roughly three hundred meters away. There were splashes of dirt around us where rounds connected with the earth, and the concussive, overhead snapping of those that didn’t; sounds far more desirable than the fleshy thud that would have followed in the crimson wake of a successful, world-ending flight.

Evading the fire, my squad had successfully offloaded every single crewmember of the disabled vehicle, and they were hastily ushered into our truck. The first to enter was an acquaintance of mine, typically a man of composure, and always optimistic. His face was black with soot and streaked with sweat, but otherwise unmarred. He spoke to me incoherently as though nothing had happened while the others poured in, and as if he didn’t notice the black vomit that was falling from his mouth with each hoarse word. I couldn’t do anything but watch as the personality of the man before me suffocated in the miasma of trauma, drowning in bile, and racked with shock.

Rage welled within me; a hatred ignited by the consequences of the senseless violence I was witnessing. I longed for the chance to take a life, to adopt the ruthlessness we were being subjected to; to flow with it and be swept away by the inevitable. These frenzied thoughts were quickly doused by the harrowing realization that I was being steadily and unmercifully dragged into the disgraceful repetitions of an endless cycle. I had wavered in my convictions, but the truth endured that I desired to live among men, rather than see them killed by my hand.

“You’re safe now,” I said. It’s the only thing I could.

With everyone on board, the lieutenant turned to me from the passenger seat, breathing heavily as he adjusted himself. “Take us out,” he said, gesturing towards the rest of the convoy that had continued ahead without us.

“Yes, sir,” I acknowledged, pressing my foot to the gas instinctively and without hesitation. There wasn’t much to say in the moment, but we found humor in our suffering when the adrenaline had finally worn off. We would joke about all of this in a few hours time, but in the back of my mind I feared that the echoes of our laughter could not overcome the cacophonous memories of war that would linger for years to come.

As we drove away, I watched as geysers of dirt ejected from the asphalt behind us, and the shape of the abandoned truck shrank in the distance like a bad dream. We had survived what were likely to be the most memorable minutes of our lives, and the most important. I felt free. Not from the danger, but from the ignorance that had endangered and trapped me. A perspective had descended upon me – a glimpse of the realities of war that I had naively chosen to ignore. I had experienced murderous hate, the intimate knowledge that someone wanted me dead. They didn’t care about the family I would leave behind or the wife they’d widow in victory, nor the dreams and ambitions I’d never have the chance to realize. And the saddest thing is that for a time I didn’t care if we did the same to them.

To this day my enlightenment endures from the terror of that experience and the bitter lessons of morality that followed in its turbulent wake. I had looked upon the ugly visage of war, the sacrifices and savagery of its participants. It haunts humanity like a specter, manipulating us with greed and tempting us with hollow rewards of glory and remembrance. I don’t believe we shall ever escape its influence. It is ingrained in us as a knot in wood, defiant and difficult to pierce, yet ever it weakens the whole – and ever we fight on.

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