This is another suggestion from Novakovich’s book, which was to take an old story and retell it in a modern setting. I chose Herodotus’s “The Histories” (which I’d rewritten last Wednesday) and put it in a present day conflict.
This should be viewed as a fiction exercise only, and not as commentary or a personal statement of the current situation between the US and Afghanistan.
We call them terrorists. One administration went so far as to call them evil-doers. Maybe they are; that tends to be what they do—evil. Convincing otherwise normal people to blow themselves up and take as many normal, decent people with them . . . I can’t think of another word for it. But then you have to guard those people. You have to keep them safe, so they can face justice the right way. Then you see things about these terrorists, these evil-doers, you wish you didn’t know.
I was a hard-liner. I suppose I still am. There are things that can’t be tolerated, things that the perpetrators of said things must be punished for. I volunteered for the war. I didn’t have to; I graduated from high school with a 4.0, was a national merit scholar, and did so much community work that I could’ve picked just about any college and gone there for free. But I chose the military, the army to be specific. They were happy to have me. Why is it that most smart people think they’re too good to serve their country, to fight for freedom? That’s what so many of my friends said when I joined up: “Cyrus, man, you’re way too smart for that shit.” Like only stupid people should be allowed to fight for what’s right, to possibly die for it. Only my parents were proud of my decision. Whatever—my high school friends are entitled to their opinion, just like I’m entitled to mine. That’s what freedom is—that’s what I fought for.
I got injured in Afghanistan. My shoulder is more or less okay, but some deep tissue was damaged so that it will take years for it to heal properly. It made it so I wasn’t fit for combat. I managed to not be discharged, however, and got a position at a prison base. I won’t bother to name you the prison camp I worked at. It isn’t and wasn’t any Guantanamo Bay or Abu Ghraib fiasco—we did our jobs. We weren’t about to sink to the level of any terrorist. We treated our POW’s like they were human beings.
The weirdest thing was watching them all together. I don’t care who you are—conservative or liberal, Christian or Muslim, smart or dumb—you keep hearing a group of people referred to as something other than people for long enough (especially something derogatory like “terrorist”) and you’ll stop picturing them as people in your mind’s eye; you start seeing vicious phantoms. I’m not saying they don’t deserve to be called “terrorists”—they cause terror, they’re terrorists. I’m just saying that when you spend enough time on the battlefield fighting against an invisible enemy that you don’t think of as people; and then you see those same phantom terrorists smoking cigarettes and playing cards . . . it’s strange. It’s like watching some surreal painting in motion. You look at these people—you see them eat, smoke, read, chew the fat—and you just wonder how they could even be capable of doing the shit they did. Because they’re just so damn normal. They’re me and my friends in high school. They’re me and my unit during a lull.
I swatted these kinds of thoughts and observations away my first few months at the prison camp. If I couldn’t stop them from coming back, then I didn’t mention them to anyone else. There’s a reason the army tries to dehumanize the enemy; if you’re in a hot situation and you start thinking about how much these terrorists are like you, then you hesitate, and when you hesitate chances are you or one of your friends dies.
After a few months at the prison camp, I got assigned the duty of guarding one particular prisoner. He was that kind of scum I never had any empathy for, even after working in the prison. He was the planning type; he made the bombs and had other people go set them off. He had other people kill and die for him. Not exactly high profile, but for the sake of security we’ll call him “C.”
C had been sentenced to die. He was to remain with us for one night, before he was transferred to his place of execution. I was to guard him the whole night. I was advised not to speak to the prisoner.
He must have sat there for two hours before he spoke. I was surprised at how articulate his English was. “They’ll call me a fanatic when I die. Just an ignorant, crazy Muslim. That’s the worst part of this, you know. Misrepresentation.”
I thought that his role in the forty-seven deaths we knew of was probably the worst part, but I kept that to myself. My disgust must have showed through my silence, because he saw my face and chuckled bitterly.
“You think so, too. That I’m a lunatic, a fanatic. I’ve done some horrible things. I’ll be the first to admit that. But . . .” He sighed. “It wasn’t . . . it was never supposed to go the way it did. When I got into it, I just wanted to protest. I never intended to kill anyone, or be responsible for their deaths.”
My throat tightened. If he didn’t want to be responsible for the deaths of anyone, he shouldn’t have done what he did.
“I never manipulated anyone, though. If I were just going to die for my actions, that would be that. But they’ll use my death, you see. On both sides.” He leaned back and closed his eyes. “On my side, they’ll be manipulating people by telling them they’re not loyal or true if they’re not willing to lay down their lives for our cause. They’ll wave me around like some sort of icon or martyr. Your side will talk of my ‘evil doings,’ of how you all must continue to fight. They’ll use me and say that everyone like me is the worst kind of scum.” He kicked his bunk. “If only people could just keep their mouths shut.” He rocked back and forth for a minute, rubbed his knuckles and closed his eyes. “If you manipulate someone, they lose they’re freedom. What I spent the last years of my life fighting for was freedom. So why must my death result with the loss of such freedom?”
“But you did,” I said, before I could think better of it. “You talked people into their own suicide and into killing other people by it.”
“No,” he said. “I talked with people who were already prepared to die for our cause. I helped them to make the most use of their sacrifice.”
“By killing innocent people.”
“Yes. By killing innocent people. Because that’s the only way we have to fight.” He turned on his bunk to face me. “Do you think there would be suicide bombers if we had your guns? Or your tanks? Or your jets? No. There would be no need for such atrocities, because we could face you directly. But tell me: if your nation, your culture, your identity, you very existence was being threatened . . . if no one would listen to your protests . . . wouldn’t you sacrifice anything to keep your freedom?”
I didn’t answer. And aside from mumbling prayer, he kept quiet, too. He’d already made his confession, so I suppose he didn’t have much more to say.
C is still scum. He deserved to die. But he made me look at a frightening truth, one which makes my own beliefs tear me from the inside. I’d been able to see and accept—even if it was just in the back of my mind—that terrorists were a lot like us. That if they’d had our benefits, they never would have done the things they do. What I hadn’t seen—possibly because I’d blinded myself to it—was the other side of that: that we were a lot like terrorists. Who’s to say what I would be capable of were I raised in a war-torn country? What I’d be if I saw my culture diminishing and what I saw as my freedom slipping away? Of course I’d want to fight—and who’s to say what means I might have used?
That’s the awful truth: for all the capacity we have for good, we have just as much capacity for evil. Especially when we think it’s the right thing we’re doing.