I plopped down at the bar. My favorite seat. The bartender noticed me and motioned that he’d be right over. I had beaten the rush and arrived before most of the other regular patrons.
“What’ll it be? The usual?” asked the bartender.
“I just don’t know how you can drink that stuff! But, as the rules say, the customer is always right.”
As he scurried away to get my drink, I turned around to survey the other customers. No one was dining yet, but the gaming tables pulsed with activity. Military personnel trickled in. A few of them laughed with each other as they walked. The war must be going better than I thought.
The war had erupted from a minor dispute and battles continued to mount. Both sides were now zealous in the belief that the other was wrong, despicable, evil. Tempers flared as the death toll climbed. I overheard some of the military as they walked in.
“I don’t care! I’ll gut one if I ever get close enough.”
“The only good ones are dead ones.”
“Death isn’t enough. They need to suffer.”
“There’s one living here. Maybe we should grab him and see what he knows.”
“Round them all up. You just can’t trust them!”
“It’s for the good of society. We have to protect the people.”
“I can’t believe the diplomats are still trying to talk peace with them. You can’t have peace with butchers.”
“They probably say the same things about us.”
“No, no, no! We’re the good guys. They’re not like us. They’re not people. Why do you care about them? They’re bred for one thing and one thing only — killing.”
The war did not affect me much. As a procurer and trader of various commodities, my business was far from the bloody edge of the front. Add in the fact that I was old and generally unsuitable for the rigors of military duty, and you’d agree that I was in the right place. It was obvious that some people relished killing, anticipated it, fantasized about it. I was not one of them. I didn’t even like swatting insects or weeding a garden. I wasn’t afraid of death, but I wasn’t eager to get any closer to it than necessary.
Two of the regulars sat down next to me, the owner of a local shop and a doctor.
“Tell me, Doctor, what do you think of the latest victory? I heard about it this morning,” asked the shop owner.
“You’re remarkably well informed for someone who runs a little shop in the middle of nowhere. I didn’t find out about it until an hour ago.”
“My dear Doctor, I simply must keep up on current events if I am to provide exemplary service to my customers. They expect nothing less.”
“I see. It has nothing to do with your chequered past? Perhaps a handful of contacts from the old days still passing you information?”
“We’ve discussed my past on many occasions. As I have repeatedly stated, I am an open book. My shop is my life — plain and simple.”
The doctor sipped his drink. “Yes, that’s what you’ve said, but I can’t help feeling there’s more.”
“Be that as it may, you haven’t answered my question. What do you think of the latest victory?”
“It’s a good win. Casualties were acceptable and the enemy retreated posthaste. A real morale booster.”
“I’m surprised to hear you say that. I thought it was more of a dubious success at best. How do your people put it? Six of one, half dozen of another?”
“Yes, I suppose some of the others might use that expression, but in this case, my particular people would say ‘swings and roundabouts.’ Back to the question at hand, why do you consider it dubious?”
“It seems to me that the strategic value of that location is really quite low. It’s a long way from any of the important military targets, and the cost of holding onto it will be immense in the coming weeks. If we know anything, we know that your enemy is quite persistent, especially when it comes to territory they believe belongs to them. Everything you’ve gained in morale will be spent defending it.”
“That’s the problem with our enemy. They believe everything belongs to them, or rather would be best ruled by them.”
The bartender paused to refill our drinks.
“What do you think of our latest victory?” asked the doctor.
“I’m just a businessman,” replied the bartender. “Peace is good for business. War is good for business. I try not to get involved.”
“So all you care about are your profits. Typical.”
“Listen, Doctor, I care about all my customers — as long as they keep spending money. However, I do have one request. If you have any information from the front, I’m all ears.”
“That’s right,” said the shop owner, “wasn’t your nephew deployed to the front last week?”
“I don’t want to talk about it. I told him not to go, but like his father, he never listens.”
“Don’t worry,” said the doctor, “he couldn’t be in better company. His shipmates are top-notch and will look after him.”
“I hope you’re right, Doctor, I hope you’re right.”
The shop owner nodded in silence as the bartender called for everyone’s attention.
“Quiet! Quiet now!” yelled the bartender. “Today’s casualty report.”
One of the officers stood up and began reciting the names of the dead. Even the gamblers stopped to listen. The names echoed around the small pub. Some of them were veterans with decades of experience, some of them were fresh out of training. Mothers, fathers, brothers, sisters, daughters, and sons. All gone, only the memories of their families, friends, and colleagues remained to honor them. I watched the officers and imagined what they were thinking, “Stiff upper lip, boys and girls. Hold back the tears.” After a few minutes of silence, all the names were read. The patrons resumed their merriment, and the gaming tables lit up again. But the names were still there, hung in the air like a hazy fog.
I knew them. I knew them all.
In silence, I mourned.