Fear pulsated through Gordon’s heart as the bullets from the guns ripped the air beside him. He was crouched behind some foliage, hoping against hope that his camouflaged attire hid him well. It had been three months of open fire. But despite, or perhaps because of, the fear, the war had made him wise. You wouldn’t expect that of a soldier. If he had been clever, he would have stayed at home.
His comrade nudged him in the ribs and whispered just loudly enough to be heard above the fire, “You think we can make it?”
“Same as any other time,” Gordon replied ignoring the nerves in his chest. Even his fingers tickled in anticipation – or was it fear? His feet had gone numb from the cramped position he was crouched in. thank God he didn’t need his feet to pull the trigger.
After hours of gun fire and much loss of bullets, both sides were forced to retire. Time travelled so slowly when you were afraid of dying. Painstakingly, sluggishly, they creeped backwards to their shelter, the snow soaking into the socks and making them heavy. As Gordon glanced around, he saw telltale specks of red on the white. How many had died? Last time, it had been three.
Once he reached safety, he asked the question nobody liked hearing. “How many?” that he was asking who died was implied – he didn’t have to be implicit.
“Well there’s Johnny,” someone said. “He got hit in the chest. It’s too bad, if we could have made it back sooner, he might have stood a chance, but he bled so much.”
“Yeah and there was Mick. Bullet to the head but not until they’d got his ear as well.”
“Is that all?”
“Think so man.”
“Well two is better than three.”
“So wise. As if we hadn’t thought that,” Henry muttered, sarcastically. Henry and Gordon were constantly rubbing shoulders. But what could they do? – it would have been stranger if he got along with everybody. There were some, however, whom he counted as brothers. Johnny had been one among those men. They had been friends from day one, as they came to the war on the same cargo. Both were young, bright eyed, naïve and full of bravado about what was to come. They were fighting for their country. The longer he fought, the more Gordon wished that the opposing sides would talk instead of kill.
As he stared at Johnny’s dead carcass lying some thirty feet away, he wondered if Johnny would have thought this war was worth his life. The blood from his wound had stained the snow beside him – by now there was more blood on the ground than in his chest. He didn’t blame Sammy for leaving Johnny behind. Once he was dead, there was nothing any one could do. It would have been foolish to drag his body back and risk death himself. As bad as he felt, he would have done the same.
The grief forced him to reminisce. He remembered Johnny’s contagious laugh and the smile he had that the female nurses could not resist. He could almost hear a conversation that they had had only yesterday. Johnny had asked him if he thought the war would go on much longer? Gordon had answered that he thought the war would end only when all the men were dead. In his sarcasm, he hadn’t only meant the soldiers, but also the men still at home.
These people in political comfort had no idea what their orders meant to the men on the front. “They bully us into fighting for our country, while they sit in relative comfort and chew on tobacco or eat food I can’t even pronounce, spread on to expensive crackers.” Gordon had never felt so dejected as when they had those conversations. In many ways, the irony was that he would have done well in a cushion job. He had the right mind set and was more intelligent than most. But he came from a poor family and he had such stores of bravery in his soul as made him go to the front with the men than to the sidelines with wimps. He wanted to be remembered for something brave, even if it would only be his mother and sisters who remembered him. His father had already died two months before Gordon joined the cause.
There were moments, close calls if you like, for every man. But along with those brushes with fate, there were times you almost wished for death. Once, they had heard of a man who had shot himself, unable to take any more. But the political propaganda had been carefully tailored to the situation and the psychology of the men. Suicide had been made to seem weak – a coward’s way out. Those committing suicide were doing a disservice to their country. They helped the other side win the war. And, in the end, wasn’t that all this was about? – winning?
Gordon was certain that the happy men in their expensive suits and comfortable chairs must think so. But for him, here on the front lines, seeing his friends dying every day, it was so much more than that. It was fear. It was bravery. And it was guilt. With every hit he made on enemy lines, and with every friend he lost to the war, he thought about their friends, their families, all the people who loved them and would miss them. Like Johnny, who had left behind a pregnant girlfriend, most of these men had someone who would feel the loss.
Losing friends was a catalyst to Gordon’s thoughts about the war and the nature of wars in general. When can a war end? What would make these people accept peace? Would it be an agreement reached over a table covered with maps and contracts written on official papers? Would it only end once the death toll reached the paper pushers in their powerful positions? For his part, Gordon felt It would take their being just one more man with one more bullet than the opposition had left to win the war.