Content warning: Language
They knew I wasn’t cut out for war the moment they stuck an M4 Carbine in my hands. I had lady fingers while the soldiers around me had hands made to strangle and calluses that grated their rifles into submission.
To die for my country, surrounded by the sweaty men it rounded up into its service, was not a lifelong goal of mine. To be fair, I didn’t have a lifelong goal. A younger version of myself had been set on teaching preschool, or kindergarten—didn’t matter really. I just loved kids. That dream was doused by the gaggle of overprotective mothers who had me detained at a playground.
I had been watching my bi-racial niece with too much interest. Her mom wanted a video, and I didn’t think twice; we knew mom’s word was law. She hit the zenith of her swing and I captured her glee-ridden face as she kicked her legs in a fit of triumph.
A lanky brown man like me should have known better, should have thought about how I looked on the park bench: phone out and a hand in my sweats to keep warm. I had mustard on my shirt, too. My niece and I ate hot dogs earlier that day and she managed to dapple her pants with ketchup. She wanted to match, and I’d obliged. With kids, it’s always about compromise and comradery.
Out of the moms at the playground, I couldn’t tell you who made the call. It might have been a group effort for all I knew, like going to the bathroom. But I was twenty with a neckbeard that made me look forty and—whoever it was—I understood where they were coming from.
Before long, an officer stood over me. He’d looked at my skin and that mustard stain and my lazy-day sweats, and told me with his eyes that I matched every expectation. My only shield from his onslaught of accusations was my niece and her big ass tears. He let me walk with a strongly worded suggestion to avoid child-related career choices.
Four years later, the draft notice hit our mailbox. The country had gone above and beyond to provide me a minor-free environment. I would have laughed, but my mum was already set on crying.
I balanced the rifle a healthy distance away from my person and didn’t bother to feign comfort. No one expected me to kill anyone anyway, but maybe I could block a bullet for someone else. Preferably someone with a larger buldge—as the sergeant kindly noted. He said all I needed to do was stand still, look pretty, and make sure to wear a condom so I wouldn’t risk procreating while getting fucked on the battlefield. I smiled and joked and failed at push-ups until the sergeant realized lackluster jabs at my genitalia would fall flat. I was no stranger to slander from geriatric men. My day job had been in a nursing home, and a low-class one at that.
A transient friendship formed between myself and the men in my company who were able to look beyond my potential as a meat shield. I told my niece about them in a letter home. She sent us drawings of dragons and horses in response. We named them all with unbridled vulgarity. It felt wrong, but it was the good kind of wrong. Not the ending-a-life kind of wrong.
They came at night—the men we spent six months preparing to meet—yipping and yowling in a foreign tongue. I heard the hiss of gunfire, dropped the shiny M4, and bolted. Pine trees and soldiers erupted in my wake.
As I ran, I thought of my mum, and I did not think she would be ashamed. But it was my father, not my mum, who had insisted on naming me Dick. For a small statured man like myself, it was more of a joke than a name. Maybe my father thought my hands and I would grow into it. He hadn’t lived long enough to be disappointed when I didn’t. I was told it was a car accident, that it happened in an instant, and that he would be here if he could. Then, after I hit some inane mark of maturity, my aunty told me differently.
Got himself stabbed by a mugger, she said.
I dug up a news clip about it. He had valiantly stepped between the mugger and a lady’s purse. The report pegged him as a hero. All I saw was a man who could have been a father. An ashamed father, but a father, nevertheless.
Had he been alive, he would’ve known how to use an M4. And had he been here, watching his son run, he might’ve used it to shoot me himself. Some adrenaline-inflated part of my brain wanted to laugh at that. The only quality time I would spend with my father was if his ghost bit at my heels.
A fallen log that was more rot than wood served as my shelter that night. My unit had been small and there was no point in envisioning our future beyond this forest. I pressed myself into the decomposing tree’s embrace and wept for the men out there still clutching M4s. How long did it take to bleed out? Did it feel longer with pine-needles pressed into your neck and terror wheeling above? Would it be an honorable enough end?
There were soldiers who lived for this moment. The draft was an opportunity, they’d said. Perseverance over preservation. Courage over cowardice. I saw it in their eyes, in the direction of their boots as they stood and wrangled their rifles: one foot in front of the other and you could bury your nose in that cut-flower honor our grandpas raised us on.
Flowers or ashes, both would fill a vase just fine.
I wept hardest for them. I understood the loss of a dream, but not how a dream could bring about so much loss. Those were the sons my father dreamed of when he filled out my birth certificate; men who would exchange a purse for a life.
I wept for myself, too. No matter how you looked at me, I would never be a man’s man. I had chosen cowardice over courage, preservation over perseverance. Even though I was, chromosomally speaking, born for war—I was plagued by fear. I didn’t want to make the wrong choice; I didn’t want to die with the ending-a-life kind of wrong in my gut. But hundreds of hours with my rifle meant I could hold, aim, and fire the M4 with ease. The conviction with which I handled the rifle, and the ease with which the bullet left the barrel, terrified me. Even a man with lady fingers like me could reach through the world and break a mother. A trigger didn’t leave room for thought.
As dawn came, so too did their voices. They spoke amongst themselves, unaware of my presence. It was a lyrical language. There were soft consonants and words without edges that flowed into one another. I had forgotten the language of our enemy was made to string memories together, too. That they had words like ours, for kitchen and friend and father. And words that weren’t meant for this forest or this war.
When they spotted me, their voices transformed, and we were on the battlefield once more. But I didn’t have my rifle, and it was a small comfort to know that their mothers might hear those soft voices in their home again. Dying here, alone and cradled against a reeking log, would be an honorable enough end.