Incident On A Windswept Hill
There are twelve rifles. Eleven contain a live round. A blank cartridge is in one. You have no way of knowing which resides in the weapon you are given.
No one volunteers. You are chosen at random from members of your company.
You receive no explanation of what the condemned has done. You are summarily informed that he has been justly tried and found guilty.
You cajole. You protest. You implore. Your entreaties are denied.
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You are instructed that aiming anywhere other than the heart is a punishable offense. You are informed that failure to discharge your weapon is a punishable offense. You are reminded that nonperformance of your duty in any way is a punishable offense.
You fall in with the rest of the detail. You march single file to the top of the hill. A post anchored there is the most frightening inanimate object you have ever seen.
Sweat begins to form beneath the band of your helmet. Your legs feel leaden. Your knees weak. Saliva in your throat sours. Your stomach tightens.
He is led to the appointed spot and bound with his back to the post. He wears the same boots and fatigue trousers as you, but not the same tunic. A white T-shirt covers his torso. On the front, a large square has been inked on the left side of his chest.
You stare at his face. It is younger than yours. His mouth is line thin. His chin specked with stubble. His nose runs. You wish someone had the decency to wipe it.
He is offered a hood. Please take it, you beg silently. His head turns rapidly from side to side. Attendants take it with them as they move away.
A momentary silence ensues. You know what is coming. And so does he.
His gaze seems fixed on you. Why won’t he look away? Does he think you can help? Does he sense a weak link? A kindred spirit? A ridiculous glimmer of hope? Your lips move slowly into the hint of a smile. An insanely inadequate gesture of apology. It is misconstrued. His eyes widen. His mouth trembles. He thinks you are looking forward to it.
A voice shatters the stillness. You jerk involuntarily. The detail officer asks if the condemned wishes to say anything before the sentence is carried out.
Please speak. Please say you deserve this. Say you accept your punishment and you forgive us.
The officer speaks again.
You snap up straight. But you can’t look away. His entire body begins to shake.
You pray you will not faint.
React. Comply. Blot all else out, you tell yourself. You see a stain darken his trousers.
You lift your rifle. It feels as if a huge weight is sitting on your arms. A weight almost as heavy as the one on your soul.
You sight your weapon in the center of the square that rises and falls with the heaving of his chest. Life is in there. Life.
You squeeze the trigger, feel the recoil, hear the deafening retort. But you see nothing through eyes clinched shut.
The officer’s command calls you back to attention. You shoulder your weapon and stare straight ahead. For a moment, there is only stillness. Brilliant blue sky. Soft white clouds. A breeze sweeps across your cheek with a promise of absolution, until it brings with it the smell of cordite.
The following day your company receives word that hostilities have ended. You will be going home without ever having engaged the enemy. Joy eludes you.
Later, much later, when innocent youth full of anticipated adventure, dreams of glory, and of course ignorance, ask if you were ever in combat, your answer is always the same.
Yes. I was. But I prefer not to talk about it.