Conscience As Wide As Hell
I heard swerrrackkk; then white light, roaring orange flash. I remember the chopper’s wop wop wop, the desert flashing below. The pain, aching up through my right leg, flowed into my stomach, like sickly fluid flowing into a cesspool. Then cushioning morphine’s timeless bubble, detached self floating inside a floating chopper.
I woke up in hospital. Pain throbbed in my right knee, my right leg trapped in plaster from thigh to foot.
“When’s the operation?” I asked.
“You had it last night,” the doctor replied. “They’re flying you out this afternoon.”
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“It’s going to take a few months for you to be able to walk again. Right now, you’d be almost useless as a soldier as I’d be.”
I grabbed the doctor’s white coat. My head lifted off the pillow. The pain seemed to disappear.
“I’m going home?” I asked.
“Did they tell you that?”
“I told them.”
My mind seemed to float out of my head, as if it had been injected with the most beautiful drug imaginable. Tears watered my eyes. Home! Home! Freed from Death’s clutches!
The desert was passing by. Upon that flat furnace, friends had been killed and maimed. Hargreaves and Carrick: roadside bombs; Tomlinson: sniper; Kaminski: RPG. I tore out from my mind Kaminski’s severed head. The dead were just meat. Abstractions gone. But it was meat that wielded a penetrating power that evoked: What has happened here? It was the eyes. There was nothing there. You wondered: Where did they go to all of a sudden? It created a reverence that belittled sacrifice and courage, heightening the Great Gift — survival.
I was going to the airport. Black fabrics hung from a white wall at an intersection. Orange Arabic covered the black fabrics: Death notices. Look who’s been chosen now. You could be next. I still thought the doctor had to be kidding me. I don’t have this kind of luck. The bomb had blown Harris apart. Harris’s remains filled a bag no bigger than a supermarket bag. And they were definitely sending that home — for sure.
More writing on the wall, hope reined in by possibility. Anything could happen anywhere.
We passed a building that had been hit by cruise missiles. Twisted metal uprights, twenty-five storeys high, appeared where huge jagged holes sat in the building’s facade. The metal looked like veins damaged in a shattered body. Any second anything could happen. Dear Doctor, I’m still here.
This wasn’t the past when public recognition was given for service. There would be no triumphant marches. My return — if it was happening — would be a private affair between family and friends, a testimony to the Great Gift, indifference where glory had once been. And I didn’t care. I just wanted to escape annihilation’s embrace. I didn’t want to look into its skull face again and scream: please, please, please, not me. Oh God, anyone but me! Perleeeeeaaaasseee…
Alienation had made me a killer without remorse, alienation that had bloated and darkened, turning me into human rot before my own eyes that were still having trouble believing what they were seeing. Doctor, you better not have been joking. That alienation had been necessary for survival — kill or get killed, no choice there.
And I still couldn’t believe it. I still thought it had to be a sick trick, this Getting Out thing, no belief, even when they were loading me onto the plane. I still didn’t even believe it when they were strapping me into a bunk under the high curve of the transport plane’s roof. I still refused to believe it when I saw smiling men in uniform getting on, saying: “Man, I’m going to have a long Jack Daniels beside a swimming pool. First thing I’m going to do.”
“I’m going to spend all night eating chocolate and ice-cream; then it’s going to be roast chicken.”
War’s shut down of emotion, washed-through alienation so accumulated that the future had frozen into a darkness that had been punctured with evil, fluorescent light, blackness speckled with survival’s brilliance. I felt no guilt as I remembered throwing grenades through a window from which we had received fire, a severed child’s arm flying out and landing on the street, that torn, bloodied flesh payment for Kaminski’s severed head. I had become so cleaned out by humanity’s bickering that the sight of a family shot up by a guy, who had gone insane with the frenzied freedom caused by violence, made me smile and think: Good, ten of those bastards less.
Guilt was irrelevant in comparison to going home. And what I knew was waiting for me in my dreams there was also irrelevant to the dream of receiving the Great Gift. I still didn’t believe it. Something was bound to happen. It was all one big joke. It just had to be. It couldn’t be as simple as this.
Cheering erupted as the plane took off. I waved my clenched fists around, screaming: “Yes, yes, yes—”
I had started to believe it. Everyone else hadn’t really believed it either-until then. Tears streamed out of my eyes. Nothing had ever made us so alive than escaping Death, Death producing blissful relief, that reward, among all that payment, the purest pleasure imaginable after the sacrifices that had been made to get it.