The peaceful beauty of the night belied the horror of the coming fight. Crouching in nervous silence, Webster wrestled with dangerous and untimely thoughts. In a lead boat, he eyed the village they would soon attack. Scores of dark vessels bobbed nearby. To secure lethal surprise, the launches were muffled and the force was still.
Air whispered over the silver-white of the moon-kissed swells. Webster couldn’t hear it as his ears roared with blood pumped by his tight heart. Such has it always been for boys before battle. Such will it always be.
Yesterday had been for mutual reassurance, bravado and boasts among his fellow recruits. Now, each was alone. The alcohol courage soured in his churning stomach. The night was a palette of blacks and whites from the sea to the wispy hints of clouds. But Webster’s fevered mind wandered an ocean of grays. Doubts and hopes collided in a hidden melee.
He could not look at his friends and risk betraying the fear lurking in his bones. Fear that was pervasive, yet could not be spoken. Webster prayed the others were brave to help carry the day. Nonetheless, he hoped he wasn’t alone in this crippling liquid dread. He squeezed his virgin weapon and turned his eyes to the silhouetted dwellings on the shore.
Illuminated by the waning harvest moon, the enemy town resembled his own. Sleeping beneath spacious skies by the shining sea, it stretched toward fields of grain. An innocent, deceptive place: incipient death clad in moonbeams. The sight tore his heart between a patriotic desire to protect his kin, and nibbling misgivings on why they were here. Such has it always been. Such will it always be.
Panic was a malignant force working to escape his gut. Hot and mobile. Webster was sweating, yet somehow chilled, with jumbled thoughts and jumpy nerves. He was confident in his physical preparation. The army had forged him to be strong with training, camaraderie and threats. But each person’s tensile strength is different. The cracks and fracture point are unknown, until the ultimate test. There is no effective training for first blood.
Approaching the beach, he steeled himself with all the heated reasons for the necessity of this war. Provocations and insults and perceived threats. The need to protect his uniquely moral homeland. Arguments he’d believed and embraced. Indeed, words he had shouted with other enthralled warriors and embellished in mindless fervor. A bellicose frenzy stoked with timeless calls to bravery, honor, manhood and hate; so resonant with the young.
Throughout the drilling and transit, they’d been an army. United, uniform and certain. Bound in a conspiracy of assent. When they landed, they would be an army again. Unified in purpose. On the uncaring sea, Webster was surrounded by hundreds of boyish shadows. Yet, he was a cocoon of self. Anxiety can dissolve the mask of certainty. In the minutes before his destiny, every man probes his soul and questions all. Such has it always been as the young and untested prepare to kill and be killed, to maim and be maimed. Such will it always be.
It all made sense when passions ruled. But in this calm before the war, as he braced for madness, reasons loud were less persuasive. Governments enter wars. Sons and daughters enter battles. New doubts, emerging from the dark, battled the ingrained absolutes of his training. Webster wondered if some rallying cries were a facade for the complex interests of safer men. In solitary thoughts on mayhem’s eve, slogans alone weren’t enough to warrant the price for missions glib, or right. He guessed that every war is justified … before the fight. Rationalizations were easier for those behind the lines, where words bore no risk of personal sacrifice.
History taught him that the costly tragedies of victory and defeat are long remembered, or soon forgot, by communities and nations. Motivating reasons can be nurtured, twisted or changed. But, horror and gore, pain and loss, sear deep in private lives. Extinguished only by the grave, if then. Such has it always been. Such will it always be.
Bile hit the back of his throat like an unexpected flash of lightning. Sour. Sickening. Acidic. It ate at his resolve. “Steady. Steady.” he silently commanded himself and swallowed hard. He refused to be the first to throw up.
A thin cloud struck the moon. The night went dull. His spirit went flat. When the boat hit the surf and rocked forward to the sand, whispered orders came to debark and attack. He hesitated in indecision. Doubts are good for citizens and countries entering wars. A fatal luxury for those entering battle. So, back into the mindless shell. Webster stopped being human and humane. Time for that was past.
He tensed his muscles, nodded to his raw-faced mates and quieted his mind. Now, to save his friends, he was a soldier. No doubts or reasons or justifications. Just focus and action and blood. A required suspension of sanity. Survival requires savagery. Base emotions to fuel baser acts. Such has it always been. Such will it always be.
Over the side and into war. In the moment that his beast emerged and his mind closed, Webster prayed that at some point it might open again. But not now. Such has it always been.
Bill Diamond lives in Evergreen, Colorado. He has worked in protecting the environment. Recently, several of his initial stories have been published.