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War and more war

And though I've fought in a few, I've never written about my experiences--except for this one

By Michael Oren

Beautiful Bivouac


On a distant ridge, an artillery shell exploded in a plume of phosphorous.


“Beautiful,” one of the soldiers—Marciano, he thought— remarked.


Arkus snarled, “No, it isn’t. It’s disgusting.” His judgment was clearly political rather than aesthetic and touched off a round of drowsy observations that for a moment divided the unit into those for and against the war—or all wars in general.


Better to talk about that than Miller’s death that morning. His half-head angled toward the sky, his thoughts, dreams, memories piled pink in the dirt. Better than to try to recall Bardugo the day before. And so, beauty.

He came down on the beautiful side, at least with shellfire. The twirling and sometimes entwining blossoms reminded him of bougainvillea or a bouquet of Queen Anne’s lace. But he said nothing. Indeed, on all the issues already raised around the bivouac—the weather, the lack of fresh socks, speculations about when they’d move out and to where—he remained silent. Instead he stood there, just outside the huddled circle, awkwardly cradling his gun.


Awkward was the operative word for him and not only because of his inability to become one, as his officers urged, with his weapon. Even before the army, he never fit in. The kid who kept to himself in the classroom and who hid most evenings in his room. Perhaps the army would change all that, he once told himself. What with so much marching rather than socializing, discipline instead of charm. But the military only accentuated his otherness. Not one of the boys, he was now not among the men who sat and chatted so effortlessly, their rifles laid crosswise across their laps.


The impromptu campfire they’d lit from empty ammo crates cast molten light on the soldiers’ faces, filling their creases with gold. These faces, too, seemed beautiful to him—manly and saintly and strangely immortal.


But that, too, set him apart.


His own face was a frightened child’s. He’d seen it earlier that day during the fighting. Briefly, in a shard of window that somehow survived the blasts, he’d met his own reflection. There, sweating beneath an oversized helmet, was the most terrified expression he’d ever seen. He felt sorry for its owner. But then Sergeant Ramon ordered him to move his ass, and he moved, mindless with fear. An animal fear, the fear of an insect scurrying from a boot.


This, alone, redeemed battle. For those endless minutes under fire, no other thoughts existed. No stink of shit and cordite coiling from his uniform, no body parts littering the street. Crouching for cover, he forgot the women beyond his equal, the father he could never please. His lack of professional success, his loneliness—what, with people he’d never met trying to kill him, could be less pressing? But all of his inadequacies returned to beset him the moment his unit regrouped. In the night, hanging back from the others, he was once again the outcast, the one who, despite his uniform and standard armaments, remained different.

Another shell erupted in the distance, just as the report of the first one thumped past them. The sound always reminded him of oil drums barreling down stairs. A fighter jet lacerated the horizon. Bullets traced ellipses in the dark.


Marciano said, “It’s art, I tell you,” and Arkus spit, “Art, my ass. It’s garbage.”


And still he thought, “Beautiful,” without saying the word. “All of it. All of you. Beautiful.”


Cigarettes were passed around and a can of something which was once a turkey. They ate and they puffed, their eyes like illuminated craters. No one bothered to sleep. Dawn would break soon anyway. Another day which for some of them might be the last.


He stepped further back as the men rose to their feet, shouldered their guns, and palmed their helmets. Over the ridge, the sun appeared, a fresh wound. Armored engines grumbled and roared. Soon they’ll be shooting at me, he thought with a sense of both dread and relief. Time to cower again, in the comforting solitude of fear.

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