I hadn’t killed anyone yet.
The sun rose at 5:30am. The rooster crowed at 5:31am. And I was on my feet and standing at attention at 5:29.
“Man, my dog’s are barking,” Stevens grumbled, as Major Tinton leered over the infantry at the other end of the line, sniffing for signs of fear.
“Yea, and your ass is gonna be barking too from the asswhooping I give you if you don’t shut up,” hissed Barkley.
It was the 17th day of the 3rd month of their 2nd year in Iraq, and the entire experience had begun to feel like one long, sweaty inspection line.
Tinton leaned in close and hissed something terrifying at one of the privates on the other end of the line. He had a way of seeming even more frightening when he didn’t yell, when he privately cussed you and your mother out so only you could hear.
“Didn’t he get snakebit yesterday too?” queried Stevens. Snakebit was our code word for having Tinton hiss in your ear. This particular private had a penchant for inviting venom.
“Shut….the fuck…..up!” Barkley again, this time in more of a growl.
The noticeable concern in Barkley’s voice stemmed from his choice of entertainment the night before, which is a nice way of saying he got drunk and went looking for whores in the worst part of the closest town, which is still 4 miles away. Whether or not he found one remains a mystery.
“Barkley you smell like Manute Bol’s ass,” Stevens retorted. He couldn’t stop.
“John, you see this face? This is my serious face. This is my not-fucking-around face. This is the face I make right before I shove my gun up your ass and see which hole the bullets come out. Got it?”
Lt. John Stevens was supposed to be our superior, but he kept right on giggling like a school girl, clearly delighted at the prospect of causing Pt. Ryan Barkley’s eardrums to ring worse than they already were. The rest of us remained silent and steadfast, though our insides were churning with an even mix of laughter and horror at the prospect of what was more than likely to unfold.
Tinton took two long strides down the line, one past me. He stopped, pivoted, and faced Pt. Shilz, who stood directly to my right. And directly to Barkley’s left.
“What did you say?” he bellowed.
Shilz, though physically a big man and a great soldier, was like a chandelier when it came to dealing with authority. A strong gust of wind would send him shattering to the floor.
“N-nothing sir!” said Shilz.
“Listen to me you fucking ratfuck,” he whispered, leaning into his left ear so only Shilz and I could hear. Times like these I wished I was hard of hearing. “You think you can put one over on me you dirty piece of shit? I live for this like you live for pussy, so you know what that means? It means not only do I know when you are lying, but I also have the deepest lack of remorse for what comes of you as a human being, which means if I choose to carve your tongue out of your mouth as punishment for this transgression, the only one who will give a shit will be you. And you won’t be able to speak, so you won’t be able to bitch to anyone about what I’ve done. I’ll keep your tongue in a jar on my desk, like a fucking trophy, so that anyone who comes in will see your fucking pussy-eater staring them in the face, warning them not to fuck with me….”
Shilz would’ve bit his own tongue off at that moment if it meant never having to deal with Tinton again.
“I heard someone talking down here, Shits, and it sounded like your mousy-ass voice,” he said as his voice rose, which it always did when his insults and threats became less horrifying. “So if not you, then who the fuck was it?”
Shilz had been reduced to a pile of broken dreams. He sunk his head down low and his feet began to shift. His eyes teared up and he rubbed the sweat from his palms off onto his pants. It was only a matter of time.
Shilz hesitated, and then gave a quick nod to his right. It was like an 8 year old ratting out his friend to the teacher, but Tinton didn’t care. He took one look at Barkley, sloppy as the day he was born, and his eyes lit up. He leaned in to whisper something about slicing Barkley’s balls off, but jumped back when he smelled liquor emanating from his soldier’s sweat.
“…Is that….alcohol?” Tinton asked. He was appalled, more like a mother catching her teenager smoking pot for the first time than a ranking officer catching his soldier smelling of booze.
“Sir, I–” Barkley cut himself off, expecting Tinton to growl in his face.
Nothing. The two of them looked at each other like dogs seeing themselves in the mirror for the first time. No one had ever so blatantly opposed Tinton’s blanket directives.
He backed away, horrified, as if Barkley had just turned the tables and cut his tongue off. Barkley leaned in slightly and opened his mouth to explain, but quickly remembered himself and straightened up. Lt. Stevens lifted one finger in the air as if to say something, and perhaps to point out that Tinton was acting un-Majorly, but the sight of full body movement frightened the Major so much that Stevens dropped his hand and said nothing.
Tinton stepped back and surveyed the whole platoon, analyzing our faces and body language. We must have looked like a sorry bunch.Two years in this hellhole of the Middle East only occasionally finding combat and when we did, finding nothing of note, had turned us mostly into zombies. There was the time Barkley beat the shit out of a local who begged him for change, but that didn’t count for anything. We had been tasked with guarding a region that the Taliban had long since left, driven off by an overkill of drone strikes that had torn their homes and military bases to shreds. But we remained, living among the shreds, guarding the town in the case of their return, largely forgotten by top military commanders who had enough business on their hands than to deal with some shitstain platoon whose only complaint was that their job wasn’t exciting enough.
But Major Tinton had forged on, driven either by an extreme sense of duty to the military or by some unidentifiable rage that started when he was young and had simply never dissipated. The source of his dedication, or its endgame, was debated nightly, and without success.
He quickly scanned each and every one of our faces, until mine. His eyes stopped and looked quizzically at me, as if noticing a feature he hadn’t quite noticed before. He slowly tilted his head to one side, squinted his eyes tight and furrowed his brow. I tried to use my eyes to provide whatever answer he was looking for, but I didn’t even know the question. It was only a moment before I gave up and simply looked back into his eyes with the truth. His eyes opened wide and his eyebrows raised, and his head slowly tilted to the other side, blinking rapidly as he did all this. His head dropped down to look at his feet, and he brushed away some dirt with his right foot, and then his left foot.
He readdressed the platoon with his shoulders, crossed his arms in front of him and said, after waiting a few seconds,
The tone didn’t make any sense. He sounded almost apologetic. No one moved.
“I said dismissed! Get the fuck out of here! Go back to sleep! Go fuck a whore! I don’t care — just get out of here!”
The whole line turned in unison and shuffled off to the tents in disorganized fashion. We bumped into each other, said excuse me, and moved on without a word. Each group slipped into their tent to discuss what had just happened. Outside, Barkley and Stevens were bickering in hushed tones. I stuck my head out to survey the scene, and noticed Shilz standing motionless in the same spot he’d been, staring at the ground. It’d be easy to feel sorry for him. It’d be harder to teach him to man up.
Just before ducking back under, I saw Tinton walking to his tent. Head down, shoulders slumped, he turned around to survey the camp.Suddenly, he looked 10 years older.After a good long look, he twisted his mouth to one side, shook his head, and ducked quietly into his tent.
And I still hadn’t killed anyone.