Estimated reading time — 17 minutes
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And Mira Part 7: War
Hoa Lo. 1970
I can barely see through the steam. The jungle is thick with fog and filth, and ultimately enemy soldiers looking to capture, torture, and kill us. We can barely see the target, and I must be sure we can complete our objective through the haze and daze.
“Travel should take you places!” Seems I heard that one time in an advertisement for some hotel. I look over at Pinball, my good friend, my brother in war, and his gaze of assertion gives me the courage to signal. “Go!” Pinball is our surveillance expert. He can bounce in and out of a target village, unseen and unnoticed, and have it sized up in under ten minutes.
We move slowly but stealthily, efficiently through the deep grass and mud. Quiet, ever so aware of the cost of a single mistake. Pinball, along with our capable information man Downlow, have scoped out our goal perfectly. Oh, certainly the village is protected. We know this small, unassuming village is well connected to our enemy, and effective speed is the key. The guards are small, but well armed.
Our solution is well armed as well. But he is not small. He is our enforcer, Goliath, large and strong. And fearless. Downlow, his good friend, would do whatever it takes to bring the best information to keep him safe, and give him the best chance of achieving his goal. Downlow has identified the strongest fortifications at the weakest point. He is the best at making casual conversation with the locals, and extracting critical information from those conversations.
While Pinball and I create a distraction, Goliath will do his work. His work is to kill many people. Quickly.
Quietly, he does his work.
Quickly and quietly we dispose of the guards at the gate. After that, it is all Goliath. Like a man possessed, he mows through no less than 9 enemy soldiers on his own. No weapons and no death. He simply overcomes them with his size and strength. NA, Dei Jaih, Downlow, Pinball and I take the rear, and quickly overcome the forces that protect this village, the keystone to the current battle plan..
We are quickly in control. The villagers that are not soldiers immediately attend to our needs, shuffling us to homes to shower, rest, and eat. The women, eerily calm, there, in the huts, ensure that every empty stomach is full. They allow us to rest after many months of uncertainly in battle. It is good.
Until suddenly, it is not. NA is the first to notice something is wrong. NA does not mean non-applicable, as you will see in much of the vernacular.
No. NA stands for Nasty Ass, which this guy is. He does not shower, does not present himself in any kind of a culturally acceptable way, even so far as the depressed culture of the lower Eastern lands. NA Is a fighter through and through. He hates the enemy, whoever the enemy may be. He is dirty, and he fights dirty.
Dei Jaih on the other hand is mild. It is nearly pronounced “DJ” so I will refer to him that way moving forward. He, at one time, was considered the enemy, and defected as our unit was being put together. DJ is our communications expert. He is able to connect with help no matter the circumstances, and is a master of military radios. He also understands the enemy language,
But it is NA who first notices something is not right. He is naturally hateful and paranoid, and refuses to accept that all is well when it seems to be. It’s easy to notice with NA. Despite the friendly gestures of the villagers, he scowls at them all, while sniffing the air like some grotesque smelly bloodhound. He is absolutely insane. Unfortunately, his senses are very good. And, in this case, his senses prove to be completely correct.
The enemy has succeeded in splitting us up. Pinball and I in one home, Goliath and Downlow in another. DJ and NA are in separate homes as well. While our surveillance of the village and immediate area has been perfect, this village is a key military target. Knowing that, the town had very effective plans in place, well practiced and automatic for the day they certainly would be invaded by American forces. The backup soldiers are quickly notified, and in reach to spoil our apparent success in merely hours. It took no time whatsoever for them to relieve us of our control, one or two at a time.
Then suddenly, we are no longer victors. We are prisoners in a very dangerous place, and any laws or rules governing the treatment of prisoners are not recognized here.
The next month is fraught with filth and torture. Rao Chu is the commanding officer in this village, a key location in this war for one reason only. It is where soldiers go to die. Rao Chu is well reputed for his glee in creative death, and lack of restraint. He likes to personally kill his prisoners and watch them die. We all knew of Rao Chu before even being drafted.
It is likely we will die here, unless help comes for us.
We are immediately beaten by the soldiers. Our hands, feet and faces are broken and opened under vicious pummeling. Even the guards whose lives Goliath spared took part in breaking our bodies, one at a time, as the others watched. Then for the first week we were each placed, two at a time, in Tiger Cages, and left to drown as they were placed in water with only inches at the top to breathe.
We manage, each of us, to survive these cages of death by holding each other up for periods while the other slept. An entire week is spent taking turns with short naps. And the best result that can be expected from this will be the dysentery we certainly contract from the disease-infested waters in which we now live, seeping into our open wounds. It is also the only water we have to drink, to wash down the occasional insect that is our only food.
But we survive the first week. All of us. After that, Goliath and Downlow are taken from their cages and marched away to some unknown location. We are never given any update on their conditions, or whether they are still alive. With such uncertainty, the human mind can only assume they have been tortured and killed in the cruelest manner. The human mind can only wait in certainly that one of us will be next, and eventually that one will be me. My mind spends many uncomfortable hours in that dire certainty.
Of course, the Nasty Ass has to speak his mind any time the enemy is around. He is paranoid, but also fearless. He is also careless and stupid. He harasses the guards when they come to see which of us may have died overnight. He insults their appearance, their military, their country and their mothers. The last part seems senseless, as these bastards could not possibly have mothers.
It is no surprise when, a week later, NA is taken. I can’t imagine we will ever see him again. They couldn’t possibly tolerate his mouth for long. Certainly they will mute him with a quick death even before being brought to torture. With him, DJ is also taken away. At this I am sad, because he is a defector. They will not let him live.
But for nearly a month, Pinball and I are left to wait, to hold each other up, to wonder of our comrades, and wait to be taken. We wait to die. I am grateful that at the end of my life, it is my good friend that I spend my last days with. I do miss my wife though. And my daughter.
Nearly a month.
And then. It is time. They come for us.
We are taken from our watery prison, emaciated and gaunt, and led to a hut in the center of the village. It is larger than all of the other huts, clearly the cornerstone building of the town. It is where American soldiers are taken to die. I expect to find all manner of torture there, and finally death. I expect an empty room with a firing squad or a single executioner standing over a chopping block. And I find all of those things, but yet more.
Our unit, our friends, are all there, alive. Not well. But alive.
DJ is most prominent. He has been positioned at a table in the center of the room. He is face down, and shackled by the wrists to each corner. He has clearly been tortured, and at first I am not sure if he is alive at all, but soon note the quick jerking of his shoulders from his heavy breaths. I mourn immediately for DJ. He is surely close to death.
Less prominent, but starkly apparent, is Goliath. His large body has been chained to the ceiling over a pit in the far corner. As Goliath is the strongest of us all, it is clear they intend to make an example of him. He is hung upside down, in nothing but his drawers. His sigh, heaving downward rather than up, a bizarre picture in contrast to his enormous strength. And, in the pit below, are fire ants, crawling up and down his body, biting and poisoning him by every inch. He attempts to raise his hands, to avoid giving a bridge to the ants, but it has been weeks, and his body tires, too weak to hold. It has become less painful to allow the ants access to his organs and nerves, than to hold himself up even another second. His body, red with welts, demonstrates his resignation.
NA is pinioned to the floor, spread eagled, also down to his drawers. He has a large rock positioned in his mouth. While Rao has not yet decided to kill him, our captors clearly became weary of his mouth. As we view the brutal scene, NA is doused with water. Clearly the time in the Tiger Cages did not wash off enough of the filth, and they see fit to rinse his profane body with both disdain and vigor. Even with the rock in his mouth, and the pain from the damage being done to his remaining teeth, you can see in the eyes of the Nasty Ass the hatred he has for his captors. No amount of torture or water will quell him.
Downlow is chained to the wall farthest from the entrance. He has not been stripped to his birthday suit, but is still adorned in the fatigues of his country’s military. To his right are two more sets of chains. It is to these, also within our uniforms, that Pinball and I are attached, myself in the middle and Pinball to my right. We are to watch the horrors to come, to beg for mercy or a quick death, for the small privilege of any information we may have of our Army’s strategy.
Then, enters Rao Chu, a killer of the magnitude of Nathaniel Mirras, but alive and real. He slowly strides into the hut, considering briefly the hung form of Goliath, then moving toward DJ at the table in the center of the room. From his central location, he views the three of us directly, myself, Downlow and Pinball. We are in the front row, and Rao is center stage. He looks over at NA and sneers, while placing his left hand atop the dark hair of DJ chained to the table. He briefly lifts DJ’s head, no longer able to communicate with either our forces or the enemy. He will share no more secrets, because when he lifts DJ up from his lounging position, we can see, the three of us, that his face has been brutalized, and his tongue removed. DJ is already dead, except only that he still barely breathes.
Rao, looking at us with an evil, smileless gaze, slowly lowers DJ’s head. We have seen the horror presented to him, which was Rao’s first goal. His second is to kill, to make an example of the defector. The traitor. To that end, he lifts up a machete positioned conveniently beside the table. He makes eye contact with each of us three, to ensure we are watching what comes next. Thankfully, the end is quick for DJ, as Rao Chu separates his head from his shoulders with a quick downward motion. Blood pours from the table to the floor, and when Rao is satisfied with the grisly display exiting his neck, he proceeds to chop his left hand at the cuff. Then his right, and DJ’s body falls from the table to the floor, at an angle, with each blow.
Dogtag: DJ. Dei Jaih. No Rank. No Religion. Blood Type AB
Goliath, facing the corner, hears the sound of DJ’s body hit the floor. He gurgles a sound, a request to see if any of us are near. If any of us are still alive. His body shudders, covered in blood and rash, then lays still. From across the room, Downlow sees his struggle, and from his chained position calls to him, to comfort him. To let him know he is safe. Goliath tenses at the sound of his friend’s voice, lifts his arms up barely inches and holds them in place for what seems like an hour but is barely half a minute. His sounds are guttural, but he is fighting.
Not to be disrespected, Rao Chu goes to Downlow and stands before him. He stares for a time, sizing him up to determine if the crime warrants death. Upon consideration, he strikes him with the handle of the machete, breaking his jaw. Downlow’s brief scream is heard by Goliath, who then relaxes his tense muscles in defeat, and allows his body to be consumed by hundreds of red ants, and to die. As Goliath screams a slight guttural scream, his body jerks and goes limp, Downlow sobs through a slack jaw and missing teeth.
Dogtag: Goliath. Leonard, “Len” Caster. Lance Corporal. Catholic. Blood Type O Positive
NA begins to struggle at his bonds, writhing along the floor like piranha in a school in a pool. He has, over time, managed to unwedge the rock in his mouth, though it had been tightly lodged, at the expense of the integrity of his jaw and many teeth. NA is angry, and no longer cares of his eventual future. NA is a bastard, but a loyal one, and the death of two of his unit, his friends, is more than he’ll allow to pass before he himself passes along.
His slurs to Rao are made uglier only by the fact that his mouth no longer works properly. If you taught a 12 month old to drop F Bombs all day, you would have a more coherent tirade than the filth pouring from NA’s bubbling maw. And yet, I love him for it. We all do, because even though the certainty of death looms near for NA, he has the fortitude to say precisely what we all think of Rao Chu, and his minions, and their mothers, many of whom were apparently farm animals, and the droppings of same.
I will miss him.
And Rao remains calm throughout. He seems to understand at times, and others not. His brow furrows when NA suggests that Rao is not better than “the left nut of your bitch sister’s honey badger lover.” Yet, his response is not anger, but still calm. And he approaches NA, tied to the floor, giving all his life is worth to demean his captors, and slowly, gently, replaces the rock into his mouth. NA struggles, but no longer has strength to continue. All in the room sense the end must be near for NA.
But instead, Rao speaks. In English. “You. You invade our home. Our village. You speak of honor and friendship and camaraderie. But you are here only to kill us, those of us not your comrades. And that I will not allow. You seek to disrespect with your tongue, but your disrespect will only cause death. Yours of course. In time.
And with that, he takes his Type 56 assault rifle, and raises it slightly to just above NA’s eyebrows. He gives a slight twitch to his left lip, almost a grin. Mostly a sneer. While no one on the planet would twist their features this way to indicate joy, it is clear that Rao gains pure enjoyment from playing with his prey before the kill. He then turns his rifle toward Downlow, and shoots him in the stomach, not killing him instantly. Downlow grimaces for minutes, keeping still. He is brave, and daring Rao to further disrespect the memory of his dead friend still hung in the corner, his body covered in ants. But Downlow’s features soften. His body slumps, as blood from the wide maw of his gut continues to pour.
Then, slowly, eventually, he is gone.
Dogtag: Downlow. Finn Alberts. Lance Corporal. Protestant. Blood Type O Negative
I expect Rao to address NA again, to let him know his folly in challenging him in front of his troops, and before us. But that was not his intention at all. He intended to deliver a message, not to NA, but to me. They spent the entire month learning about us, our ranks and personalities, what our strengths and who our friends are. Who would we die for? This message was meant to let me know that they knew I was in charge, and would not hesitate to mutilate Pinball if I should step the smallest bit outside of the circle of their control.
And to prove the point, Rao himself, walked over to where Downlow’s body now lifeless hung, and chose a large stone from the area where Downlow was chained, lifted it with both hands, and dropped it suddenly downward onto NA, splitting his skull where the rock had been lodged in his mouth. Despite his struggles and curses, he dies instantly. And yet, it has been said that a beheaded head can still process and see, as the body involuntarily convulses. I’m quite sure that despite his lifelessness, that I continued to hear NA bravely curse Rao and his troops for long minutes after his actual death.
Dogtag: NA. The Nasty Ass. Gabor. Private First Class. Jewish. Blood Type B Positive
And now, it is just Pinball. And me. And we are in the hands of Rao Chu.
And he is a killer.
Rao approaches us. Pinball and I are still upright and chained, with the hanging corpse of Downlow beside us. Rao unholsters his Walther P38, rarely found here, and slowly brings it up to Pinball’s temple, all the while staring deeply into my eyes. There is no pity, certainly no remorse in the dim eyes of Rao Chu. Only hatred, and a deep love of killing. I try to stay strong. There is no future in struggle and I will not risk Pinball’s life for the sake of a meaningless insult. His only hope is my resolve, I believe.
Yet I flinch…
Rao Chu becomes suddenly amused. He laughs heartily. It isn’t an unpleasant laugh at all, but one you might hear from an uncle telling you your first dirty joke. It’s as though we are in on the gag! Then, he calms, collects, and looks quickly at the remaining five soldiers in the hut with us. At his quick glance they all unholster their Type 59 pistols and train them on Pinball and myself…
Rao Chu then removes my limbs from their chains. What happens next takes only seconds.
Though unshackled, I stand still, hands at my side. Pinball and I do our best not to notice that Downlow has lost the contents of his bowels as blood and vomit pours from his mouth and nose. We stare straight ahead, fully anticipating our immediate execution while I am expected to stand and take it, unbound. And we are soldiers. That is how we will face our fate. And on cue, Rao steps to the side, leaving us to our personal space to die. Yet the shots do not come.
Instead, Rao walks over to the machete, upright, standing guard over the beheaded form of DJ. He picks it up, and returns to stand just before Pinball. While keeping his eye on me, he slowly raises the blade to the side of Pinball’s face, and with a quick, expert cut, slices off the ear closest to me. Pinball staggers, briefly, as blood pours down his side, then rights himself, and looks ahead. He stands with honor as I watch in horror. I cannot stand by and allow any more, as Rao places the blade below his chin. I will risk both our deaths to avoid any more humiliation and torture for my good friend and brother in war.
Yet I cannot move. Though unchained, an unseen force prevents me from raising a hand, a leg, or even to move my head. And this reality, familiar to me, and the events of the past month, begin to become clear. I am suddenly more afraid. We are not just prisoners of this war, meant to succumb to the torture of a living enemy madman. This is much much more. And I should have seen it coming.
Rao senses my recognition, but, keeping his eyes on me, does not smile. He presses the hilt of the machete into my hand, without a single fear that I will use it on him. I am able to move my head, as I’m meant to watch this, and glance, panicked and ashamed, at my friend. I cannot speak, so my sunken look will have to convey my silent apology.
I am no longer in control, as Rao places the blade again, perfectly, under Pinball’s chin. And as the soldiers, weapons drawn, look on in both wonder and sick merriment, giggling at the scene, the unseen force that held me still now forces me to move.
I shove the blade up into the skull of my good friend, ending his life. My hands then fall, leaving the blade sticking out the top of his head, and my senses retreat.
Nothing else that will happen from now on will make sense. I have killed Pinball. Rather, Nathaniel has.
Dogtag: Pinball. Nick Olson. Corporal. Protestant. Type O Negative.
Damn you Nathaniel…
Finally, Rao’s features take on their true visage. That of the ghost, the killer, Nathaniel Mirras. He is no longer a war monger, but a pale, chalky being without hair, eyes or nose, only one ear, and a sunken leathery mouth without teeth. It’s true, Nathaniel could not kill me. But, like Mira, my wife, he now has control over all that I know and love. And he has control over me. He was able to possess me still, and compel me to kill my very best friend in this world.
And it occurs to me that he may be able to compel others to kill me. I wish I knew all that Mira knows, and had her experience with this monster.
And Rao smiles with glee at my recognition and my fear. He tilts his head backward and laughs the bestial laugh of the chalky child. As much a cry of pain as a laugh, my stomach releases its contents at the sight and sound of the pale killer. I mentally prepare for what must come next. I’ve lost my very good friend and brother, and my whole unit. It’s my fault they are gone.
And while I welcome my due for my stupidity, I still have Mira, and our daughter, that I desperately wish to see again, and hold. Yet Nathaniel is stronger than I am. I am too weak. He may compel me to kill our child, as he did Pinball. Perhaps this is better. They will both be safer if Nathaniel ends this now.
It seems that I will get my wish. The soldiers stand to attention as the chalky Chu ends his maniacal laughter. They each take their revolvers and point them at me. It appears that Nathaniel can coerce others to kill me. Not that they need coercion. But no noise emits from the multitude of arms. They do not fire. Then, Nathaniel-as-Rao does something unexpected.
He hands me his pistol, which my hand readily receives. He then stands back with a look of both humor and wonder on his face. The soldiers all have their arms trained on me, yet my arm is free to rise, taking aim at the possessed body of Rao Chu. Yet my finger is unable to place pressure on the trigger. The world stands still for a long moment with multiple guns trained on me yet without a shot being fired.
Suddenly, though my weapon remains trained on Rao, the soldiers each shift their aim, from me, to Rao, and to each other. As though a bizarre game of “Musical Munitions”, the weapons of all Rao’s men, stiffly switch targets, then shift again. They suddenly stop, together, each trained on a different target. I wonder which of the soldier’s bullets is trained on me.
There is little time to wonder as the guns all go off simultaneously. I feel my body being flung back onto the wall. The bodies of Rao and each soldier drop in unison, as if some bloody synchronized swim team, each with a gaping hole between the eyes. And I have no time to consider my fate as I am able to utter only one word before darkness overtakes me.
Dogtag: Geist. Andrew Rose. Sergeant. Killer. Agnostic. Type O negative…
East Coast America, 1970 (just prior to the events detailed above):
After decades of uncertainty, the years have finally been kind. Andrew and I, safe from the murderous intentions of Nathaniel, are married. We have a child, Maddisyn.
I was absolutely terrified of having twins.
But we have a single, beautiful baby girl. Andrew is completely smitten, and she completely owns him! In so many ways I am jealous of the love he has for our daughter, and yet I know it is but an extension of the love he has for me. It is as it should be. My life, marred from the beginning, became perfect.
Until the war…
It seems that all the men in my family are killers. Like my father, Nathaniel Rauch, Andrew is to become a hero in war. In Andrew’s defense, however, he was drafted. Like many of Andrew’s friends, Uncle Sam came knocking on the door for him.
Of all people, I should have known better than to open the door for a relative.
If only I could replace my beloved Andrew with my ghost, Nathaniel, I could not only keep him safe, but also ensure certain victory for our side. But the odds of Nathaniel finding his way so far east are slim.
I wish I could say that Andrew was disappointed in being drafted. But, he is a boy of our times, loves GI Joe, wants to go be a protector of freedom, and anti-communism everywhere. He also deeply cares for the lives of innocents, having lost so many friends and even his own sister because of me. Because of Smoke. Nathaniel Mirras is…was…a killer.
So, Andrew went to war. And I am afraid.
But Nathaniel no longer has the ability to kill Andrew, because Andrew and I are now one. And Nathaniel, Smoke, cannot kill me. So while I am afraid for Andrew, I know the worst in our lives has already come and gone, and Andrew’s fate is no different than any other soldier at risk. And our army is strong. I have faith.
I soon fall into slumber with these thoughts. My dreams each night are of course fraught with fear over Andrew’s possible demise in war. But each week I get a letter and know all is well. He is going deep this week, I know. But he is a good soldier. And Nathaniel cannot harm Andrew.
Something in my dreams tonight, however, feels off. Andrew is tortured and killed as in all of my dreams, but tonight the killer has Nathaniel’s face. I wake in the same sweat as always, and prepare for my day caring for Maddisyn. I can’t shake how different this feels though.
I begin to wonder why Nathaniel has not been in our lives these many years, torturing me. He can’t kill me, of course, or Andrew. But he couldn’t kill me before, and yet made my years unbearable. Perhaps he has this control over Andrew now! My dream, where Smoke has total control over Andrew’s environment, mirrors most of my life. Then suddenly I feel it. I sense Nathaniel.
I begin to see a small room, with a distorted Vietnamese soldier standing before me. Andrew. I’m seeing through Andrew’s eyes. The face of the soIdier slowly shifts from one of distortion to crystal clear reality. Damn it. Damn it, it’s Nathaniel! I see the mutilated and broken bodies of American soldiers scattered around the room, and a room full of enemies with their guns trained on me. On Andrew.
There is a sudden flurry, and everything goes black. Including my senses. Andrew is gone.