Thursday, February 18, 2016
Then came the rumble of thunder -
During these days of stifling dissent and unnerving suspense, while the world's nerves are stretched as taut as catgut and played on as fiercely as those of Joshua Bell's violin, wild headlines prognosticate the end of US hegemony, the collapse of capitalism or the start of WWIII, while the stench of sulfur has begun to constrict the chest and afflict even the moribund nations of the paralyzed West as political parties are sent into spasms as their sleepy citizenry slowly begins to sit up in the grass or rub the sand from their bedazzled eyes as the price of the security for which they traded their civil rights threatens to bankrupt them with its real costs.
Who are we? What is this? Where has our somnambulance brought us? Dusk, rubble, and sand, fire reddening a murky sky that bellows incessantly with dull thunder, the arid air rent by piercing, singsong whines and raging, onrushing hellhound howls that end their arc in a splintering, spraying, fiery crash filled with groans and screams, with brass blaring, about to burst, and drumbeats urging us onward, faster, faster. There are faceless buildings spewing drab hordes that run, stumble, jump, fire. There is a line of hills, dark against the distant conflagration whose eerie glow sometimes suddenly erupts into a flash of flames. All around, what was once rolling farmland has been gouged and battered to sludge. And there is a road, covered with muck, lined with half-razed vehicles, blood and corpses, much like the silent buildings that stare mournfully through their hollowed doors and shattered windows. Branching off from the road, a country lane, a rutted quagmire, winds up the hill; tree trunks jut into the stifling darkness, naked and stripped of branches. Up ahead there's a signpost - but that tells us nothing - the twilight would cloak its message even if it hadn't already been riddled with bullets and ripped to ragged shreds. East or West? It is the desert - this is war. And we are reluctant shades by the roadside, ashamed of our own shadowy security and yet still indulge in hate-filled bombast and vainglorious pretensions; the camouflage the soldiers wear but a reflection of the camouflaged reason for the purpose behind their strife. Like a feline invisibly stalking its prey in the tall grass, thereby getting sprayed by the gardener who also doesn't see it, they are just as unaware that the same stealth that makes them invisible to the object of their murderous intent leaves them vulnerable to being incinerated into collateral damage by a hot spray of friendly fire. All camouflage worthy of the name is not seen equally by all sides in a conflict. But we can also see gray, running stumbling swarms as they troop out of buildings or climb from under a pile of rubble and gaze into the ordinary face of their companion of many, but so few, years; that kind-hearted sinner, and compadre we used to call neighbor but now referred to as fellow refugee, and wonder, is he my enemy? Is there anyone left to trust?
They have been called up, these comrades, for yet another push in a battle that lasts all day, to regain that hill, to protect the villages that have been burnt to the ground just beyond. They daren't ask why. It is a regiment of volunteers, youngsters, students mostly, called out to confront, rousted in the middle of the night, ridden in trains till morning, marched in searing heat all afternoon, taking wretched roads or, if the roads were already jammed, or no roads at all, just fields and dunes. Hours upon hours that turn into days, in heavy uniforms, laden with battle gear - it's no promenade. Their exhausted but excited bodies, youth has done it, those with the last reserves of energy, have no need of the food and sleep they've been denied. Their flushed sweaty faces, bespattered with mud and blood are framed by chin straps of helmets worn askew; they are flushed with exertion and thrashing, diminished by the casualties they took moving through the hilly, blinding dunes. For the enemy, distant and faceless had laid a barrage across their path, shrapnel and large-caliber grenades that burst in their ranks - a splintering, howling, spraying flaming scourge across wide uselessly plowed fields.
Already in their forced march many a man has severed himself, has proved too young and too weak, turned pale and staggered, doggedly forced himself to be a man, only to fall back all the same in the end; although he drags himself alongside the marching column for a while longer, as his strength fails him he vanishes, lying down where it is not wise to lie down. As then comes the bone-shattering BOOM! But they are still many as they swarm forward; an army of men can hemorrhage badly and still be a great teeming force. And they flood over the scourged, sun-drenched land, the road, the country lane, the sandy wastes as shadows on the roadside watch in silent terror. And they rush forward as best they can, with brash cries and nightmarishly heavy feet, clods of earth clinging leadenly to their boots, they hurl themselves down before projectiles howling toward them, only to leap up and rush on, shouting courage in brash, young voices - they've not yet been hit. But then they are hit. They fall, arms flailing. Shot in the head, the heart, the gut. They lie with their faces in the dirt and do not stir. They lie, arched over their knapsacks, the backs of their heads buried in the soft sand, their hands clutching the air like talons. But the army keeps sending new men, who hurl themselves down, leap up, and, with a shout or without a word, stagger forward among those who've already fallen.
Watching, one might dream of another scene, even imagine such boys sparring with a schoolmate or swimming in a sparkling stream, maybe strolling along the shore with a girlfriend, his lips pressed to his beloved's ear, or in happy friendship, teaching another boy how to change a tire. But instead, there they all lie, noses in the fiery filth. That they do it with joy, and also with boundless fear and an unutterable longing for home, is both shameful and sublime, but surely there is no reason to bring them here to this. The spectacle is so the opposite of reason. It is madness.
I know, because there is my friend. He is soaked through, his face is flushed, he runs with feet weighed down by mud and he is stepping on the hand of a fallen comrade, pressing it deep into the blood-drenched, branch-strewn earth. He stumbles. No, he's thrown himself onto his stomach at the shrieking approach of a howling hound of hell, a large explosive shell, a hideous offering from the abyss. Laden with horror, this product of science gone berserk crosses thirty yards in front of him, buries itself in the ground, and explodes like the devil himself, bursts inside the earth with ghastly superstrength and casts up a house-high fountain of soil, fire, iron, lead, depleted uranium and dismembered humanity. For two men had flung themselves to the ground beside one another in front of him - they were friends. Commingled now, they vanish.
Oh how ashamed we should feel in our shadowy security, as into the tumult, the dust, the dusk, he disappears from sight. Farewell. Your chances are not good. the wicked dance in which you are caught up will last many an evil year yet, and it would not be a very good wager that you will come out whole. Perhaps there were moments when you saw the intimation of a dream of love rising up out of all this death and this carnal body, and out of this fast-spreading carnival of carnage, this ugly rutting fever that inflames the hellish sky all around. But can love ever hope to rise out of this?
Posted by Robert Lowrey at 6:00 PM