[This is a work of fiction. The people, places, and events are entirely products of my imagination. I have used Names appropriate to the United States for the players, but by leaving out place names and other signs of ethnicity it is my intention that this not look like any particular war. It could be anyone, anywhere.]
Captain Ron Terrell entered the Colonel’s tent. “Sir,” he began, but the Colonel cut him off.
“I have a job for you. Before I tell you what it is, let me tell you that you’re not going to like it. I’m going to make it easy for you. If you don’t do it completely as instructed, I will see to it you are shot, with or without a court martial. I will have written record of the order and of this conversation and my promise to kill you if you disobey.”
Colonel Jerome Anthony was known out of his hearing simply as “the evil bastard.” Nonetheless, Terrell knew that his orders would be recorded in writing. He knew further that if he failed the Colonel, he would be shot. The only commandment the Colonel did not break on a regular basis was the one about bearing false witness, whatever number that was.
“Very well Colonel,” said Terrell, “Since you give me no choice.”
“Precisely. Further, this order comes from me, and not from any of the staff, nor from my superiors. You will discuss it with no one, not even with your own troops until you’ve left camp.”
Terrell nodded.. It was all he was expected to do at this point.
“You see this village here?” continued the Colonel. “I need it eliminated. My battalion has to pass near there, just to the west, early tomorrow, and we need to do so without being noticed.”
The village in question was in a mountain valley. It was generally assumed that no substantial number of troops could move through there without being noticed. If they did, it would place the defenders of the city that was just a little further south in some jeopardy. But there were also observation posts on several peaks on either side, providing excellent reasons why the defenders were confident they didn’t need to post any more troops in that area. The advantage of going through the valley was in time saved, and if you were noticed, the defenders could redeploy and turn the tables on you.
“What about the observation posts?” asked Terrell.
“Don’t worry about them. They will be taken care of. But it is important that you follow your precise timetable. I will be two hours behind you. That’s all the time you have. Do not carry out your attack before the specified time, and do not take more than two hours. Make damn sure you get everyone.”
Terrell stood there looking for words or for thoughts. He knew that Colonel Anthony had been on trial for various rules violations, including civilian deaths, four times. He had been hoping that “eliminate” would leave him more options. Clearly the Colonel meant for him to round up and kill everyone in the village. He could ask how many people were there, just to emphasize the number, but he already knew. He’d seen the marker on the map—less than 100, more than 50.
“Don’t go soft on me, Terrell.” The Colonel was clearly reading his expression. “You know that any pilot in a plane might kill more civilians than that by dropping a couple of bombs or firing a couple of rockets. You know very well how many civilians have died under your guns, and it’s lots more than that.”
“I know that.”
“Besides, I’m giving you no choice. You can thank me for that.”
The Colonel really meant it. Terrell wondered what had happened to this educated man, with a doctoral degree in philosophy, to make him into the most dedicated killer in the war. Everybody thought there must be some atrocity, some terrible thing that had happened to his family, but nobody had ever found anything like that. As far as anyone knew he had a wife and children, living comfortably at home. He gave orders in educated English. He could argue philosophy with the best of them, but he usually chose to keep it simple. “You kill them, or they kill you,” he would say.
Another of his favorites was, “Civilians are just a legal fiction politicians and lawyers created to make them feel better about slaughtering soldiers.”
“Further,” said the Colonel, “You will patrol the area south of the village for any other people who may show up, and then you will meet me here.” He stabbed a point on the map just out of the valley. It would take three or four hours to get there. You should only be a couple of hours behind my men at that point.”
So now, for Terrell, it had become close up and personal. He liked the legal fiction, if that was what it was. If he machine gunned a position, or called in air support or artillery fire and civilians got killed that was OK. If he walked up to a civilian and blew her brains out, that was not OK. It was clear and simple enough to him. But what was the point of arguing? He knew precisely what the Colonel would say about his hypothetical civilian woman: “Do you think she’ll be any less dead if you drop a bomb on her?”
He gathered his company, really more the size of a platoon, though he did have a couple of Lieutenants and all of his troops were too senior for their work. They weren’t formally special forces. In fact, the unit was ad hoc. Though most of them were Army, he actually had representatives of the Navy, Air Force (a couple of SPs), and the Marines. They were not precisely his troops. Most of them had been collected by the Colonel. If they weren’t here, they might be in jail. No, not ordinary troublemakers. Nobody had been selected who was charged with petty theft, or insubordination (with exceptions for officers who really deserved to be disobeyed), or murder on their own account. They were people who had generally gone a step too far in carrying out a mission.
For Terrell himself it was the artillery. The Colonel had hit close to home about civilian casualties due to artillery. He had had the choice between remaining pinned down by fire or calling an artillery strike that was almost certain to cause huge amounts of collateral damage and civilian casualties. Unfortunately, the incident had been videotaped for the news. His commander at the time said that he could have fought his way out. Even so, nobody could find a real reason to court martial him. He had been on his way to holding a desk down at home when the Colonel had grabbed him.
He simply told his men and women that they had a job to do. It was only minutes before they were on the trail. He was proud of what this group could do.
They arrived at their target precisely on time. Terrell decided that the best thing to do was round the people up and then kill them. If they started killing them in their homes there was a possibility someone would catch on sooner, and start running. Then they would have a mess on their hands. Or maybe all of that was just a way to delay the moment when he would have to give the order to slaughter them. He wasn’t sure.
He had told his two Lieutenants what was going to happen on the way. He’d told them the Colonel promised to kill him if he didn’t carry out the mission, and he would kill them. They shrugged and nodded. They realized they were too far down the food chain for their view to make any difference.
One of them approached him now. “I don’t know why you gathered them all here in the square, but let me suggest that we take a few of them away at a time and kill them quietly. Otherwise we’re going to have a riot on our hands out here. It will be hard to claim they were killed as traitors by their own army if they are gathered in the square with our identifiable bullets in them.”
I should have thought of that, thought Terrell. “OK, he said out loud. Let’s get started. We don’t have long.”
Just then an elderly man separated himself from the group and moved toward Captain Terrell. Two of his troops moved to stop the man, but Terrell waved them aside.
“I know what you are going to do and why,” he said in speech that was accented by clear and easily understood.
“You do.” It wasn’t a question.
“I was a Colonel in the army. I’m retired. Since you’re going to kill us all, I don’t think it matters if you know that.”
“True. It makes no difference. What do you want?”
“To ask for our lives.”
“If you know what I’m going to do and why, you know I can’t give them back to you.”
“Oh, but you’re wrong. There are always choices.”
“Make it fast.”
“Look at me! I think you can see that I’m an honest man.” Terrell did look. He saw almost a mirror image of Colonel Anthony.
“I give you my word as a soldier,” continued the man, “That in exchange for our lives I will see to it that nobody here reports anything, and I will even give you some information on observers that are further down the valley, ones who arrived recently. I don’t believe you know about them. They have radios and will report you.”
“How will you do this?”
“I will order our people to report and hand over all radios, all weapons, all signaling devices. You can search us, but I will order cooperation. They will do it. We will go up the hill to the east into a small canyon. Your people can see that we do so. We will promise to stay there, all except me. I will lead you to the observation post you do not know. Then you can kill me or not, as you wish.”
The conversation seemed unreal. The man was calm. He showed no fear. Yet he was offering to betray his own country in order to save these villagers’ lives. Should he not be ready to sacrifice his life and theirs?
“You’re a retired Colonel. Aren’t you a patriot?” asked Terrell.
“I am. A patriot and a traitor. To save this village I will betray countless other troops. But the big decisions, the big numbers, the troops across the hill don’t seem nearly so important to me as they used to. You see, my grandchildren are in that group over there. If I don’t preserve my country for them, who am I sacrificing my life for?”
“Don’t do it, Captain,” said one Lieutenant. “If the Colonel finds out you didn’t follow his orders he will kill you.”
Terrell shrugged. “Make sure they have nothing that can be used to signal, nothing that can be used as a weapon. Escort them to the place this man shows you.”
To the villager he said, “If you betray me, I will make sure that you die before me.”
“That is fine,” said the man.
His troops were relieved that their job had been taken from them, but nervous about the Colonel finding out what had happened. Killing in the heat of anger, accidental killing, collateral damager—all of these were things they could handle. But lining up 64 people (which was what the count turned out to be, that was difficult.
Well before the two hour deadline the village was quite and empty.
It was two hours later that he stood face to face with the villager again. “What are you going to do with me,” the man asked.
“Go!” said Terrell. The man disappeared into the woods.
“What are you going to tell the Colonel?” asked one Lieutenant.
“That I fulfilled my mission.”
“And if he finds out otherwise?”
“He will, and he’ll probably shoot me. He’d say that if you threaten someone and then don’t carry it out you lose all authority. He’d say you’re either in charge or you aren’t. There’s nothing in between.”
“What about us?”
“Tell him whatever you want. With 45 witnesses you don’t think I expect to keep it secret, do you?”
“You knew that, and yet you did what you did?”
“Yes. In the middle of the night I discovered there really was something worth dying for.”
[Some people will think this is unfinished. I can’t think how ending it would help. Terrell would have to either be killed or not, and the coming battle would either be a victory–or not. Would that change the meaning of Terrell’s decisions?]