Still they come, the dreams, brief glimpses of what might have been.
The war had been going on, we knew — they hadn’t told us, since it wasn’t “critical to the mission” — for nearly seventeen (“officially,” eleven) years. For all we knew, it had eleven or even seventeen years left to run, and if you were eighteen, as I was, that was close enough to eternity to bring you up short. None of us, cringing in our marginally awake state at 0430, knew what to expect: all we knew was that some of us would be sent to the front, and not all of us would come back.
But first, there was training. Lots of it. We learned some possibly useful skills — my own company proved to be particularly ingenious in dealing with the recapture of escaped partisans, and if I did indeed throw like a girl, only seven of my sixty test grenades failed to hit the target — and we learned to hurry up and wait, to stand there awaiting orders, and to not waste time thinking when those orders were given.
And then it was all done and new orders were cut and eventually I was sent to the other side of the world, where it was probably unlikely that I would be shot at, but it didn’t make any difference in the grand scheme of things: there was a mission, and I would be doing my level best to make sure of the success of the mission, Sir.
It’s forty years later and I still think about the ones who didn’t come back. They had faces, they had names, and several of them, I am told, drew resting places as near to nowhere as can exist on this planet. I grin when I think of some of the gallows humor produced in the wake of the war:
Six Phases of a Military Operation
4. Search for the guilty.
5. Punishment of the innocent.
6. Praise and honor for the non participant.
And then the grin vanishes, erased by the knowledge that the humor only barely concealed the truth of the matter.
It could have been me. The luck of the draw, the whim of the Almighty, whatever, it could have just as easily gone the other way. I’m not sure which bothers me more: the fact that we lost so many, or the fear that we won’t be able to mobilize anyone if something serious should happen.