Killology: On Killing and Dying Young

Posted: November 21, 2010 in Uncategorized

“Whenever a warrior decides to do something he must go all the way, but he must take responsibility for what he does. No matter what he does, he must know first why he is doing it, and then he must proceed with his actions without having doubts or remorse about them. In a world where death is the hunter, there is no time for regrets or doubts.”

A friend of mine brought an interesting topic to my attention the other day. It was about “Killology”. It’s something I’ve come across in the past but never really paid much attention to at first. It’s a term that was coined by one Lieutenant Colonel Dave Grossman (I think he’s a retired Colonel now), head of the Killology Research Group which was founded in the mid-90’s. It was established in order to study or define the psychological and physiological effects of combat on humans. Lt. Col. Grossman was a U.S. Army Ranger before he became a psychology professor.

Killology is the study of the psychology of killing.

Normally, I don’t really pay much attention to articles about that subject matter because they’re mostly written by psychologists who’ve never seen combat. Most have never experienced picking up a weapon, looking another human being in the eye, then ending that person’s existence in a most abrupt and violent manner. Am I supposed to believe what someone like that says about the subject of killing? I think not.

Lt. Col. Dave Grossman


No matter what your profession may be, would you take seriously the opinion of someone who does not have the same background you do? They only know what they observe or learn from others, not from personal experience. Then I found out about Grossman.

He was a sergeant in the US 82nd Airborne Division (Rangers), became a platoon leader (lieutenant), a general staff officer, a company commander in the 7th (Light) Infantry Division as well as a parachute infantryman (paratrooper), a US Army Ranger and finally a teacher of psychology at West Point.

Given that he started off as a non-commissioned officer and worked his way up through the ranks, yeah, I figured he knows combat well. “Been there, done that”, so to speak. Though I couldn’t say the same for the psychologists I talked to way back during my Army days. Most held the rank of Captain and strangely, a majority of them were women.

From time to time, we were required to undergo psychological evaluations to see if we were still fit for combat duty. I hated those sessions. Sitting in some office and answering questions from a female psychologist is probably one of the most uncomfortable experiences I’ve ever had. Give me combat any day. It’s not because they were women. I felt the same way even with the male ones. It was because I knew they had never been through the shit. You’ve heard the phrase, “it’s in the eyes”? That’s real for a combat veteran. That’s because you get to see it in the people closest to you, like your buddies, your sergeant, your platoon leader. And you see it in the eyes of the bad guys you encounter. Talking to a complete stranger who’s never been through it is different from when we talked about it amongst ourselves.

Under normal circumstances, most people have this phobia-like revulsion for violence. Most will resist the idea of killing (or even just hurting) another human being. And since that is so, soldiers and law enforcement officers need to be “specifically trained to kill”. And not everyone is cut out for it.

Military training is used to override these inhibitions through various means. During mine, not once did I ever see any bulls-eye targets at the firing range. We always used man-shaped “silhouettes” instead. Bulls-eyes are for competitive shooting, when you’re trying to earn points. On the battlefield, the only points that matter will be the enemy body count. The silhouette conditions your mind and develops your muscle memory to engage threats without hesitating. Because in combat, hesitation will get your buddies, if not yourself, dead.

All it takes is the space of one heartbeat to kill or be killed.

In advanced training sessions like Close Quarters Combat, targets with faces are used, to add realism and to accustom us to the fact that we will come face-to-face with live people someday.

And after you’ve had actual experience, other techniques are used to reinforce it, the most common of which was dispersing responsibility for the killing throughout the group.

After missions where a firefight has taken place, there’s a procedure we go through called “debriefing”. The squad or platoon would be assembled and we would conduct a “walk-through”, with each man talking about everything he did before, during and after the firefight. It’s a way of learning what mistakes were made so they can be avoided next time.

But more importantly, it’s the beginning of what you may call the healing process. It’s important that you come to terms with what you’ve done, and walk away with a clear conscience.

During the time of Moses, when the Israelites roamed the desert for 40 years in search of a place where they could settle, they came upon the land of Canaan. And Moses decided they would make it their own. During their conquest, Joshua, who was the general of Moses’ growing “army”, (and incidentally, considered in some services as the unofficial patron saint of spies and intelligence officers) attacked the cities of Canaan one by one. And almost every single time, after defeating the enemy, they would slaughter all the citizens. Men, women, children, and in some cases even the livestock.

Now, the Israelites had a certain ritual after every battle. Their fighters would pick a place outside of their encampment and stay there for seven days. It was a cleansing ritual, a time for meditation wherein each man would search his soul and make peace with the fact that he had taken part in the killings. This was the earliest documented form of treatment for what today is called PTSD, or Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.

The second most common process is the displacing of responsibility for the killing onto an authority figure, like the commanding officer and the military higher command.

Usually we weren’t encouraged to take prisoners. Being in a small unit, our Battalion CO and team leader always emphasized that during an assault we stop for nothing. If you find yourself confronted with a tango, just take him (or her) out immediately because you can’t stop for prisoners. It requires you to frisk them for weapons, tie them up, and bring them along with you. You cannot do that during a firefight. In a gun-battle, when you stop, you die.

Even when coming to the aid of a wounded comrade, there was a certain procedure for it. When you see a buddy go down and it just so happens there are wounded enemy personnel in his immediate vicinity, before you attend to him you have to make sure the enemy around him are no longer “just wounded”.

Brutally speaking, you finish them off. This is not of your own accord, really. You’re just following orders.

Now, I cannot speak for the other branches of the military and other special forces units, but that was how we operated most of the time. You can call it what you want. It is what it is.

All these things are done with the understanding that the act of killing is psychologically traumatic for the killer, even more than the constant exposure to danger or witnessing the death of others.

The reality is, that the brains of human beings – with the exception of psychopaths – are hardwired not to kill other humans.

That fact however, poses an “occupational hazard” to some – mainly soldiers and law enforcement officers, who have to make life-and-death decisions. Hence, the importance of emphasizing on the act of killing during training. Civilians frown upon it because they don’t understand, specially the peace-niks. I mean, I get it. It’s easy to say “there’s always a choice” when it comes to matters of life and death. Which is true. You do have a choice.

But hey, when the day comes that you find yourself looking down the barrel of a Kalashnikov in the hands of a teen-age “freedom fighter”, feel free to tell me about it. If you survive. Sure, you can talk him down, I guess. But would you bet your life on it? Or worse, the lives of those you care about? In the end, that will be what counts.

I, myself am guilty of hesitation. The very first time I had a man in my sights, there was that part of me that didn’t want to do it. I saw him, and he saw me. A moment of of panic and dread. Then I fired high, missing him deliberately. My sergeant, unfortunately, caught me doing that more than once (three times, I think) and gave me hell for it every time.

That’s what led to that incident in my entry (That First Kill), where he had me personally finish off that kid who got all fucked up by our grenades. I won’t lie about it, or cover it up with false bravado, but I puked my guts out after. It couldn’t be stopped. The act itself, plus the smell in that house of all the spilled guts and blood, it was just too much.

And my sergeant, in a rare moment of sympathy, patted me on the back and said, “It’s okay, kid. Let it all out, there’s nothing to be ashamed about. Just don’t get any of that puke on my boots, or I’ll kill you.” Swell guy, my sergeant.

Eventually, once you’ve “crossed over”, it does become somewhat easier because now, its fully supplemented by your training. And I have the perfect example of it.

Mid-1994. It started off as a recon patrol, and we were on a trail that was known to be used by communist rebels as a resupply route. As we were conducting our mission, a battle erupted about two kilometers behind us between a platoon of Army soldiers and another force of rebels that outnumbered them. We heard their platoon leader (lieutenant) calling out a contact report over the radio. We could hear the chatter of machine-gun and small-arms fire over the comms, and after a two-second delay or so, the gunfire echoed in the distance as well.

The trail we were watching led to one of their camps, and as we lay there, we saw armed men forming themselves in platoon formation, the same way soldiers would before moving out. Enemy reinforcements. We were about half a kilometer away. Roy and I, using binoculars and the sniper scope on his rifle, counted around forty-strong. We were a platoon of only sixteen Rangers. Our TL (team leader) now had a to make a quick and crucial decision with only minutes to spare. If he made the wrong one, those soldiers behind us would die.

Or we would.

So the word was passed down the line: Mike-Charlie. Mission Change. From Reconnaissance, it was now  Direct Action.

So LT decided to leave Roy and me behind, right where we were, and he would take the rest of the platoon and make a run for it in the general direction of the firefight. But he wasn’t going to it to reinforce those soldiers. They were going to have to get themselves un-fucked on their own. Instead, the plan was to ambush these reinforcements and kill or wound as many of them as we could, to keep them from getting to the battle site. Therefore, our mission was to make sure they did not accomplish theirs.

About half a klik from where we were, there was a creek about thirty feet wide, almost waist-deep. And the rebels would have to cross it. LT would take the platoon across it, then set up a hasty “V” ambush on the other side. Randy, our explosives man, would set up two Claymore mines on each side of the creek in a square pattern.

Claymore mine


It’s called a “kill box”. Imagine a square. At each corner of that square would be a Claymore mine, each one oriented 45° inwards towards the center of the square. A Claymore is an anti-personnel (people-killer) type of ordinance. Command-detonated and directional, meaning it is fired by remote-control, shooting a pattern of seven-hundred, 1/8 inch steel balls into the kill zone in a 60° arc like a shotgun. Anything in that kill box would be turned into hamburger.

Roy and I would initially act as “forward observers”. The enemy platoon was heading our way, and would soon pass in front of us. Roy would radio LT once the forward elements had passed our position (I had no radio at this time, it was damaged on our last mission). We would then stalk them, following their progress when their tail-end man or “trailer” passed by us.

Once they got to the creek, half of them would be allowed to cross. Then Randy would blow the Claymores, initiating the ambush. A V-ambush is exactly what it is: a line of men on two sides, forming a V. The open part of the V faces the enemy, like a pair of jaws. Once initiated, both lines would open fire, catching anyone in the kill zone in deadly, inter-locking fields of fire. Since about a third of them would be in the water, and most shredded by the Claymores, anyone left standing would have to contend with a barrage of fourteen weapons on fully-automatic firing at them. And that doesn’t even include the grenades yet.


Rangers running to set up a hasty ambush...

In my mind, I already knew it was going to be a slaughter. I dreaded it, because like any normal person, the thought of killing or maiming that many people is not something to look forward to. It’s a heavy, grinding feeling that begins at the pit of your stomach, and makes your fingers and feet go cold, leaving that prickly feeling. Like electricity flowing in your veins. But in scenarios like this, I always attribute the necessity for violence to what I call The Greater Good. It helps a bit to think that way. This was just something that needed to be done.

Our job would be twofold; first, to give LT early warning of the approaching enemy, and second, when the ambush is initiated, to prevent any enemies from escaping.

We were wearing the top part of our Ghillie suits for better camouflage, but only Roy had brought along his sniper rifle (although he also brought along his M4 assault rifle). I left my M20 behind, opting instead for a CAR-15. I preferred it over the M4 because it was more compact, and this one had an M-203 40mm grenade launcher slung underneath it.

So there we were, lying in the underbrush with our faces in the dirt, as the rebel platoon passed no more than twenty feet away from us, in a staggered column formation. They were so close you could hear exactly what they were talking about. I could smell that strong scent of tobacco and body odor, the all-too-familiar mixed aroma of pre-combat fear. Of course they were afraid. And anxious. They were after all, heading towards a firefight. I also noted that most of them seemed to be in the age range of 18-24. You could tell the new guys apart from the veterans. The new ones tended to bunch up. It’s that herd mentality of “safety in numbers”,  which is okay if you’re a gazelle, but not if you’re heading into a fight. We were trained to keep our intervals during a march, usually five to ten feet apart so two or three guys wouldn’t get cut down in one burst of gunfire. About a fourth of these guys were doing the exact opposite.

Human nature would get them killed.

Part of what we also had to do was spot HVTs or high value targets, so we paid close attention to them as they passed. In order according to priority: radio operators, command elements or team leader/assistant team leader types, and heavy weapons guys like machine-gunners or RPG shooters. We noted that they had with them a 3-man machinegun crew lugging a Browning M1919 machine-gun.


M1919 Browning .30 caliber machine-gun...

Then we saw something unnerving. Roy and I looked at each other.

A boy. About twelve or thirteen years of age. Wearing a blue bandanna over his head and a load-bearing vest laden with  magazine pouches, it seemed to be three sizes too big for him. He was armed with a CAR-15 just like mine, minus the 40mm launcher. Compact as it was, it still looked like he was carrying a bazooka. He was that thin and small. It was plain to see that the kid was scared, pale as he was. But he tried masking it with the kind of false bravado you see in boys his age when they get into that first fistfight in the schoolyard. Especially now, when he was surrounded by older, armed men whom he probably idolized. It’s not uncommon for boys his age to fantasize about guns and gunfights, thanks to action movies. Except for him, it was about to become frighteningly real.

I was tempted to ask Roy to tell LT about it, but at the last moment I decided not to. It wouldn’t have made a difference. He wasn’t going to hold off an ambush for some kid who was armed and on the enemy’s side, I knew him too well. The boy made that choice. Whoever was responsible for him should have thought twice before putting an assault rifle in the kid’s hands. Roy, however, gave voice to his own thoughts.

“You think we should tell LT about this? He’s just a kid.” he asked in a very low whisper, as the rear elements of the enemy column were passing us. I knew what he was thinking. His younger brother was just about this kid’s age.

“No. Pointless.” was all I said, and that was that. Just then the last man in the formation passed me. Mister Tail-End Charlie. He wasn’t good. Didn’t even bother watching their six, by walking backwards. Probably confident, since this was their territory. He didn’t count on Rangers being on the prowl in his own backyard. Big mistake.


NPA guerillas. Child soldier on the left...

I reached for one of my 40mm high explosive rounds, slid the launcher tube under my rifle forward to open the breech, then slipped the grenade in and pulled back on the tube to close it. I then raised the flip-sight above the barrel. Locked and loaded. All we had to do now was wait for LT to initiate the ambush. About 200 meters from us, the trail made a turn to the left, ran down a slope about a dozen meters before ending at the edge of the creek. The forward elements were now making that turn. Any moment now…

Seconds later, we heard them: two sets of dual explosions. Boom-boom! Boom-boom! Randy had fired off the Claymores. It was instantly  followed by Nilo’s SAW and Abner’s M-60 machine-guns and every rifle in our platoon firing into that mass of men. In front of us, we could still see about fifteen of them. Some reacted the right way, by throwing themselves on the ground and behind cover. Others froze like deer caught in the headlights.

I stepped out onto the trail, with Roy covering me and raised the rifle to my shoulder. Using the flip-sight, I aimed it right at the last man in the column who still hadn’t turned around to check the rear. Stupid. He was almost a hundred meters away. I raised my aim above his head so the round would go over him and into the massed men behind. That was when he looked, but it was too late. I pulled the trigger and the launcher gave off a loud pop, sending the HE round flying. He was looking right at me, standing in the middle of the trail when the grenade went off. There was a sharp bang, and the concussion blew him down to the ground, and this big dust-and-smoke plume went up, sending debris (and what I think were body parts) up about twenty feet in the air. Then Roy started firing controlled bursts into the rebels as I reloaded my M-203 for a second shot. The trailer had recovered by this time, and tried crawling off to the side but the movement caught Roy’s attention and he fired a long burst in his direction. You could see the ground bursts as bullets started impacting all around him, until finally he just lay still, dead. By the time I fired off my second grenade, Roy was already reloading his weapon. It was time to break contact. We were cut off from the rest of the platoon, and staying on this side with tangos in front and their base camp behind us was not a good place to be.

It was time to bug out and make our way back to the platoon. Roy was already on the radio, advising Viking-6 that we were breaking contact.

“Roy, move out!” I yelled, and it was my turn to cover him as he relocated. We started a fire-and-maneuver tactic known as leap-frogging (but nowadays it’s called something fancy: bounding overwatch). The idea is to keep the enemy under fire as you withdraw from the fight. I covered Roy as he made a rush to our left, back into the treeline, for the nearest cover (a tree), then we switched roles. He covered me as I made my own dash past him to a new position. The rule is, as long as the enemy is in your line of sight, you keep firing: if you can see them, they can see you. I hit him with my hand as I passed, so he would know I was in the clear.

I was in the middle of that leapfrog dash when I heard a sound which almost made me freeze in my tracks. The rapid-fire chatter of a crew-served weapon. The air-rending rip-saw noise said it all: you can’t mistake the sound of of a Browning M1919 machine-gun for anything else. Each type of weapon has a unique sound signature, most specially when it comes to machine-guns. Even with the chaotic exchange of gunfire and explosions up ahead, the Browning’s piercing reports seemed to drown them all out.

As training and common sense dictated, I hit the deck behind a tree, and stayed down. I lost visual on Roy, but I knew that he was doing the exact same thing. In situations like this, you always have one of two impulses: hug the earth for dear life, or have the urge to raise your head above cover to spot the enemy gun crew’s position. The former is always the wiser choice.

As I lay face-down sideways on the ground, I immediately started concentrating on tuning out all the other sounds of the ongoing gun-battle, focusing on the Browning’s instead. My immediate concern was if  Roy and I were the focus of the gunner’s attention. Apparently not, because there was no tell-tale zipping of bullets overhead or the unnerving crack! which was the sonic boom a round makes when it passes by your head at less than five feet. We hadn’t been spotted yet. I hoped.

Somehow, through a combination of good combat discipline and dumb-fucking luck, this gun crew had managed to set up their weapon (tripod and gun were carried separately, with a combined weight of more than 30 pounds), and return fire at our platoon mates on the other side of the creek. That’s the mark of experience and good situational awareness, specially on the gunner’s part since he was essentially the gun crew’s team leader. Even then, I just had to grudgingly admire the son of a bitch’s skill and coolness under fire. Then my next immediate thought was: how do we kill him? If the gunner was this good, I wondered about the rest of his crew. Typically, it’s a 3 or 4-man team (Gunner, Assistant Gunner, and Ammo Bearer). The assistant gunner would be right next to the shooter, ready to load the next ammunition belt or take over the weapon should the gunner be taken out. The ammo bearer would have laid down the boxes of ammo he’d been carrying around and reverted to his secondary role: providing rear security (over-watch) for the crew.

Much as I hated the thought, we had to take that gun crew out.

I tried to twist my body and head around to locate Roy. We needed to coordinate an attack plan. Fast. At the same time, I was running the specs of the Browning M1919 in my head. Belt-fed, with a cyclic rate of fire of 400–600 rounds per minute. A single belt of ammunition carried two-hundred fifty full-metal jacket rounds (copper bullets encased in steel, in either .30 caliber or NATO 7.62mm), with an effective range of 1,370 meters (maximum effective range). It’s an old-school weapon system (M1919 stands for Model 1919, which stands for the year it went into production), but was still a very efficient man-killer that it’s still in use today. Okay, enough of the nostalgic trivia bullshit.

I heard a low-pitched whistle on my left. It was Roy. From his last position, he had done a fast low-crawl over 10 meters (30 feet) of open ground, using the knee-high grass to mask his movements. He found cover behind another tree, about 5 feet left of me. Suddenly, the Browning stopped firing. Based on sound, I had a pretty good idea about its location now, and I oriented myself facing that way. After a three-to-four second pause, the MG started blasting away again. Damn, that was a fast reload!

I noted a difference in his firing pattern now. It was no longer the prolonged, Rambo-style shooting. He’d done that initially as a psychological deterrent, to make our guys stop firing at his guys. Make the enemy put his head down, that’s the strategy.

Now he was using a pattern of controlled two or three-second bursts, spreading them evenly. Left, middle, right, then back again; that’s how it was done. I didn’t have to see it to know. This one knew his business. He was laying out some suppressive fire to either cover their withdrawal, or provide a base of fire for a counterattack.

We had been on the ground for less than two minutes, but those were the thoughts going through my mind. (From the moment I hit the dirt, up to this point, how long did it take you to read? Time always seems to slow down during a firefight.)

Roy was on the radio now, pressing the earpiece with his left hand so he could hear over the gunfire. He acknowledged whatever it was that LT said to him, then turned to me.

“LT wants us to locate the machine-gun and see if we can kill it!” he yelled. I know, right?

Crunch time. We could try, but it would mean going head-to-head with a much larger force. With just the two of us. I was guessing we were outnumbered by about 5-to-1, depending on how many I had managed to take out with my two 40mm grenades earlier. If you’re wondering why LT would ask just two of his men to take it out in the face of a superior enemy force, remember: he did say “if” we could do it. We had a better view of the situation; from their end, the platoon couldn’t see the MG because it was inside the treeline.

The enemy’s rearmost elements that survived unscathed will have regained their senses by now, and their next move would have to be to clear the way for their escape route. And Roy and I were in their way.

Reaching down for the 40mm pouches on my vest I took one out and loaded it into my launcher. Then I turned to Roy.

“I’m taking a look and see if I can hit the MG! Cover me!” I yelled. He nodded, then got ready to get up and give me covering fire. When I gave the signal, we both came up on one knee. I went up on the left side of the tree, rifle up and ready to fire. I saw the gun crew. About 80 meters to my front, the gunner was still firing and I could see the bursts of gun-smoke from the barrel. Lining them up in my sight, I pulled the trigger on the launcher. It popped and I waited for the explosion that would signal it’s destruction. Instead, there was a poof! and I saw grey-white smoke just a few feet short of their position. In my haste, I had picked the wrong pouch and loaded a smoke grenade instead of HE. Crap. Mister Murphy just reminded me of my own mortality.

Roy fired a burst. I saw movement to my right. I switched to the right of the tree and saw two tangos on the trail. They had heard the launcher go off and were running to engage us. I double-tapped the first one and saw him go down, then the one behind him dropped to the ground out of my line of fire. There were three more coming down the trail. I was about to fire at them too, when I heard the familiar swish-swish sound of bullets cutting through vegetation. Rounds were impacting the tree I was using for cover. The machine-gunner was firing at us. He had no visual, but was shooting through the smoke blindly. It was the first dumb move I had see him do so far. He could hit one of his own guys. Then I had an idea that could turn my mistake into an advantage: the platoon could see the smoke. I fired a long burst down the trail to make them keep their heads down then I turned to Roy.

“Tell them to shoot to the left of the smoke! About five feet to the left! Do it, before they think to relocate!” I said to Roy. He was right on it, hailing LT over the comms. A few seconds later, there was an intensified barrage of gunfire from the platoon, followed by about half a dozen explosions as everyone who had and M-203 on their rifles (three others had them) fired off round after round of HE, walking them in. The gun went silent. For some reason, even the tangos coming at us had stopped firing. It was just that eerie silence, as if someone just decided to press the Mute button. Roy and I just looked at each other, wondering what the hell was going on.

Then I heard something. My ears were only still recovering from the deafening sounds of gunfire. The enemy, one can assume, was going through the same thing. Someone was moving through the grass, towards us. I guess since he too was still recovering from temporary deafness, he misjudged the amount of noise he was making. You know when you’re wearing a headset listening to blaring rock music, and trying to talk to someone at the same time? You tend to raise your voice without knowing it. Moving around is the same. You forget about masking your footfalls.

I saw someone through the grass in front of me. Enough to know it was a person, but not enough to determine which way he was really going or how many they were. Roy saw something too, because he raised his M4. I switched my CAR-15 to fully-automatic then we both let rip with long bursts right into the grass in front of us, sweeping back and forth in a “Z” pattern (gives you a better chance of scoring a hit on targets hiding in the brush or at night).

I felt as much as heard bodies falling to the ground, then something went crashing down in front of me. One of the enemy. He lay on his side, and the way his legs were splayed I knew they were broken. Still alive, he looked right at me, no more than 5 feet away, his M16 lying next to him. He was a few years older than me (I was 22). The guy was clutching an abdominal wound, and I could see the big gash in his gut where my bullets had ripped him apart. He was trying to keep his insides from falling out. I don’t know how many seconds we stared at each other, but it was something that has stayed with with me till this very day. It was a moment that only two warriors get to share with no one else. The victorious and the vanquished. He was dying and he knew it. He was so close, I could see that his pupils were dilated, unfocused. I’m not even sure if I was still registering in his brain. Roy was still firing, but it seemed like he was far away.

He told me later that as he was reloading, he thought I was hit because I had stopped shooting and that he had seen me and the dying rebel just staring at each other. He was calling out to me and got no reaction. My enemy and I were locked in our own world for those few seconds. I think it was his moan of pain that brought me back. Then things were registering much clearer. Firing had resumed. Men shouting back and forth to each other. Screams of pain, the sounds of men dying. I looked to my left and saw Roy throwing a grenade, screaming “Son of a bitch, you missed!”

I was back. Looking back at my fallen enemy, I saw that he was gasping in quick shallow breaths now, like he was trying to get the most of his last moments. I pulled back the charging handle on my CAR-15 halfway, looked into the open breech to make sure I still had a round in. I did. I closed it and looked back at him one last time. I decided I would give him the honor of a warrior’s death. By now, we had an understanding that was beyond words.

“You know what I have to do, right?” I said, but not directly to him. Just in my head. Even in his near-death haze, he must’ve known. It’s an unwritten rule: as long as an enemy has the ability to pull a trigger, never leave one alive behind you. I raised my weapon, pointing it at his chest. I focused my mind on blurring him out. He moved back a bit, as if making himself a bigger target. Yeah. He understood. Now, there’s a Warrior. I fired off a burst, then it went click. I turned away from the body and started to reload. The Browning, I noticed, was no longer firing. Mission complete.

“Reloading! Roy, time to go!” I yelled, slamming a new mag in. He came up to give me suppressing fire. As I got up to run, there was movement up ahead, in the direction I was heading. I raised my rifle, ready to fire.

“Ranger! Ranger! Don’t shoot!” I recognized the voice. Randy. He came out from behind some trees, followed by Nilo with his machinegun.

“We thought you were dead, so LT sent us over to have a look. You weren’t responding on the radio!” I looked over at Roy. He just raised his hand. In it, was his radio. Shot to pieces. Well, that explains it. Nilo started laying down some heavy fire. Randy saw the body, then looked at me.

“Wow. It was that close?” I shrugged in reply. He reached down for the dead man’s M16. “Let’s leave them a little surprise.” Then he reached into one of his pouches and took out a grenade with red electric tape wrapped around the safety lever. I knew what it was: one of his “Booby-trap Specials”. He would take a grenade and unscrew the top off (of course, we always kept a minimum distance of ffity feet from him when he did this, unless we happened to be intoxicated and foolish), then he’d cut the fuse down to a one-second delay. He marked them with red tape so no one would use them by mistake, except for booby-trapping enemy equipment. With one hand, he dug a shallow hole in the soft dirt, and un-taped the grenade. He placed it in the hole, with the safety lever facing up, then slowly laid the M16 on top of it to keep it from flying off. If anyone picks it up, he would have exactly one second to make amends with the Good Lord and that grenade would be his last living memory. Randy’s the Devil when it came to these kind of things.

“Okay, let’s go. Nilo, Randy, cover us! Move, move, move!” We proceeded to do the same tactic Roy and I employed earlier, only this time we did it by two’s. And we had Nilo’s machine-gun for added firepower. Using fire-and-maneuver, we were able to make our way to the creek. I got there first.

And that’s when I saw the bodies.

The current wasn’t strong, there had been no rain for the past few days so the water was only knee-high. So most of the dead were caught on the rocks. Two were floating right where I was about to cross, riddled with bullets and steel ball bearings from the Claymores. One had no head, and the other, no legs.  When I got halfway across, there was another one just on the edge of the water. It was the blue bandanna that got my attention. The boy’s eyes were open, and I couldn’t see any obvious wounds that caused his death. But then again he was lying in water that was red with blood. He looked like he was just lying there, taking a rest. I felt someone behind me. It was Roy. He looked down on the body, his jaws clenched tightly.

“The sons of bitches. Letting a boy do a man’s job. And their boss living comfortably in the Netherlands, why doesn’t he come down here and fight? Coward son of a bitch.” I had to agree.

When you see boys getting killed in combat when they should be home or going to school or playing with friends, you ask yourself: where’s the big-shot motherfucker who sends them to their deaths? I’d love to put him in my cross-hairs. Those who can, lead. Those who can’t, sneak off to the Netherlands and hide behind a non-extradition treaty. Bastard.

To top it all off, when we rejoined the platoon, we found out that we had lost one man. Private First Class Adrian Celestino (Viking 1-4, 2nd Squad Rifleman). He was one of the original Vikings, ahead of me by a year. He was taking up a position to fire on the machinegun I had marked with smoke, but when he raised his head, he got hit in the face by a stray round. I struggled with that for quite a while. Had I not made a mistake, and fired off the right grenade instead of smoke, I had to wonder if he would still be alive today. It was Sarge who eventually helped me let that one go, but it took almost two years. “We all make mistakes, Castillo.” he said. “All you can do is try and make less of them than the normal person. And when you do make one, move on. It is what it is. Just another mistake.”

The enemy lost their taste for combat and withdrew. We didn’t even have to evade, they just gave up. It’s a perfect example of how a numerically inferior force can beat a superior one through better tactics and using Maximum Violence of Action. LT decided to let them go back to their camp and lick their wounds. “There’s no honor in it. It’ll just be a massacre.” he said. He had no idea what a relief it was for all of us. No one wanted to go after them and hunt them down like animals. No sense kicking a defeated enemy. We already left them with around fifteen dead and more than a dozen wounded. The dead were the ones at the kill zone itself, and didn’t include the ones Roy and I took out, which probably numbered six or more. But none of them had the same impact on any of us seeing that dead kid.

It was one of those days that left a bad taste in your mouth.


Then, in the distance, we heard a solitary BOOM! Someone picked up the M16.

Randy and I shared a look. Fuck you, bitches. Once in a while, it had moments like this that made you feel good. Insert evil grin here.


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