A midnight exchange
DescriptionA short story based on a recent dream.
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I remember one night in particular, an unpleasantly cold and dark night; all was quiet save for periodic gusts of wind blowing softly through the forest trees around our little outpost. Snow blanketed the ground and would have softly illuminated the forest with reflected moonlight, had the sky not been overcast. I jogged a small distance across camp toward the northern perimeter as the sound of shots chaotically rang out through the darkness. A few rifles fired in a disorganized fashion, as if caught by surprise but not ready to commit to anything in particular. A small skirmish broke out at the perimeter, a most unexpected development. I reached the source of commotion and took a position with my rifle at the ready, but immediately a ceasefire was loudly called. I strained to see beyond the perimeter, really just an elevated berm we reinforced with minimal supplies and a few guards. I fixed my eyes on the wide snowy road flanked by thick dark trees on both sides as far as one could see the road. Walking toward us, calm and alert, were a small handful---maybe ten---Russian soldiers with a female officer walking point. They moved unhurriedly in a staggered column, spaced too close together to suggest any serious military intent (a well-aimed machine gun burst could have done away with them easily). As they drew close it was obvious they weren't here for a fight. Nevertheless, they carried themselves with military poise, heads held high and Kalashnikov rifles carried at a somewhat lazy, but undeniable, ready. The shooting was initiated by our guards, startled at the sight of Russians on the northern road. A couple of Russians returned fire, but nobody on either side was harmed in this short exchange. Thankfully the corporal of the guard arrived very shortly after the shooting and correctly perceived the situation. He called ceasefire and rescued the unexpected diplomatic visit from disaster. Their leader, a woman of about thirty, was moderately tall and wore a leather shoulder holster which secured a black pistol under her left arm. She walked with an air of unquestionable authority and her face at all times exuded austere discipline. I marveled at her, at how fiercely she must've fought to advance to her current position of authority. I pondered how impressive she must be, how much more she had to exert herself than her male counterparts, to command the respect of these men that they carried themselves in her presence out here as if they were in the presence of a colonel back in garrison. We were quite familiar with this officer, actually. I didn't know anything about her, of course, except by what I observed from somewhat of a distance. But out here in the deep wilderness, where the war was fought in small numbers, mostly in skirmishes between handfuls of opposing young men it seemed, she was the leader of the enemy element we fought. We didn't know anything about her personally, about her background or even her name, but none of that had anything to do with who she was. We knew nothing of her personal life, but we knew she was a solid tactician, that she commanded a skillful and disciplined element of soldiers, and that she was quite generous in her dealings with us. This we knew about her through our hostile engagements against her and her soldiers. Collectively we all shared one of the most dangerously intimate relationships imaginable---we've wounded or killed some of them, and they us. On multiple occasions she agreeably met with our officer to call temporary, and quite unofficial ceasefires, in the interest of tending to our wounded, an act of decency and civility in a most uncivil state of affairs. We must fight and kill one another, for that is what soldiers must do, but in the midst of it all we've struck an honorable gentleman's (or gentlewoman's) agreement to at least acknowledge and honor each others' humanity once in a while, and to care for captured wounded and return them to their respective sides well-treated. For these reasons I can say with conviction that we all knew her quite more intimately than her friends and family back home did, and probably ever would, even if we knew nothing else about her. Of course this didn't make us friends, we could ill afford to nurture such a fallacy; they were the enemy, after all, and I have no doubt she would have unhesitatingly killed me or anybody else on our side if the opportunity justly arose. Yet I doubt I could have conceived of a more honorable death if such were to have happened. When they reached our berm her small contingent spread out somewhat in a relaxed, nonthreatening posture of boredom, as she approached our officer and spoke to him in broken English. Though horribly close to the enemy outpost, the Russians obviously sensed no danger. This in turn set us at ease. They had to be as weary of this fighting as we were, and a diplomatic jaunt to our base was no doubt a nice change of pace from the usual security patrols and reconnaissance missions. The two leaders were just far enough away that I couldn't hear them clearly, but I quickly ascertained that the Russians were here for their wounded soldier we captured a couple of days ago. He sustained a wound somewhere in the abdomen and our medic had been doing his best to treat him. I was unsure of the details, but I knew incurring a serious wound in a central location all the way out there, where medical evacuations were fairly rare, wasn't good. We'd been expecting the Russians to come pick him up, but since communication between small units was officially forbidden on both sides, we had to resort to surprise visits such as these. Their visit at such a late hour was unexpected and unnerving, since they normally performed such visits in daylight hours. I wondered if perhaps their side caught word of our unofficial periodic ceasefires, which forced them to perform these visits in the cover of night. Regardless, I was glad their visit was friendly, and I was most certainly happy to get this soldier off our hands. While the wounded soldier was being transferred to Russian custody, and our leaders were nonchalantly discussing who knows what, I looked at one of the other Russian soldiers, probably only 25 yards or so beyond the berm. He was in his early twenties, tall and thin, and appeared athletic and vigorous. He wasn't looking at anything in particular, he just appeared to be as lost in thought as I had been. I increasingly wondered whether if, like me, these guys woke up many a day pervaded with a sense that what we were doing was utterly meaningless. Out here especially, where the "war" was mostly small pockets of soldiers encountering each other on patrols in the forest, where they'd shoot at each other for a period of time before retreating to their respective sides. The longer we were out here, the less any of it made sense to me. The officers kept talking. The temperature felt like it suddenly dropped and my face began to sting. I was growing bored and restless. My rifle at this point was leaning against a wall and I no longer felt there was any danger of hostility breaking out between us and them. I lit a cigarette and took a long drag. The thought occurred to me that I should cross the berm and offer one to the Russian I'd been musing about. Sharing cigarettes is, after all, a show of goodwill, a sign of peace between even the bitterest of enemies. To offer a cigarette to another is a powerful gesture which transcends cultural and linguistic barriers. If it happens to be one's last cigarette, the symbolism of the gesture is ten times more potent. This whole thing was stupid. What was keeping us from dropping our weapons and going our respective ways? I seriously doubt any one of us believed in the cause enough to want to continue this miserable charade indefinitely. After the war was over, travel and commerce would be restored between our nations once again. Eventually our armies would perform joint training exercises together. The philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein fought heroically as an officer in the Austro-Hungarian Army in the Great War, and afterward he moved to England where he taught at Cambridge and revolutionized Western philosophy. Why then should there ever have been such hostilities in the first place? In that moment as I dragged deeply on my cigarette, my growing disgust with the war solidified into a decided posture of internal resistance. To drop my weapon and walk away would mean execution, and I wasn't ready to be a martyr. But when I looked on that Russian across the berm, I saw a man of flesh and blood, of relations and commitments, just like myself. Somewhere, somebody had pictures of him as a baby, as a small boy, playing with his toys and laughing with his brothers and sisters. Like me, he wanted to live. And like me, he would kill because that was his best chance of survival, because it's what he was trained to do. And I'm sure for him, as it was for me, it was nothing too personal. But that night it became deeply personal for me because I committed the grievous error of humanizing the enemy. I violated the one rule without which the enterprise of warfare cannot continue; I chose in that moment to love. The Russians finally left with their wounded soldier. I watched them walk away, knowing that once they disappeared from sight I would be expected to raise my rifle and kill them the next time we encountered each other. I pondered at the complexity of it all and lit a second cigarette and lingered at the berm, while others slowly filtered back to their huts. When I finished smoking I flicked my cigarette over the berm and listened to it softly hiss as it hit the snow. I picked up my rifle and walked back toward the middle of the camp. My face was numb with cold.