Juan Acosta Turmaleón Bustamante de Lorenzo y Bristol was not a man of distinction, or like some of his classmates used to say, he was only distinguishable because of his name. He had been barely eighteen when the war was finally declared. A few months later, with no clear future shining on his horizon to illuminate a path worth following, desperate to be part of something or someone and remembering that once in school he had read that the glory of Napoleon was still remembered in the hearts of many French, he decided to enlist in the army. Of course, he was not French and he barely knew anything about Napoleon or, for that matter, about the war that had been declared few months before. Don’t misunderstand me, Juantol, as he was known by the few that knew him, had finished high school by the skin of his teeth –an expression that has never made sense to me– and consequently was not really what you might call a fluent reader, thusly, whatever news were reported in the local newspapers made no sense to him. By the time he had finished putting together a string of three words, he had forgotten the previous three he had elucidated at a great cost of his attentive efforts, brief as the flying interludes of a housefly in a dirty kitchen.
Juantol was not excessively tall. For that matter, he was just about average in height and weight. But what he lacked in physical strength he more than compensated with a healthy splash of aftershave lotion. I have been made aware –for I never had the opportunity to meet him– that one could tell he was coming from half a mile away. In fact, when he presented himself to the army recruiting station, he was told in no uncertain terms that his acceptance was conditional on his stopping, cold turkey, splashing any lotion at all. They made him understand, with two army lawyers present –a requirement that needed to be followed by the army, since the last successful lawsuit when a recruit was awarded 7.5 million dollars after he was made to crawl on mud under barbwire during a training outing– that this was not to be misunderstood as an act of discrimination or in any way intended to be hurtful, but rather it was a matter of security, for the army did not want the enemy to sniff out the whereabouts of his platoon. Such caution was completely lost on Juantol who could not understand why the fuss with aftershave lotion. He had been using it for two years and never had he been attacked by any enemy.
Flatfooted or not, the army needed soldiers. The nation needed defenders. The enemy needed to be taught a lesson. You know how it goes. Months of mounting accusations followed by increasingly vituperative slogans, followed still by growing reports of atrocities, culminating with a declaration of war after the United Nations failing to resolve the situation in amicable terms, gave the go-ahead signal.
During training, Juantol was assigned to Sergeant Plotzki’s squad. Plotski would gather his group of 10 juveniles at odd hours of the morning by blowing his god forsaken whistle as he suddenly erupted into the temporary Quonset the army had built on the occasion of temporarily housing trainees during the previous war. It reeked of sweat, urine and dried up semen, not to mention stale cigarettes and beer. Blowing on his whistle, the Sergeant would walk up and down the short and narrow, muddy corridor that ended in a T occupied by the latrines, basically a row of metal buckets under a raised wooden platform perforated by 12-inch round holes, their rims stained by decades of misuse on the account of being temporary soldiers’ quarters.
The squad, under the screeching, infernal noise of the whistle, would hurriedly run to the latrines to do their morning rituals, get dressed in their fatigues, boot-up and run to the assigned space in front of their building ready to receive their heavy, imitation rifles and begin their matutine marches through the nearby forest, sand dunes and watery marshes. Protestations fell on deaf ears, and as time passed by, they were replaced by the silence that futility, that great teacher of hopelessness, had imposed on each of the recruits.
After seven weeks of running like decapitated pigs under the hot sun or moonless chilly nights, the boys were given real rifles and bullets. Sergeant shouted at them all the imprecations he saw fit and necessary to convey that bullets could kill, cautioning never to point a gun at another person unless they intended to fire. In spite of all the shouting and drilling, two recruits were taken to hospital for treatment of what turned, thanks god, to be relatively minor gunshot wounds, one through the scrotum and the other through the left orbit. After 14 weeks, Juantol and his squad –including the castrated and the one-eyed man– were ready to confront the enemy. Now, they sat idle in the middle of the summer, waiting for their assignment.
By mid-November, the word came down, finally, that on the coming Monday, they were to be shipped to the war zone. Monday, at 2:33 in the morning, Sergeant Ploztki’s whistle pierced their skull like nails fired from a machine gun. They took their last crap in their familiar latrine and ran to formation in front of their Quonset. Next to them, on both sides, and as far as their eyes could see, stood countless other squads in awe and silence. The realization that this was it, that this was the real beginning of the path they had taken so many weeks before began to settle into their consciousness. They were now the M-7 Battalion, commanded by Lieutenant Colonel Jorge Smith III, son of the famous two-star General Jorge Smith II, who had sacrificed his entire Regiment of 3,000 men to maintain the line assigned to him during the previous war.
Juantol and another 199 men were crammed inside a Boeing commuter plane the Army had “appropriated” from some friendly skies commercial company, now near bankruptcy, that had seated 70 passengers when times were good and people were still eager to take to the skies. The plane, fully loaded, took the entire length of the runway to kiss the ground goodbye, managing to miss the high voltage electrical cables that extended in its path a quarter mile south of the runway by nearly 12 feet. The sound of the jet motors at maximum power, and the lack of sound insulation that needed to be removed to save needless weight made impossible any conversation during those hours floating inside the metal coffin that passed as a means of transport to the front, just few miles from where hand-to-hand combat was said to be taking place.
Landing was not less horrific than takeoff, requiring all the skill of the pilots, the full throttle reversal of the motors and the applying of the brakes that stopped the plane within a few feet of the embankment that bordered the end of the runway and that served the double duty of protecting soldiers from strayed bullets thirsty for enemy flesh.
Sergeants blew their whistles, hurrying the soldiers from their plane into the open airfield that seemed to them as the promised land after the touch and go, bumpy ride they had just been submitted to. But the reprieve was short lived. Not soon their boots had touched the pavement, the whistling of rockets fired from somewhere to the west of them made it clear that a healthy run was now necessary, preferable in the direction of the reinforced concrete bunkers, just 200 feet from them.
Regrouped inside, and after a hurried but necessary visit to the latrines that appeared to have been brought on previous flights from their own Quonsets, the squads were reformed in front of their sergeants waiting to hear from their commander, Lieutenant Colonel Jorge Smith III.
“Men!” he said through a voice distorting handheld loudspeaker, “You represent the best our nation has to give for the sake of keeping our people safe from the odious enemy. An enemy that will not stop but until the last woman and child is raped and killed. In your hands rests their honor. Defend them with your lives.”
The sound was interrupted by a series of electronic noise burps, then, the Lieutenant Colonel’s voice continued. “You represent the best our magnificent society could offer. I wish you all to become heroes”. An electronic buzzing followed by silence indicated that the speech was over.
Without prompting the soldiers applauded and cheered like children at a circus festival. Nothing appeared to cross their minds at the moment. No one seemed to realize that there was a possibility that on their return home, many of the clapping hands would be frozen in a grip for eternity, if the limbs could be found among the wreckage of their bodies –those thoughts would come later.
The sergeants, all instructed as to the plans for the near future, took their squads to their assigned tents for an overnight rest. God knew that the morrow would be the measuring day and perhaps also their last day. In their excitement, not one of them had noticed that the temperature had dropped to well below freezing. It was only when they got to lay down on their cots, covering with the single woolen blanket the army had provided them that reality began to set in. A chattering of teeth, grinding teeth, and of bodies curled into fetal position to gather any heat to avoid freezing was the synchronized melody song by all soldiers in their tents.
The following morning, under the metallic ringing of the dozens of sergeants’ whistles, the troops clambered up to the front of their tents. Note was taken of those that had frozen and perished overnight and squads were reformed by adding survivors from other tents as well as from the ones that had returned from their last assignment. Plotski, gathering his reformed squad, blew the whistle and after a “Follow me soldiers” commanding shout, moved towards the nascent sun.
Of course, Juantol’s was not the only squad heading to war; as far as he could see on both sides and behind, there were soldiers wearing uniforms like his. After seventeen minutes of marching on a frozen soil surrounded by gigantic trees, they came to a vast clearing, interrupted only by a roaring river about 100 feet in width. The screeching of birds, flapping their wings escaping from their disturbed nests high above the ground was now drowned by the rushing waters. Anyone familiar with nature would know that the current must have been quite strong to not have been covered by a thick layer of ice, given the subfreezing temperature. The sergeants’ shouting commands alerted them to begin crawling. From the riverbank across the river, bullets began to fly. The shouting intensified. Orders were given to advance and cross the river to commandeer the filthy enemy –the rapers of women and children– fortifications that extended with no apparent end on the other side of the grayish, foaming waters. Some stood up and tried to run back towards the forest they had just crossed and as they stood, their bodies were broken into small fragments as if they had been pecked by giant, invisible birds. Seeing their comrades disappear in front of their eyes into what seemed infinite crimson puffs, the remaining fighters, eyes blinded by fear, tears frozen by the intense cold, began to advance towards the menacing waters.
Juantol and thousands of other soldiers, crawled on the frozen earth like worms, sliding tentatively into the unwelcoming waters. They immediately experienced a horrible pain as if attacked by thousands of needles. The river was not too deep, but the current was so intense that many, unable to withstand it, were swept away from the battlefield. Those that remained kept crawling, or crouching, trying to keep their rifles dry; others, surrounded in a halo of red, also drifted like dislodged tree logs down the river, no longer part of the war at hand.
Some, as if by miracle, managed to get to the opposite bank and began firing at the enemy. But having come out of the river into a stiff wind, resulted in a quick freeze that numbed and paralyzed their fingers after a few seconds, as the enemy’s firepower found them as easy targets for their mortal kiss. “Retreat! Retreat! Retreat!” the sergeants shouted blowing their metal whistles, now frozen on their lips. And back into the water they all went, crawling, wiggling, running for the safety of the opposite riverbank and the thick wood behind them.
Of the tens of thousands that had started earlier, now only a few thousands remained. Some, having survived the crossing, lay frozen along the clearing by the river. The rest marched silently to camp.
One by one, as soon as they entered the military post, were given a blanket to put over their wet clothing and were allowed to get into their tents, guided by the sergeants that had survived the brief encounter. A few hours later, the electronic buzz of the loudspeakers came alive, followed seconds later by the warm and commanding voice of Lieutenant Colonel Jorge Smith III:
“! Heroes of the Nation, I salute you! Once more you have come to the rescue of our women and children. The task is not yet completed. Tomorrow we will show the enemy the true fiber of our resolve.”
After supper, each soldier received a dry uniform and another blanket. By 2200 hours, trumpets announced it was time to sleep. There was no time to argue or to raise questions. The need to sleep overcame all other needs or desires. Juantol’s tent was refilled with new recruits. He only recognized three faces from his old squad. All became dark in a few seconds.
The following morning, before the sun declared it was a new day, the horrendous whistle of Sergeant Plotski woke them from their deep sleep. Again, they gathered in front of their tents, surrounded by thousands of other soldiers at attention, waiting for the orders of the day. Plotski, having survived the day before, stood in front of his reformed squad, blew the whistle and after a “Follow me soldiers” commanding shout, again began marching towards the nascent sun.
After seventeen minutes of marching in the woods with the frozen soil, they arrived at the meadow clearing, with its roaring river. This time, there was no screeching of birds, or flapping of wings, for the birds had moved to safer grounds. Again, the river flowed mightily betraying the subfreezing temperature. The sergeants’ shouting commands alerted them to begin crawling. From the riverbank across the river, bullets began to fly. The shouting intensified. Orders were given to advance and cross the river to conquer and destroy the filthy enemies fortifications that had been reinforced overnight. Again, some seeing the impossibility of victory, tried to run back into the safety of the forest, their bodies convulsing into small fragments as they were hit by the bullets that saturated the air. Seeing their comrades disappear in front of their eyes into what seemed infinite crimson puffs, the remaining fighters, eyes blinded by fear, tears frozen by the intense cold, continued their advance towards the roaring waters.
The sergeants whistles, climbing over the noisy current and the continuous barking of the enemies machine guns, urging their squads to advance. A third of the attack forces was immediately swept away by the unforgiving river, while the remainder, splashing like drowning sailors, tried to reach the safety of the opposite bank, only to find the impassive and impassable faceless enemy hidden behind the concrete fortifications that stood for miles on end and in several rows into the prevalent mist of fog and gunpowder explosions. After twenty-three minutes, silence covered the landscape that had turned into a gigantic necropolis where real corpses stood or lay frozen, instead of their stony counterparts in other cemeteries. There were no flowers at their feet.
Juan Acosta Turmaleón Bustamante de Lorenzo y Bristol never came back home. As I said, I never had the opportunity to meet him, or for that matter, I never met any of the other tens of thousands of his companions at arms. The only record of his existence being a one liner at a local church, now almost eaten up by the mold that so often swallows up books never opened and abandoned. Each year, trumpets and parades, flag displays, beer drinking and dancing, celebrate the successful defense of the nation. Children waving their flags smile happily. Victory is always ours, or theirs, depending on which side of the street you are standing during these celebrations.
August 13, 2020