“The river is our border.” The battalion commander paused, probably for effect.
The battalion, at attention, was silent. Deepening his voice, the commander began, “The Americans are across the river because of the refugee camp.” He paused again. “No refugees”…pause…”no refugee camp”…pause…”no Americans.”
The battalion was silent, no one having given the signal to cheer.
The Sergeant was certain he felt a mix of relief and anticipation in the ranks.
The Sergeant scanned his platoon and their assault boats. They stood behind a screen of brush in the moonlight. Someone had said you can hide an elephant on the parade ground if the moon were full. It was an exaggeration, of course, there being no trees on the parade ground to cast tricksy dappling, washed-out shadows. In front of the brush, the dry-season river gave them fifty yards of grassy river bank. Even at its low, the river was maybe three hundred yards wide with a similar bank on the far side.
The Sergeant could see the lights of the refugee camp, but he could hear no generator. He supposed that, if the Americans wanted a generator that hummed rather than thumped through the night, they would have one.
His platoon was the left flank of the battalion which meant somebody thought well of them. As they should.
The Sergeant expected a visit from his officer shortly, and was, as usual, annoyed. The man was practically a parody of an officer of an army in central Africa. He had the height and refined features of his Tutsi family and the heavy bones and muscular bulk of an unacknowledged Bantu interloper. He was the tallest and most distinctive man in the battalion. He sometimes acted with unprofessional familiarity in dealing with the Sergeant. The Sergeant thought the ingratiating manner might be a way to keep the Sergeant from reporting through the NCO chain that the officer had lost control of himself and the platoon in his first operation.
It had been a raid into disputed territory. The shrieks and howls had not reached a crescendo and fewer than half of the buildings were yet aflame. The officer came out of the smoke and confusion, eyes wild with blood running off his bush knife. The Sergeant, one of whose jobs was schooling young officers, held out the map. Held it out pointedly. The officer glanced at it, took several deep breaths, and tossed his bush knife to a passing soldier to be cleaned. He wiped this right hand on his battle dress trousers while awkwardly pulling a twig from a bush with his left hand. You did not use your finger on a map because the enemy, if finding the map, might learn from the smudges what you thought important. So you used a twig or a blade of grass as a pointer and the officer was trying to show he remembered his training.
He’d gone so far as to refer to himself and the Sergeant as “two mission boys.” It was true as far as it went. The Sergeant has been brought to a modest level of literacy at a dusty, out-of- the-way mission school. But the missionary had died and the local teacher, being above work, went into the business of making small loans.
The Sergeant had become a hired laborer and proved a good young man of his wages. He worked harder than anyone else, took care of your crops as if they were his own, and could be trusted with your crops, livestock, or children.
On a day, he had walked to a neighboring village, bent his broad back before a young woman he had met and laid their future, a pair of hoes, at her feet.
He had gotten over her rejection. Men do, eventually. But the kindness she had shown was a knife just above the heart in a thousand sleepless nights as he pondered the consequences if circumstances had been even slightly different.
He looked again at his platoon in the moon shadows. And here came his officer.
“Sergeant, a very important officer from battalion wants to be in the left most boat, so I am displaced.”
The Sergeant was annoyed again. Officers should pass on orders from higher as if they were in full and enthusiastic agreement. They should never hint, even by irony in inflection, any sort of disagreement. The officer was trying to be ingratiating again, the Sergeant thought. Well, the man was tactically competent now and the Sergeant could manage the platoon.
The Sergeant thought of an old story from, surprisingly, the American army. Horse cavalry, in fact. After ten thousand tellings and through several score of languages, the Sergeant could not imagine why it remained an American story.
“Officers come,” said an old troop sergeant, “and officers go, but they don’t hurt the troop none.”
“We can’t have two mission boys in the same boat,” said the officer cheerfully. He was right, of course. You didn’t want the two senior men in the platoon where one shot—not that refugees would be shooting—or some other mischance might take them both out. The Sergeant, thus, was displaced from the center of the platoon. He would move to the right, but he would not displace his best squad leader, who was tasked with both running his squad and maintaining liaison with the next platoon. The Sergeant didn’t want to diminish the man’s authority or take from him the memory of his part in running a moderately difficult military operation carried out successfully.
The Sergeant would ride in a different boat. He would not lower himself to paddle, but he was certain he could motivate those who did to make up for his additional weight.
The officer looked over the platoon. “Where’s the latrine, Sergeant?”
“Third tree to the left, sir, and the fourth.”
It would usually be an old military joke, but the Sergeant was a careful man. They would need to clean their boats which would be easier if their boots were not smeared with other men’s leavings . And so the Sergeant had designated two trees. Because this was not, strictly speaking, a combat operation, men’s bowels were not loosened by apprehension. Still the Sargeant was a careful man.
The officer moved toward the third tree. The Sergeant wondered if the officer was unthinkingly doing as he was told or was aware this was the latrine.
Something went “Whit!” past the Sergeant, simultaneously with a splintering crack. The Sergeant looked to his left. The officer, arms at his sides, his head hideously deformed, was sliding face-first down the tree trunk, presuming there was still a face.
“Down!” Sergeant snapped at his platoon. He hadn’t yet trained them to militarily effective individual initiative, but they were now good at instant obedience. The Sergeant was a good soldier. His swift, practical mind ranged furiously for answers.
What had passed him and hit the officer must have come from across the river, drawing a line backwards with no report attributable to a weapon.
The Sergeant remembered the class at Senior NCO school on weapons of other armies. Over beers, the instructor, a Belgian mercenary, strayed from the syllabus. One of the digressions occurred to the Sergeant as a perfect answer.
“The partisan round”, the merc had said, was developed by the Russians during the Second World War.”
The Sergeant had heard of both the Russians and the war.
“A rifle round has a lot of propellant which makes it difficult to suppress the report at the muzzle,” the merc reminded them. “The bullet itself goes faster than sound and that makes a cracking sound as it passes. The merc had casually put down his beer, and then clapped his hands sharply and immediately thumped himself on the chest with his fist. The the crack-thump was the signature of incoming small arms fire.
“So the Russians reduced the propellant and put a very heavy slug in the cartridge, and chambered for various weapons. That makes the report easy to suppress and the bullet, going slowly, doesn’t crack. The idea was to use it in close-in fighting or assassinations.”
The Sergeant could see it. A man dropped screaming and there was no sound, much less a direction.
The Sergeant had figured a hundred meters would be the maximum effective range. Say what you will about Americans—and many did, generally to ameliorate the thought of going up against Americans’ overwhelming fire power. They usually could make anything work. The Sergeant calculated the Americans had figured out how to use a night vision sight to fire a partisan round at least four hundred meters into the head of the tallest, most distinctive man in the battalion.
The Sergeant knew a heat-sensitive sight could not see any one figure of his platoon behind the bushes. But the sniper could see hundreds of individual hot spots through the gaps in the leaves, and there was no reason not to continue to fire effectively into the area.
The Sergeant waited…and waited…. Nothing. He put his ear to the ground. The Sergeant was a careful man and had thought to try this on various maneuvers. The results were mixed, but he would not overlook the slightest possibility of an advantage.
He wondered what he could hear under a river, but there was something. He considered. The metal part of a wheeled vehicle is insulated from the ground by inflated tires which he presumed reduced vibration going into the ground. If he heard something, and he did, it was the metal-to-metal-to-metal-to-ground of a tracked vehicle. You brought supplies in wheeled vehicles. You put weapons on tracked vehicles. He was very likely hearing a tracked vehicle idling. One reason to idle a tracked vehicle was to keep power on the gun mount.
The Sergeant wondered what weapon you would put on a tracked vehicle to oppose a river crossing.
No bullets, partisan or otherwise, came into his platoon area. The Sergeant considered. He decided. He shoved his weapon away from him, and lifting himself no more than a finger’s-breadth, he wriggled out of his battle harness.
Struggling against imbalance, he managed to get to his knees with his hands above his head. After a moment’s reflection, he stood. He was certain the officer had felt nothing and perhaps he would not. The time went…and went. And nothing.
“Listen to me, you motherless bastards. Shove your weapon way from you, keep your nose in the dirt, get out of your harness, stand as I am standing and when I tell you, file past me, turn west and go home.”
After murmuring, grunting, and cursing, the men were standing, hands above heads. He gave the order to move out,
repeating the advice to go home, and counted. Thirty-nine. All of them. The last man, as is proper, was his best squad leader.
The man hesitated. “It’s bad?”
“Not for us. Go home.”
The man disappeared into forest while the Sergeant waited. After a moment, he followed. He heard behind him running feet and a hoarse shout. The battalion officer looking for a platoon that was supposed to be there.
Then was the moment. With a great roar the battalion lifted their assault boats, smashed through the screening brush and raced toward the river. There was no need for surprise. The refugees and their harmless, helpless attendants, would know slow, cruel death was coming, which added spice to the night’s entertainment.
The the Sergeant heard it. Two sounds, overlapping, yet distinct. On the near side of the river was cracking explosions, one on top of the other. From the far side of the river came a sound like a chainsaw with the throttle wide open. Then there were two of them. Anti-aircraft cannon, the Sergeant thought. Rotary cannon throwing fifty small high explosive rounds per second. It would look as if someone were shooting lightning out of a fire hose across the river. Men died before they fell. Men were pulped before they died. By the time lightnings had washed from the battalion’s flanks to its center and back, there would not even be a moan. What remained was shattered equipment and flesh spread to the taste of the smallest scavenger.
The Sergeant walked on, wishing he could will his thanks to a merciful American sniper.