We were patrolling an area where we had heard about a Croat incursion that had run into a refugee column. When we finally reached the point of collision between the rebel trucks and the refugees, I received another lesson in the varieties of combat experience. I had truly believed that I had seen the worst of the worst, that nothing else would shock me or even move me very deeply, but the sight of the calculated butchery along the dirt track taught me differently. Even the victims of the massive chemical attacks farther south had been impersonally chosen, struck coldly by systems that stood at a distance- aircraft, missiles, or long range artillery. But this time many of the bodies along the road had been killed by men who stood before them, close enough to sense them as human beings, to hear the variety of fear in their voices.
The women had received the worst treatment. The men had merely been killed. But the corpses of the women, either naked or with winter coats and skirts bunched about their waists or pushed over their heads, looked particularly pained, especially cold. All around them the litter of their belongings rustled in the random stirrings of the air. Vehicles had been looted and burned, suitcases emptied beside the corpses of their owners. One of the women had attempted to carry her perfumes with her to safety, and the voluptuous scent from the smashed bottles jarred me as I walked between the stench of cordite and the odor of torn bowels.
In my wonder at the spectacle of so much personal death, it took me a long time to realize that some of the scattered bodies still had life in them. The silence was deceptive. No one screamed, and you had to listen very closely to hear the rasp of injured lungs or the sobbing beyond hope, fear, or any sense at all. The silence of it all frightened me in a way that the prospect of battle had never done.
Then the first scream came. From the mouth of a hemorrhaging girl-child, who thought that the medic bending to help her was another Croat back for a bit more fun. Shrieking and slapping at the young Sergeant, she resisted his efforts to cover her and lift her in his arms. Finally giving up, he called over a female medic and turned away, other casualties were anxious for help. The fate of a single individual seemed almost irrelevant amidst the chaos. In any case, the last I saw of the child was her being lifted into a Blackhawk Medevac, punctured with tubes, clutching a headless doll.
Our patrol took us past blackened intervals of military vehicles that had been caught by rebel air strikes, past undamaged war machines that had run out of fuel and been abandoned, and past still more whose mechanisms had simply been overtaxed: the vehicular equivalents of starvation, stroke, or heart attack victims. Government vans and private cars, city busses and rusted motorcycles, farm tractors drawing carts, a carnival of wastage covered the dirt road cut through the rolling hills. Bodies lay here and there, dead of exposure, or hunger, perhaps of disease, or the victims of murderers who killed those who wandered too far from the mass in the darkness—looking for food, or money, or anything that might increase the killer’s chances of survival, however slightly. A collection of ravaged tents marked the site where someone had attempted to establish an aid station. As our Hummvees and Bradley Vehicles passed, men and women continued to squat by the side of the road, many of them obviously sick. Here and there a husband jealously stood guard over his wife, but overall there was only a sense of collapse, of the absence of law or reason.
A desperate man tried to climb onto the Bradley Fighting Vehicle in front of mine, while it was still in motion. Unpracticed, the refugee immediately snared himself between the big road wheels and the grinding track. We watched helplessly as the machine devoured the man’s legs below the knee, slamming him to the ground, then twisting him over and over before the Bradley could be stopped.
The man lay open mouthed and open-eyed in the gravel. He did not scream or cry, but, propped himself up on his elbows, amazed. Two medics jumped from the vehicle, yanking out their kits, searching for tourniquets. They had seen plenty of wounds and they were not shy. They felt quickly along the bloody rags of the man’s trousers, searching for something firm amid the gore and riven bone. But the man simply eased back off his elbows, still silent and wide-eyed, utterly disbelieving as he died.
Now and again, some of the refugees had to be forced off of the vehicles, usually because their pleas for rides, when denied, turned aggressive. At other times, they were caught trying to steal—anything, from food or a protective mask to the nonsensical. One man even tried to choke the lieutenant, without the least evident cause. He was a terribly strong man, perhaps a bit mad, and he had to be restrained to prevent him from strangling our commander to death.
Once a pair of Russian gunships flew down over the endless miles of detritus, and the lieutenant waved excitedly, delighted at this sign that we were not completely alone, that we had not been completely forgotten. He attempted to establish radio contact with the aircraft, but could not find the right frequency. The ugly machines circled twice around our vehicles then flew off at a dogleg, inscrutable.
By the side of the road, a man and a woman struggled to drive two sheep who had balked at the grumble from the armored vehicles. I was amazed that the animals had not been butchered yet. Lucky sheep…
The radio sparked to life.
“This is Alpha.” I heard. “We have aircraft approaching from the south.” “The Russians again?” “No IFF, assume hostiles.” “All vehicles, all vehicles,” the LT. called. “Air alert. Disperse off the roadway. Air Alert.”
At my command, our driver turned the Hummer off to the left, scattering the two sheep. Their owners ran after them, open mouthed. Soon, they would have greater worries.
“Don protective gear.” Came over the speaker, “Seal all vehicles.” The refugees looked at us in fear, their faces vividly alive. They looked like they were accusing us, as we pulled our masks over our heads, temporarily hiding them from our sight.
There was no alternative.
I could see the dark specks of the unidentified aircraft, popping up before entering their attack profile. They were aiming straight for the convoy. Hand-held stingers fired, a smoke trail marked a hit.
There was nothing else to be done. We opened up with our automatic weapons, which was as useless as trying to shoot down the sky itself. The planes were hurtling down into the attack, the three left clearly recognizable as fighter/bombers. I prayed we wouldn’t get hit. I didn’t care what would come afterward, that was too far away. I only wanted to survive this immediate threat. Death could come in an instant. Irresistible.
I felt a shudder through the chassis. Then another.
Perhaps it would be a purely conventional attack, without chemical weaponry. But, I doubted it. Chemical strikes had become too common in this conflict. The rebels had become addicted to them, having grasped the marvelous economy of such weapons. I tried to look out through the window slits but, it was very difficult with the mask on. The vehicle lurched over rough ground and the bouncing horizon filled with smoke and dust.
“This is Karma”
“I’m listening,” I said, dispensing with call signs, trying to keep everything as simple as possible with the mask on.
“This is Karma. Chemical Strike, I repeat, Chemical Strike.” Karma was our chemical reconnaissance team.
“What kind of agent?” The lieutenant demanded of the radio. I could already envision the scene that would await us when we dismounted the vehicles. Nothing helped; there was nothing we could do.
“No reading yet. Our remote is fried. I just read hot.”
“This is Alpha,” “They’re leaving. Looks like just one pass.”
The voice sounded too clear.
“Do you have your goddamned mask on?” I demanded.
“No…no, we were engaging the enemy. We’ve got a good seal on the vehicle, and….”
“Get your mask on, you stupid bastard. I don’t want any unnecessary casualties. Do you read me?” The LT literally screamed.
No answer. His nerves seemed to be going. He had stepped on the other man’s transmission. They had merely cancelled each other out.
“All teams,” The First Sergeant transmitted, enunciating slowly and carefully, trying to restore order. “Report in order of call signs.”
I listened as the teams reported in. The voices were businesslike, if weary and a bit slurred. Everything was reduced to a matter of routine. Everyone reported in, no casualties. I ordered my driver to turn back onto the road and continued to monitor the after-action reports. Unexpectedly our vehicle ground to a halt. The engine was still running, however, and I didn’t understand what was happening. “Why in the hell are you stopping?” I turned to the driver, “I told you to get back on the road.” The driver mumbled something unintelligible through his protective mask. I followed his gaze through the windshield.
“Why have you stopped Badger?” The lieutenant barked. “I said move out.”
“We can’t sir,” I stated. “We’d have to drive over them.”
“What inthehellareyoutalkingabout?” He demanded safe and snug in the fighting vehicle. It was obvious that he could not see outside.
Where there had been a plodding army of humanity a few minutes before, there was only a litter of dark, fallen shapes. No hysteria, no struggling, no shivering movements of the wounded, not the least evidence of suffering. Only stillness, except where scattered military vehicles continued their slow, aimless maneuvers, like riderless horses on an antique battlefield.
The only thing that still held the power to shock me was the ease with which death came. The casual quickness. Whether to the man whose legs had so unexpectedly been gobbled by a tank, or to this stilled multitude. No allowance for struggle, for passion, for heroism. There was barely time for cowardice.
They said that the newer nerve gasses were humane weapons. They killed their victims so rapidly and within minutes, they dissipated back into the atmosphere, harmless.
Lieutenant Johnson radioed the chemical team. “Do you have a definite reading at this time?”
“This is Karma. Superfast nerve type Sh-M. It’s already dissipated. I’ve already unmasked.”
I shook my head at the universe. Then I tugged at my MOB gear, feeling the sudden wetness as the rubber pulled away from my skin. I shook out the mask, and then tucked it methodically into its bag.
“Hold here,” I told the driver. “I’m going to dismount.”
“All clear, All clear.” This from the Lieutenant. A pause, then, “Clean off your vehicles.”
My team was lucky. We didn’t have so much dirty work. All of our passengers had tumbled from the Humvee in their struggles with death. On the LT’s Bradley, there was an old man huddled against the rear equipment bin, burned out cigarette stub in his hand. We got him under the arms and rolled him off the Personnel Carrier.
There was nothing we could do. I stood up, drinking in the cold, harmless air. As far as I could see, nothing remained alive on the roadway. Worse than a plague, I thought. Far worse. No act of The Gods.
Something white caught my eye in the middle distance. Baffled at first, I then recognized the carcasses of the two sheep that had been driven from god knew where to die here. Perhaps not so lucky after all…
(c) Copyright Eric L. Fuller
(c) Copyright Eric L. Fuller
- The author, Eric L. Fuller, SSGT USAF (Retired), Served just a little over 12 years in Special Operations before being retired due to injuries sustained during the course of his duties. He has been a member of the Society for Creative Anacronism for over 30 years, he has studied the "Knightly Arts" (Combat, Dancing, Games, and Etiquette) eventually being granted a Peerage for his Service to The West Kingdom. He now lives in semi-retirement with his two cats, telling of his many adventures around the world.