The following is the first in a series of three excerpts from Sebastian Wolfe’s upcoming novel I Saw the Fire, due for release on Kindle and paperback in early July, 2017. The second and third excerpts can be found here and here, respectively.
Set in a distant, war-torn, third world country, I Saw the Fire is a story told by three young men — Battle 2–6, Immortal 1, and the Foreigner — navigating the moral ambiguity of warfare during a single morning of battle between a modern occupying force and a fierce tribal resistance. Throughout, their narratives intertwine, illustrating how the interconnectivity of humankind transcends the fog of war. Ultimately, despite the clashing causes for which they fight, each is finally able to come to terms with his role in life as a result of the others’ influence.
CHAPTER ONE — Battle 2–6
The rhythmic thump of the blades at maximum torque draws ever closer. It is a deep, baritone sound, amplified by the multitude of war machines that fill the sky. A cacophony of Chinooks and Black Hawks, our steeds slow their arrival as they make their final approach into this meager combat outpost. I wait as the helicopters prepare to land, one knee buried down into the gravel, my protective sunglasses shielding my eyes from the swirling dustbowl in which I now find myself. I grit my teeth in an effort to avoid biting into the dense air; my thumb runs over the selector switch of my M4 carbine again and again, eager to flip it from safe to semi-automatic. Many men wait in a long file behind me, similarly postured, armed to the teeth with an assortment of grenade launchers, machine guns, high-powered rifles, and other finely crafted killing tools. They wait for their fate, eager to exact a terrific violence on an unyielding enemy. And I am their leader.
A Chinook hovers fifty feet in the sky, its twin blades rotating in opposite directions, artfully steadying itself as it slowly descends onto the landing zone a hundred feet in front of me. The mighty ‘flying bus,’ I muse. As the helicopter loses altitude, the roar of its engines engulfs me. The repetitive jolt of its rotator blades pulses through my entire body.
I look over to my right, and lock eyes with the leader of the other half of my chalk, my platoon sergeant and second-in-command, Sergeant First Class Thomas “Guru” Singh. He, too, has a file of paratroopers waiting behind him. Together, our two columns make up the 2nd Airborne Infantry Platoon of Battle Company. A thirty-something son of Sikh immigrants, Guru is the quintessential warrior, and the bedrock of our unit. Not one to smile often, he speaks only when necessary and confides solely in those whom he trusts and respects. He is fiercely loyal, but rarely minces words, and never shies away from keeping both his soldiers and leaders in line.
As I look at him, I feel the calming effect of knowing he will have my back in combat. For I am but an eager, young infantry officer, a mere eighteen months removed from the military academy where I once dutifully studied the very conflict in which I now command a fighting force. I may be in the midst of my first wartime foray, but this frontier is one of Guru’s old haunts. Many years of forgone holidays and missed birthdays he has spent enforcing this occupation. Years I spent watching it unfold, hastening my youth so that I could one day participate in this crucible. For years Guru lived under fire, his head buried in the dirt, wondering which breath would be his last, time and time again. While I partially ceded a normal life, Guru had long since sacrificed the prospect of ever knowing one. Life may be the ultimate casualty of war. But the chance to live one suffers devastating attrition long before then. What one earns in its wake is the knowledge needed not only to survive, but to win. And as Guru returns my gaze, I acknowledge that his hardened experience rightly complements my focused devotion. You ready? He nods. I nod back.
“Touchdown!” I hear our outpost headquarters announce through the microphone embedded in my right ear. “Get ready to load up, Battle 2–6.”
One after the other, another three Chinooks and four Black Hawks gracefully touch ground on the LZ of Combat Outpost Tundarreh.
“Roger that, Battle 7–1!” I yell into my mouth-piece while holding down the transmit button. “Will move when crew-chief signals okay.”
“Copy that,” my earpiece squawks, “Battle 1–6, get ready to follow suit, over.”
“Acknowledge all, over,” I hear Randall say.
The Chinook’s loading ramp begins to disengage from the aircraft, revealing the empty fuselage of the helicopter onto which my men and I will soon board. I strain to hear the whine of the hydraulics as the metallic slab steadily lowers itself onto the gravel floor. The edge of the ramp creates a light impression in the pebbles beneath it. Though I can’t see the crew chief’s face behind his aviator helmet and mask, I still feel his gaze through his shaded visor. Gripping a handle inside the aircraft, he touches one foot onto the ground, while keeping the other propped up on the ramp, and inspects his surroundings. Peering through the cavity of the Chinook, I can faintly make out the light of day shining through the cockpit. I distinguish the outline of whom I assume is the co-pilot, his arm thrust upward as he makes adjustments to the switches and instruments above him.
My eyes dart back to the crew chief. He is hunched over, in an effort to keep his balance despite the strong winds of the rotor wash, and moving toward me. It’s go time. He reaches me and unbuckles his mask, bringing his face close to my ear as his hand rests on my shoulder.
“Ready when you are, sir!” I hear through the overlapping roars of the surrounding aircraft.
Again, I look over to Guru in order to confirm our readiness. We lock eyes. He nods. I signal ‘okay’ to the crew chief, who then buckles up his mask and turns toward the helicopter.
“Battle 2–6, loading up,” I call over the radio.
“Roger,” responds a solemn voice.
I pick my knee up from the gravel, willing the sixty pounds of gear I’m wearing skyward. Sixty pounds of ammunition, radio equipment, water, body armor, and a rifle. My movement urges a grunt, but my mind acknowledges that this is nothing new. For years I have trained like this. And as I venture into uncertainty, the weight keeps me grounded in a comforting familiarity. Mimicking the crew chief’s posture, my men and I make our way toward the loading ramp. Guru and his file stay in step with mine.
The crunch of the gravel yields to the clank of our boots on the metallic surface of the loading ramp as we hurry into the fuselage. The loud roar of the engines morphs into a muffled drumming sound accompanied by the whine of the aircraft’s electronics and air conditioning unit. What air conditioning? I ponder. This place is fucking hot.
As we pack tightly into the aircraft, I sit on the bench on the left side of the cabin, close to the cockpit. Both pilots are talking into their microphones, periodically making adjustments to the instrumentation panel. Guru has stayed in the rear to ensure accountability of the men, as his position ascribes. I look to my left and gaze at the breaching sunlight silhouetting my soldiers against a blended hue of red and blue, and the gravel underneath. Looking past my men, I can faintly make out the shapes of other soldiers hunched over against the rotor blast, moving at a quickened pace to load into their respective transports. Randall must be loading up…
While the ramp returns to its upward position, the persistent rays of the morning sun struggle against a certain fate as they bounce off various reflective surfaces inside the helicopter. Just as persistent as the damn rebels who live and die underneath this sun. The gravel of COP Tundarreh fades from view and I casually wonder if I will ever see it again. What was once a distant, foreign outpost portrayed on a power-point slide has now become my home away from home. A bastion in which I can foster my inexorable desire for the thrill of combat, the honor of leading warriors, and the cathartic glory that comes from their combination.
Seated atop a small hill, the outpost provides overwatch onto Tundarreh, what some mistake for a ‘sleepy’ town, or kalay as the locals call it. Despite its outward appearances; despite the slow gait of the old men that walk its unpaved roads; despite the sight of mules straining against a blazing sun to pull their load one more inch at the behest of their whip-brandishing masters; despite the small business owners who sit outside their storefronts, lazily thumbing through their Chinese knock-off cell phones, waiting for the opportunity to peddle anything from hair products to soft drinks… Despite of all this, Tundarreh is anything but sleepy. It harbors a nasty enemy, eager to strike at any point of weakness the foreign occupiers of this region dare reveal. It is a town at war; both with the concept of civilization, as its antiquated customs and beliefs clash with the unremitting tide of scientific advancement, and with a foreign purveyor, of which I am a lethal ambassador. This is my war, my crucible, my croissance, if one would permit, at the edge of civilization. Nay, at the tip of civilization’s sword.
I begin to think of where this all began, of my grandfather, the retired army officer, vanguard of the colonial forces. I reminisce as snapshots of his stories told at the kitchen table run wild through my mind. Baghdad, Cairo, Indochina, the Congo… His tales were tall but rang true, as I could always recognize the knowing gaze of a man who had ‘seen the elephant.’ I could tell that, if anything, he was actually holding back much of what his emerald eyes had seen. And despite the all-but-certainly horrific nature of many of those memories, I envied him. I wanted to earn that knowing gaze, too. Having it gave him a certain air of nobility, a peculiar badge of honor, accessible to only a privileged few. As an adolescent, I yearned to follow a similar path. And as a young man, I am.
In short order, the fate of the sun’s persistent rays is sealed, as is the Chinook’s cabin. We are relegated to the faded circular windows that line each side of the aircraft. They remind me of portholes, though I can scarcely see through any of them.
I point my rifle at the floor and seat it on my thigh, ensuring the weapon remains on safe. If anything should happen, I’d rather shoot through the floorboards than the rotor hydraulics.
Looking over my men, I catch a few eyes, but most are staring past the hull of the helicopter, lost in a myriad of their own thoughts. They wonder about significant others, parents who watch the news ensconced in a foreboding dread, children who yearn for a father’s return… I try to avoid doing the same, though the painful afterglow of the love I left behind has, at times, managed to shine through the scar tissue that envelops my heart. Not now, I affirm. ‘Now’ is for the mission and the men.
Those that do meet my eyes look determined, if not trying to hide a little anxiety. I return with a hint of a smirk and a wink. My intent is to make them think that whatever their fears, I know something they don’t, and that is the certainty of a positive outcome. I learned many months ago that my troopers watch every move I make. Effective leadership is as much the fine art of good acting as it is instinct.
I notice my loyal interpreter, Abbas, seated amongst the paratroopers. There he reclines, adorned with a checkered balaclava wrapped around his neck, an older model of our combat helmet fastened off-kilter to his head, jeans, sneakers, and faded camouflage body-armor enveloping his torso. He stares down at his feet, as his right hand unconsciously thumbs through a string of worry-beads, his mind preparing for another mission the likes of which he has become all too accustomed. I admire Abbas. He may not be one of us, but he’s one of us. My war ends with the conclusion of this deployment. His goes on. And yet, here he is, tour after tour, ready to stand toe to toe with those that we have deemed the enemy. A hero if there ever was one.
Before I know it, the crew chief appears before me, looking down as he grips onto a loose strap hanging from the chopper’s ceiling.
“Howdy!” I make out, but have trouble hearing him over the high volume of my surroundings.
I nod. “Thanks for pickin’ us up!”
Then, pointing to my mic, I ask, “Plug in?”
It takes him a moment to realize what I mean. Then, “Fuck yeah!”
He reaches for a cable near the cockpit and then hands it to me.
I disconnect from my platoon net and insert the plug into the female end of the cable. My ears are immediately swarmed by the chatter of the two pilots at helm.
“…the boys have loaded up and we are getting ready for take-off…”
“Hydraulics good. Oil pressure good. Rotors good. Instrumentation nominal.”
I look toward the pilots. “Flight crew, this is Battle 2–6. Radio check.”
“Looks like the PL wanted to join the party, fellas,” says the crew chief jauntily.
“Battle 2–6,” says the pilot-in-command, seated in the right seat, turning my way. “Welcome aboard, man. Let’s get you guys where you need to go.” He then turns back to his flight panel. “Alright, Gary. Punch it.”
I feel the lurch of the twin rotors as the chopper begins its ascent. I look around at my men. They do the same, exchanging knowing glances. Despite our mutual stoicism, the excitement in the air is palpable.
“Tempest 7–0,” says the left-seater, “This is Rogue 6–9. Taking off time now.”
“Looks like flight time is gonna be about seven mikes, Battle 2–6,” says the pilot.
“Roger, thanks.” My radio-telephone operator, Pimentel, is seated on my right. I turn to him and hold up seven fingers. “Seven minutes to infil!”
A bright-eyed kid from the pacific northwest, the RTO acknowledges and turns to the soldiers seated around him to pass along the message.
Seven minutes. Seven minutes to relent, to give in one last time to the forces that push and pull on every soldier’s heart. Seven minutes to close my eyes and let my mind wander home, across not only a grand ocean of water, but a stormy sea of memories. Memories lapping over one another, wave after wave of nostalgia. Recollections of brotherhood, of self-discovery, of promises both kept and broken, of limitless joy, and of those I have dared to love, dared to let witness what little tenderness my heart can convey beneath this armor of grit, adventurism, and devotion to duty. I’ve long understood that I am a mysterious creature, and inasmuch not many have truly known me. Whether they have sought the opportunity, or I have even afforded it, depends. But what remains resolute is the protected nature of my most profound thoughts and feelings, buried deep within the recesses of the winding maze that makes up my mind. Few have found a way to reach them. And those few are now a distant reality, one that I have pushed aside in order to follow my destiny here.
Here my role is to be a fearless leader, an arbiter of violence, both a messenger and enforcer of the policies developed by those who far outrank me. Why we are here, though a question that sometimes pervades my mind, must not matter. For the answer has long been lost amidst the dense fog of an uncertain war. What matters is that we are here, and we are here to win. In this effort, I cannot fail. This effort will make me the warrior I have always sought to become, fulfilling the archetype my grandfather once embodied.
“Battle 2–6, you still on the net?”
“Yeah!” I am suddenly whisked back to reality. “Yeah, I’m still here. Sorry about that.”
“No worries,” says the pilot-in-command. “Just wanted to give you a heads up. We’re about two minutes out.”
“Two mikes. Roger that.”
Our air assault is imminent. I reach for a strap hanging from the ceiling and pull myself up off of my seat. My center of gravity shifts as the Chinook begins to bank, circling the landing zone. Stabilizing myself on the metal floor, I position my weapon on top of the magazine pouches of my chest plate, careful to ensure the muzzle faces down and away from my men. I look up, and their gazes are all upon me. They cradle their weapons at the ready, dominant hand grasping the pistol grip, the other pressing the barrel against the chest plate. Their eyes beckon guidance from their leader.
I hold up two fingers. “Twoooooo minutes!”
“Twoooooo minutes,” they echo. The crew chief is postured at the other end of the cabin, ready to lower the ramp upon landing.
I stand there, doing my best to convey a sense of confidence and determination, my hand grips the handle of my M4. This feels soothingly familiar, almost as if the weapon were a natural extension of my body. As I revel in this feeling, my thumb runs over the selector switch, again and again, eager to flip it from safe to semi. First air assault, my ego reminds me. No matter, I have led these men outside the wire before. Not in Wado Ila, you haven’t. No matter. We will prevail. As we always do. My heart pounds in my chest like a battle drum.
Looking through the porthole windows, I strain to see the subtle features of a beige-colored landscape whipping past us in quick succession. This begins to slow, and I realize the helicopter is readying its descent.
The pilot continues to narrate our impending assault. “Battle 2–6, one minute. Tempest 7–0 this is Rogue 6–9, we are on final approach. One minute to LZ.”
I hold one finger up. “Ooone minute!”
My men acknowledge the warning.
Faintly, through the whine of the Chinook’s electronics and the roar of its engines, I hear the sound of metallic clicks. The men are checking their weapons one last time. They ensure a round is in the chamber, the bolt is all the way forward, and the magazine sits firmly in the weapon’s magazine well. There is no telling how quickly they will have to begin putting rounds down range. I tentatively let go of the strap and conduct the same procedure from muscle memory.
As I reach for the strap again, I hear, “Alright boys, thirty seconds.”
I feel my stomach lurch into my chest as we make our descent. I make a fist. “Thiiiirty secooooonds!”
The hull of the aircraft echoes with their reply.
“Rogue 6–9, I’m going off comms.”
“2–6, copy that. Good hunting.”
I unplug my microphone cable and hook it back up to my radio. Then, gripping the strap, I plant my feet onto the hull’s floor, readying for the touchdown.
Here we go…