BEYOND RED LINES
January 1991 – French Army disciplinary camp, somewhere in the southwest.
“To begin prone shooting, assume the position!”
The sandbags smelled damp and they were murder on the elbows. The plastic underhelmet was keeping them warm despite the light drizzle pitter-pattering on the tarp. Theo felt ridiculous, his emaciated body swimming in his threadbare uniform. There was an odor of hummus and crushed chestnuts mixed in with the smell of gunpowder from the previous shots.
Afterwards, no one would remember who’d been assigned to dole out the ammo to the shooters–five bullets per man. In time with the others, Theo inserted his magazine and cocked the bolt handle in one smooth move. The well oiled breeches snapped, almost as one.
“Facing your respective targets, call out: sighted and ready!”
“Shooter number one, sighted and ready!”
He was an antsy kid. A February recruit. Never seen a rifle, but a good sport.
Always ready to chip in on detail, all on the sly.
“Shooter number two, sighted and ready!”
A stocky country boy. Raised rough. Hunter and poacher. Two or three
incidents with him during weapons cleaning. His favorite game? Cock a rifle, Western style, as soon as he saw a rookie. One time, the shot had actually gone off, fortunately without injuring anybody. He’d only been confined to the barracks for a month. The colonel was a hunter too.
A three-voice crescendo.
“Shooter number three... number four... number five... sighted and ready!” The three of them had been inseparable since they’d enlisted. The oldest in the
company. Ever since the section chief had cottoned on that they were better off if kept together, they didn’t make trouble for anybody. They handled their guard duty, laughed at the same jokes, and spent their downtime playing tarot.
“Collin! I said call out, sighted and ready!”
The instructor reached Theo at the same time as his barked shout. He swung his boot down against his ankle, and his eyes filled with tears. Raising the sight line of his rifle, he called in a choked-out voice,
“Shooter number six, sighted and ready... End of the line!”
At the other end of his scope, he could make out his target at two hundred yards. Minuscule.
The rest of the company was lollygagging, twenty-odd juveniles putting on nonchalant airs, leaning their backs against the wall of the building. One guy, one gun, one guy... two days’ confinement for a firearm on the ground.
The instructor stepped over them with an overbearing air. The stragglers followed him. The officer appraised each one and turned back to Theo.“You must be fighting fit after two months in the hospital, Collin. No more slacking off. It’s a turkey shoot, now.”
Number five chortled. Without even seeing him, Theo could guess at the second lieutenant’s satisfaction. His helmet was heavy and his stomach was cramping. He’d gotten up late, and he hadn’t been given a choice between cleaning the latrines and chowing down breakfast.
The instructor stepped a yard out and issued his order.
“Now firing at two hundred fifty yards; five rounds, one at a time, start firing!” In response, he got three immediate discharges. Theo quivered. Despite his
fertile imagination, he hadn’t managed to get a waiver. Two months in a military psychiatric hospital had gotten the better of his taste for freedom... and of his dread.
His desertion as soon as he’d stepped out of the hospital had gotten him a temporary assignment with a disciplinary battalion, which could even lead to a sojourn in Iraq. This was only the beginning of his ordeal.
Yet another bellow. He cocked the lever. He needed to pull the trigger. Was the butt steady enough? There was so much talk, despite the anti-kickback system on these FAMAS’s. What if his shoulder didn’t hold up to the shock? He held his breath; the target appeared closer.
The discharge took him by surprise, but he didn’t feel any pain. The casing surged out of the ejection port. Theo once again blew the air out of his lungs and pulled. The fifth casing soon ricocheted onto the soft ground, still smoking.
“Shooter number six, finished shooting!” he reported mechanically.
A series of discharges followed. Five shots. Then five more. Theo looked at the instructor in surprise. Had they reloaded without his realizing? He had very clearly taken his first shot well after the others. The second lieutenant charged over to him.
“Monkeying around again!” he screamed. “You shot all over the place just to mess up Army equipment. On your feet when I’m talking to you, Collin!”
Theo stood up, taken aback.
“Second class Collin, at attention!”
He snapped to. They didn’t like asylum seekers all that much in the French
Army. That went double for fakers, who were deemed cowards. Conscription would for years still be part of the cultural foundation of a society that wasn’t much inclined to replace its diplomatic tradition with any sort of a defense effort. But now wasn’t the time to lay out this sort of an argument.
The instructor was getting a kick out of having him in his grasp now, under his complete authority. He knew everyone would look the other way if he found any good reason for punishment. Ever since Theo had slipped the fatigues back on, he was headquartered somewhere between the head and the mess, with the officers’ boots to shine post-marches, as a bonus.
“Run over to the targets and bring them here. On the double!”
To please him, Theo tried to execute an about-turn by the book, but his feet were tangled up. The others looked on sadly.
“Collin!” A fresh bark.
“You’ll show me your target first. If I don’t see a hole, you’re gonna be standing in for it!”
He snickered, pleased with his little witticism. Theo took off at a trot.
The rain was now falling resolutely. On the shooting range behind him, a second group was getting into position. A conscript was opening a new crate of magazines. The targets were still two hundred yards out. The mere thought of being in the brig once more, with nothing to do but think, was making Theo nauseous.
He closed in on the ditch that separated the targets from the field. During intensive training, one guy would hunker down in there and change out the targets in between each drill. In one leap, he was over on the other side.
Number one wasn’t bad. There were three holes, not too far apart. He grabbed the target and put up a new one. The following four, a half-dozen holes between them– pretty mediocre. For a split second, he entertained the notion of changing out his target for number one’s. He reached his arm out but froze in his tracks.
Five centered holes With barely two inches between them. Not possible! They must have left an old target up. Theo looked closer. Given the falling rain, it should have been soaked. It looked the same as all the others. These really were his bullet holes.
The intercom hissed to life. He darted into the ditch.
“You coming in any time today, Collin?”
He crossed the range right back again at a run, clutching that all too precious
paper under his arm.
The second lieutenant peered at him suspiciously.
“You gonna try to claim this is really your target?”
The shooting had picked back up again and they could barely hear each other.
A private first class was holding on to Theo’s rifle.
The officer seized it abruptly.
“Hand me a magazine.”
The young conscript darted over to the munitions crate, as obsequious as
anybody two days out from leave. The squad leader picked up an empty casing and stepped away from the range. He propped it onto the parapet.
“The Marine Parachutists have the good rifles,” he said, making his way back to Theo. “The ones we use here are for rookie practice only. Badly serviced, badly calibrated. Not one of them is accurate.”
He slid the clip in.
“They all fire to the right...”
He cocked the rifle and took aim.
“Or to the left.”
He pulled the trigger. The casing took flight, and the discharge dissipated into
“This one seems to fire straight,” he said, taking out the magazine.
He looked at Theo, furrowing his eyebrows. Pausing momentarily, he ejected
the cartridge that was still chambered.
“Five times, two hundred yards out? Come this way.”
He propped himself in front of where the new row of shooters was standing at attention.
“Collin, go stand in for De Sotto.”
Without a word, Theo headed toward the range. Persuaded he’d gotten lucky the first time, he knew that even if he spaced out his shots, he wouldn’t get the same result. Nevertheless, the hardest part was over with.
“Next group, get into position!”
The forty or so youths making up the section gathered around the sandbags. The officer threw the rifle, which Theo caught midair. Arms long at his sides, head held high, neck stiff as a board, the marksmanship instructor bellowed out his command.
“If I ever ask you for a weapon one day, that’s how I want to receive it. Lively. Same thing among yourselves. A FAMAS is for throwing.
“If you’ve got a bunch of Arabs on your tail, you’re not gonna be able to ask your buddies to hand you one nicely. Drop it out here, your ass gets the brig. Drop it in a firefight, and your ass gets the dust.”
There were a couple restrained chuckles in response. A few years back, he’d explained during instruction, Soviet Russia had been the default enemy. They’d taken that mantle from the Germans who had themselves replaced the English.
After the Berlin wall came down and the Soviet bloc collapsed, France no longer had an established enemy, and its involvement in Operation Desert Storm hadn’t yet resurrected this indispensable if fluctuating concept.
As far as the second lieutenant was personally concerned, he made it no secret that he thought the Arabs – no matter their country – were a bunch of raggedy freaks that needed to be flushed out and smoked, before they ended up wiping their asses with the French flag.
He asked them to take a count, and then bared his teeth in a predatory smile. “For prone shooting, assume the position!”
After they all loaded, he pulled out a pair of binoculars from his sack and
ordered them to fire at will.
Just like the first time, Theo thought the target looked closer. This time though,
he wasn’t afraid of the kickback. The report boomed out, and Theo instantly understood that the bullet had struck true. He knew it without even seeing the target.
The casings flew out. Two, three... The trigger snicked on empty.
“Mother of God!”
Raising his eyes, Theo met the second lieutenant’s stupefied gaze. His
shoulders had stooped, and the binoculars were dangling from his nerveless arm. It was as though one of the bullets had hit him straight in the back.
The silence was so deep that they could hear one of the soldiers strike a match. The recruits had gathered in close together and were now pressed in a swaying group, feet firm on the ground, all faces turned towards the target area. All expressions frozen in astonishment. The officer got a hold of himself.
“Where’d you learn how to shoot?”
Theo got up, leaving his rifle propped on its bipod. A handful of seconds had turned him untouchable.
“I never learned,” he replied.
“Don’t give me that nonsense, Collin. Nobody’s ever hit a target two hundred yards out on their first try. Have you been practicing long?”
“This is the first time I’ve ever laid hand on a weapon, lieutenant.”
His face hardened.
Thirty pairs of eyes were now collectively pinning Theo. Standing in a semicircle behind the instructor, “his” section was looking at him as if he was some kind of strange animal. The deserter, the failed discharge, was an elite shooter.
“You’re taking me for a ride!”
The second lieutenant pulled himself together. A glow lit his gaze for a brief instant, while he analyzed the incident and came to a conclusion that he attributed to an unexpected clarity. Theo the ace sharpshooter fazed him, but Theo the liar he could accept. He went on to grill him for a couple of minutes, before coming to the only obvious conclusion: this young misfit was a miracle.
That entire day was dedicated to him. The second lieutenant sent a P4 dispatch rider to the barracks before lunch. The firing range was 30 clicks out, a distance covered by truck. They only saw the messenger again around fifteen hundred hours, alongside the captain in command of the training division. During that time, Theo had spent sixty cartridges and drilled twelve targets without straying once.
Their rations had been handed out at noon on the dot: pâté, single-serve ready meal, fruit paste, chocolate tablet, and ration bread.
The weather had cleared as the clock struck two. Despite a timid shaft of sunlight, breaths and plumes of cigarette smoke looked alike. Engrossed in the mystery of such an unexpected show of skill, the second lieutenant had forgotten to prohibit smoking.
Every bit as surprised as the others, a young Breton redhead named Kernian had come by to question how sincere he was being. His repeated assertions that he’d never touched a gun before hadn’t satisfied the guy, and he’d walked away from Theo in cold suspicion. An NCO ultimately took charge of the section and they were taken away to another empty shooting range.
It took yet more cartridges to fully convince the captain, a man of short stature, whose deeply lined face was contorted in a continual grimace of pain, and whose tailored uniform clung to his body so closely you could have seen the play of his muscles under the fabric. The showcase only came to an end at nightfall. The captain approached Theo and spoke to him for the first time.
“You claim never to have learned how to shoot.”
Standing at attention, arms and shoulder in pain from his grip on the rifle, Theo once again repeated his assertion.
“Would you be willing to swear it on the Bible?”
He speared him with a glare and turned to the second lieutenant, a sly look on
his face. Theo immediately went on.
“I... I’m not religious, captain.”
His voice softened, then, his tone turning almost amiable as he spoke.
“You already knew you had a gift, Collin: that of getting yourself into trouble.
You uncovered a second one today.”
1 The tightness of the shot grouping.
A consummate firing officer, the second lieutenant had calculated his MOA, which wasn’t done at two hundred yards, and concluded that his shooting surpassed what the ordinary soldier could produce at fifty yards out.
The captain unsnapped his holster and handed Theo his gun.
“This is a MAC 51. You’ve only shot that rifle. And prone. Ultimately, even if you are lying, you’ve never given this one a try. Let’s step in closer to the targets.”
Theo fell in behind him. Despite the ten or fifteen years separating them, he was having a hard time keeping pace in the fading light. Fifty yards out from the target, the captain turned back towards him. His face was implacable.
“You don’t like the military, Collin. And I don’t like young folk like you. You have no guts. Training may give you discipline, but it’ll never turn you into men. Take the safety off.”
He pawed at the cold metal of the gun, hands trembling, and released the slide on instinct. The captain stepped in close enough to brush up against him. Theo was half a head taller than him, but that was hardly enough to instill any confidence. He was spurred by one obsession: avoid the cooler; and so, obsequiously, he lowered his gaze.
“Fire at will!”
Clumsily, Theo pointed the muzzle towards the target and pulled the trigger. Nothing happened. The captain snickered.
“Pull back the slide. Chamber a bullet. Collin, you’re already dead.”
“I apologize, captain, nobody’s ever taught me...”
The officer yanked the semiautomatic out of his hands and got into position.
Legs spread, facing the target, his arm holding the weapon pointed down alongside his body. Not bending his elbow, he brought the gun up horizontal to his line of sight.
“Got that? Hit six rounds for me and I’ll give you seventy-two hours.”
Theo mimicked his position. The promise of a three-day leave suddenly had the gun feeling a lot lighter. This would be a first for the disciplinary battalion. Without catching his breath, he pulled the trigger six times as if he’d been practicing from the cradle.
The captain reached out a hand and grabbed the gun, quickly holstering it with the barrel still scorching.
“What do you think, Collin?”
“I don’t know, captain. I don’t get it.”
“There any family history of this?”
“No one, captain. Nobody’s ever used a gun.”
“No need to go look at the target, is there? Six rounds in.”
“I reckon, captain.”
He made a surprising move, then. He put his hand on Theo’s shoulder and
“I’d have much rather it had been some daredevil. One of those guys who enlist
to see some action and become heroes out of a sheer survival instinct. Cases like yours
are pretty rare. You’re going to undergo a very special kind of training. That’s going
2 to require you to sign a VLS. ”
His voice firmed up.
“And you’re going to consent, Collin. Your record’s so thick that your year will be a living hell if you let as much as a hair out of line. No leave, no visits. Three months from now, moldering in the brig, you’re going to spend every second regretting that you didn’t sign certain paperwork. Have they told you about me?”
“I don’t know who you are, captain.”
“I’m Captain Meyrek; remember that name. Whatever happens, your fate now hangs on my will. Do you understand that, Collin?”
He showed his assent. What else is there to do at nineteen years of age, after you’ve spent the first few years of your life fleeing from weapons, from combat, and from conflicts of all kinds?
Hackles raised, the captain saw it fit to tack on, “Up until this day, you were a loser. You’re going to become part of the elite, and your handling will fall to me and only me. Any objections, Collin?”
Theo wavered for a moment before replying.
“At your orders, captain.”
“Good. When you get back from leave, come straight to my office. Go on, now.
The truck is waiting on you.”
Pink Floyd was belting out Wish you Were Here crackling pathetically over Kernian’s old cassette player. The overhead lights in the room went dark for a few seconds to signal that curfew was imminent.
Theo crossed the barracks in a daze, shivering even as he slid under the covers. All around him, the bustle was dying down. The last of the cigarettes were being put out. Bit by bit, the twenty-odd conscripts sharing the same foul air as him dragged their feet over to their beds.
“You hear what they did to Germont yesterday morning?”
An unknown voice was recounting the exploits of a pack of jokers against the unit’s punching bag. This time they’d pulled some kind of a dirty trick that had ended up with the hapless recruit standing in the courtyard at three in the morning, nothing but his briefs on, waiting for the raising of the flag.
The soldiers were engaging in a jolly chorus of har-hars and whoop-whoops when the door flew open to reveal chief Valentin. The covers folded over as one and all voices went quiet. He barreled into the sleeping quarters and came to a stop before Theo’s bed. It was his night on guard duty.
Valentin was a cartoon character, like something torn from the pages of a comic book on the Legion. He had hulking blond hair in a tight fade. His square face held an obdurate chin, and furnished with a minuscule nose that looked as though a mischievous Mother Nature had propped the appendage on at the last minute. His gaze swung between distrust and impishness, with the occasional glimmer of sadism. In his three years’ active duty, he bragged that he’d negated nearly two thousand leaves.
From his mouth, the order came out, “Co’i’, atte’tio’!” Theo obeyed, in his shorts. Terrified and frozen.
“You’ve got a quarter hour to get into full battle gear. Fatigue 107 tonight. That’ll teach you to lick boots for three days’ leave.”
“But, sergeant, all I did was...”
“Shut your mouth, Collin. I can still take you down. Even if you’re leaving the training company on Tuesday.” His voice suddenly veered towards hysteria.
“Our asses are at war. Three months from now, half of you in this room will be learning how to count dead towelheads, and it’s runts like you that real soldiers are gonna have to depend on for backup. Shut off that fucking radio or Imma hurl it out the window!”
Pink Floyd had moved on to the Dark Side of the Moon. Kernian hurtled toward the radio.
“At the ready in fifteen minutes, Collin!”
The lights turned off as soon as he’d stepped out. Seated on the edge of his bed, Theo stamped down the urge to cry. This thing that was happening to him was beyond his comprehension. This gift that had suddenly put him under the barracks’ microscope was too heavy a burden to bear. One of Germont’s torturers sing-songed in a half whisper.
“Who was it that went and signed? Collin.”
“Who’s gonna get it mighty fine? Collin,” another chortled in response.
“The delete shooter,” the first one snickered.
He would have loved it, in that moment, if he’d had the guts to get up–to shut
them up using his fists. But violence terrified him in any shape or form. He pulled on his woolen socks and fatigue pants.
It was Kernian.
“What did he say to you, the cannibal?”
“Who’s the cannibal?”
“Meyrek. At the shooting range, what did he ask you to sign?”
Theo wiped at his eyes, hoping the semi-darkness would cover him, before
pulling on his regulation T-shirt.
“Nothing much. A VLS plus six, to start with.”
“What? You signed on for six more months? But you hate the army!”
“It’s a very long story. He wants to put me through some kind of special
training. He gave me seventy-two hours because I plugged six holes with a handgun. I’d never fired a gun before, Kernian. I swear to you. And since then, he won’t get off my back.”
“Now that you’ve signed on, we’re gonna stick together. Is it true the VLS’s are gonna be joining the others in Iraq?”
“I have no clue. Why do they call him the cannibal?”
“He’s a former legionnaire. They say that he and his brigade got lost during some covert op in Chad or Angola. Spent four days without food. They came across some maverick and showed him a good time, African style.
“Meyrek gave whatever was left of him to his cook. His guys were more the roots-and-leaves type, but he made them eat with him. They say he kept the brain for himself.”
He snapped his belt and got up.
“You’ve been reading too many comic books, Kernian.”
A week later, Theo was breaking his left femur and tibia on the obstacle course.
The captain had demanded that he jump from the top of the ladder. The signing of his VLS, scheduled for the following day, was postponed.
He was laid up for two months, plus an extra month’s rehab. During his stay in the hospital, the enlistees in his unit had joined the conscripts in Rafah, in northern Saudi Arabia. Kernian had been among them. They tried to pick his training back up, but his leg was weak.
Towards the end of February, the head medic informed him that their battalion had taken part in the capture of As-Salman airport, alongside the 4th Chasseurs regiment. He would regularly give him news from the Iraqi front – at least, whatever he had access to himself, which wasn’t all that much. Theo wondered how much of that was about laying a guilt trip on him. So he was the one to let him know, on the third of March, that a ceasefire had been signed by General Norman Schwartzkopf at the Safran base.
Kernian was one of the few declared missing.
On September 30, 1991, he was discharged of all his military duties with no grade or distinction. He’d only done his legally mandated ten months, and he had just turned twenty years old.
His records were filed. Captain Meyrek alone kept track.
April 23rd, 2003
BEYOND RED LINES
The war hadn’t yet defaced Erbil, a small city of over a million inhabitants that spreads out its circular expanse into the only non-mountainous area of Kurdistan. Further out and to the south, around Bagdad, or over to the west in Mosul, the battles still raged on, despite the resounding victory of the anti-Saddam coalition and the conquest of the capital city fourteen days earlier.
It was sometimes difficult to know who was fighting whom: Westerners versus Arabs, Ba’athists versus dissidents, Sunni versus Shia; but life went on as before in Erbil, at the foot of Qalat, the ancient fortress that overlooks the central bazaar quarter, as it did in the outlying neighborhoods of Ainkawa, which are for non-muslims only, minorities that are often ill-treated and thus all the more closely knit.
Erbil was Howard Beck’s first destination, and he only had a few clicks left to go, while, on his left, the sun was already setting, skimming the flatland and the dunes.
The two Humvees borrowed from the 1st Battalion 10th Marine Regiment that were acting as his escort had been keeping his vehicle in a perfectly straight convoy ever since they’d left the northern suburbs of Baghdad. More often than not, the shape of the road merged with the desert, and the hours they’d spent on this trip had quickly robbed him of all sense of time.
Outside, around noon, the temperature reached 122 degrees. It was still 113 towards the end of the day, which was enough to wonder how the rare camel drivers they’d crossed paths with even managed to survive, to say nothing of the gangs of kids that would leap out from nowhere and make the head vehicle swerve.
The kids had no fear. They hailed them with huge cries of joy, some of them....