The wind is cold and damp against the flesh of my face; the only exposed skin on my body. My shoulders ache under the strain of a thirty pound armored vest, the back of my neck is raw from the constant friction of my rifle's black canvas strap. My antiquated pistol holster constricts my lungs and digs painfully into my ribs. My hips are tender and bruised from constantly being jarred against the edge of the turret. Every few minutes I fall asleep for a split second, awakened only when my chin touches the bulky neck protector that is fastened tightly over my throat. The cloth is oily and slick and brown, coated with two months of sweat and filth, have I really only been here two months? I am utterly exhausted, I think of nothing.
A shot rings out, I ignore it, I'm so tired I don't care, and besides, someone is always shooting at something around here, I wish they would just fucking stop, this is so stupid. Another shot, followed by a few more, a bullet glances off something in the road and screams over my head, the spark remains in my eyes. I am awake now, totally awake, the kind of "awake" that cannot be described and most people never have to feel, how fortunate they are. It's four in the afternoon right now at home. My friends have just gotten out of school for the day, maybe on their way to work already. I know my mother is thinking of me, can she sense what is happening to her child? More bullets, closer this time, and they do not glance off the road but fly straight past my face, he is shooting a little better now. I feel as though I can almost sense their heat, like sitting too close to the fireplace, and the sound of a thousand bull whips cracking all around me. So this is what it's like! Just what I expected, which in turn surprises me. No fear though, no time to be afraid, I have not the mental capacity to cheat death and realize fear.
I drop down inside the humvee and glance around at the faces of my comrades, they ask if I’ve been hit, "No, I'm fine, I'm fine." We're moving swiftly now, the road is uneven. I lose my balance for a moment but catch myself on the 'butt strap', the canvas strap that is hooked into place for me (the machine gunner) to sit on, though I have never been allowed to sit down during a patrol. In fourth platoon we stand fully erect, completely exposed for all the world to see and kill. He is still shooting. I notice that his weapon is on semi-automatic, they never use semi-automatic, but not this one, he is aiming, he means to kill me. I respect him now. After all, he is not like me; a soulless mercenary who kills in exchange for a college education, this is his life. He hates me, I cannot hate him, but I must try to kill him. He continues to shoot at me, I wish he’d just run home like the rest of them.
Them... how I hate them. We all do. They are so easy to hate, so vile and treacherous, they are subhuman. It is because of them that I am here in the first place, God how I hate every inch of every one of them. They thieve and lie and have killed boys who were once my friends. People that I used to carry on intelligent conversations with, and when I saw them last I never knew it would be the last. They have transformed them from men into cumbersome heaps of cold flesh, no longer anything more than a sanitation problem to be solved with the aid of a plastic bag. The blood and entrails must be scrubbed away with simple green and scratch pads. My first true friend in the Army was cleaned up in this way. Thank God I wasn't there, had I seen it I would not remember him as I do now; always a smile, always a comment worthy of note, always something interesting on his mind. And when he died I didn't even bother to cry, I wanted to, I even tried a little bit, but that was stupid and wrong. No need to lie to yourself my friend, you are no longer human and everyone knows it.
Using my butt strap I bring my head up just enough to peer over the lip of the turret ring. Where is this motherfucker? I take a look around.... and there he is. Not "him" per say, but a flash of light, followed by the report of a rifle and the sound of a bullet striking concrete or metal, I never learned to tell the difference. I look down at the orange handle which will unlock the turret and allow me to swing it around, pointing the machine gun in his direction. No, there is no time for all that, with the way this humvee is rocking I would never be able to do it anyway. The gun alone weighs nearly eighty pounds, it's the old kind, a "fifty cal". Besides, he is standing on the roof of an apartment building, and I am imagining a family inside their cramped home. They are poor and the weather is cold so they sleep in the same room, probably without beds. I will not send a score of fifty caliber bullets into that building, to grind and shred the flesh of three generations with one flick of my pathetic thumb, my thumb that is only eighteen years old. I am not that inhuman, not that cruel, not yet at least.
No, but I will use my rifle. Now I am ready, now I have a purpose. No longer will I cower inside this armored hull and take whatever he chooses to give me, now I will give him something, I will take control, I will kill him. I bring the rifle to my shoulder, the same kind my father and uncles carried when they were in the service. What a gruesome object, it's black steel and plastic lay cold and lifeless in my hands, much like the corpses it was designed to create, incapable of human warmth. I place the tip of my nose on the charging handle, shut my left eye, and peer into the sight hole.
Now I am in a different world all entirely. A still, silent void that has but one entrance. You cannot reach it through meditation or by ingesting some strange plant, not even in death can one find it. This man-made world can be glimpsed only through the sights of a rifle, only when it is pointed at a living thing. Here there is no God, no Hell, no consequences and no remorse, those will all come later. For the time being, we are completely alone.
Now the moment of truth. Am I really going to go through with this? Can I? Oh yes, I can, and I will, I must. This man is attacking you and your comrades, it is your duty as the gunner of this vehicle to kill him as soon as possible. You are responsible for the lives of these men inside this humvee. I hope... I know that they would do the same for me. Now I am nervous, my knees tremble, I feel almost like a child who has just been caught stealing. For an instant I can almost see his bullet coming for me, flying straight towards my face, I vividly imagine the impact. Switch the safety off, take a moment to blink your eyes and take a deep breath. Let me wait and see one more muzzle flash before I strike, let me wait for him to show me where he is once more. Oh what sweet satisfaction I am about to receive! Two months of misery and a lost childhood because of you, damn you, I finally get to kill one of you now. I will use you as the object of my vengeance, this is for everything you have done to my life and to my family, you alone will pay the price, tonight. I think of nothing else now but my own misery and suffering, selfish I know, to kill a man and not even think about him. Then my wish comes true, I see another flash, he has revealed himself.
Instantly I readjust myself, he is fairly close so I aim a little lower than usual, just like they taught us at Ft. Knox. And then I squeeze the trigger. In this moment I think of my father, who always taught me to "squeeze" a trigger, never to "pull" it. So, ever so slightly, I begin to squeeze. The movement of my index finger is barely distinguishable to the human eye, it curls inward only one or two millimeters a second, and when the rifle finally discharges it is almost unexpected. My enemy, my peer, a man who I have come to respect in the last few seconds, it seems that I have known him for so long, stops firing immediately. I raise my cheek from the rifle and look at him. I see him for the first time, nothing more than a black silhouette against a midnight sky, but I see him. He goes down behind the edge of the roof. I never see him again, I never learn his name or his lineage, I never learn what became of him.
Later the next morning, when the patrol is over, after I've refueled the humvee and put away the weapons, I am congratulated by the others. I say very little, though I am not upset. I sit down on my cot and disassemble my rifle, the one I used against my enemy, the brother I never had, the only man who has ever faced me as a natural equal. The smell of the spent bullet is strong, but the weapon is mostly clean, after all it was only one shot, I clean it well and reassemble it. I thank her for not failing me in my hour of need. I imagine for a few seconds the next soldier who will carry this rifle after I have left, will he ever know of the sin it has committed this night? How many people did you kill before I took you off the rack? I push such thoughts aside and am asleep in a matter of minutes.