Thursday, March 8, 2018

Thinking Man

By William Bowles

    I sat on a broken wall with Paellano, trying to get a cigarette lit, talking about the sort of everyday things a soldier misses after a few weeks of active duty. I just about had the damn thing lit when Captain Molisho appeared from around a corner. I dropped the match as we stood at attention, and it fell into the snow and went out.

    "Davoro," Molisho said, in as friendly a tone as a commanding officer can to a common soldier. "Come with me."
    I handed the cigarette to Paellano as I passed him, and followed the captain; the eyes of the other men watched us discreetly as we went.

    "The prisoners know nothing," Molisho explained as we walked through the city ruins. "They are just militia. If even that."
    "They certainly did not fight like trained men," I agreed.
    We came to the plaza where the eight captives stood facing an old cobblestone wall. The soldier with the burned face sat casually, leaning against the statue in the middle of the plaza; the huge 18-pound rifle lay across his lap.
    He nodded at me, and  I returned the gesture, though I could not remember his name.
    Molisho faced me, and nodded towards the prisoners, but I knew what was going on the moment I took in the scene.
    "Why do you want me to do this?" I asked, in as neutral a tone as I could. "He could have done just as well."
    "I know he could," Molisho said. "And that is why I didn't ask him to."
    "I don't understand," I replied.
    "Look. Davoro. I know how you are. How you feel about all these things," he said to me, picking up on my reluctance.
    "Do I not fight obediently?"
    "You do," he said understandingly. "You will fight men with guns who try to kill you, but would you execute prisoners if ordered to?"
    I lifted my rifle and looked down the sights at the eight resistance fighters; unarmed, malnurished men and-- I noticed then-- two teenage boys and a woman. They were broken, inferior, and ultimately useless. If we hadn't captured them, they would have been killed by the next Olastran company they'd have tried to ambush. They knew they were done fore. They waited to die.
    "Do it," Molisho said.
    I hesitated.
    "Is something wrong?" he said. There was a hint of suppressed annoyance. "Do it."
    I did nothing.
    "Did you not hear me?" he asked in irritation. "Put them down."
    "No," I said, lowering the rifle.
    One of the prisoners dared to glance back.
    My commander turned with a wicked glare to me. "Do it now, or you will be tried for insubordination." He pulled back his coat; casually, yet intentionally revealing the pistol holstered at his side. Just in case I wasn't acquainted the front line legal system.
    "No. I won't do it," I said to him with finality.
    It was at that time that he decided that I would die. I was a traitor. I really was. However, as he reached for his gun, a thought came to me, and it went something like this:
    The difference between a man drawing a gun and a man holding a gun is that the man holding a gun gets to shoots first.
    I found the notion intriguing, and decided to test the theory. Turns out I was right.

    The sudden gunshot caught the guard's attention. Looking up, he saw Molisho tumble to the ground like a marionette freed from its strings; the pistol dropping from his hand. The soldier tried to get to his feet, but fumbled the cumbersome rifle.
    "Shit!" Was all he managed to say in his baffled shock.
    I turned the gun at him, but stopped. He got the message and froze as still as I. He stared at me, slack-jawed and saucer-eyed, trying to figure out why in God's name I would murder our commanding officer, especially as he had shown favor in me amongst our battalion.
    "Davoro..." He whispered pleadingly.
    I didn't shoot him though-- the man with the burned face. He was a tainted cog in a tainted machine, but he wasn't the worst of them. And besides-- at that moment, he was as helpless as the prisoners. Sure, he wasn't as innocent, but he was defenseless nonetheless.
    "Stand up," I said. "And keep quiet."
    He did as I said, wisely laying the gun on the ground in front of him.
    The captives were all watching now. I spoke to my old prisoners while keeping an eye on my new one.
    "We better get going now."
    I picked up Molisho's handgun, then went to the burnt faced man and took the heavy rifle. Without another word, we backed away, and snuck off. I never did see him again. Or Paellano. Or any of my company. For this, I am immensely grateful. Some of them were my friends, and I would rather not have to kill them.

    I never did remember that man's name.


I believe I wrote this around September 2013, but I can't say for sure.

It was inspired by the story of a German soldier in WWII named Josef Schulz, who (according to legend) refused to execute a group of prisoners. Instead, he took off his helmet, put down his gun, and stood with them. Then he died with them. According to legend.
The similarities are clear, but so are the differences.

As always, thank you for reading! I hope you enjoyed it, and your feedback is much appreciated!

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