(Till vem som än läser: Det är svårt att uttröna fantasybitarna, men den är en del av en större fantasyskrift)
War. War never changes. The tools, the weapons, the justification, the ideologies, the soldiers, the location; they can all change. But war, the very essence of war? That never changes.
It doesn’t matter if we bleed blue, if we bleed red; if it’s blood, dirt, money or pixels. There will always be casualties, always victims and collateral damage. War will always cost more than it’s worth, cost more than could ever be considered justified, and yet it would seem that it is never those who profit who do the bleeding. Faceless soldiers suffer on battlefields in worlds real and imagined, physical or virtual, for the gain and benefit of someone other than themselves.
We fight for love, for freedom; for religion and against oppression; for ideologies and philosophies; it is ever the same, in truth, that we fight because we “must”. And yet, somehow, the ones that bleed and suffer, the ones that are ended, their “must” is no longer of import to any but the living. But if not for the living, then what do we fight for? What do we die for?
We salute the bravery and strength of those who pass away fighting for others; we raise our flags and remember, with tear-filled eyes, the faces of the faceless, the words of the forever silent, the before of that which will never come after. We cherish their commitment and we celebrate their sacrifice. “Their sacrifice will not have been in vain; for their sacrifice, we shall see a brighter future!”
And yet the graveyards lie still and tranquil. The voices of the dead, calm and silent. For those who came before, there will be no after.
So why do we fight?
When I awoke the next morning, there was a man at my door. He looked a bit pale and drawn, as if he hadn’t been sleeping well. I could tell by now what that look was; he was afraid. Afraid of dying, afraid of losing, afraid of not giving his all for all that he was meant to give.
I had long been the chaplain, of sorts, for our camp. We had no real chaplain, not since the last one got killed. No priest, either; I expect we didn’t merit one, unimportant camp on the front as we were. I had no education in matters spiritual; no training, no patrons, no gods. But I listened, and I did it well, and occasionally, I spoke.
I recognised the man; we’d spoken before, albeit briefly and not in a setting like the current. Then, he had taken heart in the presence of his brothers in arms, and in the firmness of their belief. It would seem that this was no longer enough.
I stepped out of his way and gestured for him to come inside. He took a seat in the rickety chair by my small table; I sat down on my worn bed, my feet planted firmly on the ground. He looked hesitant, but I would not take it upon myself to begin our conversation. He was here for reasons personal; reasons that mattered to him. It would be presumptious of me to do anything less than let him speak his mind before I spoke mine.
He started off slow, as if unsure where to begin or what to say.
He was frightened, he told me… not for himself, but for his purpose. For his mission, his duty, his raison d’être. He wanted to be brave. Brave like his fellows, his brothers in arms. Like those that went before him, so as to inspire those that came after.
I watched him, silent, unmoving, faceless. He made purpose and meaning of my silence; he shifted uncomfortably.
He was brave, he assured me… for himself, that is. He wasn’t a turntail, a coward, a deserter. He would go into battle when the call came and fight like his brothers all, never looking back. This he swore. But… what of the others? What of those that were left behind?
He weighed my silence once more, and seemed to find the scales still in balance; or rather, the weight they carried, unchanged.
If he, like so many before him, should be called upon to make that final sacrifice, for friends and family, nation and state, belief and ideology, he wanted to be up to the task. But, he added hesitantly, he did not know how. He was frightened, frightened that his best would not be good enough, that he could not make a better world for those that were left behind. What would happen to them? Would it truly make a difference?
The man must have drawn judgement from my eyes, for despite my lack of response, he looked guilty; shamed.
Perhaps, he admitted, his voice unsteady… perhaps he did not truly want to make that sacrifice. Or, yes, he did, but he also wanted to go on. He wanted to make the sacrifice, but also be allowed to live in that better future. To reap the rewards of his sacrifice, so to speak. He felt a coward, he confided in me, for even thinking those thoughts. He did not want to be the one who did not do his best and give his all to make the future brighter and better for all those that he fought for. He most certainly did not want anyone else to make the sacrifice in his place; on this point, he was adamant. It was his right, his duty, his place, to make that sacrifice. That would not, could not fall to someone else. All of us had their sacrifice to make; their place and time to make that sacrifice. It could not be given unto someone else.
But, he continued, his voice weak… how? How could he know, for sure, that his actions would bring that better and brighter future to those he gave his all for? How could he rest easy, not knowing for certain what happened to those he would leave behind?
He looked at me, pain and anguish mixing with desperation in his eyes. Again he asked me; how? How could he? How could I?
With this, his last statement, his eyes focused on me as if seeing me for the first time that day. The features of his face hardened in desperation, as he asked of me: How?
How did I do it? How did I face that challenge? The knowledge, the near-certainty of the ultimate sacrifice?
The men spoke, he said, his voice hoarse and strained from emotion… they spoke of me. How I was always unfazed, even in the most tense of situations. I was no more special than any of them, and yet, I was in a league so far off as to not warrant comparison. I was different. But why? And how? His brothers in arms, they had their beliefs; some in ideology, some in family. Many had their gods, but not even they, in their darkest moments, seemed to be so untouched by all that which went on around them. He had to know, he told me… he needed me to tell him what I knew.
My silence was his only answer.
He leaned forward farther, to the point where he could well have toppled off the rickety chair, his face intent on mine.
Did I have gods?, he asked me. A curt shake of the head was his reply. He nodded, seemingly not overwhelmed by this. The men spoke, he reiterated… some thought I had gods, but more thought otherwise. What of ideology? Was it my belief in my cause and my flag that so steadied me? Another shake of the head served the man the truth of the matter. Frustration wrinkled his face, but he asked on. What of family? Friends? Loved ones? That would make sense, wouldn’t it? That’s what I fought for, my desire to protect and make a better, brighter world for those back home, wasn’t it? That was the source of my strength?
Thrice asked, thrice denied. A small shake, an exhalation of breath.
Then how?, he demanded, his face livid. Desperation and anguish tinted his voice and, indeed, his very breath. What could ever give me solace when the combined strength of family, friends, loved ones, ideology, state, flag and faith failed to hold up himself and his brothers in arms?
For the first time since he entered my room that day, I spoke.
It was important for him to understand that little did I speak of my beliefs. I had no gods, no faith, as such. I did not believe in divine entities or spiritual existance. Not as such. There would be no afterlife for me, no blessed gates and eternal rewards. No chill of the grave, though yet, indeed, the embrace of that which does not come after. But little did I speak of it, and for good reason; greater men than him had been put ill at ease. I could do but my best to guide and lift up those that came to me; I could but give out advice and solace with my silence and the occasional word to those who were so in need. And indeed, I was respected by those around me, high and low. I was one of them all, one by them all.
But, I told him, I would not ruin the solace his brothers in arms found in my silence by speaking when it would be wise to remain silent. Did he feel differently?
He didn’t, he said, his voice weary and resigned by now. But he had to know.
Moments passed. His eyes were tired and worn down, yes, but they also held resolve.
So I told him. I did not have any family or friends to fight for, ‘back home’. Nor did I have faith in the ideology; the flag and the state. They were my home, yes, but other than that they meant little to me. Gods I never put much faith in; too fickle or absolute, the gods of my fellow man. Too human or not human enough. But there was one absolute, one thing, that did not require my faith; one thing that, no matter the strength of my sacrifice or the world I left behind, would not change.
He was afraid, I reaffirmed… afraid that his sacrifice would not be good enough. Not strong enough to guarantee the better and brighter future that those he left behind deserved. But even more so, he could not rest easy unless he knew for sure that the world was better for his sacrifice, his final duty. And, I told him, why should he?
Many would not make it back home, to see their family, friends and loved ones again. That was what it meant to be here; to be called upon to make that sacrifice. To be asked to give up one’s after, so that others could have an after better and brighter than before. Were those that came home again, unasked to make the ultimate sacrifice, seen as any less than those who had?
No, the man agreed, and yet… yes. Their sacrifice would be ultimate. Their actions untouchable; they would be the reason for the brighter and better world. They had made the sacrifice, after all; how could it be any less? How could any action less than that ultimate sacrifice even compare to the selflessness and nobility of those that came before?
What came before is not that which comes after, I told the man. What is ended does not begin anew; a chapter closed, a story told, can never be told again. When we are called upon to make the final sacrifice, we cannot remain behind to ensure that the world turns better and brighter, as should be. We can only trust in those that are left behind that that world is made to be; to trust in those that have yet to be called upon to make that sacrifice. That is their duty.
In the end, we are all called upon to make that final sacrifice. This is the only absolute. Where we are when that time comes is of no import. What comes after those of us that come before matters little, as well. All that matters when we are called upon to make our sacrifice is that we have comported ourselves as we would have wished to; that all that has come before has meaning in the face of that which does not come after.
That when we are called upon, we mourn not the state of those that come after, but are content with all that which we who came before have wrought.
This, so that when we make the final sacrifice, we make it content; not with our beliefs, or flags, gods or those who come after, but with ourselves.
This, I told him, is why I am ‘unfazed’. This is why I need no gods, no family, no flag, ideology, state or faith. In the end, they do not matter; in the end, I too will be called upon, and I will go, content that I have done what I would have done, had what comes before come again after that which does not come after.
As we stood by the door, I squeezed his hand and placed mine on his shoulder. I would not presume to know what my words meant to him, or how they would come to affect him; nor would I presume to look into his eyes and survey any emotion contained therein, now that I had said what I was asked to say.
It would be presumptious of me to claim that I know what comes after. I am a man, and as a man, I can never know. I can only comport myself as I would have myself do, and act as I would have myself act. It is not for me to pretend to know more than I know, or give what is not mine to give. For man, there is only one absolute, and I go to that absolute content.
A single man left my door on his way back to his tent, that day.
The next morning, there were two.