I'm in the back room of a three room pub, in the corner, and at lunch it gets crowded here but today it is dead. The bar tender is staring out the gaps of the shutters, head leaning in his hand, lazy. I'm there about ten minutes before the person I'm meeting shows up.
We'll leave names out. He's not the sort of person who needs any sort of personal attention. What he does, who he works for is itself so buried in the minutia of classifications that I'm not sure I can tie together his organization and his department in the same document out here. He's built like all of those guys: medium tall, medium skinny. Has corrective lenses in military issue chunky black frames (says he gets cash offers for them from hipster chicks, tells them to join the goddamn Marine corps if they want some). He walks in and does that thing that guys like him do, a thing I can't emulate: he measures everything in the room in relation to what it can do for him, to him, or with him.
Walks to the bar and orders a coffee porter. Walks to the table and sits down. I've ordered food, but he's not very hungry; he eats eight or nine times a day, and controls each meal. Not that he never eats out, he just doesn't when he has His Food.
He sits with his back to most of the room. Most of these guys, they actually don't have that odd western gunslinger fear of the room. They already know the entire thing, plus he's not in a Bad Place. Stateside, in motherfucking Texas, he's about as goddamn safe as he can be.
We'd been talking at work in one of the rooms. He's building a network at home, had some questions about the latest wifi gear. He's good at that sort of thing, having been trained to set up wireless communications in rough places before his stint in the service he works in now. He has two masters degrees, one an MBA and the other a mathematics degree. Like most guys in his line of work, actually...he works with a group of guys who have PhDs and multiple degrees in widely varied fields of study. Their primary tasks, though, are to go out, melt into a culture, find bad guys, and capture or kill them. Of those two options, the latter is used more rarely than we all think.
He stares at his beer after sipping it. Goddamn, they put coffee in everything in this country. I had a rack of ribs at a barbequeue joint in Tennessee, they put coffee in the goddamn dry rub. Is everyone here just wired to the goddamn gills? He curses a little more than I do, which is tough to do. He speaks of America as a foreign place because he's spent six years more away than home, and he's finding that other countries are a little more...relaxed? Living oriented? He can't ind the right term for it.
"It's like this," he says, leaning in. "We're falling apart all the time, have been for years, and everyone is in a scramble all the time. Places like Italy," he says, "they don't really scramble. Yeah they'll fight and yell and whatnot, but if something is fucking up, they acknowledge it and figure out a way around it. The politics there, in Italy? Totally fucked up, but publicly so. Not like here. Here we're delusional at best, and victimized at worst. The way I describe it to folks in Europe is, in America the only inevitability is success. That's the delusion. In Europe and especially in eastern Europe the only inevitability is death. Everything else is a process that has happened before, will happen again, and ultimately? It ain't worth the worry."
I ask him about his time in Chechnya, and more specifically his time after in Moscow. He spent two weeks there on leave, practicing his nascent Russian accent. Are they aware that the country is run by the mafia?
"Well, yeah. But it doesn't matter to them, which new big bad mafia is in charge. As long as someone is, and as long as whoever it is isn't trying to kill them directly. Russians can be both defeatist and too damn proud to be defeated. If I were to come back as anything? Russian. Absolutely no one is tougher when the chips are down." He sips his beer. I'm halfway done with mine, and thinking of getting a half pint of the high gravity ale. We chat a bit more about the world, the way people are in it.
"The Brits we work with are pretty amazing. They're odd for what we do, because they default to safe," which he describes as being a mode of behavior that assumes everyone around you is not antagonistic. They keep their weapons on safe. "They don't take shit, but they're very nice to the natives. One of the guys? His dad was a soldier killed by an IRA bomb when he was a tiny kid. He said it took him a long damn time to sort out what he felt for the northern Irish, and he finally settled on pity."
We talk a bit about colonial states and their colonies, how the conquered work. That's his current work, the PhD he's working on in his head and on miles of hard drives: conquering. We talk about Afghanistan. I ask him if he has any regrets. He sort of laughs it off. You can't regret, he says. You just, can't.
"We're at this FOB, well almost a FOB and we're with these chappies, we're teamed three of us to four of them. Only did one op there. The task was basic: there was one of those walled houses in the northern tip of a valley and some eyes had seen vehicles and people moving in and out around the same time as some other activity. Didn't take too long to put two and two together. So they send sixteen of us to handle it."
I'm surprised by the number. That many of that kind of operator is a hell of a lot. That's the sort of force size you send in to take out a target in a very mediapathic way. He shakes his head, says that sometimes it'll be two of them, sometimes it'll be all of them, and whoever decides those things often isn't very good at what they do, but the more the merrier.
"Four helicopters, middle of the night, about twenty degrees on the ground. We're hitting the ground hard and running for about ten k. The fields there...these are winter fields, so the rows are tamped and frozen and they'll fuck you up if you run without thinking about your feet. We lose one guy to a snapped ankle. That sort of shit. We get within a few hundred meters of the compound, and it's lit like Baghdad. We knew they'd hear the helos and we knew they'd at least guess which direction we were coming from, so we had the helos fly low and slow south of us. They drew fire that direction."
Once close enough, the guys set up a point to recon and assess their own operating condition: one guy with a snapped ankle but he was limping OK, and one guy with a puncture wound in his lower leg from a sharp stick meeting him at the end of his fast exit, bleeding but OK.
"So we decide on seeing the size of the compound that we should get air support at least standing up just in case. Then we move in."
I've listened to guys describing building raids, kick-and-storm maneuvers: blow the door, run, gun, cover. This is sort of like that, but a different level of intensity. These guys don't try to kill everything they see, and they try to use shock and awe to disparage any attempt at attack: flash-bangs, smoke, heavy and fast movements with much physical contact. But this place? They already had weapons drawn, waiting sleepily for the demon to arrive.
"We breached three holes at once, and it was like rugby with guns."
He sips his beer. Thinks for a bit. Most guys, they don't tell you much about the actual 'I took his fucking head off with a spork' stuff. This guy, he'll talk about it but it becomes very mechanical. His eyes sort of de-focus.
"One pops his head up right in front of me, and he's gone. I get around a corner and three more are sort of staring at the guy. We're screaming in like four different languages to drop the weapons, drop the weapons. Two more satchels go off in what must have been the fucking barn, because animal parts, goddamn goat bits everywhere. One of the guys is on comms screaming about a room full of MT [their unit slang, "martyr tools," mainly anything that can kill something] and there's pretty concentrated fire from what would be the front of this place. The three guys, I'm down to one guy, and he just, hands up...actually throws his rifle, some old fucking Enfield, straight up in the air. Tackle him and ziptie, and move, and the next little corridor there's four dead from the earlier pyro. We're down to sporadic fire from the front of the place, and I run across three more guys ziptied, two more dead. I stop this kid...he raised his goddamn rifle and screamed and, well, he's down. We get to the front of the place and they're holed up in some sort of bunker thing behind a berm. One of my guys basically walks over to the goddamn thing and just rolls a grenade in. We spot five more trying to leave from these tunnels...pretty rough tunnels under the walls of the place, probably irrigation of some sort. Then we blow the weapons room, gather the zip ties, and move."
I'm on my second beer, he's still nursing that first four ounces. Guy can take all day to drink a goddamn beer.
"We pull back, and we're heading back across this field catching sporadic fire from the edges of another field. We're pulling the ziptied with us, and one of them starts really freaking right the fuck out. Just screaming and digging in his heels, and we can't really carry him with all the kicking and screaming, so we put him on the ground and start to get his legs bound up, and he gets up and just sprints. Dude has a hood over his head, hands behind his back, one goddamn shoe, and he just sprints. One of the guys starts after him and the kid, screaming, jumps into a little culvert type thing, an irrigation ditch, and explodes."
He takes a big gulp of the beer.
"Mines. They'd mined parts of the fields, or the Russians had way back when, or who knows. He just jumped and wham. The guy chasing him gets shrapnel and bits all over him. Our ride is five out, so we just press on, avoiding areas that looked un-turned. Got to the helos, got back up in the air. The guys we'd ziptied, we take their hoods off, they're quiet. One of the crew offers them water, and they all take some. They look at us, eyes huge, you can actually smell the fear on them. This one kid, the one I didn't pop? He's staring at me," he takes a drink, "eyes wide, kid can hardly breathe. We must look like something from the future, all that hardware. I'm staring at him, adrenaline finally falling, just stare at him. Thinking, I should have killed this kid."
I sip the last of my beer. We go back to talking about WiFi while I eat a burger and he chews down an oatmeal stout.
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