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The Army of the Old

T. H. Yuan

     In your country, you send your children to battlefields to die. We aren’t so cowardly here. At eighty, we are drafted. Those of us who can still walk join the ground forces. The rest man the drones.

     It wouldn’t do to send our young. They have years of laboring and loving and raising children left in them. But for us, the elders: we have lived decades in the land of plenty. They say that when we die, all the dogs we have ever loved come running towards us. So. We are ready for our homegoing.

     How can we convey to the generations to come that our weapons are necessary for peace? It used to be bad, we would say. Civilians died by the thousands on one man’s word. Whole apartment blocks flattened on a whim. We won’t die like that. To live in peace, we are armed to the teeth. It’s in our milk. We spit it out of our cereal.

     Until eighteen, we trained to live. After eighty, we train to die. We spend weeks in boot camp. The program is regimented, rigorous. It’s a relief after decades of making our own choices, to surrender to structure. Freed from the minutiae! The same breakfast, the same exercises – twenty repetitions – the same books after the same dinners. Some of us die, buckling under the new schedule. The floor of our training gymnasium is padded because we periodically fall in pain and in ecstasy.

     Many of us are roused by the routine. In retirement, we dozed on our sofas, spending more time unconscious than awake. Bellies distended. Nitpicking our children. Now we are spry. We run for miles. Our bodies are purposeful, divine machines. A second life, after retirement, a final life, better than bingo and a cruise.

     During our prostrations before the flag, we rise and fall like ocean waves. In your country, you can’t imagine what it would be like to die for your people. You won’t give up your television, much less your life. We are generous, giving to our last breath.

     We are dispatched in battalions. Vertical chains of command, fusing efficiently, we are told, at the top. We pray to be assigned to outposts where the men and women still have all their teeth and hair. We hope the sea wind will be gentle on our arthritis.

     We invade the country where three men own all the land, insisting, to their countrymen, that everyone deserves their respective lots. We liberate slaves who still fancy themselves to be slave owners.

     We don’t consider ourselves an empire. We simply defend against medieval horrors. We have heard that entire faiths used to be wiped out, in the back of a gas truck. We don’t abide it.

     The first time we see blood on the screen, we think it must be paint.

     It only takes seconds to end a life. Our shock is mixed with our awe. We pray for every life we take. We didn’t ask for this responsibility, but we think of our children sleeping snug in their beds. We think of the pools and highways we have built. Marketplaces where we accumulated our trinkets.

     We become forces of nature. We strike like lightning. Fire on their trenches. Storm the beach. Flood their mainframes and smoke them out.

     A country is not something to be taken lightly. A country is something we enact, day by day. 

     Bodies are soft, like butter. We can’t make mistakes, but we do. The children we kill never see us coming. The men we mutilate are stunned and stupid. Not registering the magnitude of their own actions, and ours, in retaliation. We think they deserve it.

    We reassure ourselves. We reassure our captives. We do not punish; we cherish. Even this pink stump, softening under the sun. Even this iron stench. 

    We are often cranky. Not from the work, brutal though it is, but from our ailments. Our living quarters. We had grown soft and oily from years of leisure, but we gave up our earplugs and white noise machines to sleep naked in the desert. The canvas suspends the night sky from us. Oblivion, but inky. We dream of falling upwards. We dream of a really juicy burger.

     We oil our atomic toys. We monitor yours. We strike weddings and funerals. It is easiest to strike a man exercising in his garden on a sunny day. Some of us used to be surgeons and are familiar with the act of cutting into bad growth. It’s intimate, how closely we surveil; personal, who we decide to kill.

     We shoot the deserters. We shoot the traitors. We give candy to the civilians. As the great philosophers bid us to do, in the thick of suffering, we look again.

      In our old lives, we segregated ourselves. Layers and layers removed from jostling other bodies, staying home and watching personalized television programs. Here, we brush against each others’ shoulders. Trim each others’ nose hairs. Vacuum-sealed beef stroganoff tastes better seasoned with fear, as the missiles whiz by overhead. We are tendrils of the same, soft mass. Temporary, but many.

     We burn an entire city to the ground without blinking, and howl to see a dog emerge, limping, from the rubble. We prostrate ourselves. We pray.

     We miss our children. We miss them so much – and our grandchildren, and their children - so many of them that we have lost count of all the birthdays. We start to think the faces we are surveilling resemble our sons and daughters. An enemy woman stands on the street corner, flagging down the bus, in a familiar gesture. We forget that these people have nothing to do with us. The young do not have our handicap, but we are old. We have lived so many seasons, holding babies to our hips, and we cannot forget the sensation. We hesitate before pulling the trigger.

    We hear of pockets of us, surrendering. We hear that some of us defected. We know of some commanders casting their stripes aside, walking into foreign marketplaces, marveling at the symmetry. The same sweetheart jingle, miles from the old country.

    One of us walks from his outpost for forty straight days across the borders and a mountain range. He returns to his children, gathered around the dinner table, with the pot roast still warm and fragrant, and tells them, “It wasn’t human. How they lived. What we did.”

    Our squad mates know what we want to do, though we have never discussed it out loud.

    It’s a Friday.

    We lower our machine guns and land our drones. We don’t plan on killing again. We tremble all over. We don’t feel brave. We are terrified of what will happen to us, but we are more terrified of what we will do if we continue.

    The men and women we kill are somebody’s parents, somebody’s children from some time ago. And even if our fingers are numb, such that we graze our cheeks and feel nothing, our stomachs are not. They sour with every kill.

    We are not sure how many of our compatriots are doing the same. We look at our commanders, expecting their pistols to be pointed at our backs, but they, too, unload their clips. We have depended on each other for survival, for so many years, in isolation, that our bodies move as one. Vertical chains of command can be efficiently snipped at every juncture. 

    The radios buzz, asking why we have abandoned our posts. We switch them off, listening to our bodies pound with every heartbeat. When we switch the radios on again, we hear the news, from north to south, from base to base: soldiers on strike.

    We do not know what stories our children will hear about us in the old country, whether we will be celebrated or reviled. There are limits to our knowledge. We won’t take anything with us into our deaths, and we can only know what we have chosen for ourselves. 

    A country is something we enact, day by day, and, today, ours will fight no more.

    We could go home. It’s no small thing to admit that we were wrong, that our projects have failed. But we can’t retreat. We can only repair.

    We are told that in your country, you would do anything not to die. We hear you have invented elaborate ways to prolong the process. We hear you freeze your skin in silicon. We hear you haven’t looked at each other naked, with the lights on, in years.

     If we have our single souls, and just these hours and these acts accumulating into days, what can we fix? If we cast down our guns, who will we find at the other end of the barrel? We don’t know if you are prepared, as we are, for sublimation. 

    We run at you, holding nothing in our bare hands, wanting only to touch and hold that awesome other, screaming only that it’s over.

T. H. Yuan is a Taiwanese-American writer. She has previously won the American Bar Association's "Legal Tech Fictional Writing Competition." Her work appears in The Other Journal and additional fiction is forthcoming through The Angry Gable Press.
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