I was pulling guard duty with a guy named Styza who claimed to be a badass Marine—a real haji killer. As far as I could tell he’d never killed anything, was just some Long Island punk who didn’t want to be a yuppie like his parents. I hated the guy. But I’d been paired with him for everything to this point and was trying my best to get along with him, or at least tolerate him.
“This war is boring,” he said.
“Boring is good,” I said.
I believed that, because what sane person wanted that kind of excitement? I’d only joined the Marines because of my father, who himself had been killed during the invasion of Iraq. Now, five years later, I was sitting in the desert thinking about how stupid that was, my following him, like a dog following its master over a cliff.
Styza leaned into his weapon and scanned the perimeter for movement. He swung around and pointed his rifle at my head.
“See anything worth killing, Rambo?”
“I could end your life right now,” he said.
“You’re too scared to pull the trigger.”
He turned his rifle away and spat out a long trail of tobacco juice near my boot.
I smiled and looked down the road that lead to our post.
“You’ll see,” he said. “I’ll kill so many hajis your head’ll spin.”
“My head’ll spin if you kill one.”
Styza stood up, moved closer to me so that I was covered by his shadow.
“You’re not as big as I thought you were,” I said.
“You keep pushing my buttons,” he said, pressing his pelvis against my shoulder, “and I’m gonna fuck you up. Do you understand me? Do you get that?”
I thought about head-butting him in his junk.
“Roger,” I said.
“You think you’re real funny,” he said, “a regular old joker. Mr. Joke Man.”
“Everything’s serious to me,” I said.
He kept standing there. “You’ll see.”
“What do you want me to say? You’re a warrior, a real killer.”
“Fuck off,” he said, as he sat down, looked away from me.
“I mean it, natural born killer,” I said, patting him on the back, now that I could see how hurt he was.
A few days before, we’d been in a firefight outside Al Asad a minor skirmish where the enemy fired and we fired back, neither of us hitting anything. Styza glued himself to a wall and refused to fire his weapon. He claimed he’d been hit. Later, no one could find the wound. I asked him about that, if he was afraid, worried he’d get killed. He walked away from me. I stood, smoking a cigarette, as he wandered off into a small patch of brush, somewhere he wouldn’t be seen. I can’t be sure, but I thought I heard crying, a soft sad thing, something rising from the bushes. He claimed later that he was just taking a leak.
We’d been up in the guard tower for two hours when a man approached. He stopped fifty yards outside the gate, waving an AK and screaming something in Arabic. A voice came over the radio, “Tower, do you have eyes on the man approaching the gate? Do you see a weapon?”
Styza grabbed at it before I could. “Roger,” he said. “We have eyes on the target.”
It was a beautiful day, not hot and oppressive like it could be. I was reminded of a resort town, the type of place families might vacation.
I leveled my weapon and examined the man. He was firing random bursts into the air.
“Doesn’t look like he’s trying to hurt anyone,” I said, looking up at Styza. “Threat level, zero.”
“What the fuck are you talking about?” he said.
“He’s firing a weapon,” he told me.
I sat back in my chair, placing my hands behind my head. I was thinking about how much time was left before I could go play poker, or jerk off, or grab some food. The thought of killing this man hadn’t even crossed my mind.
The radio called in, “Tower, prepare to fire warning shots.”
Styza leveled his weapon. He was shaking so badly that he could hardly hold onto the thing.
“You all right?” I asked.
He looked at me, wiping the sweat from his brow. I could see the frustration building in his forehead where a purple vein was thickening.
“Breathe,” I said.
Styza lowered his weapon and turned towards me. He looked like he was going to vomit.
“It’s okay,” I said.
He tried to raise his weapon again, but his hands were all over the place. I thought, because of the way he was positioned, that he was going to fire a round and blow off my head.
I reached over and pushed his rifle towards the floor. “Slow down, killer,” I said, “let me handle this part.”
Under the rules of engagement a target becomes live after verbal and physical warnings have been ignored. I let off a burst ten yards in front of the guy and waited, but he only stopped to reload. A few minutes later another call came over the radio declaring the man a live target, which meant we could go ahead and kill him.
Styza sat in his chair trying to get control of his hands. His rifle rested against his knee and he kept talking at it, or to it, I couldn’t tell which. He still looked sick. He seemed to be wrestling with something out of reach, slowly realizing that he was being destroyed.
Just then Lieutenant Camacho arrived in the tower. He looked at Styza and then trained his rifle on the target, “What seems to be the problem, gentlemen?” he said, without lowering his weapon.
Styza said nothing.
I almost felt sorry for him. There was a part of him that was too decent or too scared to do the things war required, and I envied that about him. But mostly I thought it was pathetic.
“Giving our target ample time to retreat,” I said.
“If you’re joking right now, Fitzsimmons,” Lieutenant Camacho said, “I’m not laughing.”
By then our shift was half over. I weighed my options now that the LT was there. They seemed limited. I knew that I was going to be the one to do the killing. This was one of those moments when you realize what kinds of awful things you’re capable of and how you can do them without regret.
The man stood off in the field, still firing rounds at random things. A rabid dog waiting to be put down.
I leveled my weapon.
There were mountains that rose behind him, lush things that I hadn’t expected to see in a desert country. The sun hovered just behind them, covering us all in a purple shadow, so that I couldn’t see the features of his face. But I could see the shape of him, the size and weight.
I took my time examining him. He was heavy-set, I remember that. It surprised me. I thought, perhaps because of the movies, that he would be meek, starved looking. I didn’t imagine why he was this way, if he was, for instance, a middle-aged father. I didn’t care who he was or why he was standing in this field. I didn’t wish that he had gone away after the warning shots. But I had no real interest in killing him either. I was not, like Styza, looking to impress anyone. I knew that killing men was a part of war.
“What’s the hold up?” Lieutenant Camacho said.
I clicked off my safety and adjusted my aim, but before I could fire Styza reached for me.
“Wait,” he said, but made no real effort to stop me, mumbled, “I can do it. I want to,” over and over again.
“No,” I said, shaking his hand off of me.
Two men are reborn together, one asking the other for forgiveness. But I couldn’t give it. There was no kindness in me. And who am I now? What did I expect I’d become?
“You don’t have to do it,” he said.
“You won’t tell the others, will you?”
I looked at the LT, who shook his head and let out a sigh. This whole thing was very pathetic to him.
I leveled my weapon, let out a short burst and watched the man fall to the ground.
After a minute, the LT said, “First kill?”
“Yes, sir,” I said.
He raised his weapon and examined the man I’d shot. I thought, for a second, that maybe I’d only wounded him and raised my weapon to check. But he was not moving. If he was alive he wouldn’t be for long.
Lieutenant Camacho lowered his weapon and patted me on the back. “Good work, son.” He shouldered his rifle and made to leave, but Styza began crying, real tears, the kind that might come if your girl had just left you, the tears of a man who knew that what he wanted was out there, that he’d never get it back.
We didn’t speak for a time.
Later, Styza told the others that it was buck fever, that he was so excited to get his first kill, so overcome with joy, he said, that he couldn’t even aim his weapon. He laughed, but the LT and I, we knew better.
Styza was still sobbing when I reached over and grabbed his weapon away from him. Some men, they don’t have it in them to kill others, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t capable of killing themselves. As I slowly pulled his rifle towards me, he came with it, leaned in so that his head came to rest on my knee. There were tears soaking into my pant leg. I handed the weapon to the LT, who looked at me, his eyes full of genuine disbelief. He left us there, ashamed to watch.
Styza didn’t move from me for some time but instead let out a series of soft moans. It was the kind of noise one might hear coming from a dying animal, worn out and ready to surrender to death. I looked at the mountains as he wept. The sun had sunk behind them and already there were vultures circling in the sky above.
The dead man lay on his back. His giant beer belly gave him the look of a sleeping drunk. When I’ve told this story before people have asked me what I felt, looking down on the first man I’d ever killed. Nothing, I tell them. I felt nothing for him because he was dead. But Styza, he sat there balling like a disappointed child, and though I hated him I felt very sorry for him. I knew what he felt like, finally knowing who he was.
“It’s over,” I said, very softly, once Styza had gone quiet. I lit a cigarette and began cleaning my weapon, dismantling it piece by piece and putting it back together again, the sound a kind of lullaby.