Tag Archives: fiction

Maritime Security and the Arts

Earlier this year we ran a short series of submissions highlighting fiction’s power to illuminate insights about possible futures. Our colleagues at War on the Rocks and the Atlantic Council run a similar, on-going project – the Art of Future Warfare – that is well worth checking out.

Next week we’ll use the power of historical fiction to likewise draw out timeless themes of warfare and security with the help of our friends, the Scots. If you’re in DC and would like to participate, let us know. Here’s the official press release:

Introducing #Shakespeare and Strategy

Image-5-470x394This February, the Shakespeare Theatre Company (STC) is bringing the National Theatre of Scotland’s production of David Greig’s Dunsinane to the nation’s capital. The STC’s Young Professionals Consortium, in partnership with The Strategy Bridge and the Center for International Maritime Security, has organized #Shakespeare and Strategy, a special online seminar to accompany this exciting play.

Dunsinane picks up where Macbeth leaves off, telling the story of the fight to restore order and stability to Scotland after regicide. Grieg’s work is much more than a sequel to one of the great entries in the Western canon; written during the fall of Saddam Hussein’s Iraq, Grieg explores both the clash of national identities as well as the challenge of restoring peace and nation building in a hostile foreign land. As STC Artistic Director Michael Kahn says “Dunsinane is a timely and powerful piece, and one that serves our mission to produce works inspired by Shakespeare and his contemporaries, delivered in a modern voice. This is a play that will resonate with today’s audiences.”

For the rest of the run of the play, you can look forward to hearing from the unique perspective of part of Dunsinane’s audience – young veterans, military officers, and defense professionals who will share their reactions on the play and how it relates to their own experiences and challenges.

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Participants:

Shakespeare Theatre Company’s Young Professionals Consortium is an enthusiastic network of innovative young professionals from around the Nation’s Capital with a mission to cultivate an appreciation for theatre among young professionals through the productions of the Shakespeare Theatre Company. Learn more about the YPC on Facebook.

The Strategy Bridge is an online publication on strategy, national security, and military affairs. It is edited by Nathan Finney, Rich Ganske, Mikhail Grinberg, and Tyrell Mayfield and features writing from a diverse collection of military officers, defense civilians, and academics. Join the conversation at www.thestrategybridge.com.

The Center for International Maritime Security (CIMSEC) is a non-partisan think tank formed in 2012 and as of 2015 has members and chapters in more than 30 countries. CIMSEC’s mission is to build a global community of professionals, academics, and forward thinkers from a variety of fields who wish to further international maritime peace and security through an exchange of ideas and the rigor of critical thought and writing. Join us at www.cimsec.org.

 

Follow all of the entries, including those from CIMSEC and Nate Finney’s kick-off post at the STC’s Asides blog. If you have the chance to see the show and would like to participate, let us know.

 

The Wasp Keepers

This piece by Mark Jacobsen is re-printed with permission from the War Stories Anthology as part of our Future Military Fiction Week for the New Year. The week topic was chosen as a prize by one of our Kickstarter supporters.

By Mark Jacobsen

HAMZA HAD JUST FINISHED PUMPING gas into a fruit truck when he jerked upright and swatted the back of his neck with one palm. He whirled around, eyes bulging, searching frantically for his Wasp before his eyes rolled up into his head and he collapsed sideways onto the hot pave- ment. The fruit truck was already pulling away. The driver didn’t stop.

Um Hamza didn’t see it happen, but that was how Tariq described it through his breathless sobs, the screen door still banging on its hinges behind him. She had been sitting at her desk composing an email on her phone. When Tariq finished, he threw his arms around her and cried into her neck like a child. Um Hamza set the phone down carefully and sat and stared into the distance, heart beating savagely.

She had lived this moment so many times in her nightmares, both sleeping and waking. How could she not? Even without war, there were so many ways it could come: a neighbor backing out of a driveway, an aspi- rated grape, a toppled bookcase, a tangled bed sheet, an electrical outlet, a few centimeters of water in an unattended bath.

For Um Hamza, it was immeasurably worse. There were government tanks, air strikes, roadside bombs, poison gas, cruise missiles, collapsing buildings,  malnourishment,  disease, kidnappings,  Farsi-speaking  trainers with rocket launchers and machine guns. And of course, there were the masked militiamen who had executed her brother, burned their home, and driven them across the Jordanian border into the Za’atri refugee camp. So when she’d held that warm bundle for the first time in the camp clinic and looked into her son’s wrinkled pink face, all she could think about was his death. For two weeks, depression kept her in bed. Her mother changed Hamza’s diapers, rocked him, played with him and brought him to her for mechanical feedings. Hamza’s seventeenth birthday was like a sentencing. When the card arrived from the Syrian Transitional Authority, she sobbed for hours. It still sat on her desk, a wretched, superstitious totem that she was terrified to destroy. Birthday cake and candles on one side; on the other, a happy, smiling, cartoon bee. FOR YOUR PROTECTION, the card said in Arabic above a QR code and an explanation of “What You Need to Know.” When the Wasp itself buzzed into the olive grove a few days later, she watched it for hours, shaking feverishly. For weeks she wouldn’t let Hamza outdoors without her. She even walked him down to the gas station and back, to his burning shame, their two Wasps buzzing along in trail. It was inevitable, she knew. And she was right.

She put an arm around Tariq’s shoulders and walked outside with him. Her Wasp sat on a sunny spot of the porch railing, recharging. When it saw her it fluttered skyward, an obscene little blot against the blue sky.

As they walked the kilometer down to the gas station, she could see the cars pulling off the highway, the men running. When she came around from the back of the gas station, she saw her husband kneeling on the pavement, muttering to God and rocking their limp boy in his arms. A ring of bystanders stood around them, whispering and praying. Uncle Fouad stood among them, red-faced, yelling into his cell-phone. Something about a fruit truck.

The Wasp lay on the ground, broken, twitching. Hamza must have caught it with his final slap. A machine, gray and small, muscle wire sup- porting insectile wings that were solar cells, coiled around a microproces- sor and communications link and of course the toxin pouch and stinger. She raised a foot to grind it beneath her heel, but then considered how her own Wasp might react and gently placed her foot back on the ground.

She looked back to Hamza. Her beautiful, sweet boy, undiminished by seventeen years of poverty and war. Her boy, who had spent his summer turning wrenches and changing spark plugs with his father and grandfather in the auto shop. Who went door-to-door each Ramadan, on his own initiative, collecting donations for the Islamic Relief Mis- sion. Who once sobbed with guilt when he shot a stray cat with a pellet gun, back when the possession of such things was not a death sentence. Dear, sweet Hamza.

She realized there was a separate group crowding around the doors of the convenience store on the far side of the pumps. She blindly grabbed at Uncle Fouad’s arm. He pulled away from the cell phone for a moment.

She pointed at the store. “What…?”

“It’s your father. They got him too. I’m sorry.”

Her legs gave out, and she sank to the pavement beside her husband. She had held herself together only because she had rehearsed this dreaded theater so many times in her mind’s eye, but this was a blow she had not seen coming.

She touched Hamza’s cold face and began to scream.

 

The police were afraid to approach the bodies, as this was an Occupation strike. There was no telling what might provoke another Wasp attack. They masked their fear and incompetence by blowing whistles and barking orders and making half-hearted efforts to clear out the spectators who were shooting video with their mobiles or AR glasses. One officer ques- tioned witnesses, but his questions followed no logical path and he didn’t bother to write down the answers. No, sir, he didn’t do anything threaten- ing. He was pumping gas. Yes, gas. He was filling up a fruit truck.

Ten minutes after the police came, Uncle Fouad’s phone rang. He

listened without speaking and hung up. He said, “They took out the fruit truck about five kilometers north of here. Three people.”

A murmur passed through the crowd. Another piece in the puzzle.

Above them, their Wasps whirled and danced, glimpsing faces, recording their expressions and judging their body language.

An entourage from the mosque arrived in a rusting blue van. The crowd parted as Hajj Omar disembarked, leaning on a wooden crutch to compensate for the leg he had lost in Homs. A scar divided the right side of his face from top to bottom, running clean through a cloudy gray eye. The crowd fell silent before this presence. He recited the Fatiha and per- formed the final rites for Hamza and Abu Khalid, and then delivered a sermon which became a blistering tirade against the Syrian Transitional Authority and the Occupation.

Um Hamza left before he was finished. She collapsed into bed and cried until sleep took her.

She  woke  after  sunset,  when  Abu  Hamza  climbed  into  bed  and touched her shoulder. She turned brusquely away from him, but he started to cry. Ashamed, she rolled over to touch him. It was dreary sex, sad and distant, a feeble echo of what their marriage had once been. Afterwards they held each other, but even that tenderness lacked intimacy. It was like two strangers holding hands as their crippled plane careened to the earth.

 

She woke to sunlight and quiet. The entire household was still asleep. She brewed a cup of tea, then went outside to pluck some fresh mint from the garden. She marveled at the serenity of the still-waking world. The olive trees were perfection itself: rows of them standing like sentinels, unmoved by even the faintest of breezes. A single black bird flapped across the sky.

She sat beneath an olive tree and leaned up against the trunk and sipped her tea. This is all she had ever wanted, this moment stretched into a lifetime. Cool mornings and olive trees and silence.

Her Wasp took up station over her.

“Good morning,” she said in English.

The Wasp gave no indication it had heard, but of course it had. It heard everything. Saw everything. Even smelled everything. All that data was aggregated and beamed to the United States and Canada and God knew where else, where it was filtered and analyzed and processed in vast server farms. Intelligent algorithms crunched away, drawing connections, matching words and behavior to pattern libraries, then sent their conclu- sions before hordes of young analysts sitting in the blue wash of computer screens. Perfect seeing. Perfect knowledge. And, when the wrong two pat- terns overlapped, perfect death.

He’d been pumping gas. What kind of pattern was that?

She went inside and found a pack of cigarettes in her husband’s jacket. She returned to her shaded spot under the tree and lit up. She smoked three cigarettes while she cruised the social networks on her phone, trying to forget, procrastinating. She’d been a queen in that world, once, back in the heady days when the revolution was young and the future was theirs for the making.

She had been a true believer. She marched with the protestors and shot video and live-tweeted massacres and built a following of more than fifteen thousand people. She made friends with activists and journalists and Middle East experts across the world. When the regime met  their  protests  with  war,  she  redoubled  her  efforts.  And  then, when the artillery barrages and the gunmen came to her village and they fled across the border to the Za’atri camp, she blogged every- thing.

She won prizes. Journalists sought her in person. She struck up an online friendship with a hacker in the Free Syrian Army, and when they discovered weeks later that they were both in the Za’atri camp, the future was written. The pregnancy came first, then a hasty marriage. A few years earlier this would have destroyed her family, but in Za’atri honor and shame were relics. They had never imagined the war would rage for nearly two decades. Never imagined it would end like this, in this frozen horror that was somehow worse than all that had come before. All that history had ground her down to almost nothing.

Her writing output was a lethargic trickle these days, and she was mostly forgotten. Mostly, but not entirely. She still knew people.

She started to compose an email.

It was around five o’clock that evening when Tariq came running to tell her that Wasp Keepers were approaching on the highway. She sent a text to Abu Hamza and Uncle Fouad, who were down at the gas station work- ing, and then went to the bathroom to wash her face and reapply her makeup. When she was finished, she put on her hijab and went out to the porch. The convoy had just turned off the highway. A cluster of dusty children watched mutely from the side of the road, one of them holding a soccer ball under his arm.

The convoy consisted of a mine-resistant  Army truck and a silver

BMW surrounded by a swarm of Wasps. A squat steamroller the size of a Smart Car preceded the vehicles, feeling for IEDs buried in the road.

There were four soldiers, enveloped in so much armor and gear that the only things recognizably human about them were the square jaws ex- posed beneath the black goggles. When the first three dismounted, they went right past her and took up positions on the road. The fourth was a captain.

The captain nodded at her, then looked expectantly back to the BMW. The sole occupant of the car was a Syrian man about her father’s age, dressed in a striped collared shirt and a dusty blue sport coat. AR glasses enveloped his face. He did not immediately get out of the car. His window was rolled down, and Um Hamza could hear that he was on a call, negoti- ating a price. He drummed one hand on the steering wheel and gesticulat- ed with the other. He looked familiar, so while they all waited, Um Hamza discreetly snapped a photo of him and ran a search. The match was instant. The district police chief.

When he was finally finished, he got out of the car and both he and the captain came forward.

“As-salaam aleykum,” the captain said. He raised his goggles and there was a human face beneath, handsome and blonde and blue-eyed. “Ana kteer aasif likhsarit ibnik wa abooki.”

Um Hamza was impressed that this soldier had learned enough Arabic to say that. She also thought that if he offered any more sympathy for her loss, she would rip out his tongue and shove it down his throat.

The captain said that it would be best to visit the scene of the strike, so they walked down to the gas station, their Wasps a snarled cloud above them. The captain took off his helmet as they walked, a gesture Um Hamza knew was calculated to demonstrate trust, as if the mere act of exposing his sunburned scalp could somehow atone for the death of her boy and her father. By the time they reached the gas station they were pale with dust and the sweat ran down their backs. The captain intro- duced himself to Abu Hamza and Uncle Fouad, and then they all sat in plastic chairs in the customer service area adjacent to the auto shop while Tariq served Arabic coffee. When they were finished, he stacked the cups and sat down opposite the captain, glaring murderously at him. Um Hamza’s sister-in-law Noor arrived shortly after with a fruit tray and a bowl of dates. Um Hamza took the plate from her and offered it to the captain, and kept insisting until he finally took a single slice of apple. The police chief waved at her dismissively and lit up a cigarette.

“Why did you come?” Um Hamza asked while Noor poured a round of tea.

“You have some friends who really care about you,” everyone heard in a mechanical Arabic dialect. The captain subvocalized in English as a device on his chest translated.

“For God’s sake, turn that thing off,” Um Hamza said. “Which one was it?”

The captain shrugged and touched the device. In English he said,

“Logan Keesler ran a story. It got noticed in Washington.”

Um Hamza translated for her family. “So they sent you to pacify me?” “I just came to talk,” he said. His eyes were bloodshot and distant. He looked like he hadn’t slept in days. “You have the right to know why your son was targeted.”

“He was seventeen,” Um Hamza said.

The captain opened a camouflage bag at his side and handed them each a pair of AR glasses. Everyone turned them over in their hands suspiciously before putting them on. The captain said, “We know your family has been in the auto service industry for a long time. A whole chain of gas stations and auto shops before the war, right? You lost everything at the start of the war, but after three years in Za’atri, the three brothers returned home and got back into the business. It’s pretty remarkable you were able to finance all this.”

Um Hamza translated. Fouad glared at the captain.

The captain rose and stepped outside to survey the gas station. He said, “You made some interesting friends.”

They rose to join him so they could see what he was looking at.

A row of beat-up pickup trucks and vans was parked in front of the little masjid where customers  could pray during gas  stops. Gathered outside the door was a crowd of grim, thickly bearded Salafists toting handguns  and  AK-47s.  The  imagery  was  perfectly  positioned  and scaled, but it was black and white and heavily pixilated. While she watched, a younger clone of Uncle Fouad appeared and embraced one of the Islamists. They exchanged kisses on their cheeks.

“They were fighting the regime,” Fouad said in Arabic. “They just came to pray.”

“Understandable,” the captain said without missing a beat. He was probably still receiving machine translations. “But you spent hours with them. And they came a lot. Even after you knew they were pledged to al- Qa’eda, even after they toppled the regime and created their own government and you saw what they were capable of. Your brother Abu Khalid led prayers for them. He sat for hours with them teaching them about Islam. I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say he was a spiritual mentor of sorts.”

“He taught anybody who would listen,” Um Hamza protested. “He thought they were misguided, maybe not even Muslim, but he thought the answer to that was more Islam, more truth.”

“And that’s why he smuggled weapons for them?”

Um Hamza broke into tears. The captain knew so much, he knew everything, and yet he understood nothing. It was all wrong, it was all cameras and robots and a string of connected dots that added up to something different from the wretched story they had lived.

She remembered when the Islamists first turned up at their gas sta- tion. Uncle Fouad, as it turned out, had worked some kind of deal with a mujahideen group in the Za’atri camp. They’d needed to smuggle weapons and ammunition into Syria, which meant they needed someone who knew vehicles and logistics. Fouad had acquired startup capital, bought the gas station, and used his contacts on both side of the border to build up a logistics network to import auto parts into Syria. Auto parts, that is, with a few bonus packages in the mix.

It had seemed a small enough thing, the kind of shadow bargaining on which survival depended in those violent days, but that deal took on a life of its own. The gas station got a reputation. Anti-regime fighters converged there, both the moderate types who’d been trained by the Americans in Jordan and the sneering Salafists who were just as likely to kill in- sufficiently pious Sunnis as they were regime soldiers. At first they negotiated business deals. Then they asked favors. Then they made demands. Uncle Fouad said no precisely one time. That experiment ended with Uncle Hatim, the third brother, dead in a ditch after torture by power drill.

That was the partnership Um Hamza remembered. Angry, bearded men. Guns. Terror. Extortion. But the captain walked them through his own narrative of these events, which unfolded before their eyes in a hurri- cane of light and color, the quality of the visuals improving sharply as the years raced by. Here was a full-service gas station that was a virtual safe house for terrorists and a key node in an arms smuggling ring. That’s what the Wasps saw. What the fusion centers assessed. Seventeen years of fear, condensed into one storyline, missing context and everything that comprised the normal fabric of their lives. Yes, they’d made terrible compromises, but hadn’t everyone? What choice did they have?

“But Hamza had nothing to do with this,” Um Hamza said.

“Three months ago your son took possession of an SA-14, an advanced MANPAD for shooting down airplanes. He was to hold it for safekeeping. He stashed it right there, in the back of your parts storeroom.”

Fouad swore in Arabic and wiped his face with one hand.

The transaction unfolded before their eyes, a living recreation of the past. An old gray Mazda pulling up to the pump. Hamza leaning in the window and talking to the driver. The driver extending a wad of bills. Hamza looking around, then signaling the driver to pull into the auto shop. The visuals were flawless. Um Hamza fought the urge to run to him, to embrace him, to plead with him to stop.

“He just wanted money,” Um Hamza said, the tears running down her cheeks now. “He probably didn’t even know what it was.” “He knew. Later he showed Tariq.”

Um Hamza shot a look at Tariq, who shook his head violently. He was crying.

“Yesterday, a customer arrived to claim the package,” the captain said. Here came the fruit truck, rumbling up to the gas pumps belching greasy black smoke. Hamza went to meet it, oblivious to the fact that he had only minutes to live.

The captain said, “It was an active plot. The Islamists intended to use the weapon a few hours later, when the Syrian president returned from Paris. The Transitional Authority acted.”

The captain slowly took off his glasses and tucked them carefully in the bag, as if sobered by the tragedy of what he had just explained. “I am genuinely sorry for the loss of your loved ones, but you brought this on yourselves. This is the life you raised Hamza into. When he came of age, he made some terrible choices of his own.”

“You know nothing about him!”

“On the contrary, we know everything about him.”

“Do you have any idea what it’s like?” Um Hamza cried. “What? ”

“War. ”

“I know about war. ”

“No, that’s not what I mean. Not what you’re doing. I mean war. The things you have to do. The choices you have to make. The consequences if you don’t. The fear. ” She wiped her eyes. “You don’t have any idea what I’m talking about. ”

The captain frowned and looked out at the horizon for a long time, as if lost in some terrible memory. Despite all his gear, armor, and the cloud of Wasps ready to make war on his behalf, he looked exhausted beyond his years, even a little fragile. Um Hamza wondered how many times he had had this conversation.

“Just once,” he said softly, still looking to the sunburnt horizon, “I want to find one Syrian who is grateful for what we’ve done for this country. What we’ve sacrificed, the friends we’ve lost. You’ve been at war almost as long as I’ve been alive, and we’ve stopped the cycle. Do you realize how incredible that is?”

“You killed my father and my son.”

“They chose to fight,” the captain said, shrugging. “I don’t get it. I wish someone could explain it to me. How many more decades of war do you want?”

“We want to be free,” said Abu Hamza.

“You are free, as long as you don’t fight. No one dies unless he chooses to. There’s no more strategic bombing, no more ground occupation,   no   more   drone   strikes,   no   more   collateral   damage.   It’s just…awareness. Knowledge. Insurgency is impossible. We’ve freed you from violence, given you the best chance in years for a peaceful new future. I don’t understand why you can’t accept that.”

Peace? she thought, looking at the police chief, who had wandered off and was negotiating some new deal on his expensive imported AR head- set. This is peace?

“I am sorry for your loss,” the captain said “This was a needless tragedy. I hope you’ll think long and hard about the choices that lie ahead. You still have one son. I pray to God that you will choose a future of peace, in sha’ Allah.”

The captain put on his helmet and nodded to the police chief that it was time to leave.

“Thank you for the tea,” he said.

 

That night they sat on the patio, drinking coffee and smoking sullenly. Their Wasps hovered above them in the warm orb cast by the porch light. It would have been safer to stay inside, but it was a pleasant night and they refused to be intimidated. There was something thrilling about sitting in front of those watchful eyes, putting their hatred on open display. In a world where resistance was impossible, even talking was an act of courage. “That police chief,” Fouad said between angry puffs on the nargeelah.

“That fucking BMW.”

He was drunk. Um Hamza didn’t know when or how he’d achieved that feat, as he never drank in front of the family, but he’d done a thor- ough job of it.

“You know him?” Um Hamza asked.

“Yeah, I know him,” Fouad said, the smoke pouring forth from his lips, as if he was trying to excise the very memory of the police chief from his body. “You two haven’t asked the question, but I know you’re dying to. Why the hell is it Fouad that’s sitting here smoking and drinking instead of your father?”

It was true. She had wondered exactly that. Her father had been a simple man, kind and pious and respectable, without a hint of guile. Fouad was the shrewd empire builder who had turned an auto parts supply chain into a profitable arms smuggling network.

“About six months ago, that police chief came by the gas station. The Occupation was sharing all its intel with him. He knew everything. You know why he came by? He wanted a cut. To keep quiet. I told him no.”

Fouad started to laugh, and swung his head from side to side in exag- gerated, drunken disbelief.

“Son a bitch knew how to pay me back,” he said. He raised his coffee cup. “Long live the peaceful new Syria.”

 

Um Hamza knocked gently on the boys’ door. When she heard nothing, she turned the knob. She stood in the doorway, the light behind her illuminating the shape of Tariq asleep in one bed and the tangled, empty sheets on the other. She studied the sheets, marveling at them. Exactly as Hamza had left them when he rose from bed yesterday.

She knelt beside her living son. He was so different from his brother.

Even with all that had happened, Hamza had a natural sweetness to him, a legacy of his grandfather. He loved God. But Tariq hated, and for him life itself was a war. That manifested itself in everything. The rage. The argu- ments. He often came home bruised and bloody, and refused to say where he had been or what had happened. At least twice, he had sent other boys to the hospital. He needed violence the way he needed air.

Sleep effaced all that, wound the clock back to a time before the war had damaged him. Amazing that her child still lurked in there, after all that he had suffered. It wasn’t his fault, being the way he was. He was a good boy, a strong boy who in a better life would have gone on to do such great things. But here…

 

In three years they would receive another birthday card, and another Wasp would find its way into their olive grove. One more node would appear in the Occupation’s vast Syrian intelligence matrix. When that hap- pened, Tariq would die. It might be two days or it might be two years, but the boy who couldn’t help fighting in the streets would most certainly fight the Occupation.

If the Occupation did not end, Tariq would die. But it wouldn’t end. It couldn’t. The least relaxation of control would mean chaos.

She thought back to the captain’s words. The Wasp Keepers had ended almost two decades of war. It was nothing short of a miracle, unprecedented in history. Perfect knowledge. Perfect killing. War that was as intimate as a friend sitting next to you, a friend that would protect you from all harm but would also kill you with a kiss if you let slip any hint of treason.

It was hatefully, intolerably perfect.

And yet there were no winners, not even the Occupation. The captain had understood that. He was exhausted and embittered by a war that, for all his impressive ability to control, had not delivered victory. The things that mattered most were still beyond their reach.

If they could not win, that meant they could still lose. The thought electrified her. After that revelation, everything fell into place.

She kissed Tariq on the head. Maybe she could yet save his life.

There was one thing she could still do. One choice they could all make. It was the single choice that eluded the Occupation’s control, and that terrified them.

The rest of the night passed like a dream. For the first time since childhood, she was free. She went to her husband and gave herself to him, not because he was entitled to it but because she chose to. For a few moments she felt something of what she’d once known with this talented young revolutionary in the Za’atri camp. Afterward, while he slept, she wrote letters. Longhand. Beyond the reach of the Occupation. She left them trifolded on her desk, the names written on the back in elegant Arabic calligraphy.

After that she sat outside beneath her olive tree. It was still, and silent, and the stars wheeled freely in the sky as if there had never been a war and war was something altogether inconceivable. The peace she had always wanted. She recalled memories of Hamza, and of Tariq, and of her husband before the war had changed him. Of her father, leading prayers in the gas station masjid for poor refugees with their battered cars, limping their way northward again after the first lull in the fighting.

 

She sat beneath the tree until the sky began to lighten in the east, and the first cars appeared down on the highway. Then she rose on stiff joints and brushed herself off. One leg had fallen asleep. She hobbled over to the porch, shaking the leg awake again. She had composed the email to Logan Keesler earlier in the night. She sent it now, then propped the phone up on the railing and started a video recording.

She said a few words into the camera. Then she smiled and turned.

Her Wasp stared down at her, a motionless black smear in the sky. The  other  family  Wasps  were  perched  on the  railing,  charging  in the morning sun. Stupid, mindless  things. They knew everything  and they knew nothing.

She reached into the folds of her robe and withdrew the cigarette lighter and the can of hairspray. With one flick of her wrist, her Wasp was a burning point of brightness in the sheet of flame.

It hadn’t yet hit the ground when the other Wasps converged on her. She felt the hot pricks of the stingers, and a moment later the olive grove spun sideways.

Mark Jacobsen is a C-17 Instructor Pilot and Middle East Specialist in the US Air Force, and is currently working towards a PhD in Political Science at Stanford University. When he isn’t writing about drones in Syria, he is building them; as the Executive Director of the Syria Airlift Project  he is developing a new paradigm for swarming humanitarian aid into besieged or hard-to-reach areas. He has one novel available, The Lords of Harambee, about a military peacekeeping force that is ordered not to intervene in a genocide.

An Unknown Unit

This piece by W. Alejandro Sanchez is  part of our Future Military Fiction Week for the New Year. The week topic was chosen as a prize by one of our Kickstarter supporters.

Waking Up

Jesus, Maria y Jose, this heat is impossible,” I said at around 5am. The sun had yet show up in the dessert but it was hot enough. Well maybe not too hot, it was an acceptable 20 degrees Celsius (68 Fahrenheit to the uneducated) but you know, I was born in the Andes so I am not used to the heat. “Why couldn’t we start this war in the winter? Everyone would be miserable except me at least,” I said to whatever ghost still inhabited this abandoned room.

Then again, I was still mostly in my uniform: the standard desert-pattern cargo pants, my belt, socks. I was even wearing still those damn boots that, while resilient, made my feet hurt. It was common sense to sleep all dressed up in the battlefield, with your rifle next to you, in order to be ready if (or more like when) the enemy showed up.

With that said, I did make the executive decision to take off my jacket and t-shirt. I have never been able to sleep with a t-shirt on and it was the first time in like three weeks that we had been able to sleep with an actual roof on our heads.

A nice roof, mind you. “I wonder whose house this had been,” I had said, again out loud, when I camped here last night. Then again, I rather not know. I made sure I did not look at the pictures of this nice little two-story home in this mid-sized town that my unit had been sweeping the day before.

From what I could tell from the corner of my eye when I looked at the pictures as I walked by, this had been the home of a 7-person family. “The spoils of war,” I thought as I peeked through the window, pulling the curtain aside just a bit to see that, indeed, the only source of light from anywhere in the horizon came from the moon.

Prior to the war this town had been the home of some five thousand people. Now it was the home of at least five thousand stray dogs, cats and rats.

I bent over, which made my poor back crack. Carajo! I cursed and then grabbed my FN Herstal. I liked this rifle, my government had bought a few thousand of them from the Belgians a few years ago and it had paid off. It was a good weapon, light but the bullets packed a good punch.

It had taken me longer than I cared to admit to get used to it instead of the old-school FAL rifle that the army had used for generations. My father, uncle and other relatives had trained with it when they were soldiers and still joked about how the damn thing was taller than some recruits.

But the change to a younger, sleeker weapon had been worth it. This efficient little rifle was the cornerstone of why the army had been so successful in the first months of the war. Well that, some good strategy and a successful surprise attack that had taken the enemy, our perpetual southern neighbors, by surprise.

I drank a big gulp of water from my canteen and briefly considered following it with a gulp of pisco from my flask, nicely hidden in one of the inside pockets of my jacket, but decided against it. It wasn’t even 6am and I figured I should be fully sober for a couple of hours more.

I stood on the edge of the door for a moment, letting my eyes adjust to the darkness and then began walking downstairs. I could easily distinguish the shapes that constituted the other soldiers of my unit, part of the 13th Counterinsurgency Regiment.  We were a ragtag bunch, remnants from the original unit from when the war began plus new recruits. Not to mention the really green recruits and paramilitaries that had joined as time passed. In my early 30s, I was already regarded as a veteran simply because of having survived longer than most others around here.

I walked down the stairs, and only then proceeded to put on my t-shirt, Kevlar vest and jacket, enjoying the last moments of freedom from all that extra weight. Sergeant Juan Jose Gambini, mi Segundo, walked up to me, already in full uniform (did he sleep in that thing?). He gave me a sharp salute, with a broad grin. “Nothing to report, señor. The Western scouts came back a while ago, no sightings of rotos.”

Everyone has a nickname for the “enemy,” the Allies called the Germans the “gerries” and we called ours either “los rotos” or “los vecinos”.

“Vanessa must have been upset that she did not get to unleash Marta on anyone,” I said with a little mischievous smile.

“Correct señor, she was a bit grumpy, but you know her, she’s quite the optimist.”

At this point in the war, neither side could afford to stick to that old, silly, machista culture that Latin Americans are known for. Even though we were winning, we could not afford to keep our female soldiers serving “support” roles. We needed everyone who wanted to fight and could fight in the front lines.

Unsurprisingly there had been the standard sexist comments when female soldiers began fighting in the front lines. “Can they shoot?”; “What if they get hurt?”; “Can they carry all that equipment?”; and the ever-present “No necesitamos mujeres.” I am sad to say that not all in my unit had been as welcoming to female fighters as I had wished.

Nevertheless, the addition of a female component only increased our efficiency. Vanessa is a person mind you, but Marta is the name of M82A1 rifle that she used with deadly efficacy. That is not the rifle she was originally given at the start of the war, she had lost that one during the Battle of Tarapaca in an amusing hand-to-hand combat. She found Marta a few days ago and her new rifle already had five notches.

If nothing else, this war had proven that both genders could be just as deadly and effective in combat as the other.

Mi segundo left to wake up the rest of the troops as I walked throughout the rest of the house. I got on knees when I got to the kitchen and crawled my way out into the dark backyard and from there across to the neighboring also two-story house.

I believed Gambini when he told me that there were no enemy combatants in sight, but I was just as sure that the enemy probably had their own version of our 5 foot and 5 inches-Vanessa: a sniper in some roof just waiting as patiently as a hungry serpent for some silly officer to stick his head up just a centimeter too high over a fence.

Eventually I crawled the 30 meters, more or less, of backyard to the next house and entered through the kitchen. I could smell some rotting food on the table and I tried not to throw up. The smell of rotting food always got to me.

Lying on the ground by a hole in the wall was Corporal Humberto, holding, caressing one would say, his trustworthy ZH-05 grenade launcher. The launcher was Chinese and it had a wicked kick to it. It was also deadly effective.

Humberto held it securely but also with pride while he admired his work: some three hundred feet away lay the remains of a Leopard tank. Their enemy’s bought a couple hundred of those tanks years ago. This particular Goliath had been deployed here with around a dozen supporting troops to stop our forces from taking over the town.

It had been a difficult fight the night before but my unit had prevailed and we had Humberto, his grenade launcher, and two fallen comrades to thank for that. Vanessa had scratched Marta twice that night. The two had taken the tank’s gunner as well as a lieutenant who was hiding behind what looked like a Mercedes (that’s as far as my knowledge of cars goes). If the troops had any problems with having any female in our unit, these reservations died that night.

Funny how sexism and racism can evaporate in extreme circumstances if you show how much of a badass you are.

I spoke with Humberto for a few moments. Unsurprisingly, nothing had happened for the past few hours, but we were certain that the enemy had noticed that one of their patrols, including one of those impressive and expensive tanks, were missing.

I sat next to my comrade, whispering a carajo as my back cracked again. I saw across the room and saw two of our paramilitaries sitting there. Their uniforms were… well they were not uniforms. More like a combination of military pants and black sweaters.  “Rimaykullayki ¿Allillanchu?,” one of them said at me, with a friendly wave. Humberto frowned as there was no “sir” in their greeting, but I did not care. We were not a priority unit so we got paramilitaries to refill our ranks. They cared little for military discipline and hierarchy… and they spoke Quechua and very little Spanish, but they were good fighters. And I was going to need more good fighters.

Finally I saw our pirate’s booty. Across the floor was a little amalgamation of weapons we had collected from the deceased. Our prized trophy was the Rheinmetall MG 3 machine gun that we had managed to save from that enemy tank before the fire took it.

At this point I had plenty of weapons at my disposal, enough to take a small regiment, but alas I did not have enough fingers to pull all the triggers (I made a mental note of asking the captain for more paramilitaries).

Humberto handed me some grapes that we had picked up from the trees around the house and I tried to not wolf them down in one handful. El desayuno.

I took this moment to pick out a couple of papers from my backpack. They were some commentaries I had printed weeks ago from some American think tanks about our little conflict. The gringo scholars were trying to figure out why this war had come to be and who was behind it.

I could not help grunting a bit in disgust. Yes, my country had bought tanks and helicopters from the Soviet Union and, yes, we had bought new Russian tanks in the past years. But really, does this made my government, and the army I was part of, Moscow’s client state? Was it so unconceivable to believe that countries could still go to war with each other not because the powers-that-be decided it, but because of our own national interests… or because we just did not have anything better to do on a Tuesday?

We already knew the reasons for the war, I thought as I drank more water, wishing it was alcohol, after I had finished with the grapes. El Presidente had gone on TV, radio, print media and social media (he loved to tweet) to make his predictably nationalistic speeches about us fighting the good fight. “Los rotos no son de confiar,” he had boldly proclaimed during a speech in one of our big southern cities. I guess he picked the place so the city’s volcano (an active one) would appear in the shots, making him appear even more defiant. “Si no atacamos, sera como en la guerra del siglo 19,” He also said, which was true. We had been attacked first in the 19th century and we were ever-weary of them attacking us first again.

But it quickly became clear that we had started this war for resources: lithium and copper. Bolivia, our other neighbors, were known as the “Saudi Arabia of Lithium,” but the “rotos” had recently located some big veins of lithium, which, combined with their already vast copper industry (the biggest one in the world), would make it a regional economic powerhouse.

And we could not let that happen.

Lucky for us the enemy was in disarray, university students and some indigenous groups were protesting again. Hence, the government had been more focused on internal security rather than checking on what neighboring militaries were up to. I know, gulping more water (que sed!), sneak attacks are not particularly brave things to do, but we were going for victory here, not heroism.

Suddenly my earpiece came to life. “We got company señor, a column of five-six humvees are approaching. They look gringo made, there are a couple of trucks behind,” said my second in command. This was obviously the enemy we were expecting as my army did not have any humvees in our arsenal.

For the fifth time in 25 minutes I considered taking quick gulp of the pisco for my nerves but decided against it, once again. I turned around to face Humberto and the paramilitaries. I felt bad that I have yet to learn their names – not that it mattered, everyone looks the same with a black ski mask on anyways.

Out of habit, I checked that my Herstal rifle was still hanging from my shoulder and, also out of habit and because I did not want to make an ugly corpse, I checked myself on a broken mirror that I found on the ground. Sadly, I still had greasy bed hair. I unceremoniously dropped the mirror, making it break a couple of more times, and nodded at my soldiers, “vamos, the barbarians are at the gates.”

Humberto smiled and stood up, carrying his trusty grenade launcher. He and the others grabbed the machine gun and some of the rifles that littered the room. I cursed at myself, “I should have spread this around to everyone else last night.” I helped by grabbing a couple of Makarov pistols and some ammo for the machine gun.

“Russian pistols, Chinese grenade launchers, German tanks, American jeeps… I’m fairly sure our uniforms are from India…there is not one ‘made in your homeland’ product here is there?” Humberto said to no one in particular as he briskly walked to the kitchen door. No one shot him so I figured that, indeed, there was no enemy sniper out there.

The two other Quechua-speaking paramilitaries followed him, not saying a word. I stood by the door for a moment, trying to see anything as the day dawned. I saw Vanessa and Marta leave the house rapidly making their way across the street. There was a 4 story-building not far which I guess would be her new location to greet our incoming guests.

I was in the process of multitasking again, walking and sneezing (guess sleeping shirtless was not such a good idea in spite of the heat), when a small ghost tackled me to the ground.

Carajo, I guess there was a sniper out there after all.

The year is 2021.

This is the story of the second War of the Pacific.

This is not a story about heroes and villains, but a story about an unknown war fought by unknown soldiers.

The author would like to thank M.M. and S.D. for their invaluable editorial suggestions.

All characters appearing in this work are fictitious. Any resemblance to real persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental. This story is a complete work of fiction. In no way does it represent the points of view of any of the organizations that this author is affiliated with.

Future War Fiction Week 30 Dec – 3 Jan: Call for Articles

For New Years, looking into the future through fiction.

Heinlein, Heller, Macdonald Fraser, Clancy, Haldeman, Drake. The list could go on of great military, science, and strategic fiction. Some of those authors had foresight that now takes on the patina of genius, other had an ability to better convey the emotional history of a moment than those that lived it- all of them raised the collective ability of military thinkers and strategists by leaps and bounds. Whether they inspired you to become an officer, or helped you to understand your experience at war, all  of them gave us  part of our intellectual kit.

Johnson Ting: Oct 24, 2014
Johnson Ting: Oct 24, 2014

In the spirit of those great minds, CIMSEC is hosting a Military Fiction week. Maybe you want to write something forward looking that hopes avoid future tragedy or ensure yet to be won victory. Perhaps you seeks to better describe the what if counterfactuals which could have led to a different world. Either way, fiction provides a wider canvas for strategists to paint their minds onto. The only criteria is that you write an original piece of military fiction, it can be historical or futuristic, that seeks to provide other strategic and security thinkers better context of the problems we did, do, or may face.  Short stories of 1000-5000 words are what we are seeking but, who knows, if something turns out to be gold we can turn it into the next Flashman series.

Read, Think, Write- just this time make sure you pull the stories from inside your head.

SEND ARTICLES TO: nextwar(at)cimsec.org
Length: 1000-5000 words, unless you can reasonably justify otherwise.
Due Date: December 26th