DULCE ET DECORUM EST PRO PATRIA MORI
It wasn’t long dark and the minarets had already called the end to prayers. Sean could hear fighting in the distance and knew the Hezbollah Freedom Fighters would most likely be coming through his tiny bottleneck checkpoint any minute like the proverbial ‘bats out of hell,’ trying to make good their escape after attacking the Israeli backed DFF compound, housing Christian militia soldiers. The lads in Sean’s section had already blocked the road with tank-stops, wire entanglements and other obstacles as ordered and the radios were already hopping at this stage with the panicked voices of guys up nearer the action on Hill 880. Usually they were supposed to search cars to stop infiltrations and attacks, show the UN flag and keep the peace but he knew blocking the escape of these desperate fighters was going to be bad for his little post, the roadblocks should have been put out to stop the attackers going up the hill not their retreat. The peacekeepers were always caught in the middle and the warring factions never gave a damn who got hurt when the lead started flying, they could only fire their own weapons in self defence.
‘Dulce et decorum est Pro patria mori’ was written in big black letters on the inside wall of the elevated machinegun post above his firing window, lit up by the exposed hanging bulb he kept knocking with his helmet. Every time he leaned back from the weapon his eyes were drawn to the text. Beside it someone had scrawled repeatedly in blue pen ‘what a loada crap.’ The second piece was more recent than the first. Sean remembered the Latin script from his earlier tour and had thought even then that it must have been put there during the early days of the Irish Army’s presence with the United Nations peacekeeping force in South Lebanon, the bad old days. He recognised the words from one of the Great War Poems by Wilfred Owen where he quoted Horace’s classic old lie. Sean liked to think that it probably went way over the heads of most Irish soldiers who had manned this post over the years, except maybe for three he thought, the guy who wrote it, the guy who dismissed it and now himself, obviously.
He loved the landscape and the people but not the job. Still, he couldn’t believe he was doing it again. The weeks of training and preparation were alright, it had always seemed way off, but now it was for real again. His stomach had been doing somersaults all day on the day he had left the house; he had been in bits anticipating his departure and the goodbyes. He remembered his last tour of duty over and over again and the night he had come home after the six months, all tanned and proud in his uniform and blue beret, ‘the seasoned soldier,’ his friends and family had laughed, if they only knew.
His mother had cried the night he returned, like she had done when he left her the other day. He remembered how he hadn’t given her much attention that night three years earlier but had gone dancing with his brothers and friends as soon as he had got home and came back into the house in the early hours of the morning absolutely twisted, what with the jetlag and long journey on the busses and the drink. His father had tried to put him to bed in his younger brother’s top bunk, while tackling Sean’s unique and drunken demonstration of martial arts mixed in with belches and hiccups and war stories through the waft of beer. His parents had laughed at this display and constantly reminded him of it, they were glad to have him home safe. He knew though that he had probably hurt his mother that night and all the nights he had been away and here he was doing it again.
Sean had sworn to himself that he would never volunteer for an overseas mission again, it was much too long and he had missed home so much, it wasn’t the safest thing in the world to be doing and he had had a few moments were the wits had been scared out of him. He was much younger then but here he was now, tempting fate again. Most younger fella’s ‘first timer’s’ went for the adventure and to say they had done it, the older guys many of whom had been there before were going for the money as most had families and mortgages, the adventure had long been taken out of them after their first tour. This was the group that Sean fell into now. He was wiser now and even though it was a struggle to talk Katie into letting him go they knew it was the best thing, she was three months pregnant and they needed the money, he wasn’t planning for them to stay in her parents any longer than they had to, the few bob would get them started, a deposit for a house and he would be home just in time for the new baby’s arrival. It was definitely going to be his last trip, ever!
On the way down to the Curragh he had been saying to himself ‘I can’t believe I’m doing this,’ the same on the AerLingus jet as it taxied for takeoff at Dublin Airport. He managed to sleep on the long flight but was back repeating it to himself as they landed in the bombed out Beirut International Airport and on the bus journey up into the hills he could hear others loudly moaning out the same thing but not in the same polite tone. There was nothing patriotic about it but all knew that when it came down to it they would all be there for each other, young or old, old sweat or red arse alike, they were Irish soldiers and they would all go down together. It wasn’t about patriotism in those moments it was about friendship and family.
Yes he was tempting fate again, he had only been back in the IrishBatt A.O. for two days and already there was trouble, he thought. The night sky was illuminated in an arching dome by burning white phosphorous para-flares drifting down to earth and casting vast dancing light and shadows across the landscape accompanied by streams of orange tracer zipping back and forward in the distance and bouncing over the dark hills. Vibrations from impacting mortar rounds crept nearer and nearer and then the red flares popping into the night told his little section that an Irish UN position was under hostile fire somewhere up there in the middle of it all. The scene was overtaken then by bright green lights that shot into the night from behind the dark horizon and slowly fell into the waddii. Sean knew that the Israelis and DFF were about to light up the entire area with machinegun fire and tank fire and probably artillery including 155mm rounds that had an impact kill zone radius of 500 metres, anything that moved was a target, even shadows. Shell warnings screamed over the radio nets and all UN personnel in the A.O. scrambled for their bunkers taking with them any local villagers that managed to reach them in time. Sean felt cold sweat drip down his neck onto his back. He gripped his machinegun and cocked it, looked about at his friends down below and he could see fear in their wide eyes. He switched off the swinging bulb, they waited.
A pickup truck and three Mercedes cars had sped down the winding hill in the dark with their lights off, towards the bottleneck checkpoint, they were quite near now. The checkpoint controlled a crossroads with routes leading off towards Brachit, Haddattha, Al Journ and Tibnine and other villages and out towards operational areas held by the different nationalities that made up the UN forces in the hills of South Lebanon. The Lebanese freedom fighters could well have approached their objective undetected from any route, but this was going to be their quickest getaway. Sean took a bead on the hostile convoy through the battle sights on his weapon. Each vehicle was filled with partially camouflaged and well armed men and boys, at least twenty in all he thought. One of them stood on the back of the pickup truck holding an RPG over his shoulder and another was held out the open window of the rear car. Sean was ready to fire containing shots to cover the lads on the road below if things got out of hand and then suppressive fire as soon as someone starting firing at them. He could hear ‘O Jaysus, O Jaysus, here we go again,’ from the corporal in charge of the checkpoint below as he stepped out onto the road to wave the hostile vehicles down. He stood in the middle of the road, flak jacket fastened to the neck, helmet buckled tight and rifle slung across his chest, muzzle pointed at the ground with his right fist holding the pistol grip, trigger finger lying along the trigger guard, weapon switched to automatic. He raised his left arm into the air showing the palm of his hand as the first car screeched to a halt. The passengers started firing wildly into the air and screaming ‘imshi, imshi, yalla, let us through Irish.’ But before the corporal could reply a tremendous explosion in the wadii behind them signalled the wrath of their vengeful enemies and the panicked freedom fighter began spraying the checkpoint with small arms fire. Sean watched as the corporal dashed for cover behind a concrete T-wall (blast wall) as rounds bit into ground around him and struck all over the post. The lads below swore at each other in anger and fear and then at their attackers as they returned fire. Sean opened up onto the road in front of the pickup and then at the ground along the side of each vehicle to stop the fighters from getting out and entering the checkpoint on foot. He could see the guy on the back of the pickup calmly raise his RPG and aim it directly towards his position. Sean froze as its blistering smoke trail curved past, barely missing him and exploded on the road behind. He couldn’t return fire then; the ammo belt had jammed and he tried to change it as rounds began to impact all around him, entering the post above his head striking the walls and ceiling. He lifted the weapon to the floor and like a robot he sorted it out at the same time feeling every ringing vibration of the bullets smashing into the concrete around him, the crumbling dust gathering on his face and dry lips. The cars were pumping bullets into the checkpoint and Sean could do nothing as exposing himself at that very moment meant the end. He picked up the radio handset ‘Hullo zero, hullo zero,’ he screamed, giving his posts call sign, ‘we are under fire from twenty armed elements, small arms and RPGs, request assistance over,’ he continued and didn’t wait for the reply. Another RPG burst nearby and the ringing almost deafened him, he cocked the weapon and jumped up to the window and began to lay down suppressive fire, the fighters were away from their cars and rushing forward, it was them or him he thought to himself and he had to protect the lads below. Hundreds of rounds zipped back and forwards peppering the checkpoint buildings and road and just as the ammo belt jammed again Sean noticed the attackers pile back into the cars and reverse at high speed up the winding hill, some still firing their weapons. The corporal jumped back into the road and pulled part of the obstacles away to allow a UN Sizu armoured personnel carrier from the battalion mobile reserve drive through under its flashing lights and blowing its horn. The cavalry had arrived but not before an RPG came shooting down the road, careering under the metal hulk and clipped its rear tyre before flinging out into the wadii and exploding in the dark, more armoured vehicles flowed through and up the hill.
The lads collected themselves on the checkpoint, reloaded their weapons and pointed them up the hill. ‘Are you ok,’ they called out to each other. ‘Well done Sean,’ they shouted up to the magpost, ‘ye kept their heads down, thanks mate.’ Sean didn’t feel good about it. It was a close one and only his second day back on the job. He switched on the hanging bulb and slumped down onto the floor with his back against the wall. He followed the bullet holes up along the inside of his little coffin sized space, up towards the ceiling. He counted twenty three holes that weren’t there earlier, he held his breath, he was thinking of home and his family, his hands were shaking and black tears rolled down his dusty face. The swinging bulb had survived too and it drew his eyes again to the Latin text. He translated it aloud, ‘It is sweet and meet to die for one’s country, sweet and decorous.’ It might be for those boys, it’s their country, but I’m here to make money for my family and live to spend it, he thought to himself. ‘Only a hundred and eighty days to go, what a load of crap.’
Michael J. Whelan
Published in Crannog Literary Magazine No 29 Spring 2012
AO = Area of Operations
D.F.F. =De Facto Forces (South Lebanese Army/Christian Militia)
Hisbollah = Muslim Resistance group
Magpost = Machinegun post
U.N. = United Nations
Wadii = Valley/Dried up riverbed