The Last Army
by Will Sweger
I eased along the jagged surface of the rock and peered along a crevice trying not to show too much of myself. The vantage point that we had climbed all morning for was worth it. Small scrubby trees clung to the sides of the mountains as they dropped into the narrow corral of a valley. At the center, just offset from the dry creek bed that carved the place, was the walled compound that was our target. Its mud and stone walls rose above the dusty ground around it as if the place had been hewn from the earth itself. Like most Afghan country enclaves, it was arranged with a high outer wall and several inner buildings huddled around a courtyard. I strained to see the entrance of the valley, to see if the cav troopers were set up there with the cordon. Standard procedure was simply to roll up the valley and take the compound, but I had argued with command to let me take infantry through the high pass in order to cut off the escape of anyone who tried to run.
Looking down on the path we would have to take to the compound, I regretted the decision. The Afghans say that when the world was made, all of the unneeded stones were left here. Trying to plan out a path down the steep, rocky mountainside, I realized it would be folly to argue with them. I had taken over a squad after our battalion moved north from Kabul. Our last squad leader, a big man with a gap in his teeth that stood out like an open door when he smiled, stayed behind at an aid station because he’d gone pale and couldn’t stop shitting blood. This was our first action under my lead, and I resolved that I would keep it moving forward.
The cav troops should be in the cover of the trees in the lower valley by now. Looking up at the sun, I knew we’d only have a few more hours before it crested the mountainside and the valley was cloaked in shade. “Alright, let’s go!” I said, trying to sound in command. “Watch your footing on the way down, we’ll take breaks to observe them as needed.” The soldiers in my squad nodded and picked their way down as best they could, the jagged boulders tearing at their leather boots.
I especially hate the period before we make contact with the enemy. There is simply too much time to think and little of what runs through your mind is pertinent to what needs to happen. I tried to keep myself busy with glancing at the compound and imagining how my squad would split off and move into each of the buildings, searching for insurgent leaders. When that became tedious on the third glance, I prayed. I don’t pray like normal soldiers. I pray to all the gods. Throughout history, every soldier that has gone into battle has done it asking for the blessing of their particular deity. I figured if I was going to do it, I would pray to all of them, just on the off chance that one might have the inclination to send some luck my way. Squad leaders are in need of luck on their first mission. It would be selfish of me to ask for a better squad. Most were veterans, having seen combat across the Southeast Asia before being marched here. But this was different, this isn’t what they were trained for, chasing down fleeing insurgents in the mountains, they were trained to take the fight to the enemy and stand shoulder to shoulder against their foe. All the preparation in the world doesn’t change the fact that some unexpected things can happen when two men on opposing sides bump into each other in a doorway. Finally, I gave up and just focused on putting one boot in front of the other as I felt my calves burn from the descent.
There was still no movement from the compound, smoke rose lazily from a cooking fire in one of the main buildings. The farming terraces, carefully cut into the sides of the steep valley over what must have taken generations, remained empty. I glanced back, checking spacing and realized that some men were lagging behind. Finding another large boulder formation, I gave the signal to halt. We’d let them catch up, then move the rest of the way down, hopefully before sunset. Scanning the squad, I saw Mitron bringing up the rear, his sweat soaking through the collar of his body armor. He was a good fighter on line, but he wasn’t cut out for these mountain movements. As he approached, I saw his helmet sat crooked on his head and his cheeks were flush and wet with sweat. “Sit down, and drink some water. I don’t want you going down on me up here,” I said a little too forcefully. He paused for a moment and then just nodded.
I called together the team leaders, using a crook in one of the boulders to point out their individual target buildings in the compound again. Occasionally I would catch one of them staring at the jagged scar across my nose and cheek. Good, I thought, let them be reminded that this isn’t my first action. I was with the army north of the Tigris when I received that souvenir. True accolades are the ones that men carried on their bodies.
When I was satisfied they had it, I called the squad to move again. They were slow, but the buildings were getting closer and I could feel their pace quickening with excitement. I worked to keep myself calm as I directed our movement to the valley floor, I’d seen leaders go to pieces at the outset of combat and I’d seen the chaos and indecision that it brought about in the unit.
We were level with the compound now. I could no longer see above the mud walls. We moved forward in a file, using the brush along the creek bed to cover our approach. It was a welcome change to step on the moist soil of the valley after the steep mountain descent. The air was thick with the smell of wet earth, domestic animals, and shit.
A crude watchtower in the corner of the walls rose before us. I gave the signal to halt while I scanned the rough window slit for movement. Nothing moved. I gave the signal to start up again, and soon we saw the rickety wooden door that covered the main entrance in the wall. It looked like it had been pieced together over centuries from every variety of tree that grew in the valley. Looking back, I nodded at one of my team leaders and two burley soldiers emerged out of the brush. They moved forward to the door, nervously eyeing the unmanned tower that overlooked it. I waved the rest of the squad forward and then the compound was moving towards us. We drifted towards the walls and they drifted towards us as if we were floating on a river in a dream. With a crash, the gate gave way to the boots of the lead men and the soldiers lined up on both sides of the doorway hurried into the courtyard.
My men sped towards their assigned buildings while the only sentry, a broken-down donkey, brayed in warning. Taking the largest building myself, I rushed into the darkness with four of my men behind me. Crossing the threshold, the acrid smoke of the interior stung my eyes as they adjusted to the dark room. A group of Afghans sat huddled around the hearth in the center of the room. Their clothing was threadbare and their appearance was wretched, elbows and cheekbones pushed out under skin. In the half-darkness, their eyes glimmered as they watched us enter. From another room a scream emanated as from deep in a cave. I whirled to face the direction and saw a man rush into the room. His eyes were wild and in his hands above his head gripped a stone spade as he charged me.
I took a step forward and lifted my round shield to defect the blow that landed heavily, jarring my shoulder. Sidestepping his clumsy attack, I moved beside him. In a flash, I sunk my short sword into his armpit. Dropping the spade, the man struggled as a heifer with a slit throat does, flailing helplessly against my shield with his hands. I looked around the room that had erupted into pandemonium. The crowd of Afghans was standing now, my men formed a line in their white linen cuirasses and were holding them back with their shields locked together. Each bronze helmet glimmered in the near darkness as the infantrymen swung at the crowd with the flats of their swords.
A woman, and elderly one at that, pushed through the legs of the soldiers on her hands and knees and crawled towards my assailant. One of my men rushed forward to stop her and I waved him off. She crawled to the stricken man—who I took to be younger now that his face wasn’t distorted by wrath. He gurgled in an attempt to draw breath as she cradled his head in her lap and wailed at me through the teeth she still had.
Another soldier rushed through the door to the courtyard. “Aggipos! The team leaders report that their buildings are clear,” his eyes wandered down to the fallen boy while he spoke. “What are your orders, sir?”
I took a moment to kneel and wipe the blade of my sword clean on a rag. “Thank you Koinos, tell the team leaders to assemble their men in the courtyard, we’ll depart for the column as soon as the main building is searched. Send a man up the wall to signal the cavalry.” He nodded and rushed back out into the bright, dusty courtyard.
In the time it takes for a candle the size of your big finger to burn down my squad searched the compound. We found three rusty old spears, a couple worn scythes, and an eastern bow that looked like it would crack if you tried to string it. The villagers had calmed down and my men bound their hands behind them with lengths of sinew, all except the old mother who refused to be pulled away from her son.
Koinos strode into the room again, his bronze greaves dusty from traversing the courtyard. “Sir, the cavalry commander is outside for you.”
As I nodded absently, I looked at the woman again, cursing me in her tongue as she rocked with her dead son. I knew what the commander would ask and what I would have to report on when we returned. These people had never even heard of Darius.
Never would I say it aloud, but after seeing the riches of Egypt and Babylon, I would never understand why Alexander thought this place was worth fighting over. “May we be the last army to tread here,” I said.
“What was that sir?” Koinos asked, still waiting for my orders.
“Nothing, nothing at all.” I spit on the ground and walked out into the sunlight.
Will Sweger holds an MFA in Creative Writing from Goddard College and is a former Editor in Chief of the Pitkin Review. His work has appeared in Borgen Magazine and the South Seattle Emerald. Previously, Will served as an Army infantry officer in Iraq and Afghanistan with the 101st Airborne Division. He lives in Seattle.