Acting at War
by Travis Klempan
Red Merrill chewed the gum not on account of its breath-freshening capabilities, nor because he had food stuck in his teeth. (Protein shakes left behind a filmy grit but he washed this away with overchlorinated Iraqi water.) He chewed with no intention of blowing bubbles—it weren’t that kind of gum either—but just because it gave him something to do, and he’d grown sick of dipping tobacco.
He squinted despite the shaded eye protection (a step up from sunglasses as far as defense from ballistic fragments and blowing sand; a step down in fashionability) and grinned at Lieutenant Turtle. He reserved part of his grin for the question about to come, the scripted answer already echoing in his head from the morning’s briefing, and the rest of the grin was for the poor man’s name. If it were up to Red—and the Army left basically nothing up to Specialist Ronald Merrill, unless it came to yelling at the privates in his team—then the United States military wouldn’t admit anyone with such a goofy name into its ranks, let alone promote him, let alone make him an officer in charge of a platoon of men in that weird shouldering time between invasion and occupation. It’d be Smiths up and down, if it were Red’s choice, and fashion the nicknames from there on out.
Turtle weren’t a completely bad officer, Red knew. He’d had a few worse in his short four years, but much of that had been at peace. An army at peace was a far different creature than an army at war, he knew, and some wide-eyed crackerjack windup doll like Turtle could get men killed. Just as bad, his name lent itself to no decent nicknames other than the obvious.
“Yes, Red, you’ve got a question.” The lieutenant squinted back at the soldier, which made him grin even bigger.
“Can you go over the op again,” he said, gum tucked into the recess between cheek and molar on his left side. “For the privates, sir?”
Some of the soldiers around him shared his smile, others chuckling, Dandy standing next to him gave a cautionary elbow, and Sergeant First Class Dirt glared. If the platoon just had a bad officer, they could survive. With a bad officer and a shitshow of a platoon sergeant (along with the intense heat, the lack of supplies, and the weirdly friction-y crackle of the town they guarded, some sort of electric charge that made him and the others feel on edge even in—especially in—the shitters and their bunks, and the few but growing firefights they traded with phantom bad guys running every which-a-way…shit, where’d he get off track?) (fucking Sergeant Dirt, how’d the Army decide on making HIM a sergeant, let alone one on the business end of whatever-this-was-which-was-no-longer-a-war)…as a platoon they was ‘fucked, and not proper-fucked,’ Dandy might say later.
Surely Dirt was even then devising some sort of after-the-fact punishment for Red and whoever was close enough to him to laugh, but if Turtle were a good officer (or even a bad one with guts or balls) or Dirt a competent sergeant then this kind of shit might not fester or fly, wouldn’t take root and wouldn’t grow like the mildew in their barracks back at Fort Stewart. If Dirt had been enough of a real platoon sergeant they’d be locked and loaded and not—
“Once again,” Turtle drawled, “we’ve been selected by Battalion Headquarters to host Mister Carl Weatherby”—one turtle-paw extended, fingers together, pointing at a young man with good looks enough to spare—“and Mister Ronald Jones.” The second man stood close enough to Weatherby to get taken in by the same knife hand, but Turtle sounded like he was being officially official, and Red made a mental note to tell Dandy when they got a chance—the lieutenant looked fucking exactly like the young officer in that one episode of Band of Brothers, the replacement guy dropped in to a war zone for some seasoning before being promoted to a cushy gig, what was his name….Turtle kind of occupied the same role, only this weren’t World War Any Number, and there likely wasn’t going to be a conclusion of this miniseries any time soon.
Turtle continued in his turtle-ish drone. “They’re both here from Universal Studios,” he said, imparting some kind of significance to that fact. “A movie based on last year’s Battle of Al Swat.”
“What is it, Tompkins?”
“Thompson, sir.” Tompkins to his left rolled his eyes anyway. “Wasn’t that Marines who fought there, sir? The ones we replaced?”
Turtle nodded. “That’s right, soldier. And there’s definitely a difference between Marines and soldiers.” Red nodded; even a broken military clock was right once a day. “But these gentlemen are here to get a feel for what it’s like to wear a uniform, go on patrol, and live a couple days in the life of an infantry platoon. They’ve been to a brief” (for some reason he raised his eyebrows, thick and black, at the platoon when he said “brief”) “one-week training in Fort Jackson—”
“Fort Crack-son,” someone muttered loud enough to hear.
“—so they are familiar with the basics. The basics, everyone. If we get contact with the enemy our priority will be to engage, follow our SOP, but no heroics.” He smiled for some other reason. “Remember, it’s just these two men, no cameras.” He locked eyes with Red but Red felt no malice from the man. “That clear things up?”
“Sure thing, sir.” He resumed chewing his gum. “Plus I just like hearing how silly it sounds.”
“We gotta do what with who?”
Tompkins and Thompson—interchangeable twins, far as Red cared, both decent soldiers, decent marksmen, and decent conversationalists—stood shoulder to shoulder next to their Humvee. One would go up top in the gun turret, the other would drive, Red would ride shotgun as Team Leader, and Carl “Star of the Hit Movie Aliens From Paradise” Weatherby would sit in the back alongside Gelato. Red wished he could switch seats, since Gelato was probably the worst soldier in a platoon full of fuckups, and any experience that rubbed from him to Weatherby (Red was already thinking of him by last name; maybe he could make a soldier out of the Hollywood fellow in just a day) would likely feed into the worst on-screen portrayal of a man in uniform since….Red laughed. Since every fucking movie.
“Weatherby here’s gonna ride with us, boys.” Red clapped the actor on the shoulder and noticed a bit of heft there, actual muscle. Maybe if he got paid to work out and whiten his teeth then Red could look half as decent as this specimen, but not to worry, he thought. In camo green and flak jackets everyone looked like the same damn idiot. “He’ll be on comms, so make sure to keep the language polite.”
Carl turned on his smile. “If it’s all the same to you, Sergeant Merrill, I’m keen on picking up some of the lingo, so feel free to curse like a sailor.”
Tompkins and Thompson laughed like jackals. (First jackal Red had ever seen was during the invasion, scrawny little vermin darting across the landscape, like a coyote but crazier, and here were two more, wearing the same uniform as his; fucking perfectly appropriate.)
“Two things there, Weatherby,” he said, squeezing the man’s shoulder a little harder than was proper and letting go. “I’m no sergeant, probably won’t ever be at this rate. Call me Specialist and I’ll ignore you. Just call me Red.”
“Red the Sailor,” Thompson joked.
“And second thing,” he said as he smacked the joker across the helmet. “Swearing like a sailor is a tired cliché. The few squids I’ve met were a bunch of softies who couldn’t embarrass a choir boy, and if we turn our language up to eleven you’ll understand about half of it, and my dead grandma’ll faint at the other half.” He turned his head at the motion he saw, Sergeant Dirt pumping his stupid fist in the air, accompanied by a lot of shouting. “That’s our cue, gents. Mount up.”
The Humvees rumbled and rattled and altogether made a fucking racket as they drove Route Dodgers. Some fucking West Coast hippie soldier must have made it to this part of Iraq first and exercised his naming rights, or maybe it was the Marines, but Red didn’t take much with baseball, and just about every damn Coalition highway in the province had a name like Padres or Giants or Route-fucking-Angels….He smiled at himself.
“You okay back there, Weatherby?”
The actor shot him a gloved thumbs up and Red saw a smile in return. Easy day, he thought. Out to deliver some fishing rods (not even the craziest thing he’d seen in two tours in-country) to a local pack of Boy Scouts, no joke, and back again before dinner. Easy day, give Weatherby and the producer riding in Dirt’s truck some exposure.
Red laughed. “You lucked out, buddy. You could be up riding with Sergeant Dirt.”
“Speaking of,” Tompkins said from the driver’s seat. He’d flipped a coin, it landed on heads, which somehow translated to his buddy being up top, wind in his scalp, and Tompkins behind the wheel. “Can we put on some music?”
Red shrugged. “Sure, just not too loud, and none of that goofy Norwegian technobabble you played last time.” He turned in his seat to laugh with Weatherby. “Remember, he needs to pick up some soldier lingo, not Scandinavian skinhead lingo.”
“They’re from Finland, Red.” Tompkins took a tiny iPod from his pocket.
“What’s lingo mean, Red?”
“Jesus, Gelato, I forgot you were here.” Red shook his head. “You been with us the whole time?” The kid gave a thumbs-up, which seemed to be catching on as some sort of symbolic gesture, courtesy of Hollywood and boredom. Gelato wasn’t the brightest of bulbs, sharpest of crayons, so on and so forth, but he was obedient and could carry a SAW like a fucking pistol, so he was useful to have in a pinch. Not much for speaking, though. “Lingo, Private Gelato, means language. But like, how people actually talk, you know? You ever take English classes in school?” The kid nodded. “There’s grammar, then there’s how people talk. Weatherby here is trying to pick up on how us grunts talk, so when he makes his fancy movie he won’t sound like an actor, he’ll sound like a grunt, see?”
“Speaking of,” Tompkins said. “We gonna see any of that sweet box office money, Mister Weatherby?”
The man laughed, honest-sounding, and shrugged his shoulder beneath the flak jacket. “Not my department, but if the movie gets made, I’ll be sure to thank you in my acceptance speech.” He winked at Red.
“Shit, if? They send you all the way out here to do an ‘if?’ ” Red laughed. “We gotta be here, no choice, but you chose to come out here?” Tompkins picked up the laughter, and Thompson’s voice joined in from on high, and even Gelato grinned and looked at Weatherby like he was suddenly the idiot.
They practiced swearing, dropping in fucks and shits and goddamns like hyphens and parentheses; Weatherby picked this up quick enough so they moved on to the esoteric: long, drawn out responses, circular answers to questions that no one had thought to ask out loud, non sequiturs. (Red had looked the word up once, found out it was two, and had appropriated it from the company commander who’d uttered it at the end of their first firefight after they’d burst over the berm between Kuwait and I-fucking-Raq-We’re-Really-Here.) They circled back to swearing to see how Weatherby was at fitting fucks inside of other words and found him to be an apt pupil.
“Now,” Red pronounced from the passenger seat, “the real trick is the other shit. Depending on who’s writing the script—you guys still use scripts, right?—they’re gonna put things in there that just don’t sound right.”
“Like how?” If Weatherby had had a pad and pen he’d be jotting notes, Red guessed.
“It’s like saying ‘five fifty six’ instead of ‘five five six.’ Like saying ‘Hummer’ when you mean to say ‘Humvee,’ or just ‘truck.’ It’s a—” He clicked the radio for the truck carrying Dandy, the platoon genius; every platoon seemed to have one, the quiet fella always reading and thinking, the closest thing to truth that Hollywood got right when it came to stuffing clichés into its movies. (A guy from Texas another truth; the Bible-thumping types, not as much or as often.) “Hey Dandy, what’s that word for a thing like a password, only it’s, like, religious? You know the one.”
A brief pause before the radio squirked its response. “Shibboleth, over.”
“Thanks.” Red turned to Weatherby. “It’s a shibboleth, see? You say something stupid in a movie like ‘Light ’em up!’ or ‘Hand me that five fifty six ammunition’ then dumb grunts like us watching the movie will remember you’re just a Hollywood pussy, playacting at war.” He laughed. “In all the best way.”
“None taken,” the actor replied.
Red nodded; the man got some of it.
The radio chirped again. “Damn it, Red, stay off the net unless you’re passing something tactical.”
Red frowned for the first time in a while. “Roger that, Sergeant Dirt, over and out.”
“How come you call him Sergeant Dirt? And I thought sergeants outranked all you guys. How can you talk to him like that?”
“That there’s Sergeant First Class Thomas Spivak, yessir, and yessir on paper he sure does outrank us, by quite a bit. But he’s a fucking moron, and his biggest problem is he knows he’s a moron. Guy like Gelato here don’t know he’s dumb so he ain’t dangerous, he just does what he does.”
“None taken,” Gelato joked, a big dumb grin on his big soft face.
Red laughed as his own smile returned. “See? That’s what I’m talkin’ about. Guy like Spivak, though, he should be off somewhere filing papers, or better yet managing a Dairy Queen or something, not out here. He’s near got men killed because of something dumb, and on a long enough timeline, Dandy says, everyone’s chances of survival go to zero. Dirt just hastens the timeline.”
“But why Dirt?”
“We called him Sergeant Spivak when he first got here, before we caught wise, then we called him Speed Vac, that turned to Wet Vac for…well, let’s just say for obvious reasons.” The soldiers chuckled together. “After a while it was Dirt Vac, then just Dirt. And that’s another thing,” he said, twisting in his seat to level a finger at Weatherby’s face. “They’re gonna have nicknames in your if-movie, for damn sure, but they’ll probably go the easy route, turn a guy like Tompkins into Tommy, guy like McIntosh into Mac, stupid shit like that.”
Weatherby nodded. “What would my nickname be?”
Red shrugged as he turned back to face forward. “Since you’re new you’d be New Guy, or Fucking New Guy, or FNG, or maybe Fish, though that’s getting kind of overused.” He threw out a hand and smacked Tompkins driving. “What say you?”
“Hollywood, maybe?” He looked at the actor in the rearview. “Maybe Pretty Boy?”
Red and Thompson and even Gelato all burst out immediately and loud, laughing and hooting. “You think he’s pretty? Shit, Carl, watch out, Tompkins gonna ask you to dinner when we get back. Just know we only got one place to eat and the food’s shit.”
“Fuck you guys,” Tompkins said, hands tighter on the wheel. “It’s a fucking fact. He was in Us Weekly and People last month.”
The round of hollering and cackling this set off didn’t die down until the Humvees arrived at their destination, and picked up again when they got back in the trucks after distributing fishing rods and tackle boxes to bewildered children and their understandably annoyed parents.
“Us-fucking-Weekly,” Red said as Thompson—switched out with Tompkins for the ride back—flipped the ignition, Humvee burping back to life. “Tompkins, you gonna be okay up there without Hollywood to look at?”
“Fuck you,” came back over the intercom.
“Let’s go,” Red said.
“What about W?” Weatherby chimed in, maybe trying to change the subject on poor Tompkins’s account. Sure enough the kid would be getting a new nickname soon. “Weatherby, starts with a double-u, W. Right? Or too cliché?”
“No one says ‘double-u’ anymore, that don’t even make sense,” Red declared. “It’s like, how can a man look for ‘dubya-emm-deez’ when he can’t even pronounce it, and that’s what his own nickname is? Dubya.”
Thompson followed the truck ahead, turning the wheel and checking mirrors. “I thought we weren’t allowed to talk bad about the Commander-in-Chief, Red.”
“I’ve never met the guy,” Red admitted, “though you can talk however you want as long as Turtle or Dirt aren’t around.”
“You know the one that gets me?”
They all fell silent as Gelato uttered the longest sentence any of them had ever heard him say.
“What? What is it, Gelato?” Red was suddenly and honestly curious.
“Why do guys say ‘Whiskey Tango Foxtrot’ when they mean ‘What the fuck’?” His eyes were soft and unfocused, his goggles up top of his helmet, like he was looking at something none of them could see but that they should’ve been looking for. “It’s like, it takes longer to say, even longer than ‘dubya tee eff.’” He grinned slow and real. “Like, if you just say ‘What the fuck’ that’s the easiest. Quick. You know when guys started saying ‘Mickey Deez’ instead of ‘McDonald’s’?” He held up a hand, giant fingers extending with each syllable. “Mick. Key. Deez. Mick. Don. Ulds. Same number, same time.”
Red marveled for a moment at the previous thirty seconds. What would have been idle chatter in one man was suddenly a solemn fucking speech from this one. Had he been a secret genius this whole time? Was Red the actual idiot?
An improvised explosive device (IED) triggered by remote control (RC) (hence RCIED for the after-action report) exploded on the right side of the highway, sending their High Mobility Multipurpose Wheeled Vehicle (which somehow shortened to HMMWV, which somehow morphed into Humvee, a word changed to Hummer when they started making ’em for regular folk) sideways across the road. Gelato, seated behind Red, and Tompkins, perched above in the turret, bore the brunt of the explosive force, though their individual body armor (IBA) absorbed some of the blast, the soft tissue the rest. Hollywood and Thompson—on the opposite side of the Humvee from the IED—would report temporary losses of hearing, which would go in the AAR, which would go up to Brigade HQ and higher, on account of a civilian playacting at war being such a close witness to the tragedy of KIA and WIA.
Red, meanwhile, would find Mister Carl Weatherby the actor later, before he and Mister Ronald Jones the producer boarded the helicopter and flew away, away, away, back to the World. They sat on boxes of ammunition near the flight line, waiting for the chopper, alongside the battalion commander (a grizzly old man who Red tried to avoid at every turn), the sergeant major (even more of a malicious force in Red’s life, far more personal in his disdain for anything approaching hijinks or jackals), and Turtle and Dirt and the battalion chaplain, a priestly man entirely out of place with his beliefs in a place and time such as this.
Carl had asked to say goodbye to Red and Turtle had obliged, with the BC’s permission. Red wasn’t too hurt, even though he’d been closest to the blast; the vagaries (as Dandy called them) of physics and chance had deflected the blast towards the two men-turned-memories, to be flown out later, not on the same chopper (not on account of Hollywood’s influence or importance; their bodies weren’t ready to depart yet) and Red didn’t know how to feel just this moment.
“Yes, Mister Weatherby?”
Carl stood and put out a hand. “Thanks.”
Whether that was for the conversation, or for dragging his poor dumb screaming ass out of the burning truck, or for bandaging up the non-life- threatening wound on Mister Carl Weatherby’s neck (the hastily-applied bandage since replaced with a big soft gauze pad, still soaking up the seepage) Red didn’t ask or care. He shook the hand the same.
“Good luck with the picture business, sir.”
“Any departing thoughts?” he asked. “Last minute tips?”
Red glanced at the assembled brass and pageantry behind Carl, considered his options and immediate future, and decided against it. “Naw, nothing like that.”
“Soldier,” the BC said, somehow eavesdropping, not surprising Red in the least. “Maybe you’ve got some parting wisdom for these two men. They came a long way.” He smiled soft and in a way that made Red think of failure. “Perhaps we can salvage something from this terrible day.”
Like a fucking movie? A parade, some sort of twisted memorial to two guys and a truck ripped to little bits? What did the Colonel mean? Was Red to spill out some secret that would allow Weatherby and Hollywood and all the little kids yet to watch the shit movies coming down the pike, allow them to do…something with their lives? Live it better than this?
“Real advice, Colonel?” The older man nodded like he was old and wise but he was just old. “You wanna get the full effect, Weatherby? Know what you should do to get the real deal feel of soldiering?”
Invent yourself a fucking time machine, that’s what you do, and you go back to high school, and fuck up a lot, see? Like, a lot. Ditch all your classes, fuck around with your loser brother and his friends, get one of the girls a few grades behind you pregnant (but not a cheerleader; maybe one of the flag-twirling girls in the marching band, or a girl who smokes because she wants to and not just to impress or rebel or make a fucking statement) you get her pregnant and then you do a thing so stupid you’d need another time machine to undo it. Then you go before a county judge and get to choose prison or the Army, only there’s no difference, see, except you get to watch more TV in prison. Then you sweat your stupid way through all of Fort Jackson, not just a week, or Fort Knox, or Fort Leonard-fucking-Wood, get the daily reminder of what a dipshit fuckup you are and how did you land your dumb ass in a world of hurt and boy won’t you miss boot camp when the time comes to shit in the desert and drink water that’s been chlorinated enough to kill every last thing in it including the ghosts of bacteria and tell me you don’t miss toilets that flush your turds away and food that doesn’t taste like grit and sand everywhere even in the fucking gum you chew because it breaks up the monotony of a life spent tumbling around, and you choose where to sit in the truck based on what the sergeant says or which truck they’re hitting lately, first or last or maybe the middle one, and you’ve got as much chance saving your toes by putting one foot in front of the other as you do of winning a lottery you ain’t playing when a Volkswagen Beetle-worth of homemade fertilizer bomb hits you, then you go back to Beverly Hills and tell ’em how much you learned on your little Cub Scout excursion, thank you very much.
He smiled. “Yeah, good luck with that if-movie of yours.”
Travis Klempan was born and raised in Colorado. He joined the Navy to see the world; most of it was ocean, so he came home. He has degrees in English and creative writing, and his work has appeared in Ash & Bones, Atticus Review, Line of Advance, and Proud to Be. He is currently working on a novel set in Iraq and Louisiana about ghost stories run amok.