We’ve often been told that the truth is in the details. After all, details are what give shape to an individual life and clarify it amidst a crowd of people, places, and events. When it comes to things we experience in times of war or geopolitical conflict, some of these details become fuzzy and shift out of focus due to traumatic injury or defense mechanisms or even the simple passage of time. Other details, however, maintain or even increase in clarity, as if to tether us to the experience.

These were the details we were interested in exploring in this project. We put out an open call for submissions, asking for lightning narratives and mini-essays that zoom in on a specific sensory detail that tethered the author to their experience, that somehow kept the experience clear and true. We received an outpouring of subs, and the ones we selected represent not only a high level of craft but also a breadth of experience and insight.

—Christopher Gorrie, Nonfiction Editor

"Who Would I Be Without the Violence?" by Mandy Shunnarah

For a long time, I didn’t know who I was. Can any child whose existence is only made possible by diaspora avoid the fact-finding mission of figuring out who they are?

I knew who my parents were: Eva Marie McCann and Johnny Joseph Shunnarah.

High school sweethearts in suburban Birmingham, Alabama––a cheerleader and football player––like a trope from a novel. They broke up after one of their unending squabbles, then found each other again a decade later. They had already forgotten once more how to love each other before I was old enough to form memories.

They divorced around my third birthday. Though neither would admit this, always insisting one could raise me better than the other. One smothering, one neglecting, they were each the polarized ends of a spectrum they would not step into the calm middle of.

They were too focused on fighting with and one-upping one another to worry over a small human who could never decide which of the two to give her allegiance. Insults were slung, masking themselves as statements of fact, reassurances of universal truth, like potholes after a rain, unsure of their depth from the surface.


My parents were more alike than they cared to admit. I inherited the best and worst of both of them, emblematic even in my name: Amanda Rea Shunnarah.

Amanda, because my parents couldn’t agree on what my first name should be––my mother wanted Kayla, my father wanted Amanda. My mother was passed out from the labor of birthing me when I was handed, wet and screaming, to my father. He saw his chance and took it.

Rea, because it’s an old Southern family name on the maternal side. Pronounced like ray, it was the surname of the great-grandfather I would never meet and the married name of the great-grandmother who I would spend more time with than almost anyone.

Shunnarah, because it’s the marker of my paternal side. The name my Palestinian grandparents, who newly arrived in the U.S. in the early 1950s after the Nakba––or the forced exodus of Palestinians from their homeland in 1948 by Zionist colonizers––were proud to bestow on their firstborn son.

I knew the origins of my last name were not to be revealed.


In fifth grade, coming back to school on a Monday after a weekend with my sedo and taita––my Palestinian grandfather and grandmother––I learned a handful of new words in Arabic to teach my friends. They repeat after me, trying to wrap their tongues, heavy with Southern drawl, around the throaty syllables and looking to me for guidance. My pronunciation was hardly better. Ahlan was warped to yallen. Halaa twisted into holla.

Andrew (a friend when he wanted something, a bully the rest of the time) was quiet for several minutes, his eyes empty as they searched mine.

“I wouldn’t tell people that if I were you,” he said, cautioning me.

“Tell people what?”

“That you speak that stuff,” he said, insistent, genuine in his desire to help me. “People might think you’re with them rag heads that flew into the towers.”

Not knowing any other Arab kids at my school or outside my family, I thought it was possible all Arab people knew each other. What if I was related to bin Laden?

I nodded and Andrew nodded back. No one asked me for new words after that.


I didn’t know who I was, though I had both sides of my family telling me with alarming regularity. Each side wanted to mold me in their image, squashing the other side’s influence out until I was either all Southern redneck or all Palestinian, but never both. In their effort to make me into what they hoped I would be, they neglected to see who I actually was: a child, now a woman, who resented their ultimatums.

Of course, I didn’t know who I was. You can’t find yourself among people who pull at your arms, tugging you according to their whims. Navigating these two identities depending on whose company I was in allowed me to survive.

I didn’t know who I was, but I knew I wouldn’t exist without the violence, the exile, the diaspora. When my sedo and taita spoke of “The Old Country” it was with a melancholy nostalgia. They told stories of the good old days and smiled as tears swelled. When I ask sedo to show me his real country on a globe, he shakes his head, words failing him. And when I asked if they would take me to The Old Country, wherever it was, one day, they said, “One day, Bebe, if God wills it.”


Though I’m only in my thirties, that feels ages ago. I have a new vocabulary of phrases that come easier to my tongue than Arabic: transgenerational trauma, geopolitical violence, forced exile, colonization. The body keeps the score; the tally passed through blood. Learning these terms allowed me to understand that the violence my grandparents experienced at the hands of an occupying army in Ramallah, Palestine, was passed on to my father, who passed it on to me.

Though I know I wouldn’t exist without the violence embedded in my DNA, I try to imagine who I would be without it. Would I still have anxiety and depression severe enough to warrant my taking antipsychotic medication for the rest of my life? Would I have a healthy relationship with my family without the constant googling and reading and researching what they must have experienced back then; the words too painful to cross their lips?

There is no roadmap, no guidebook, no atlas to selfhood. Only transparencies, tracing paper, pages of a story shredded and collaged back together. Hope persists in my slow rejection of being only eithers or ors, and a coming acceptance of myself as a mosaic of boths, ands, and ampersands.

"The Crossing Game" by Lorraine Hanlon Comanor

Climbing the figure skating ladder has left no time for other games until the day our coach drives us from Vienna to the end of Austria where storks nest in chimneys and gypsies play violins. After a sample of gulaschsuppe and Burgenland wine, he says it’s time to test the water. So, we all wade into the Neusiedler See, looking across the blue to the empty fields of Hungary.

It’s possible to walk across the salty lake that averages only a meter in depth or at least to venture towards the Hungarian border, an invisible line through the lake’s center marked only by the back-and-forth hum of patrol boats. In my American world of school and rink, transitions are a simple challenge: how quickly, during the half hour ride in the back seat of a Plymouth, can one change clothes and eat a baloney sandwich? But now, as we approach the no man’s land, a slow-cruising patrol passes. Catching the eye of its pilot, we stick our thumbs in our ears and wag our tongues, a great game for two fifteen-year-olds.

A potential 007 game trumps performance that winter at the 1962 World Figure Skating Championships, as a tibial stress fracture limits what I can do. On arrival at the hotel, I stand on the bed and, as instructed by the CIA agent who met me in Boston, take apart the overhead light fixture. Nada. I progress to the baseboard heating, carefully unscrewing the cover. Bingo: I find the tell-tale spools of the recording device.

Before five the next morning, I’m awakened by the rat-a-tat-tat of jackhammers, men and women digging by the tram, breadlines forming just beyond. Our hotel provides steak and oranges for breakfast. I pocket an extra orange for someone on the street.

Warned that eastern bloc athletes can be punished for contact with us, I still manage an out-of-sight chat with the Czech champion who, despite a previous failed defection attempt, plans to try again.

Delayed by after-practice autograph requests, I make a wrong turn returning to the hotel in the dark and have to ask directions in fractured Czech, understanding fractions of answers. At the hotel, the Czechs tell Mother not to worry. If I don’t show up in three hours, my tail will bring me in.

Across the street is a man old enough to have lived through the occupation. I apologize for speaking German, assure him I’m not German, just lost. He asks if I know the Jelineks, the favored-to-win, brother-sister pair who defected as children from Prague to Canada. Friends, I tell him. Everyone here is rooting for them, we root for you too, he says, and takes me back to the hotel. Your tail, probably, a German skater tells me.

A sixty-ish man with wire-rimmed glasses, bumps me in the after-competition crowd, surreptitiously passing me the manilla envelope the CIA agent told me to sew into my suitcase lining. “You’ll tell people back home what it’s like here,” he says, as I hide it under my jacket. Then he’s gone.


Still limited by the stress fracture in the ensuing months, I’m excited by the prospect of continuing the game in Berlin. Busy last summer in Vienna with training and visits to Beethoven houses, I’d missed Ulbricht’s assurance: “no one has the intention of building a wall,” followed, less than two months later, by tens of thousands of East German soldiers snaking barbed wire through Berlin’s parks, cemeteries, and streets, closing traffic between the city’s east and west sectors.

 I want to help people cross to the West. Mother says I’m crazy to even think about it. “You’ll end up getting shot,” she says, but I dismiss her, Honecker’s “shoot to kill order” years away. Unwilling to give up, I arrange passage through Checkpoint Charlie to get the lay of the land. Between its fences, concrete walls and barbed-wire-enhanced-breeze blocks, a three-hundred foot no man’s land manned with search lights, spikes, and mines. Surely, some way across. A balloon, tunnel, or mad dash? On re-entry to the West, the Vopo studies my passport, as if he knows I’m up to something.

At breakfast the next morning, my Gasthaus host asks me how I slept.

“The car backfiring woke me,” I tell her.

“Not backfiring car. Over-wall-going boy,” she says. “Just eighteen.”

“But he made it?” I ask. The defections I knew were ultimately successful.

“Almost,” she replies. “Through the no man’s land, but not over the second wall.”

"Confession 3" by Joshua Cornwell

From our rooftop garden in Gimhae the leading edge of the typhoon makes the sky bleed in the dying light of the sun. The wind whips at the white fur of the dogs and pulls the material of my wife’s dress around her pregnant belly, so that it shows clear and round beneath the fabric. The garden is fenced in chicken wire and reached by stair from the junk-strewn deck. Heavy Hyundai trucks are rattling down Hogye-ro boulevard, and the red sky is catching at windows in the apartment towers at Buwon station.

There’s a knot inside my throat because I know that in keeping my passion at arm’s length, I’m effectively killing something. I feel desperate to speak, for the confessional, afraid to look too closely at the fire. My teeth are grinding, and the writing is falling apart because I know I want to bury the feeling with words, to dance away from it, dissemble and reframe.

I’ve been watching too much combat footage and feeling bad for doing so, like a voyeur, seeing something at a remove and fooling myself into thinking I might understand. I know it’s masturbation, darkness for the sake of dark, but those were real people and I’m not as numb to it as I’d like to imagine. The images embed the taste of something metallic and raw and awful. They burn a mark, cut deep.

I know I don’t understand, and maybe there is nothing to understand; accepting the fact that wars are doomed to repeat, that there’s too many of us (and too many full of hate) and everything we’ve seen up to now is probably the run-up to something worse. It would be nice to believe that in watching these things I’m working towards something rather than running away. I can’t tell. I am, though. Watching. I can’t help it. Wanting it, needing it. To see and not blink.

There’s one I can’t get out of my mind tonight, watching the sky burn, listening to hip-hop in a busted-up plastic chair. Early in the Syrian war, a regime T-72 hit badly by an RPG or SPG-9, something direct and simple, no wire guided ATGMs in the field, then. The tank is hit low, sheds a tread, catches fire. A young crewman pulls himself from the hatch just before the flames start licking up and sprints off screen. I know there are three crew, but he’s the only one to get out and run. I assume he’s the gunner and that the driver is dead.

There’s a beat, flames getting higher, before the commander pulls himself out. I think he’s the commander because he’s middle-aged and mustached. He’s burned. His clothes are smoldering. His right foot is mangled and twisted and jagged and wrong. He moves like a half-crushed insect, leaving a brown streak on the turret. Meanwhile the rebels are screaming Allahu Akbar and firing. The commander doesn’t care. His movements are awful.

He rolls himself over and just sort of drips down the side of the tank, falling the last couple of feet like a heavy sack. But the tank is shedding fuel and the ground is on fire and he’s just fallen into it. He starts to roll, side over side, trying to put distance between himself and the flames. At this point everyone is shooting at him, and he begins to get hit, in the leg first, then low in the back. He keeps rolling.

I don’t know, but I imagine there’s nothing in his mind at that point but an urgent voice speaking in remove, saying, “move, move, you have to move,” and he’s focused on that and nothing else, like an old man on a chess problem, oblivious to the screaming, barely aware of getting hit, trying to get away from the fire. He’s made it about twenty or thirty feet when a 7.62 catches him squarely in the back of the head and he’s dead. And there’s a different sort of horror in that moment, in how instantaneous his transition is, how fine the line.

I’ve seen a few videos of people hit like that, and they just drop like puppets with their strings cut, archeology of their faces twisted and collapsed. Suddenly he looks like nothing, another piece of trash on the ruined street. His clothes are on fire. The rebels are still screaming and shooting, and his body twitches with the impacts. Then the magazine in the tank goes up and the flames roar up out of the open hatch and into the air like a supersized roman candle.

I didn’t like writing that because I saw it behind my eyes. I wasn’t there. I found a video on Reddit years after the fact and watched it on a whim, and perhaps there isn’t anything substantive to say about it. I do know that I’m sweating, that my head aches, and that compared to the awful, universe-dilating reality of that recorded moment and hundreds of others like it I have nothing to say that feels worth saying and there’s no reason to share.

Maybe I’m just like the trash and rubble on that street. I don’t know. I do know I can hardly breathe with the fear, looking at my wife and her swollen belly. That I hate things as they are, hate being proven right, hate knowing that the privilege of distance might not exist much longer. That maybe a short time from now we’re all going to be like that commander, rolling in fire. I’m scared. I want to sit at home with the dogs, drink, eat, forget it, hug my wife and welcome the baby. But then I read the news, watch the news, think about the news, get sick of the news, dig deep down into the net and watch videos of people getting killed. I normalize the mess we’re making, that we’ve made, until a song or a sunset hits me and I have to write.

And the writing is just a shapeless, reflexive thing, an expression in the absence of meaning or purpose, set against the willed deterioration of a world gone mad. I have to take this feeling and work it like a jeweler, hold it up to the light and tell myself, “this is pain, this is the shape of pain.” I need to feel the dimensions of that pain reflected and magnified by the wider suffering of the world, but I also need to be humble about the limits of my or anyone else’s capacity to effect change. To arrest the rampant, willful destabilization and decay that threatens us all.

So, I’ll take a breath, exhale, screw my eyes down shut to hold back tears. It isn’t on me that my government has come unhinged, that twenty thousand artillery pieces are pointed at Seoul, that the Turks have invaded Afrin and are cutting down Kurdish militia fighters with their M-60 Pattons. Take a break from the news and the raw footage of recorded atrocities. On walks home picture the animals and people you love. If you remember anything, remember that time is a river and calm is stillness in the heart of fire.

"Look at Those Legs!" by Brecht De Poortere

There was no messing around with South African customs officials. No ifs, no buts. Definitely no smiles. But there were things in Nelspruit I could not get in Maputo, so I went on the occasional shopping trip to stock up on groceries. Besides, South Africa was beautiful—with its mountains and parks, oceans and rivers. Yet each time I crossed that border back into Mozambique, I sighed with relief.

Patrão, how many weapons do you have in your boot?” the Mozambican officials would joke.

“Just a couple…”

“That’s all right then,” they’d laugh and wave me through.

When I mentioned this to Sérgio, the security guard of our apartment block in Maputo, a pitying look would appear on his face. “Poor South Africans,” he’d say with a tsk. “It’s because they had Apartheid.” Of course, I’d think to myself. But it’s not like you didn’t have segregation under Portuguese rule…

Then Sérgio would offer to carry my groceries up to the fourth floor. Big bright eyes, cheekbones round like grapes. I’d say, yes, because it gave me an excuse to hand him a little extra cash.

Bending his long, stilt-like legs, he’d pick up the bags and sway up the stairs—like a piece of string blowing in the wind. Sérgio was so tall, his trousers always hung ankle-length. He dropped the groceries outside my door, and I invited him to come over in the afternoon to watch the World Athletics Championships. How could he resist seeing Maria Mutola, one of the greatest 800-meter runners of all time, win another medal for Mozambique?

When Sérgio reappeared later that day, the athletes had started warming up. Mutola, in lane 5, stared straight ahead—solid like a rock. In lane 4, her rival and training partner, Kelly Holmes, hopped from foot to foot to alleviate the stress.

Sérgio flopped down into a chair and said, not without pride, “Do you know Mutola is from my neighbourhood, Chamanculo?” I’d never been there, but I knew it was a shantytown on the outskirts of Maputo.

The gun fired and the runners were off. As they cut in after the first curve, Mutola took the lead. She made it look so easy—almost floating over that red track—and I pictured her as a child, racing through the dirt roads of Chamanculo. Zigzagging around potholes filled with orange mud. Now she was a national hero. The first Mozambican to win medals on the international stage. I wondered: had anyone even heard of this country prior to Mutola? There was the Bob Dylan song—but he only picked Mozambique to rhyme with “cheek” and “speak”.

Meu Deus!” Sérgio said, leaning forward in his chair. “Just look at her!” Shoulder blades tight, arms pumping, this woman was nothing but muscle and determination.

Mutola and I were only a few years apart. She was born towards the end of Mozambique’s war of independence, weeks before the Wiriyamu massacre. “Kill them all,” the Portuguese soldiers had been ordered—women and children included. How lucky, I thought, Mutola wasn’t born in Wiriyamu.

One lap down, and Mutola was still in front. Sérgio perched on the edge of his seat. The girl from Chamanculo was going to do it again; she was going to show the world what a poor kid from Mozambique could do!

Just as the runners entered the last curve, the unimaginable happened: Kelly Holmes shot past Mutola. The spark dimmed in Sérgio’s eyes.

How hard it must have been for a young girl to rise to the top of her discipline, when her country descended into civil war. Fifteen years of fighting. A million lives lost. Landmines buried everywhere and, alongside, the innocent victims that stepped on them.

But strength is born from adversity.

In the last 50 meters, Mutola shifted up a gear, her strides grew longer—sharp and powerful. As she pulled level with Kelly Holmes, Sérgio jumped, arms in the air, his trousers raised and crumpled at his knees from sitting down.

“Look at those legs!” Sérgio shouted. “Look at those legs!”

But I wasn’t looking at those legs. I was looking at Sérgio’s legs. Shins covered in scars. Shiny, black spots, like a leopard’s hide. “From stepping on a landmine,” he once said. “When I was a child.” Then Sérgio laughed and said he’d been lucky. Because he always laughed—except when he felt sorry for the poor South Africans.

Mutola crossed the finishing line, meters ahead of her rivals, and Sérgio did a silly, little dance.

How lucky, I thought, that Mutola never stepped on a mine.

"When the Bombs Fell" by Helene Thomas

Author’s Note: My father, a German Officer, was stationed in Lista, Norway, as a Regierungsinspektor (a government inspector) and administered funding for the construction of buildings and runways. While there, he met my Norwegian mother and they fell in love. Before they were allowed to marry, their genealogy background check had to be performed and approved by the S.S. In 1943, my sister was born. In 1944, they moved to Posen, Germany, for a few months, and then to Greifswald, Germany, where I was born.

They called me the screamer when bombs dropped on my first breath at birth.

Strange hands grabbed my body. The maternity ward quickly abandoned to the blackest depth into the basement.

The horror of war a thousand deaths not yet ordained. Fear imprinted my mind. Thoughts not formed, only a holy moment pressed into hell. My screams continued into the abyss of chaos as the sky filled with howling terror, scorching the earth in its path, shaking the ground, cutting the edge of sanity. What did it want that needed my fear, a barrier from love? Such was the beginning of my life.

My mother, a war bride, married my father, a German Officer in Norway. A year later, my sister was born, and before the war ended, they moved to Germany, where I was born.

At home, in our one-room sanctuary, my parents had to step outside while I screamed myself to sleep, devoid of understanding these dreadful feelings. We fled from Greifswald, Germany, to Muenster Westfalen, Germany, when I was less than a year old.

At age three, I remember looking out the window at my reflection. I pressed my head to the glass, waiting for my mother. She stayed at the hospital with my sick baby brother. No medicine for the ailing, and cold winter months took my little brother and many to the grave.

A few Norwegian and Swedish war brides, with their malnourished children, chartered a bus to their respective countries.  Feed my children, they cried, and the mother country took pity, accepting them back to their country.

My sister and I, aged four and three, were not allowed to speak German in public. Our mother worried her countrymen would look harshly on us, the deep hate for the German invaders still in the hearts of many in my mother’s native land.

“This is a land of milk and honey,” said our mother, and we soon forgot our German language and spoke only Norwegian. Food everywhere, and my aunts and uncles made sure we had plenty to eat. Mother doubled her weight.

We flew back to Germany. Dad met us at the airport and looked vaguely familiar, walking toward us. He bent down, looked at me, his eyes tearing up. I found out years later he didn’t recognize mom and thought a nanny brought us for him to take care of while she stayed in Norway.

We settled into a two-room apartment in West Germany. My sister and I soon relearned the German language. There wasn’t much in material things, but we received love and devotion from our parents.

The ravage of war still seen in many places, our playground was made of bomb holes filled with water. My sister and I never went hungry, my parents had us eat before they did, yet I remember wanting to eat sand and visualized the sand in my mouth.

We moved to America when I was nine, though I still had the extreme fear of the dark and loud noise.

I am now 77 years old, and what have I learned? Hold no hate in your heart. Love everyone wherever they may live, forgive our trespasser, and hope that world peace will someday come. Though my eyes tear up when I see the bombed-out cities and people fleeing in Ukraine.

Editorial Note: This essay adds complexity to the history of the German occupation of Norway (1940-1945), when German soldiers were encouraged to have “Aryan” children with Norwegian women as part of the Lebensborn program. This project led to the establishment of special clinics in which 8,000 to 12,000 children were born in Norway. The author’s parents’ genealogy requirement shows the level of scrutiny even for consensual relationships during the occupation.

"Splinters" by Tad Tuleja

In a chilling passage of one Vietnam veteran’s memoir, an American soldier approaches an old woman sitting near a pile of sticks and without saying a word shoots her in the face. “What the hell are you doing?” screams his lieutenant, and the soldier answers, “Those are punji sticks she was working on.”

Punji sticks were slivers of bamboo, sharpened to a razor’s edge, that the Viet Cong forced villagers to provide in volume. Smeared with excrement, they were placed in the underbrush as booby traps for American patrols. When Green Beret Barry Sadler bumped into one in 1965, he sustained an infection that almost took his life. In his memoir I’m a Lucky One, he marvels that an elite soldier, whose training had cost the government thousands of dollars, had been nearly done in by “the cheapest and most primitive of weapons.”

Not long after Sadler’s mishap, Pentagon engineers developed a splinter delivery system of their own. To create what antiwar activist David Harris calls “the most significant possible drag on the enemy’s resources,” the Army started to drop canisters of small fragmentation bombs. When these exploded, they sent a hailstorm of metal slivers into enemy bodies, requiring an estimated five people to care for each victim. Hence the desired “drag.” “Then,” writes Harris, “some bright young boy in the Pentagon added a last detail.”

Why not manufacture the smaller bombs out of plastic? That way the wounds would not only be serious and plentiful but also relatively untreatable since the fragments that would lodge in the wounded could not be located with an X-ray machine. The unrelieved suffering thus induced would in turn yield an even greater drain on the enemy’s resources.

Ignore the sadistic ingenuity of that solution and consider only how the punji stick and the frag bomb are similar. Technologically, there are centuries of sophistication between the two devices. Morally, not a nanosecond. Both are designed to further what Clausewitz called the purpose of warfare: to convince the enemy to submit to your will. Punji sticks do this by taking soldiers like Sadler out of commission. Frag bombs do the same thing on a massive scale. “Unrelieved suffering” isn’t the point. It’s that the suffering impairs the enemy’s ability to keep fighting. In a dispassionate war calculation, whatever furthers that end is permissible.

But there’s a cost in how we feel about people. The soldier who shoots the mama-san making punji sticks cannot see her as a person; he must eliminate her perhaps partly out of revenge (maybe he’s Sadler’s buddy) but mostly because she is resisting the required drag. Thus, war splinters more than wood and plastic. It shatters the hope of seeing in an enemy’s eyes any hint of a common humanity. This is the way war goes. Always has.

There are exceptions to this rule, perhaps more than those of us who didn’t go to war can ever know. In his sketch “The Man I Killed,” Tim O’Brien invents a biography for a Vietnamese soldier he has killed with a grenade. Before the war, O’Brien imagines, the young man “devoted himself to his studies. He spent his nights alone, wrote romantic poems in his journal, took pleasure in the grace and beauty of differential equations.” This being O’Brien, you cannot tell how “true” this story is, but that doesn’t matter. What matters is that he makes an attempt to “feel with” another person. That is the literal meaning of empathy and summoning it for someone you have killed is a small miracle.

Like all miracles, it encounters skepticism. O’Brien’s fellow soldiers don’t want to acknowledge it, don’t want him to dwell on something that debilitatingly human. It was a good kill, they tell him. Get over it.

He does get over it, sort of. Only sometimes, when he’s “reading a newspaper or just sitting alone in a room,” the young man he killed is there again. On that day in Vietnam, he stepped out of a morning fog. Twenty-five years later, he steps back in. Into the fog of dawn, the fog of remembering not remembering, the old shadow world. O’Brien sees him come and sees him go. Only when he goes this time, he’s not in fragments.

When I was a teenager, someone poked me with a pencil, or I poked myself, and a bit of graphite dug into my hand. It was a trivial wound and yet, sixty years later, my hand still shows a tiny spot where the pencil went in. It may be reminding me of something, but I don’t know what.

Maybe if I had more empathy I could remember. And maybe if I had more empathy, I’d have done my patriotic duty and gone to war. I would have tried to fight the good fight and not kill old women. I would have taken different slivers into my brain and had them sit there for decades, reminding me of something. I would have come home, no longer young, and talked to kids like me and told them about good kills and why they didn’t matter.

This might have happened in that other world, that parallel world where the sunlight splinters beautifully and the grey rolls on.

"Car Bombs Made Me a Selfish Bastard" by James Seddon

Once they got more than a few hundred meters away, all car bombs sounded the same and like nothing else on the planet. Sonic booms were the closest thing I found back home, but even they weren’t quite right. Years later, I can still hear them. A powerful low frequency rumble with a sharp front edge. You felt it in your gut more than you heard it in your ears. Even kilometers away, the ground moved. Sometimes, if it was big enough, you detected slight air pressure changes as the thin remnant of the shockwave passed over you, even from afar. Echoes off buildings made the experience last a few long seconds.

I started keeping track after I heard the first one. The pace picked up once the summer fighting season came, and—especially after I was far closer to one than I wanted to be—I quit counting. The number no longer seemed important.

Drinking around a table with other veterans back home, I mentioned that. One said, “Yeah, after a while, I was like, ‘Huh, there’s another. Whatever.’”

Not me.

Each and every sound affected me. In the same way. It never changed.

First, I paused. I reminded myself that it was far away and didn’t indicate a threat anywhere near me. Me and my sorry skin were safe. My heart didn’t need to beat so fast.

The next involuntary thought was simply, “There’s one that won’t get me.” You see, car bombs were not an infinite resource for the enemy. They were expensive. They got used quickly after creation. The number they could create in the time before I rotated home was limited. One that went off far away was one less available for me.

Then, especially after that close one where I saw the effects, my heart sank. Sometimes, I felt like I could puke if I wanted. I pictured the innocent civilians, the children, whose lives were ended or ruined concurrent with the sound I just heard and while I stood there counting my blessings. It was my only and last unselfish thought.

I ran through a mental inventory of the day’s missions for my team. Was there any chance that any of my teammates were on the roads in the general vicinity of that blast? When there wasn’t, a flood of relief swept over me. After all, like me, my friends were more deserving of life than strangers.

Next, I hoped that it killed no one I knew, teammate or not. Once, one of those sickening sounds had done just that. He didn’t deserve it. We heard the sound that killed him less than an hour after my hooch-mate and I ate lunch with him. I didn’t like that. Better if it’s someone else. An unknown. A statistic. Something not real.

I’d wish that it was a suicide car bomb as compared to a remotely detonated one because then, at least, one deserving shitbag would have gotten his.

Each time, all this ran through my head as my heart slowed and the blast’s dusty echo wore itself out on the city’s tired walls. I looked in the direction of the blast, checking if I could spot the roiling hot black smoke rising into our world from the depths of hell. If I could, I played a little guessing game about the target and compared later once I learned what it was. If someone was near me, I shared my guess.

Then, I started walking again, resuming my business as though nothing had happened. If I was on my way to the dining facility, I’d get ice cream. It would be delicious. Never tasted better.

"Ripples and Eddies" by Nicholas Lutwyche

Two miles off our port beam, a ship is burning. The orange plume of black tipped smoke is a marker of a drastically sudden and unexpected missile strike. Twenty sailors are dead and many more injured. Above me on the Flight Deck, clanking chain-lashings are being removed from tethered helicopters as turbines whine and rotor blades beat faster. The ship heels over and turns into wind to launch them and they lift off, dipping low and hugging the sea as they head for the stricken destroyer, hoping to avoid enemy aircraft should they appear.

The smoke from the burning ship has increased; soon, the helicopters will return with burned and maimed sailors to be stretchered from the aircraft across the deck and down to the waiting medics, before returning with fire-pumps and damage control teams who will assist with trying to save the ship. I look again across the sights of the machine-gun on its bipod, check the ammunition belt, and scan the skies for aircraft. All around the ship sailors are checking similar weapons and thinking: “what if…”

The ship is closed up at “Actions Stations” and an “Air Raid Warning RED” alert has been broadcasted. The clattering of boots on steel ladders; slamming shut the water-tight doors and hatchways and thumping home the clips that retain them echoes through the ship, preceding terse readiness reports to Section HQs. Radar screens and EW receivers are being watched closely by anti-flash hooded and gloved Seamen; the anti-aircraft missile system is ready.

Ironically, this system is superbly efficient at its design task of taking out high-flying bombers attacking NATO convoys in the open seas of the North Atlantic Ocean, but here in the South Atlantic seas, close to land and facing sea-skimming missiles and small, agile fighter-bombers attacking just above sea-level, we are almost defenseless. Hence the burning ship that was hit by an Exoce missile launched at our ships. 


Almost thirty-five years later, it’s 6 A.M and I’m starting a shift in a noisy, dusty, cold steel mill a few miles west of Philadelphia, on the bank of the Schuylkil river. My work here is to inspect sheets of armor plate destined for the manufacture of US Army Troop Carriers for use in Afghanistan. These plates vary in size and weight but can be up to 12 feet long by 6 feet wide, weigh 1 ton; all of them have to be examined closely on both sides for flatness, rust, scale, oil contamination, and (most importantly) tiny pits in the surface. Any pits over fifteen thousandths of an inch deep have to be measured and assessed, as the ballistic properties of this special steel alloy armor will be affected. That is, its ability to resist incoming munitions and protect the troops inside the vehicle may be compromised.

Trying to examine a 1-ton steel plate as it sways past my head, suspended from a 60-yard wide, 25-ton gantry crane whirring and whining along an overhead track in this 3-quarter mile long steel and tin shed is a challenge. 5 plates at a time are hoisted by giant electro-magnets slung below the crane. 1 at a time they are passed over the brightly lit inspection area where I try to spot any pits or other problem areas and mark them with a yellow wax stick for later evaluation.

With a bellowing crash that any theatre sound effects department trying to reproduce a thunderstorm on stage would be proud of, these sheets are released individually onto a solid steel raised bed for flatness checking and inspection of the top face. Clouds of rusty dust billow around as each plate falls, and it gets everywhere in the mill, the cars parked outside and the cinder block offices huddled against the outside walls, as well as in the squalid rest rooms inside, adding to their air of neglect and disinterest.

Taking a break from the clamor and dirt, I walk outside across the road where the idling big rigs await their turn to be loaded with steel plates for delivery. I cross over the single railroad track where the mill’s diesel loco rumbles up and down pulling rail cars laden with steel plates, and finally go down to the edge of the wide, swift-flowing river. I watch the ripples and eddies reflecting the morning sun, and soak in the calming sounds of running water now that the industrial mayhem behind me cannot be heard.

A great, grey heron flaps lazily along the far side of the river, its dangling, stick-like legs skimming the water. It exudes a sense of serenity, of belonging in its immediate environment that I envy for a moment—but it is probably hunting for its next meal. Perhaps that is all it reduces to: searching for the next meal. I walk back up the bank, across the rail track, over the road, and out of the sun back into the noisy, gloomy, echoing mill. Dazed with fatigue, dusty and weary I sip hot tea from my flask. It was brewed much earlier, in the sanctuary of my kitchen, under the watchful gaze of the one-eyed tortoiseshell cat as she waited for her morning treat of evaporated milk.


Dusk is blurring the line between the sea and the sky on the horizon. The crew of the burning destroyer has obeyed the last order from their captain, the one that any sailor dreads: “Abandon ship.” When the sea-skimming missile tore into the ship’s side the fire-main system was disabled. The fires spread, despite desperate efforts with jury-rigged hoses and portable fire-pumps by the damage-control and fire- fighting teams working in dark, smoke-filled passages with paint blistering on steel bulkheads from the heat of the fires. The fires were getting too close to magazines full of munitions to risk the lives of the fire-fighters any longer.

The brave captain and crew of a smaller frigate took their ship alongside the burning vessel and the survivors climbed over the guard rails to safety. Eventually, the fires in the abandoned ship burned out without setting off explosions in the magazines, and the ship was taken in tow. High seas and strong winds caused water to pour in through the grievous wound in the ship’s side, and a day later she rolled over and sank, taking her dead with her. The position of the sinking was charted and is now recorded as an official war grave. Those crew members still with their ship can never return to their home port—they will sail on forever. Fair winds and calm seas are their eternity.

Share This