During my MFA, I took a course on Wallace Stevens, Heidegger, and Nietzsche. Nietzsche really seemed like the magic boy for a while afterwards, until I read about his troubled love life. I realized that anyone who had never really loved couldn’t have all the answers. But as I was going to grad school, and the U.S. was attempting to exit Iraq, I wondered how much more appealing his perspective might be in a combat situation. And this brief snapshot story was born.
“Sarge, what’s that book you always reading?”
I don’t look up from the ammo pack I’ve spread out on my bunk.
“Come on, Sergeant, I got my battle rattle.”
I button down the last of the pockets on the pack, heft it up and around my waist.
“Nietzsche,” I say, again without turning to look.
I carefully velcro the pack around my body armor, making sure the straps are secure.
“Friedrich Nietzsche. German philosopher.”
Patterson, Smoke’s bunkmate, says, “Wasn’t he a Nazi?”
“He died in 1900 Patterson, makes it kinda hard to be a Nazi.”
“Patterson, you ready to go?”
“Then get your gear, the MRAP’s waitin’.”
They gather up their rifles, packs, and move out into the courtyard. Mitchel, the tall, corn-breed Lieutenant, cuts through the group to me. He confirms our route again, the names and addresses. Pencils little circles on his battered map of Baghdad.
Outside it’s still relatively cool. It’s seven in the morning, the sky pewter clear. In the courtyard a few puddles reflect the sky amidst the ochre dirt around where the behemoth trucks are parked. A filthy mongrel scampers away from the entrance of the barracks as we depart.
We mount into the dark benches of the MRAP. The rumbling of the diesel engines starts, then the crackle of the radio. I sit across from Smoke near the back door. Smoke eyes the tattered copy of Beyond Good and Evil safely tucked away in my breast pocket.
“So what’s it about Sarge?”
I like Smoke. He does his job, and he’s legitimately interested. But I struggle trying to explain the Will to Power.
I say, “Smoke, this shit ever bother you?”
“This?” He gestures around the truck. “This the best shit in the world.”
“No. I mean when guys get fucked up. Even bad guys.”
Smoke shrugs, looks around. Most of the troopers aren’t listening, stuck in their own worlds. A few are giving me the strongest stink-eye they dare at my mention of troopers getting hurt. Patterson’s grinning at us, playing the tough kid.
Smoke looks from me to Patterson as he speaks. “Naw, Sergeant, I can handle it.”
“That’s good Smoke. But it bothers me. That’s why I read it.”
“God damn, Sarge, I thought you ate this shit up. What he say?”
“Nietzsche reminds me that my ancestors were survivors, and that survival involves savage decisions. Brutality is suppressed back in the world, but here, it’s the only way not to go extinct. Back in the day it was always like that.”
“Shit, come to my part of Oakland.”
“But it’s not like Baghdad, is it?”
He snorts. “Nothing’s like Baghdad.”
Smoke rubs his chin. “So what he’s saying is people’d die off if we weren’t so badass? People dying every day.”
“He means it’s a choice between some of us dying and all of us. Of the human racing dying off from weakness or a section of it surviving through brutality.”
Smoke is non-pulsed. He rubs his stubble, his index moving back and forth over his chin.
“Hell, never thought about like that. But that’s not very comforting, Sarge.”
“No. It’s not.”
My ears tingle with upped awareness as the heavy tires clunk through the gate of the compound.
“I read that when we get back?”