Jonas Agonistes

byMalraux©

Jane saw me from across the nave and smiled and nodded. I held up two fingers with a questioning look. She smiled and nodded again. She whispered to her smug husband and he looked at me. I had to smile and nod at him, too. The cad.

Rick was Rick. He was gregarious and joyful and it came through his ceremony. He noticed me, I think for the first time, during the gospel. He hesitated and looked back down at the lectionary and repeated a whole sentence. During the petitions later the reader finished her list and Rick added one, "And for old friends returned safely home, Lord hear our prayer."

*

Teaching allayed my drinking almost completely, but it did not end my challenges. I learned to teach on the job. Most jobs are learned on the job, I believe. In my many years as a student, I had never realized the influences on my teachers that had nothing to do with school. I had assumed it was effortless. I looked back and wondered about that fifth grade teacher who disappeared in the middle of a year; that nun who was team teaching with another and then was not; the pressures Mrs. Frederick must have felt as she was larger and larger with child. In the classroom every mistake must be quickly faced and resolved because you had to face the same kids tomorrow. For me in those years, besides learning to prepare lessons and handle kids and avoid alienating parents, I had trouble with dreams. Even two years a teacher, I still dreamed of that day in Afghanistan.

"Jonas! Jonas!"

Someone was insistent. I wanted to sleep, but I pulled myself up from the dark. Mom.

"Mom...what is it? Am I late for work?"

She was sitting on my bed, and I felt her hand on my arm. As my eyes cleared I could see Dad at the door to my room. "No, you were dreaming. It was a nightmare."

"What did I say?"

"You were calling out for people to hurry, to run, to hold onto some kids. You said, Get that kid, Silly! Turbo don't drop her, don't drop her. You told someone called Bronstein to keep everyone moving..." She had tears on her face.

I was silent. The war is here too, I thought, inside me. "You know, important things are really hard to keep secret," I said, smiling.

"I know you are not allowed to tell us what happened..." said Dad, speaking to me! "Just tell us things if you can. Are those people you mentioned dead?"

I relaxed. "No, every person I named made it out of Afghanistan, as far as I know. Turbo and Silly and Bronstein-I know what I was dreaming about. They're alive. Did I mention maybe Paritzki?" Mom and Dad shook their heads. "None of my guys died that day."

Dad went on. "Son, it's been almost four years. You've been out of the Marines for two years. You've been a teacher for a lot longer than you were in combat. Don't you think you should get some help? See a counselor? Something?"

I thought about that. "If I could open up about that incident. Maybe when they declassify it. I've been so careful not to breach the secrecy. I've told no one anything. I wish it would go away."

Mom leaned over and kissed me. "I wish so, too." Her hair was grey. She looked suddenly old. What was she? 53. Dad was 55, heavy, heavy walking, quiet, holding up the doorway. I always wondered if he was very smart. He didn't seem to need to prove it one way or the other. I never wondered if I was loved, unlike some other guys. 27 and living at home? I couldn't think of a better situation. They'd never mentioned me moving out.

I swung my feet over the side of the bed. Two years ago I'd returned from Camp Lejeune bereft, half-way to alcoholism, slipping into that restful but restless unhappiness called depression. But here in Sky Grey things had started getting better. I was still teaching at Merciful Saviour, still working on that master's at UC. It was now November; I should get the degree in June.

I dressed for school thinking about lesson plans. What was today? Oh, yeah, the bank failures of the 1930s in US; the rise of Hitler in World History.

Jonas Agonistes Chapter 2: Guns Ablazin'

It was that evening that I received a call from Lieutenant Colonel Marx.

"Hello?"

"I'm trying to reach Jonas Simms."

"Speaking. Major Marx?"

"Hello, Jonas. It's Light Colonel now. Oh, and you are a captain in the IRR."

"Congratulations and I had no idea I'd been promoted, either."

"Figures. Well, it's happened. They declassified al Gatar and all documents appertaining as of November 1. They have now moved all physical files to the public access areas and digital files are re-indexed for public use also. As of today, matter of fact. Anyone can see them now, Jonas."

"How should I feel, Sir? If people find out, how will that be good for me?"

"They'll have to read the detailed narrative, but the record is very clear. If they only check the summary, you may not fare so well. It mentions investigating you for disobedience, mutiny, etc. I am sending you as of five minutes ago copies of all files and documents. I checked them-they are exactly as filed years ago. I think you should print out a hard copy and keep it in a safe deposit box. Make lots of copies if you want to show friends, but keep one secure. In case someone only brings up the abstract. And make some digital copies too."

Silence. I felt that a burden had been lifted. "I think now I have some explaining to do to some people I've kept in the dark."

"So far no one seems to have noticed al Gatar. They could have gotten access 28 days ago if they were waiting for the reports. There were a lot of other mundane documents declassified at the same time. But your story is remarkable, Jonas. I'd like to talk to you about that next week, if you don't mind."

"Of course, sir. Call me..."

"No, I mean in person. I'll come there. Next Wednesday okay?"

Strange. "Of course. Next Wednesday. Want me to meet you at the airport?"

"No, I'm not sure how I'll travel. I'll come to your parents' home? Is that where you are?"

*

Tom Marx pulled the rental into the driveway of the Simms's house. It looked like much of middle America: clapboard, big front porch, glider to the side, bay front window, porch light on. There was a ballpark behind the property. He got out. December now. Cool, not cold yet. Stars were appearing. Marx wore a sport coat and slacks, a tie, but he was decidedly casual. He'd considered wearing his uniform to impress the family, but decided he didn't want respect for that. He wanted something else he could not identify immediately. On the plane, he'd come to the conclusion he wanted friendship. Jonas was 13 years his junior, but.

He carried a thick briefcase with him. He rang the doorbell.

He was met by a smaller, older woman. Early fifties, graying hair, attractive, with a straightforward expression.

"Mrs. Simms? I'm Tom Marx."

"Colonel Marx. I hope your trip was pleasant."

"It has been."

"We're waiting for you in the living room. Please come in."

It was a very pleasant meeting. Marx let the business of it go until some time had passed in reminiscence and catching up. There was laughter, which had been in short supply in the last years of Jonas's Marine experience. There were stories. Marx felt at home, and he understood where Jonas came from. They sat in some overstuffed chairs and a sofa and drank hot chocolate. There was no music on the stereo.

At 9:00, Marx said, "I have some business to conduct. Mr. and Mrs. Simms, I think you will want to stay, if that's alright with you, Jonas?"

"Of course. But I have not told them of al Gatar yet." He looked at his Dad. "I just couldn't find the right time or the words."

Dad shook his head, "Whatever you did, whatever happened to you, we are your parents and we love you."

Tom Marx had a smile of forbearance. In keeping his actions secret, Simms had created doubt and belief he was hiding some dark action that required forgiveness.

"The longer we keep silent, the more people will assume you have something to hide, like these good people who love you more than anyone on earth. I think the truth needs to be told, Jonas."

"I came to that conclusion, but I don't know who to tell or how."

"Okay, well, let's start with what they know. Jonas was arrested and investigated for disobedience of an order, mutiny," at this Dad inhaled deeply, "murder, treason, and just about any other thing they could think of. It all stemmed from an order given by Captain Messina to conduct a hammer and anvil raid on a small village called al Gatar. I have here one of Jonas's early statements. I recorded this, the original is in the just declassified files in Washington. He wrote it down, then read it, but he added to the written." He pulled a small recording device out of his case, put it on the coffee table, then hesitated to push play. "If you want something to eat or drink or to go to the restroom, now is the time. You won't want me to stop this once it goes for a minute or two." They shook their heads and he pushed play.

*

"My platoon was 32 hard-charging grunts with bravado and chutzpah and belligerence, carrying the latest M16 versions and SAWs and some rockets, wearing armored vests and helmets and desert cam. Most of my men were late adolescent guys who didn't make college or wanted excitement or, like Summersill, had gotten in some trouble and wanted a new start. I think Silly actually was told by a magistrate to join the Marines, but I'd have to look up the records to be sure. Bronstein who was Catholic had gotten some girl pregnant, married her, and thought he could move her and a kid into the middle class by enlisting. I thought that might take a few years, but he was at least housing and feeding them. Turboboost-I mean Turbish-was huge; some of the guys wanted on his fireteam because he would provide cover. The platoon sergeant was Staff Sergeant Healy, a strange thin guy about three years older than I and four more in the Corps; he had OCD and would wash his hands scores of time per day. The Captain had conferred with him several times about this. Oh, I'm the platoon commander, Jonas Simms of Ohio. At the time of these events I was 23, Healy was 27 I guess, Turbo and Silly were 19 and Bronstein 21.

"All the officers in the company had comms-radios linked. My squad leaders and platoon sergeant too, on a separate frequency. With flick of a switch I could contact the captain or my squad leaders, or the other platoon leaders if they were close enough. The helmet radios were not strong enough to contact a mile away in these hills, unless you had line of sight and good luck.

"We were outside Al Gatar or El Gatar or something like that. We'd never been there, or we'd been there and forgotten, but we were there that day.

"It was our fourth month in country and Afghanistan still looked like shit. Men, women, countryside, country, shit. The men had bad teeth and breath and the women were not allowed to notice us. Nice houses had rubble in the hallways and rooms, unbroken windows were rare things, and water pipes rarely had water, electrical lines rarely had electricity, if there were sewers they smelled or backed up most of the time, and the place was a dump. Actually the dump outside El Gatar was nicer than the town, but the important thing in this place seemed to be that the men do as little work as possible. Success was doing little and still getting by. I knew some fellow students who had that policy in school, so it reminded me of home. It was hot, which was a good reason to do nothing, but doing nothing leads to backed up sewers and rubble in your halls.

"At nine that day 2d platoon was going to attack Gatar because we had solid, I mean SOLID, evidence that the place was occupied by Taliban or ISIS or even still bin Laden's group. When the captain briefed us platoon commanders he asked for questions and I said, "Sir, what is the source of our intelligence?" Captain Messina looked at me as if I was overstepping bounds. He said, "Well, I am your source, Lieutenant. My source was the colonel commanding this battalion, and he got the information from a source so impeccable it can't be revealed to the likes of you." Which got him a chuckle, got me some looks of derision, and I knew better than to ask of weapons of mass destruction. I was also sceptical of the information.

"2d will attack with guns blazing. We understand the enemy is in some numbers: 40 or more combatants. We want the fire to be so aggressive as to force combatants out the east end of the village. Townspeople have been moved to cellars already by choice or force by the enemy. Simms, you will approach from the west along the road. The town is two rows of a total of about 40 structures, right along the broken formerly paved road. Notice the pictures. At 9 guns ablazing, you recon by fire the near houses and then clear them; they only have 2 or 4 rooms and one floor for most; don't forget those cellars. You may if you can't tell who's who, consider the place a free fire zone. Hear me, gentlemen? Intel is solid this place is bad guys. Do not endanger yourself or your men: I want dead ragheads, not Marines. Clear everyone from inside; if any survive, take them to the first building and guard them all. We don't want any Taliban hiding out behind us. We'll organize them or terminate once we sort them out then." Organize or terminate? I remember thinking.

"1st Platoon, Lt. Kelley, will approach the east side of the village. Your job is to cut off and kill any Taliban that flee the 2d Platoon attack. You'll come over the top of the ridge and down toward the road just before 9, set up what is essentially an ambush. You'll have two attached machine gun teams from Weapons Platoon. Sweeping fire on the road, about a hundred yards from the village. Plunging fire from the ridge side for the rest of the platoon. Oh, don't forget flank and rear security-your platoon is supported by 3d but they'll be well on the other side of the ridge so they can move to you or 2d."

The discussion was focussed on maps for quite some time. A helo insert. Helo extract. Avoid prisoners. Prisoners tended to return to the battlefield after visiting a camp by this point in the war. Lots of details were ironed out. By midnight we were tired and ready to brief our men.

I had never heard murder discussed so off-handedly, but I knew the protocol for dealing with an illegal order. Following it, I would be relieved of my command immediately and the attack would go on. I knew how to follow the orders and give myself options during the coming action and I determined to do it. Later, I spoke to Healy.

"What do you think, Staff Sergeant?"

Healy and I were sitting at a table in our fob area. We had a lamp, a map, some Coke. Tee shirts.

"He wants to massacre the town, doesn't he?" Healy said quietly. His voice was monotone, his hand was around a pop can, his hand so white from thousands of unnecessary cleanings.

"That's how I make it. Clear everyone out, shoot first, aggressive, herd them, body counts..." I mused morosely, without humor. It was now about 1:30. We'd board choppers at 7:45, drop around a half hour later, and approach the town about a mile away at 9. I had been assured the flanking ridges were unoccupied.

"We'll put First Squad on the left of the road. Second on the right, and Third back. Vee formation." I paused. "I'm not a murderer, Ken. We'll follow orders but I'll find a way. Could be the end of my career tomorrow," I said. "Well at least it'll be with guns ablazin' as the Captain said." There was a pressure around my heart or in my stomach, I couldn't tell, but pressure.

I said, "You'd better get some sleep. I need to think how to do things."

"Good night, Sir."

I briefed the squad leaders at 5:30. I followed the five paragraph format. I was very specific about the onset of the attack, should the mission proceed according to plan. I wanted controlled fire; guns might blaze but I wanted coordination, legal targets, and control. I even ordered how many rounds should be fired at certain times, and their targets. They briefed their men at 6:15. We ate. We loaded up. We were at the helos at 7. We boarded at 7:35. We lifted on time. We dropped on time at the LZ.

Helos are not quiet. They must have known we were coming; it was only a mile from the drop.

We formed a vee of the three squads with some flank security up the sides of the ridges to each side of the road, at least up to the military crest of each ridge. Sitting ducks were we should the enemy be there, but the helos had not noticed anything and our intel was impeccable, as always. The ridgetops were empty of ambushers and we double timed, because we were out in the open, to the village, getting there in a hundred degree morning about 15 minutes early. We were about 400 yards away. I ordered First Squad up the ridge side to the left. I ordered Second up the right ridge side. The captain said by radio that First Platoon was in position. I notified the captain we were commencing attack.

Over my headset: "Squad leaders, as you were instructed, five rounds each designated man, high aim, commence fire in 30 seconds, my command." That gave them time to notify their people and remind them quickly of the plan.

At time I said, "Second Platoon, Designated Marines, fire." In ten seconds 100 rounds from one fire team in each of First and Second Squads flew into the nearest buildings on either side of the road; silence followed.

"Again."

Another 100 rounds flew down, and it was now obvious that the rounds were hitting high in every room. There was no return fire. I was pleased with the controlled reconnaissance by fire.

I contacted the captain. "Sir, no return fire, commencing approach."

I blew my whistle and Third Squad ran down the road under the careful overwatch of First and Second Squads up on the ridge sides. I ordered First and Second to begin moving forward along those ridge sides, maintaining the overwatch of those in the village. Third Squad leader reported, "Sir, right side, 6 civilians here in cellar, no combatants. No weapons. Evacuating noncombatants to designated position."

"Sir, Second Squad, I can see people fleeing houses down the main road and heading east. No weapons, looks like women, kids." So the non-combatants were not safely hiding in their cellars.

"Carry on, all. Third, clear those buildings, mark 'em as you go. I don't want any friendly fire accident."

I notified the captain we had received no fire and that civilians were heading his way. "What the hell is that, Simms? I do not hear much fire from your position, and you will carry out your orders." "Yes, Sir," I replied, "So far no combatants."

I notified First and Second Squads, "Captain wants more fire. Commence fire, like we planned, keep it high until you have combatants to aim at. Everyone alert, intel says they are here, report any incoming fire." And so, we fired into the sky, mostly, or at far hillsides, or targets of opportunity like a rock 600 yards away. But it motivated the non-combatant villagers to move faster, assuming the bullets were coming for them.

And then I heard it. US machine guns have a distinctive sound and they were opening up on the far side of town. I could hear conversation about ducks on a pond on the First Platoon net, and I thought, Oh my God.

My guys were speaking. First and Second Squads being up the hillsides could see the far side of the village. "Mr. Simms, they're mowing 'em down, Sir! It's almost all women and kids, I see some old men who have trouble moving, the guns are..." Someone else added, "They are pointing them to get in line by the building, Sir. I think they're gonna..."

I had a cold feeling. Healy was running back from the edge of the village. He reached me, with a look in his eyes aghast or perhaps disbelieving: this can't be happening. I cleared my platoon comms and took over. "Listen to me, SECOND PLATOON. I am giving orders. We are Marines, not fuckin' individuals. We control our fire. No questions right now. Right NOW! Third, how far are you down the village?"

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