Wanderer, if you come to Sparta, tell them that you saw us lying here, just as the law had ordered it.
Simonides of Cheos (556 – 468 BC)
Whenever I read these lines, my throat constricts and I have to swallow hard. Seen out of context, it’s just a few words without any meaning. But once its significance becomes clear, it is a piece of poetry so great and timeless that I have difficulties to find anything equal in the literature of the next two millennia. Because what it expresses so calmly yet heartbreakingly, is on one hand the eternal crime of human ambition and aggression, and on the other an instance of perhaps the noblest sentiment this planet has on offer. Namely that of those men who have vowed to defend their country and are prepared to pay the highest possible price while doing so: their lives…
Simonides’ famous epitaph commemorates the battle of Thermopylae, a narrow pass on the east coast of central Greece some eighty miles north of Athens. During August 480 BC the Persians under Xerxes, in an attempt to overwhelm the country of Homer and Phidias, invaded with a vastly superior force by land and sea. The Greeks, taken by surprise, refrained for once from cutting each others’ throats and forged an alliance, but in doing so lost precious time. While frantically collecting their scattered forces, a paramount strategic essential presented itself, namely to impede the Persian advance at all cost until everyone was ready. This task fell to the Spartans, the most warrior-like clan and generally well-prepared, who sent immediately an expeditionary force to Thermophylae under their King Leonidas. With his army, pitifully small compared to the might of the enemy, but favoured by a difficult terrain, he managed to engage the Persians for three long days and nights, enough time in any case for the Greeks to rally and to offer battle. Which led, through a combination of fierce soldiery, Pericles’ brilliant naval strategies and sheer good luck, to a complete rout of the enemy. Whereas King Leonidas and his small band of defenders fell to the last man.
This is what Simonides had to say about it:
Times, as you will agree, when soldiers were still deemed persons of some consequence in the world.
Myself, I was never a military man. I got fleetingly involved with some vaguely related contingencies, but they are beside the point. Though I might mention a cousin of mine who made it to the rank of tank commander, but got into trouble when he and his crew zoomed downhill one day, fired by a few crates of beer and a bottle of Korn, and came to a halt in the ground floor of a recently renovated thirteenth-century house near Hamelen. On pulling the tank out, the house collapsed with everything in it, including a canary bird they had forgotten all about, and which caused a stink for a few days until someone slapped a Top Secret over it.
Around the same time I received summons as well to join our brand-new army, a mouse-grey and rather timid lot compared to Hitler’s mighty Wehrmacht. Which has by now, I am told, developed into a fine fighting force and is doing a rather decent job in that hellhole called Afghanistan. As for myself, I had just turned twenty and, after scraping through exams only just, prepared for my obligatory Grand Tour. Meaning to hitchhike down south into the Greece of my dreams and beyond. Thus the summons came at a most inconvenient moment. While I was still pondering the situation, my mother said: I’ve lost my husband in the last war, I refuse to lose my son in the next. Off you go! And that was that. The same evening I had a rather intense splash with a few classmates to celebrate my abrupt departure, whereby one of the buggers conceived the idea to clean his backside with the summons and send them to where they had come from. Which enraged the receivers considerably, because a few days later they turned up with a platoon of policemen, blue lights flashing and sirens howling, handcuffs at the ready, to teach me a lesson in democracy. But all to naught, because the night before I had slipped across the border and into safety, never to return except for occasional visits.
As a result, my esteem in those years for matters military was wary if not downright hostile. This changed rather abruptly about a decade later, namely during the early seventies and after I had settled for a while in Amsterdam. Which sounds paradoxical, because this was the epoch of peace-and-love, flower power, long hair, colourful outfits and enough dope to stun an elephant. Finding my Christian upbringing easily and happily compatible with The Beatles’ Love is all you need, I delved with much enthusiasm into the predilections on hand, like dancing my head off in the Milky Way, or considering some dubious and strictly mercenary wisdom of the latest Guru in town, or just hanging out in the central park with everybody else and getting stoned on Black Nepal or Red Lebanon or cheap Kif from Morocco while fondling my flimsily dressed fairy queen to her heart’s content.
Under the recurrent illusion to stay perhaps forever, I had bought one of those typical Amsterdam houses next to a canal, seven floors high but extremely narrow, with suicidal staircases and, in winter, no heating except a portable gas stove that added its stink to the tobacco and cannabis saturated air. In accordance with my generally benign intentions I opened its gates to passing travellers, and soon the place became a sort of caravanserai with no strings attached. Enjoying my popularity, I began to devise ever more daring systems of compassionate thought which I divulged to my assorted guests. Who, depending on the type of intoxication, either laughed tears or fell asleep.
It was a beautiful time, ignorant and innocent, so full of hope and love.
Until one day someone brought a chap along who didn’t really fit into the general melee. In his mid-twenties, tall, with grey eyes and auburn hair, clearly well bred, an American from the Midwest, name of Kelly. Like the actress. I never found out his first name. He had a slight limp and a problem with his right arm. What struck me immediately, and disturbingly, was his emotional distance, the implacable remoteness, the inward gaze that seemed to consider the world only marginally, as if from a corner of the eyes. The fellow who had him in tow muttered apologetically: Ex-marine, you know. Vietnam veteran! Just returned. A bit nuts, but cool. Needs a roof over the head for a few days. And if it was a problem. I said something silly like: As long as he keeps his guns to himself… and bade him welcome.
Thus Kelly entered my life. And made me a man.
I told him to feel comfortable and keep an eye on his small rucksack, and if he had a mind to contribute a token guilder for the daily big dinner and the assorted joints that made the round afterwards. He’d love to, he said in his calm and courteous way, but couldn’t since he was broke. Though only till next week, he added, because he was supposed to get a job as dishwasher in one of the macrobiotic restaurants, and meanwhile could give the house a dust-down as a sort of compensation.
Now dust-down sounded distinctly unfamiliar with regard to the house and its guests. My flame of those days, a ravishing flower-power beauty and absolute corker in bed, was markedly less enthusiastic when it came to the qualities of a caring housewife. So were the other ladies on hand. Which meant that the place didn’t look exactly like a dustbin, but not much less either.
I said OK and forgot all about it, and the next morning went my ways. Which consisted of a few trifling enterprises by the side. Like publishing a small guide that ran some general news about the latest in rock and pop, which lead singer screwed which groupie, who got caught at the airport with coke in the heels of his crocodile leather boots, who had died of an overdose, who had said this or that piece of utter nonsense. Plus local information, prices for shit and where to buy it and where not, or important counsel of how to get gratis treatment for clap and syphilis since the much touted free love had also its drawbacks. Another mini-racket were fake student cards, items much in demand and used to trick the over-priced airlines out of twenty percent and more, be it for a ticket to the States, Goa or Katmandu. All this against a fistful of pennies and, if you didn’t have them, for free.
When I came home the same evening, I couldn’t believe my eyes. Same for guests, most of whom had been in town for a walk and a coffee. The house looked spotless! Clean kitchen, clean dishes, clean toilet, clean windows, clean everything. Floor gleaming. Plus a few towels and bed sheets washed and drying in the attic. To shorten a long tale, on that day I must have realized, subconsciously as it were, the untidiness I had been living in, my general carelessness and irresponsibility, the disregard for my health and sanity, the improbability if not utter folly of my assorted solutions for a better world, and that it was time to move on. It happened gradually, but relentlessly.
I told Kelly that I was delighted, and that he could stay as long as he liked. To round it off, I offered him a tiny room in the attic, which he accepted gladly and usually retired to before the evening soiree got into full swing. One day I mentioned somewhat en passant that I hoped he didn’t see himself as our servant, to which he replied calmly: I’m not a servant, but know how to serve. A remark that only deepened the mystery that Kelly had become for me.
Because I knew, and knew it every day more, that up there in that attic lived not only a new friend, but lurked also something too monstrous to have a name.
Of course I tried to pump him about his background, and as time went by, he divulged a few bits and pieces. Born in Virginia. His parents divorced, his father long since decamped, his mother remarried with an insurance agent he hardly knew. Military career, Second Lieutenant, rushed off to Vietnam immediately after receiving his badges. Sent into combat without having time for a cup of tea. Thirty to forty men under his command, depending on enemy action. When I pressed on for more, he looked at me with his distant eyes and asked if we could leave it there. To which I humbly agreed.
I had taken to visit him now and then, but we never talked much, and mostly I watched him looking out of the window at the canal below, and the water that passed by with such infinite slowness. Or he read me a verse from his old Bible, and wanted to know what I thought of it. But under his courtesy, he gave me the impression that whatever I had to say was utterly irrelevant.
One evening in late autumn I went up there again, and when he bade me to come in and looked at me, his face was as remote as always, his eyes seemed as distant as ever, with the one difference that tears were running slowly down his cheeks. Now I’m not exactly a ninny, and can get as tough as a rusty nail if sufficiently provoked. But there is one item that beats me, now and always, and that is tears. You might be Messalina herself, poison me and the cook and the Chihuahua, but I’d forgive you if you were to behold me on my deathbed and cry a tear of remorse. So I sat down and blurted something like me being his friend, having given him shelter and trust, and that he owed me. Which made him finally talk.
© Don McCullin
War in our times. The constant fear of walking into a booby trap whenever you were on the move. The actual skirmishes that began with a jolt of your heart when you heard the bullets swishing around your ears, and only a fraction of a second later the actual report of guns. When you entered a village and never knew if they’d lob a hand grenade at your men after having offered you a bowl of rice. The mutilated corpses of women and children, heaps of them. The nights when you lay awake in your flimsy shelter, listening to the boom of distant mortar or a rustle in the grass that might have been a poisonous snake or the enemy himself. The absolute otherness of the people whose freedom you had come from so far away to defend. The constant need to keep your own men under control, to be an example of manly resolve in a situation of utter madness. To prevent them from going berserk after having witnessed one atrocity too many, to cock their guns and fire indiscriminately at anything that moved. The understanding that the war had been honourable at the outset, but turned dirty and corrupt as it wormed its way through the years. The growing knowledge that you were serving in the wrong place, at the wrong time, with the wrong motives.
And finally the last straw. A village the Vietcong had descended on and whose elder refused under torture to divulge, or probably never knew, important intelligence as to the movements of the enemy. And whose daughter, a girl of about five years old, they elected to work over in the hope to make him talk, employing whatever means came to their mind, though just not enough to kill her outright.
When Kelly and his men entered the village, the girl had died, but was still lying on a makeshift stretcher made from bamboo. As they looked down at the shattered little face and body, it seemed as if an unspoken message passed between them. Kelly bribed a villager, and after three days they made contact late one evening. The Vietcong unit was about fifty strong, but careless enough to place one watch only. Kelly attacked at first light, suffered two causalities, and after that didn’t care anymore what his men did to those who’d been taken prisoners.
Love forever denied, an end to all reason, a return to full-scale barbarity, an irreversible descent into madness and utter despair.
Thereafter the situation intensified, because the Vietcong gained ground and fighting got fiercer by the day. Not caring anymore, Kelly developed a habit of walking straight into enemy fire, spewing fire himself, and for a while it looked as if it needed the proverbial golden bullet to fell him. But then he caught two slugs, one in the leg and one into a collar bone, and that was that.
Back in the States he had himself stitched up on the double, recovered in some squalid barracks, was inundated with red tape as to his pay and whatnot, and made the dubious acquaintance of a military headshrink who had never seen action but left him tranquillisers which he washed down the toilet. One day a slick captain from a propaganda unit came by and asked him to participate in a kind of presentation that was supposed to counteract the growing discontent among folks as to the war and those who fought it. Kelly put on his battle fatigues and decorations, some exalted, and stood on a podium next to a senator or congressman who tried to say something. A hopeless undertaking though, because the crowd, large and young and mostly long-haired, was shouting him down without a moment’s respite. When Kelly prepared to leave, a girl, fair and beautiful as those he had imagined while lying awake and listening to the distant guns or a rustle in the grass, walked up to him and called him a murderer. A sentiment gaining ground as it were, pushed by a media that would do anything for better profits, or politicians that would do anything for more votes. Finally a civilian turned up and told him with a crooked grin that it looked as if he had walked a wee-bit too carelessly into his bullets, and that it might affect the final settlement of his pay, and if he’d be kind enough to fill in a bit more red tape. Whereupon Kelly told him to stuff it, once and for all, and packed his bag and left for Europe. With the general idea to move on to South Africa, a place already restless, and where the father of an old comrade owned a rambling farm in the Transvaal and would gladly welcome a cool hand.
He looked out of the window while saying it, and it sounded as if South Africa were a distant memory, and not a real place.
The night had grown old when I finally went back to my room. There I lay still for a long time, and only found some sleep when the world began to wake up again. Kelly did his stint as a dishwasher for a month, and one day told me that he had decided to leave. I got him one of my student cards for a reduced ticket to Capetown and drove him to the airport. He thanked me and told me we’d meet again, though we both knew somehow that this was unlikely. I watched him limping across the tarmac, climb into the plane and fly off.
And it was only then when I realized for the first time fully that his brave and great heart had been damaged beyond repair.