180 Degrees of 24 Years

The Hunting of A Snark

Something like a thousand years ago, two ideas could be found floating round in my oddly asymmetrical head as I wandered the streets of a lost childhood; two ideas on which I meant to build an extraordinary but highly unlikely modern myth: I wanted to tell the fictional story of an Australian civil war (there has never been one), and I wanted to tell it as a parody of Lewis Carroll’s The Hunting of the Snark, ie as an allegorical nonsense comedy-tragedy epic.

Why? I don’t know. War is inherently nonsensical, comic and tragic, or it makes great literature when you look at it that way. I knew and deeply mistrusted Catch-22, and later Slaughterhouse-5, but Carroll’s epic nonsense poem was already in my imagination and just grew there until it demanded to be put first. Whatever I was going to write, it had to have the Snark, it had to have a Bellman obsessed with maps or the blank space beyond maps, and it had to have this Australian war, the desert and wilderness in our myths of Gallipoli and Tobruk brought home to the Nullarbor and the plains of Uluru.

The two ideas seem to come in by the same door, shoulder-to-shoulder like Tweedle Dum and Tweedle Dee. My earliest fragment of it, a short-short story, has a Sergeant Bellman of some entrenched desert war burying his dead soldiers under gum trees, trying to reach the mind of one young survivor who is stoned and dreaming. It felt like a pivotal scene in an human-drama epic of some kind, glimpsed without insight into my characters’ motives, much less my own. I didn’t realise I needed a reason. I don’t think I realise this very well even now, since ultimately the real question from an author’s perspective is not why, but how?

And I don’t know this either. I mean, how does the Snark come into my story, and just what is the Snark anyway? Carroll’s definitions have been less than useful, as I believe he intended. The Bellman is a completely paradoxical figure, and his ship’s crew (who I imagined were to be transformed by the same device, whatever it was, from sailors to soldiers) are a collection of monstrous innocent caricatures, not all of them human, whose stories don’t make much sense even these thousand years later. How do I construct a serious allegorical war novel, a warning for my country, that has this underlying nonsense?

Since those days, when stories would float through my head like the best movies you ever saw, the faces going from purity to corruption and back again, since that early potential died or found other means of expression, it has never been easy to figure this out. It just hasn’t come to me; perhaps my muse has abandoned me, but I haven’t been able to give it up. I’ve had to reconstruct the idea piece by piece, artificially and with many false starts, using far more craft than art, struggling with every new line, never knowing but strongly suspecting it’s bullshit and won’t sell. Maybe you know the feeling.

I still haven’t got it worked out, but it’s at a point where You (the generic everyone you, including me) can see where it’s got to go. So before I forget, I’m going to place some of the fragments here.

What I’m left with after much vigorous culling is a set of coherent but strange, post-magical-realist ideas. There are fragments of epic poetry from the perspectives of the dead, world-changing cataclysms and twists of betrayal, spirit ancestors walking in the blood-mist of savage battles. I’ve tried to find a multiple-person perspective that sees into the minds of all the characters, not just some chosen protagonist, following their thoughts and feelings through boredom and fear and sex and eating and everything else of their surreal, battle-hardened lives, even following them down into death. There are men, women and children in this fictitious army, of all nationalities, and they love and hate each other with the passions of all humanity. There are no secrets, or very few, to you, omniscient reader.

Taken altogether there’s at least two entirely distinct novel outlines here trying the same ideas from different angles, even straying from the core Australian allegory to a more contemporary historical perspective (Afghanistan? There’s your “chasms and crags”) just to try and shake off the why in pursuit of the how. These two versions now seem to need each other, like lovers in a concentration camp. I need to somehow meld the two ideas into one and go on from there.

There’s one other influence in the allegorical war-story genre I have to mention: of course, Norman Mailer’s The Naked and the Dead. I re-read this in hospital, all but tripping out on massive doses of corticosteroids, and the idea that Mailer had gone before me and found the same allegory, his first novel following a storyline easily recognisable as the eight “Fits” of Carroll’s epic poem, was insanely compelling. In fact Mailer came and sat on my bed. I insisted he come over and sit down. He wasn’t real nice at first, but after he’d warmed up a bit he said, fine, why don’t you write an Allegory of A Naked and Dead Hunting of A Snark?

Hmm. Time to ease up on the steroids. I guess you could say he gave me his multiple-person viewpoint, but actually I stole it from him right then. You could say he gave me a new pronoun, but really, I’ve just pasted it on over the old one. I can explain.

I am not comfortable with the idea of just the Snark. This world is not principally at threat from individual monsters, despite Grendel, Sauron, Hitler and their solitary ilk. Our monsters are many headed, hydra-like; multiplicit, diverse and ubiquitous, populous species of white sharks and terrorist insurgent leaders down through the ages. Knock down a Howard, and up springs an Abbott. There’s no end to it, and you don’t know beforehand which ones you should hunt first.

Well OK…We’ll just have to hold our breath, catch at least one of them, and hope for the best; thimbles, soap and all.

PDF Version: The Hunting of A Snark

*****

The Bellman and the Seeds of Wrath (1983)

The Bellman and the Seeds of Wrath (1983)

*****

First Lines of a Great Epic

By the wine-dark sea, our brotherhood
beneath the blood-red sky, infinitude
arrests the masses of humanity
that flow and end here, alone in multitudes
who come, like soldiers of ancient grace
from stricken lives, and deaths
of plastic waste and greenhouse gas,
pale ignorance that devoured innocence,
a migrant bastard evil of fire and blood.
The sea! Beyond these broken cliffs
behemoths of stone swallow the waves
the graves of ten million mothers’ sons
forget…and no life set in concrete,
no broadsheet memoir blows
in the long salty breeze to regret
or commemorate our sacrifice lost.
Deep caves breathe our corruption,
worms survive the drifting sands
and ashes, but in these hidden places
where we rest, comrades of desperation,
stone and stoned in the Holocene dark
the whispers of our lives in shells
are pearls that drip from the invisible sky.

.

We are a past that narrates contemporaries,
a dust that speaks of brothers that survived us,
the youngest, the oldest, the bravest
and the rest, lain here like seeds of wrath
while life continued its eternal music
the test of fitness, love and hatred, history unfolding
for cities to burn and fall forgotten.
I, if I am, still exhale that final breath
to lie still and at peace, my cloven head full and empty
expansive as crystal rooms open to the sky
and I see! Millennia spread like cloth of gold,
friend and enemy indistinctly bound
in dust and fire, terrible weapons and words,
flying machines and the belching wounds
of solar flares…the march of impossibles
that follow us down these hollow roads
that carry our youth, our wasted lives,
like rivers to an ocean that forgives us,
we timeless tellers of stories too old to be myth,
for our sorrow, our warm hearts and callow,
ten thousand years forgotten, the land reborn,
and time beginning again.

*****

As light in the redness of feigned immortalities
a vast landscape of dreams besotten
of heaven’s split armour, thunder rolls
the hills in a cauldron, filled to the brim.
One great unbroken circle, a ribbon of steel
impaled by the gunbarrel in desert emptiness
the waves of sound roll out eternally
from the great stone plinth that ties them in.
Evolve, inflame, turn on a spike of survival,
that reads the words like a chattering nymph
the ghost gum, the black boy, unrecognisable
at the end of all things, the beginning,
all systems, all people, all philosophies
come to this, so we will not disappoint you
with the truth that there is none; but hear
In the wind the crackle of radios, the chatter of guns
the broad speech of giants astride the earth
to tell their own tale, and believe
they need not, and heed not, the pity
that devoured the earth, and saw in it
reflections of themselves, a mirror in many fragments,
all possible things, all good, all evil,
each individual life etched in the dust
that now blows through my skull.

.

The long roads that bind our stories together
through green forest and desert, small town and city
there the heartless refrain of small-minded individuals
roar past in a gasp of dust and blue petrol fumes.
Dynasties rise as we wait by the cauldron
of stillborn infinities, words pouring out
hidden and restful, metal ingestion that kills slowly
in the shadow of cool mountain airs
silver grasslands that wave under elements
of breezes that blow. Here I lay out my song
as the last light fades and the headlights come blurring
I roll out the ends of a still cigarette, basting
indelible wastes and a husbandman’s gonads
the sea lifts my heart as the evening comes in.
Behold! There is lifted above the far steeple
a wreck of machinery, sweetened with sugar
and bent like bananas in this Queen’s country
the shuddering stacks of a mighty industry
that crouches here, an outpost of forgotten romance
in the deepening dark its eyes are alight
and I wait with a hardening sense of patience
that this is my home, but not my home
but my place, not my place but my time
I wait as the cauldron overflows.

*****
March 2001 (unfinished, thankfully!)

*****

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Journeys Around the Great Extreme (1993)

Chapter One: Some Early History

Somewhere on the ocean road in a fictitious parallel of the early 1980’s, Arro, a feral punk of eighteen, is hitching his way around Australia in an attempt to escape the boredom of unemployment, the threat of military service and the horrors of his childhood as a prostitute’s brat in the Sydney underworld. He has been on the road for about two years and is heading south, along the Bruce highway in north Queensland, bound for Sydney once again.

      On a traffic island on the south edge of the little town of Sarina he meets a fellow hitcher, a broad, brown youth with smooth, hairless skin, a stringy goatee and lank dark hair, sitting cross-legged on the ground under a Moreton Bay fig tree and grinning cheerfully at him. His name, he says, is Bernie Pat Maloney, and he comes on with a manic personal energy, gripping Arro’s hand, making a joke out of his name. Arro, sitting on the ground with the hard dried figs biting into his bum, cool and easy for the first time in days, feels an almost immediate friendship for this mad character.

      Bernie is a walking mouth, but most of what he says is either funny or interesting so it’s not bad listening; He wanders from the day’s hitching prospects to a tirade on environmental activism, politics, the evils of modern warfare. He wears nothing but leather sandals and a pair of cotton shorts, and carries a large, unbelievably heavy pack: It seems to be filled with spare parts. He is big in the belly, with a slight spare tyre that hangs over his shorts, but most of it is hard muscle; the overall impression is of a kind of wiry Buddha.

      Bernie is on his way to join a protest blockade at an American base in South Australia, and invites Arro to come. Arro agrees, for kicks, and the two team up together. From their first ride Arro is conscious of the way people respond to Bernie: In exactly the same way that he responded, with an immediate friendship and a growing amazement at the verbal highwire this bloke is balancing on. Bernie talks about eastern mysticism, imaginative science, radical politics. Most nights Bernie and Arro camp under the stars, to amazing conversations about the universe, but occasionally (for instance their first night south of Sarina they get lucky and are taken home by some charitable person, fed, offered warm beds to sleep in and dropped off at the highway or railroad tracks in the morning.

      The political and environmental background unfolds through Bernie’s occasional tirades against Australia’s corrupt democratic systems and corporate criminality, his dire predictions concerning the worsening drought and degradation of land on the entire coast, and the growing conflict over water rights between the eastern states and the mineral-rich state of West Australia, all of which are drying out as a result of global warming. Bernie has a comic contempt for the establishment, a caricaturist’s instinct for the grotesque angle on political figures and policies, keeping Arro amused and at the same time giving him his first real lessons in politics.

      For a few weeks they travel together, a wild ride down the coast coloured by the lives of the people they meet, lives which seem to intersect with their own in sometimes surreal or cosmic subplots, a minor moral to be found in each. But while trying to hitch through Melbourne they are stopped by police and searched, their names sent out over the radio. Arro is clean, but the word comes back on Bernie: He skipped bail from the Gordon River protests a few years earlier; so they bundle him into the back seat and drive off, leaving Arro standing alone on a Melbourne footpath.

      Arro spends a strange night in Melbourne, taking a train out to the suburbs to find some relos, and learning the hard way that they’ve moved. Thinking of Bernie he phones the nearest police station; amazingly enough he eventually gets through to Bernie, who gives him directions to a house where he knows some guys who can help get him out. Coming back into the city Arro meets up with another punk, just a kid really, and winds up crashing at his place. It is a strange experience; Sex Pistols bashing it out, they do some speed and there is a knife on the floor between them when they sleep.

      Next morning Arro goes to the address Bernie gave him (no. 2 Bent St), and finds a flop sharehouse inhabited by stoned hippy breadmakers: -We make bread, they say, and invite him to eat. But Arro has only just sat down when the police arrive; they are all busted for possession and lugged off to the lock-up. So Arro finds himself reunited with Bernie, in prison, and he is not at all happy about it.

Chapter Two: Never Blood So Red

      The mood in prison is frustrated, almost desperate: Unable to make bail they are held in pre-trial detention, with the possibility of a six-month wait. They witness a black death in custody, actually a horrific murder based on the (trustori) death of Robert Walker, a West Australian aboriginal poet. On top of that is the prospect of conscription, for which convicted petty criminals are easy fodder. In spite of this Bernie tries to keep up his normal good cheer, narrating a stream of socio-political commentary to entertain himself and his mates, which now includes Arro, a few black guys and the hippies from the house in Melbourne. Bernie picks up a book from the jail library, a battered copy of Lewis Carroll’s complete works, and reads excerpts from Alice in Wonderland with an occasional humorous or erotic elaboration of his own, twisting the plot to caricature political figures or to parralel his tales of eastern mythology.

      Brought before a magistrate, Bernie’s case goes straight out of the window. He is packed onto the next troop transport and once again Arro is left behind. His own case goes before the magistrate and he is cleared, but this is a mere formality: With no trade or prospects he is conscripted the normal way and finds himself with a bunch of young dropouts on the bus to basic training. Mt Gambier base is part of the build-up of military installations supported by the Americans at tactical points in and around South Australia, and though there is a large force of new recruits here, Arro finds that Bernie is not among them.

      Arro is trained as a radio operator (signals) and promoted to corporal. His army mates are a diverse mix of types; ferals like himself (he recognises the grim expression his kind always wear, an angry reaction to the crew haircut), the hippies he was busted with, a large number of aborigines, some urban white trash, uni drop-outs who now desperately wish they hadn’t, and many more. A class apart are the volunteers. Arro eventually gets used to the life and occasionally loves it: The physical lifestyle suits him, and his feral instincts are a bonus in this game. He has the quickness that ducks a sniper’s bullet, an instinctive knowledge that something is about to happen, born of being always the first at the scene and the first gone when he was growing up on the streets of Sydney.

      Unknown to these innocent soldiers, at this point the worsening relationship between West Australia and the rest of the country reaches a crisis; Deals between WA and the Indonesian government, trading nuclear material for military support, are revealed in leaked documents. WA invites the Indonesian army to train in the northwest Pilbara and then announces a mad plan, to construct pumping stations along the lower Murray river and pump water across the ranges to supply the drought-stricken heavy industries and mining operations of the west.

      Pointing out that this would all but destroy the city of Adelaide, the Federal Government in Canberra demands a dissolution of the West Australian parliament, to which WA replies with a curt announcement of its secession from the Commonwealth. The combined WA / Indonesian army commences military manouevres on the border with the Northern Territory. Darwin is placed on alert and the eastern army, including a strong American contingent, begins airlifting into bases all along the W.A border. A border incursion as far as the Rum Jungle leads to a violent knee-jerk reaction, and before you know it it’s on.

Chapter Three: A finger entwined in his hair

The Mt Gambier base is mobilised, joining the main eastern force at Port Augusta north of Adelaide, where an assault on Perth is massing. Arro and his immediate squad of recruits join a company in the 5th AIF. Wandering around on general alert, his radio slung over his shoulder, Arro runs into Bernie and there is a great reunion. Bernie also seems to be thriving in the lifestyle of a soldier, an mortarman no less, brown and fit and cheerful but blisteringly angry at the situation he is in and the ignominy of slavery, as he sees it, under the American military machine.

      They find that they are in the same company, an active infantry unit under the command of a Captain by the name of Horace Bellman. The Bellman, as his men call him, is an ambiguous character; a strong leader with a powerful egalitarian streak, a good mate but a dangerous enemy, capable of violent rage and great comradeship, in short a complex aussie bastard. Arro feels a strong respect for him, but Bernie is suspicious of the “running dog my captain” and angry at his part in this stupid fucking war. The army rolls out, across the Gawler Ranges to the Great Australian Bight and the vast expanse of the Nullarbor Plain.

      The advance into West Australia is an enormous strategic blunder, a stupid frontal assault on Perth without consideration of the larger picture: The eastern generals suddenly realise that the WA army is outflanking almost their entire force by attacking along the north-south highway from the Northern Territory towards South Australia. At the same time, new intelligence reports show that the 2nd WAIF is now making its move from base in Kalgoorlie, cutting them off in the middle. The generals order a return to Port Augusta to intercept the 1st WAIF, really a retreat to avoid ignominous entrapment, but an air assault knocks out the highway and cuts off the rear third of the eastern army. The Bellman’s company escapes capture by abandoning their vehicles and disappearing into the bush, as best they can in the vast, barren landscape that is the Nullarbor plain. Watching through field glasses they witness the horror of a mass crucifixion, when an entire captured battalion is strung up on power poles stretching for miles along the highway, to the cacophony of a triumph of gunfire into the air.

      This episode binds the company together in the realisation of their dependance on each other for their survival. In a very typical move, while camping one night in a cave somewhere near the ocean cliffs of the Great Australian Bight, the Bellman produces a stash of dope which he passes out as an evening ration. Bernie still has the copy of Lewis Carroll he stole from the jail; one of the hippies borrows it and reads a number of verses from the epic nonsense poem “The Hunting of the Snark” as an ironic tribute to the Bellman. This introduces a surreal parallel to their own situation, in particular reinforcing the character of the Bellman. The recital is a rare moment of good humour in this forced march, but Bernie interrupts the performance by turning his anger at the war on the Bellman, cursing his mateship and his leadership equally. Arro, watching this exchange in stoned amazement, agrees with Bernie but cannot feel the same anger for the Bellman. His own instinctive respect is developing into a strange combined love and hate for him; the bastard, brother, Bellman.

Chapter Four: The Seeds of Wrath

The company is eventually picked up by American helicopters and brought back to Port Augusta. The eastern army, aided by a massive airlift of American forces, have succeeded in halting the WA advance at Ceduna and a second front is now opening against the occupation of the Northern Territory. The eastern army now finds that its supply lines are better, that they have greater numbers and a superior air force, and gradually the war begins to swing in their favour. Arro spends a month or two in Adelaide hospital and rejoins the eastern army at Woomera on the Stuart Highway, heading north to intercept the WA army which is now advancing from its occupation of the Northern Territory into South Australia.

      Joining up with the company again at Woomera, Arro finds that Bernie’s mood has worsened; he is angry and desperate, and no longer cheerful except in garish cynical laugher. The personality clash between him and the Bellman has worsened: Finally Bernie blows his top, abuses the Bellman for his trade of war and egalitarianism as though this is an unbelievable hypocrisy, rages against the sheer nonsense and brutality of the war, the incompetence of the command, the forced labour of conscription, and on top of all this the obscenity of some fuckwit CO treating his soldiers as free men. The Bellman responds with a laugh and places him in mobile confinement for a couple of days, handcuffed in a troop transport as they roll north.

      The two armies meet at Coober Pedy. The West Australians have fortified the town and are dug into the desert all around it. Months of trench warfare follow, deteriorating rapidly into a drawn-out war of attrition; Parallels to the first world war can be drawn, not least in the arrogance and ignorance of the military command. Nonsense, anticipated by the stoned recital of The Hunting of the Snark, prevails over any kind of intelligent planning.

      The Bellman is unconcerned at the strategic incompetence of the campaign, but it is mainly due to his tactical skill that any of his men survive at all under these conditions, and there are many casualties: The disasters of the battles of Paaschendale and Fromelles are repeated allegorically, in heat and dust rather than rain and mud. Echoes of Gallipoli mingle with images drawn from Lewis Carroll, while the underground nature of Coober Pedy seems to draw the two armies further down into the earth.

      The debates between Bernie and the Bellman rage; Bernie’s hatred of the war burns his heart, his rebellious mind strained to a breaking point. He talks of paradise lost, the destruction of the natural world by mankind, and the lunacy, the sheer nonsense of it all. The Captain, ambiguous as usual, defends the military command whilst nevertheless taking Bernie’s arguments very seriously. He seems to thrive in the brutal insanity of war, never overtly addressing it but breathing the dust and corruption with the air of a connoisseur.

      Gradually, a thin haze of insanity seems to cloud their antagonism: Bernie sounds like a mad messiah at times, and the Bellman, initially for a joke, adopts the bizarre leadership device used by the Bellman in the Hunting of the Snark: a bell which he uses to rally his men and which at other times he hangs from his belt. At this time Arro has a dream:

      In my dream I am lying in the desert in brilliant sunlight with a cool breeze blowing on my face. I feel as though I have been lying here for a long time, perhaps days or weeks, and I’m wondering vaguely when I will begin to feel thirsty. Then there is a sound like gunshots in the distance, the wind dies and I sit up, shielding my eyes and searching for the source of the noise.

      There is a ship in full sail bearing down on the dying wind, the luff cracking like gunfire as she goes about, the hot yellow sand curling over her bows. I leap up and run, yelling to draw their attention, but the sand drags at my feet and I feel myself sinking, drawn knee-deep then waist deep and only my full strength dragging me through it.

      I stop and look despairingly up at the ship, almost directly over me now, and my heart nearly stops when I see the figure at the rail, clinging to the stays and grinning. A vast bulk of a man, barrel-chested, yellow-haired, the sun directly behind him and a great iron bell hanging loosely from his belt. I stand and feel the sand cover my bare chest, surrendering to the inevitable…

Chapter Five: All is clouded by desire, Arjuna

Finally the WA lines around Coober Pedy are broken; The town is taken and the western army retreats northwards. Indonesian and Australian prisoners are taken, but both captives and captors are surprised to discover that the others are basically decent people, and brief inter-racial friendships are formed before the prisoners are trucked out and the army advances after the retreating West Australians. A brief stand in the shelter of the MacDonnel Range foothills, near the small town of Marla, is swiftly broken and the WA lines retreat back into the Northern Territory.

      Meanwhile the eastern states army has succeeded in breaking the deadlock at Camooweal on the NT/Queensland border and is forcing the northern WA front to retreat into NT along the Barkly Highway to Tennant Creek, then south along the Stuart Highway. Wauchope is captured by the east, then Barrow Creek and Aileron. There is a rumour of a rape and massacre of civilians at the small town of Utopia off the highway.

      The southern front is meanwhile advancing northwards along the same road, trapping the WA army in the middle. The only escape route left is the gap between the Musgrave and MacDonnel ranges, the valley of dry Lake Amadeus, with the vast red blister of Uluru surmounting the plain on the ancient lake bed’s southern shore.

      Aboriginal trackers in the Bellman’s Company, conscripted from native tribes that still live in the desert, now start talking in rumours of a dreamtime legend of Uluru, when the great songlines that cross the country converged on the rock, culminating in a battle of epic proportions between the creation ancestors, to finally resolve all the dreamtime legends and at last produce the real “trustori” world we live in now. Bernie hears this story and tells the legend of the great battles of Hindu mythology in the Bhagavadgita, which culminated in the mystical, religious and warlike philosophies taught by the avatar Krishna to the archer Prince Arjuna on the battlefield of Kurukshetra. Another story, part of Arro’s own dimly remembered religious culture, is the story of Armageddon. He feels a chill of predestination, a dawning horror almost, which triggers the deepest instincts from his feral lore of survival: Run, hide. He loses his taste for fighting and starts thinking of escape.

      The Bellman notices this: one of his best men suddenly showing all the signs that precede desertion, and for a few days he literally takes Arro under control, stays with him at all times, gradually brings him around. Arro feels mixed gratitude and resentment, but the feeling of foreboding does not go away.

      In a lucid moment, a tracker tells a group of soldiers a story of a dark-skinned people who lived at the centre of a vast land once long ago, at peace with the natural world, until the day they began hearing strange rumours of an army of ghosts which was invading their land from the “outside”. It was not known what was outside the land; most thought it was all sea. Some said these were not ghosts, but white men. No one had ever seen a white man before, except as a dead body, and there were many arguments. At last, to all the scattered tribes of this country it eventually happened that the white men arrived, neither ghosts nor dead, and the lives of the black people were never the same again. Bernie stops: -Armageddon by stealth, he laughs. It is an eerie moment; lightning strikes in the distance, blue-white against the red of burning.

      Arro begins to suffer from dreams and nightmares, and a growing fear for his sanity. He occasionally falls into a kind of trance, sees visions of Bernie in gargantuan conflict with the Bellman, fire and lightning ablaze from their fingertips, the ghosts of friends killed in the fighting like an invisible army all around them, then snaps awake as though from a dream. For the most part he is a war-maddened soldier like the rest, raging in battle, screaming to be heard on the two-way radio, triumphing and despairing all at the same time.

      Bernie is aware of Arro’s dreams, and has been watching his friend going insane with grief and anger in his heart. The story turns to Bernie’s point to view for the first and only time in the book, as he sits watching over Arro who is fitfully asleep in the middle of a firefight, twitching and twisting in his nightmares. Bernie is inexpressibly angry, and standing alone he openly curses the entirety of existence and calls down the forces of heaven and hell to obliterate this mad world.

      The conflict now compresses into the plains surrounding Uluru, both armies taking advantage of the rock, sheltering and advancing or retreating behind it. The fighting continues night and day at a terrible intensity, a firefight lighting the sky for hundreds of miles around. The West defends itself and is now making another stand with the combined protection of rock and lake covering their retreat. The East calls in massive air strikes, and it is during one of these blazing midnight conflagrations that Bernie Pat Maloney is killed by a stray shell.

      The chapter finishes at about the same point as the start of the original short story, with the burial of a few sad corpses wrapped in calico at the foot of a defoliated gum tree, and Arro’s vision of Bernie’s face seen distantly through the calico.

Chapter Six: The Hunting

Immediately after Bernie’s death, there come rumours of a dispute between the three superpowers, to which this little war is a mere blister. Manning the radio, Arro hears more than average soldier, but the final ultimatum is a complete surprise even to him: A worldwide strategic nuclear war, or rather the echoes of it, the controlled panic of distant military radio control rooms, suddenly erupts and in half an hour is over. Radio silence falls. All over the plain the fighting stops, and after months of shelling the silence across the plain is deafening.

      This calm lasts only briefly however, a day’s interlude at the end of the world before the nuclear winter comes: A great wind blows up and darkness falls, dust and the smoke of a billion fires completely obscuring the sun. Atmospheric shock waves travel around the world, producing sonic booms like all the thunder in the world erupting at once, throwing global weather patterns into chaos: Monsoonal depressions in the northern tropics slide loose of the equatorial belt and wander out over the central deserts. Tremendous storms blow up and it begins to rain, rain like the deserts have never seen it rain before: The two armies suddenly find themselves cut off, without supplies, at the centre of the most inhospitable continent on earth, in the middle of a biblical holocaust.

      Arro takes his chance, grabs his radio and rifle and joins up with a group of soldiers and aboriginal trackers who are escaping in the chaos. A few of them also have radio sets. They run east for days through persistent night, torrential rain and electrical storms, finally reaching the trackers’ tribal lands around Mt Connor, only to find that the tribe has departed. The trackers guess their destination, sacred lands to the south where shelter can be found in caves of the Musgrave ranges, and set off again in pursuit.

      Climbing in the night through the foothills of the Musgrave ranges the party first feels then hears a strange disturbance in the distance to the northwest, like an avalanche of massive boulders grinding the earth. They stop to listen as best they can in the pouring rain and howling wind, and are alarmed to realize that the noise is actually growing louder, coming closer. They camp in partial shelter to stay out of sight and avoid wandering into whatever is causing that noise. Unable to light a fire they spend the hours alertly listening as it moves towards them, crossing their line of travel, increasing to earthquake levels and literally shaking the earth, then gradually moving away to the southeast. As the noise dies away in the distance they rest briefly, then head off toward the south again. The darkness seems to lift occasionally, and in the dim light of a primordial dawn they discover that the country all along the line of that incredible noise has been broken open into a massive gorge with a thundering river flowing through it.

      The trackers know this country, but they have never seen this gorge before. Arro cannot believe that a nuclear war could have such an impact on a continent’s geology and frankly has no idea what to think, other than that he might possibly be crazy. They realize that to get to the caves in the south they are going to have to cross this gorge, and decide to camp again to talk about it. The rain lifts briefly and in a shelter from the wind they light a fire. One of the younger aborigines, Maletji, tells a story from his childhood, in a book that he read at the mission children’s library, about an unusual dreamtime spirit called Nargun, a great lumbering boulder whose dreaming was of fire and the earth’s creation, an ancient being. The nargun was awakened from its sleep by the noise of civilisation in the nineteenth century and wandered across the country in search of a place to rest. An older man, Tjukalpi, nods and tells a story from the Ngarranggani, or dreamtime, of a stone spirit that made a great journey across the country when the world was young, and how it was constantly disturbed by the spirits of animals and men who did not want it to sleep in their country. As it wandered it left behind itself a trail of flowing rivers and valleys carved out by the weight of its passing.

      Maletji tells the story of the Djarringgalong, a monster bird which ate children and was eventually speared by two maban spirit doctors. Arro laughs as he remembers the poem Jabberwocky from Bernie’s copy of Lewis Carroll, digs out the battered old book and stands up to recite the poem in antediluvian tones. Finally the older man tells the tale of the rainbow snake, which created the world from an egg and now lives in all the world’s waterholes, but which in its dreamtime created many of the world’s rivers and mountains. He explains that the snake is part of the same totem as the Wandjina spirits, which he draws on the wall with charcoal from the fire, strange round faces crowned with radiating lines. The old man calls the rainbow snake Bolong, and the party of trackers nod; But the soldiers look at each other and the nonsense of it all gradually sinks in. Hunting a Nargun which may be a Bolong? Where have they heard this before?

      They rest, then begin following the gorge upstream, toward the southeast. They find a way down into the gorge and the chaos of nuclear winter falls away except for the steadily pouring rain. Soon they are clambering among massive boulders of wet granite, slippery with a growth of moss unexpected for supposedly freshly broken rock. There is a cold mist rising from the rushing water, and the air is full of bird calls. The rock is carved by the erosion of wind and water into fantastic serpentine and saurian shapes, hung with creepers and lianas, dark with spray and the stains of age. Arro feels that he must be dreaming.

      The gorge gradually widens out to a broad valley, filled with trees whipped by winter winds in the partial darkness. The river narrows as they begin to climb out of the valley towards the ridge, and finally there is a crossing. But looking up the valley they see a light pulsing in the shadow of the trees, gradually brightening and then flashing into brilliance; a circle of light expanding into a face divided with a crown like the bursting of the sun, a tall figure in geometric armour, its eyes turning blindly upon them. They back away in fear, an armed retreat with weapons bristling, crossing the river by a footbridge of boulders and struggling over a steep escarpment to find themselves at the top of the range, a high desolate place, with the valley of the nargun behind them and the slopes of the southern tablelands ahead.

      They camp again, but this time the party turns into a corroboree, and they dance and sing a wild song of joy around the campfire. After a long rest they resume their journey to the caves, which now lie toward the southwest. A day later they find the tribe, the Wadjari, who welcome them with joy. They eat ravenously, hot food cooked in the campfire, and collapse to sleep under shelter for the first time in weeks.

Chapter Seven: The Rebirth

For several months the tribe survives by hunting and gathering in the country around the caves. The winds are stronger up here in the ridges, but it is drier and the animals sheltering from the plain provide a plentiful food supply. Arro begins to learn the way of life in the tribe, in unusual circumstances even for them, faced with the challenge of almost constant semi-darkness. But finally the nuclear winter begins to lift and they cautiously move down from the ranges to see what has survived in the valley of their home country. The desert is saturated, but at the return of the sun the desert flora begins to bloom, in the burst of life and reproduction that always follows the rains.

      The Wadjari, with Arro among them, try to return to their lands around Mt Connor, crossing the valley of the nargun in the other direction, hurrying across and heading down from the ranges; but they find that the Musgrave foothills are partly covered in a layer of wet black ash, which as Arro tries to explain is probably highly radioactive. All around them the country is ruined by war, and the ash becomes thicker the further north they go, until eventually they give up and return to the protection of the ranges.

      They agree to try the country south of the ranges and keep walking, over the spine of the range where the valley of the nargun meets the ridge, and stand there again at the highest place with the wind blowing all around them. Arro digs out his field glasses and looks out into the valley of Lake Amadeus. The lake, far off in the distance, is glittering in the sunlight as though full of water, and the rock of Uluru appears to have changed shape: A deep bite in the southern shoulder has given it a lopsided aspect. When he shows this to the others of his party they are both amazed and amused.

      The tribe begin the journey down from the ranges, heading southeast. The country at the edge of the Great Victoria Desert has not been ruined, either by war or by ash, and is blooming even more brilliantly than the ranges; as the days and weeks pass the tribe sees the rains return, more seasonably now, a good soaking rain that fills all the intermittent creekbeds and stays to keep them full.

       The tribe crosses the old deserted railway line, then hits the road and follows it south to the town of Marla where a few white survivors have remained. They continue east onto the plains around Oodnadatta, now completely deserted, to find that the semi-desert has developed into a wet grassland with an immense growth of young saplings. Months pass and the weather appears to turn dry again, but this is only a season; four months later the rains return, wild and monsoonal at first but gradually settling into a daily alternation of rain and shine.

      In the return to a nomadic existence many abandoned rituals are rediscovered; Arro is one of many young men fully initiated into the tribe, with trials of manhood that leave a pattern of scars stretching across his chest and forehead. Gradually the tribe learns the hunting and gathering techniques needed to survive in this country, occasionally resorting to the brute power of Arro’s M16 to bring down a larger animal such as a kangaroo jinking through the trees. They learn to fish from the many swelling creeks and rivers, to sweep the country in long drives, to do controlled burns of the rapidly maturing sapling forest. In these large coordinated hunting operations the captured radios now come in very useful; Arro relives his basic training, the peaceful feeling of lying on warm earth, watching through camouflage and listening on the headset for signals indicating a movement of enemy (now game animals) or a call to advance.

      The tribe begins to encounter other tribes in its nomadic movement. They meet with friendship mainly, though rivalries and sexual relationships lead to occasional hostility. Fights are more often conducted through verbal abuse or teasing than violence, though beatings and spearings do rarely happen. The different tribes find they have different codes of conduct, different punishments by ordeal or ridicule, which lead to occasional serious misunderstandings.

      Romance is inevitable and the old laws of intertribal marriage, the mixed pairings of totems or dreamings between the two tribes of a marriage exchange, have to be argued over and agreed upon by the tribal elders. The problems they encounter in matching totemic spirits are often quite funny to them, an appreciation of physical and sexual prowess being a part of their sense of humour, though Arro often has to think about it to see the joke. After a few years with the tribe Arro marries Jambali, a girl of sixteen from the neighbouring Adnyamathanha tribe. It is a traditional marriage, although the pairing is simpler than for other couples because Arro has no totem, no dreaming. Arro and Jambali start a family, Arro acquiring in the process a complicated kinship position in the tribal and intertribal network, roughly translating as uncle.

      The new ritual society brings about a rebirth of the tribe’s secret knowledge, the dreamtime Tjukuba mythology, even as the elders of the tribe are putting their minds together to remember it. Much of their oral culture has been lost, partly due to the white occupation of the country (which apart from the confinement to settlements did not effect them all that much, in the central desert), and partly due to the recent forced move from their native lands, where the natural totems and land-signs which formed the core of their dreaming legends were located. removed from the sacred sites, most of their stories are pretty much meaningless, so Arro is brought into the secret knowledge even as it is being revised, with much head scratching and serious debate, to suit the local conditions.

Chapter Eight: The Vanishing

So the tribe finds that it must invent and reinvent large parts of its culture, from the basic needs of hunting and gathering food, to the rituals that bind family, tribe and society together, to the deep natural philosophies and mythologies that provide reason and sense to those rituals. To this changing natural philosophy there is a corresponding natural backdrop, for the land itself has changed and is still changing: The country they are now moving through has developed into dense wet bushland thick with vines and creepers, in places approaching rainforest. There is a wild abundance of plant and animal species of all kinds, many of which have never been seen before.

      Strange mutations begin to appear; at first these are found washed up dead on a creek-bed or fallen from a nest, unviable monstrosities with bulging eyes and odd numbers of legs, wings or fins; but occasionally they survive, brightly coloured, ungainly shapes flitting through the trees, followed in a season or two by offspring less ungainly but more strange, birds of paradise whose songs are a hyptonic baritone, flying lizards, fish with diamond-hard scales and strange intelligent eyes.

      Arro is convinced that these changes are the result of radiation poisoning, expecting his own children to be born with deformities; but as the years pass the tribe’s newborn children grow stronger and healthier than ever before in living memory. Arro has no rational explanation for the changes they are witnessing, and is confused that the tribe does not fully share his bewilderment.

      After long discussions with the elder men, Arro realises that these changes are more or less normal in the tribe’s natural philosophy: Over the 200 years of white settlement in Australia the introduction of European animals and the extinction of native species had initially caused caused many problems with the elders’ interpretation of their dreamtime stories: New animals had no creation myth, and extinct animals left holes in stories that had been told for thousands of years. The rational explanation that the new animals originated in a country over the sea was not much use to them, as none of them had ever seen the sea and the few stories they knew of it told that it was infinite and empty, by definition. Besides, this still did not explain the origin of these species, it simply removed it to a more distant place. Any understanding they might have had of Darwin’s theory of evolution was muddied by the concepts of social Darwinism, which held that the Aboriginal people were meant to die out as an inferior species.

      In the end it was the dreamtime philosophy that died out, or nearly so, and where it survived it was forced to incorporate a rough new idea of ongoing change, that the world was not created long ago and fixed in one form for all eternity, but is continually being created as time goes on. In this philosophy, the emergence of the new world is simply an expression of  an ongoing change which is inherent in nature.

      While philosophically satisfying, this idea is of little use to the tribe when strange rumours of spirit encounters, devilstori, begin to reach them from the tribal walkabout trails. This ancient network now extends from the coastline, where the shreds of civilisation are still unravelling into a new dark age, to the edge of the ancient deserts, where the pollution of war and nuclear winter is evolving into something which cannot easily be explained: Among the strange new animals evolving there are creatures that seem partly animal, partly plant or stone, and partly human, others like phantoms that appear and disappear like lightning. The strangest of the rumours tell of the appearance of unknown rivers and valleys, spectacular gorges, waterfalls  and ranges of hills, and the strange sights of evolutionary change taking place there.

      These encounters with rainbow snakes and wandjina spirits, which the tribe know from their own experience to be true, are the final straw for Arro. With no other alternative, he accepts the literal reality of everything he sees and eventually learns to take the emerging world for granted. He loses his white man identity and is happy to live the Wadjari life, believing their stories and accepting the evidence of his eyes. The sun darkens his skin to a shade nearly as black as his wife’s, and his children have never questioned the emerging reality.

      But at this time Arro has another dream:

      In my dream I am lying in my bed, asleep and dreaming that I am lying in my bed, asleep and dreaming… It is as though I have divided into layers within layers, like an onion, and the sensation is strange, like serene panic, as though I am confronted with infinity and it is all only me. Sucked into regress, I feel myself falling.

      I am standing in the dark of the valley of the nargun, with John Berrigan and Old Tjukalpi and the rest, and somehow Bernie is with us. We are climbing towards the ridge, the open mouth of the gorge blowing cold mist and bird calls into our faces. Turning towards me Bernie laughs, and I know I am not dreaming when I look into his face. Only the mad country is a dream; the truth is we two are standing here with our best old mates around us.

      We are hunting the nargun, which may be a bolong, as though this is the most natural thing in the world to do. Looking around me I hear the cries of unfamiliar birds, searching for glimpses of movement in the dark. There is shifting and distortion, a flicker of red here and there, glimpses of shadowy movements. We climb among serpentine and saurian wind sculptures of rock, finding a path over the water, between the boulders and trees.

      Bernie is in the lead and gradually draws away from us. The birds fall silent and the sound of rushing water fills my head. I am trying to keep up with Bernie, but he is drawing away and I am leaving the others behind me. Tjukalpi calls out and I turn back to look, but at that moment there is a shout of triumph from Bernie, and I turn again to see what has happened.

      There is Bernie, standing above me on a pinnacle high in the overarching walls of the gorge. He is shouting and pointing, laughing and cheering, dancing wildly on the point of the rock. I’m trying to shelter my eyes against the light, stepping back to shout for him, my own triumph rising. But suddenly he stops and falls silent, staring intently forward, and the shout dies on my lips. I hear him begin to cry, “It’s a Bo…”

      Arro wakes, and Bernie vanishes. Arro finds he has walked in his sleep and is standing out from the overarching face of rock where they had camped the night before, staring up at the cliff. The sun is just appearing over the ridge, and it is though he has opened his eyes to the same scene as in his dream, except that Bernie has vanished like a ghost evaporating in the morning light. Arro is shaken by this dream, but in a deep way he understands it, and the message stays with him for a long time.

      Taking their time, the tribe continues to migrate east. Having abandoned their traditional lands they have no purpose in their journey other than to travel until they find land where they feel they can settle or until something forces them to stop; or as it turns out, both: The forest becomes denser as they travel east, until one fine day they come over a ridge and discover a vast inland sea spreading over the horizon, glittering in the sunlight. Incredulous, they stop at the shoreline and taste the water. It is fresh, if slightly murky, and Arro realises with a shock that this is Lake Eyre, Australia’s largest depression below sea level and the centre of a network of legendary dry rivers which usually filled only in rare wet seasons. Now, rainwaters from the rivers of the vanishing desert have drowned the ancient salt pan, breaking its crust in places for the first time in millions of years, and to the Wadjari tribe’s amazement a new world lies basking in the sun on its banks.

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The Hunting of A Snark

(Second Outline, 2008-09)

(NO Chapters or Section Breaks)

A marine special forces unit of 120 soldiers under ISAF and NATO command trained in search and destroy missions are deployed into Helmand province of southern Afghanistan. Their objective is to take control of a chain of towns and farming villages along the only road through the area, a broken stone and tarred strip following a great dry river that sweeps around the edges of the ferocious desert to the south.

The action is told through the eyes of a combat unit of 16 within the battalion, who are choppered in by Blackhawk and Chinook helicopters in the opening scene, placed with extreme care on the ground. They are the support unit for a sniper team: young, highly trained men and women of mixed nationality led by a Master Sergeant and Captain both in their mid 30s, male and female, French and Indian, the higher-ranking woman perhaps five years older. ISAF forces are commanded by an American four-star general and staff, who set up a forward command and begin conventional and covert operations to secure the road.

The story explores the inner human lives of the battalion and sniper team, through their individual thoughts, emotional reactions, and memories, as well as through their actions and relationships. We see their intelligence, tension, courage, fear, glimpses of political or philosophical outlook and inner psyche, and most of all their comradeship: Deep and complex friendships, competitive partnerships, conflicts, love and sexual relationships.

The work is hard, building a combined surface-air operations base complete with mobile defences and barricades. Military engineering machinery is enormous and explosive in the superheated desert air. Perimeter defence and recon teams are active around the base from the drop, the sniper team among them.

The work is particularly frustrating for the sniper unit, who find themselves doing almost anything but what they were trained for. Their task should be to hole up at night in neutral positions with a good wide sweep around the perimeter and be ready to pick off approaching elements under complete cover. Instead they find they are ordered to support a very ordinary high power perimeter defence with long-range rifle fire, which is usually completely ineffective in a street fight in which the enemy are actually closer than rifle range and in cover or under the dust of the thousand-RPM Steyr 8-mm guns

Later they are engaged in covering fire for ground teams who must work the villages for local support and to identify insurgents. There is an acknowledged high risk of infiltration of their units by terrorist elements. The local population are everywhere around them in this densely populated but incredibly barren country.

The base nears completion as the fighting season picks up, and contact with the enemy starts to increase. A major raid is launched with shoulder launched SSMs and RPGs, hundreds of AK47s. The insurgent forces are fast, they scatter into the desert and are almost invisible from the air. The Americans have satellite technology and long range artillery fire, but the conditions are against them this far south of Bagram and ISAF support bases, while the insurgency are in their element. The story encompasses both sides, both perspectives. Individuals are seen through their own fear and combat rage, even death Is seen through the eyes of the dying, as with all scenes that tell individual stories.

In between these sporadic contacts the work is harder still – being close to the perimeter means they are on hand to assist with the construction. Their Captain, in civilian life a Parisian lawyer and now a commissioned MP, finds this grunt work particularly frustrating. He dislikes the engineers, almost despises their subhuman workers. He has the physical toughness to survive desert combat, but a strong streak of almost religious preciousness is in his thoughts.

The second sniper team teams an American right-wing gunslinger with a Dutch point man, a liberal, they argue the toss politically and philosophically in hard moral terms, to kill or murder and who gives a fuck either way? The ranger, a Corporal and artist at heart with a very deft hand at the laser sight, hates war, feels very strongly the blurring of killing with murder, and cares very much about too many things. He has two kids and a fading civilian career. He wonders often how he ever got into this, and explores all sorts of alternative scenarios about his motives for joining the army. We realise he is incapable of self-honesty, and barely glimpse why he really joined the army.

The gunslinger, a Sergeant, is a long-standing misogynist with his eye on a piece of ass in the team, the Canadian second lieutenant and third ranger who in turn is attracted to her own corporal riflemen, who was a banker in Wall Street in civilian life before 9/11. All these characters are explored in some detail.

There is only one recognisable Australian in the story. The number one rifleman and their best sniper, he was once a butcher, and is very handy with a knife. He seems to have some kind of suppressed memory, which we can’t quite see.

The base is completed in six days and the general holds a small banquet in the combined mess, full dress uniforms, welcomes and thanks the coalition forces under his command. The general: ” I am not going to say this to you once – I am going to say it to you three times: we are here to find and capture or kill a dangerous enemy, their leadership, supporters and fighters. I say again, capture or kill any of 170 insurgent and terrorist leaders in the area – capture or kill up to 200,000 well-trained and battle-hardened mujahideen. And this is just the place to find them.”

He brings up a map or rather a digital satellite composite he is very adept with. The strategy emphasises containing and bringing under control the entire southern province, flanked by UN elements in neighbouring provinces. They will need to block retreat across the desert, or across the river into the mountains, and though the borders with both Pakistan and Iran are porous the flanks are supported by similar special forces, marines and army battalions. They are planning a bottleneck, and a big one. From the satellite, the entire region resembles an eye, with a dark and mountainous pupil, a white of desert and eyebrow drawn by the curve of the river.

He gives a general briefing on targets, partly entertaining and motivating but mostly hard facts – the names, faces and activities of known insurgent and terrorist leaders, their financiers and supporters, that are thought to be in their current area of operations and some more senior ones who are probably not.

The briefing reveals the strained relationships between the soldiers and their command, the conflict over pure military aims and humanitarian/reconstruction goals. General staff tend to micro-manage their troops. Most teams suffer from difficult, sometimes bizarre rules of engagement, such as a restriction to night ops to reduce casualties, meaning most missions are effectively impossible – you can’t engage with the enemy if they are not active, the Afghan insurgency cannot work by night and you usually don’t know where they’ve holed up. Use catch-22 in conversation – but this is not meant to be absurdist paradox tale, but one of inner conflict.

Rules of engagement for the sniper teams strongly emphasise capture over kill, but capture can be significantly more difficult and dangerous for the forward teams. There have been instances in other battalions were the rules of engagement did not cover that situation, others were killed as result, courts-martial have occurred. All this is told in a sometimes tense question and answer session, a normal part of the briefing, but fleshed out by glimpses of the inner thoughts, reactions and worries of the commissioned officers and their platoon leaders.

After the banquet/briefing it becomes obvious that there is a lot of sex going on in the battalion, mostly between members of different teams, but there is no hard rule on it. The army policies on sexual relationships are deeply ambiguous and do not take into account obvious aspects of human nature. Really it is no different to adult sexual relationships in any office or factory. There is an emerging interest between the third sniper pair, a male lance corporal rifleman and female ranger at corporal rank. There is also something very subtle going on between the team leaders and fall-back sniper team, the captain and master sergeant. Told in their thoughts and body language, it is not clear where this is going.

Over the next few weeks the sniper team finally begin going into action, working with elements of the Afghan National armed forces and police, training and in action, to capture if possible known insurgent leaders and their supporters. The work is still hard, and the danger ever present. They are tense, the physical sensations of stomach tightness and restless energy more than any actual thoughts about it – they have had some training in emotional control and know how to be extremely tough cookies – in fact it is the one thing we can see is common to all of their psyches, a basic don’t-give-a-fuck, visible mainly in that they are watching their team members for any break in it. The actual combat is infrequent, but terrifying in its intensity.

The fighting is told partly from the Afghan or Taliban perspective also – prayer and fighting, traditional and new ideas, new weapons, old hopes and new fears.

Snipers work at long or short range, from the bush or from camouflaged combat vehicles. Forward teams make a positive ID on at target, signal to the sniper pair – a commander and riflemen – lock on to the target and shoot or step up negotiation. Laser sites gives the forward team a powerful edge over the enemy, but they must work if possible to not kill the target, to pin down targets and support capture teams; these situations are tense and dangerous.

There is often a moment of hesitation that deeply intensifies their decisions to capture or kill. They know that this hesitation arises from the lack of trust that their senior leadership will support them in the kill. This is extremely frustrating and adds to their tension – in particular the sense that they may have to hesitate when it comes to a kill. They know that hesitating soldiers go home in flag-draped boxes. It affects morale and creates bursts of aggressive behaviour, displays of comradeship and humour, and of course, more sex.

Captured insurgents, among them a harder professional soldier, laugh at their captors, saying they are weak. A common insurgent method of killing captured Afghani soldiers is to cut off their heads with 8 inch knife. This has not yet been the fate of any international coalition soldier but the possibility is a horrifying reality.

The use of sniper teams has risen partly out of a need for precision targeting of individuals in high collateral-risk situations, and partly in response to the effectiveness of enemy snipers against coalition forces – morale is shot with every sniping victim. The sniper teams sufferer from the paranoia of surviving covertly in a battlefield. The questions in the reader’s mind are meant to start out as a well-telegraphed who will die next, and how, or who will crack first? But it is not even as simple as that.

The lead rifleman’ nervousness and suppression worsen, he suffers now from a growing sense of disaster, an apocalypse of the events of their daily lives written at a larger scale. He can’t stop thinking about nuclear solutions, the fall of nations. Through his mind the sense of fear expands throughout the book to include the World – will we live or die?

The captain and master sergeant of the sniper are involved with general staff in vetting of targets – named leaders with known or in practice strongly suspected involvement in insurgent activities or logistics. This often includes senior civilians, even ordinary local traders and farmers known to accommodate insurgents. Vetting involves discussion and agreement on documents, signals traffic, covert photography and video footage of aerial and satellite images, positive ID and names of known insurgent leaders, extremists, radical clerics, and terrorist agents as individuals or cells. Higher targets are considered as possible updates – most of which have not actually changed in years.

The geopolitical situation into which they are embedded is of a narrow strip of impossibly barren territory riven with tribal conflict, surrounded on two international frontiers by nuclear armed repressive dictatorships that actively or covertly support, supply and arm the insurgency and the terrorist networks behind it. The south of the country is an ant’s nest, but flat and mostly empty, except for the higher ground over Khan-e Bagat, the Eye. The Afghanistan government lacks support from crucial Pashtun tribes – they are propped up by remnants of the Northern Alliance while Pashtun tribes are in Taliban territory and not represented in government.

The general explains is that their working model of the battlefield should not be one of fixed positions or areas. The enemy is mobile and light, everywhere and nowhere. Towns and villages may be enemy occupied one day, friendly the next. He switches to a map blanked of enemy positions and area alignments. “Think of it as a landscape on the move.”

To control the insurgency it is of vital importance to minimise not only illegitimate kills but also those that could be in any way construed as such. Sniper teams must absolutely avoid the unprovoked attack, particularly in daylight with witnesses. An argument in favour of the sniper teams’ work is launched by a major who speaks of the potential force amplification of a sniper rifle, “The force of a 1000-pound bomb in one 6 mm round directed at your exact target.” A counter-argument is the martyrdom of insurgent leaders, and the effect this has on enemy recruiting.

The captain and master sergeant have a fairly strained relationship with the general and his staff, conflicted by doubt and ambiguity that they attempt to cut through, but are treated dismissively. They try to talk to the general about the rules of engagement. The general is frank on his view that the RoE are deliberately unclear on the line between legitimate kills (sometimes referred to as justifiable homicide) and premeditated murder.

The captain and master sergeant are dismissed at the end of the briefing, dissatisfied and disturbed, deep down knowing that if this second-guessing and manipulation of their action continues then they are absolutely going to lose. The safe option only leads to a failure to engage, and bold action is hampered by the absurd but highly convincing idea that a sniper’s work could be regarded as premeditated murder.

The general and a major take the conversation to a difference place in a private conversation in the vetting room, under a jumble of voices at lunch. They discuss the strategic flaws of the occupation of the country, the loss of control over the poppy fields due to a failure to project force beyond the capital, and the great unforced error of overreach, of unnecessarily widening the conflict. the economics of extreme poverty that bring entire farming communities into rebel and insurgent control, providing an economic base for guerrilla operations, spread across the country with very effective tactics, especially in ambush for which they are well-equipped: IEDs, RPGs, snipers, mortars, small field pieces, heavy machine gun fire and literally millions of AK47s. The general dismisses the still-unnamed “bearded eraser” in the north as a significant distraction as well as a major strategic objective in the war, considers senior leadership in the Pakistani national army or agents of any number of hostile countries in the wider region as a greater potential threat, and reaffirms the strategic importance of the road.[1]

The second officer in command of the battalion is a colonel in the Pakistani regular army. He is a political appointment, an embedded commander. He works with the general on all major decisions, and it becomes clear that in fact his word is law in most cases. The general and he have a number of unspoken and mutually censorious unmentionables, which we can see in their thoughts.

The general and his staff continue their discussion in small groups leaving the briefing. Politically correct and liberal ideas about minimising the insurgency by treating their targets humanely if possible, presumptions of innocence and capture rather than kill, contrast with the other view, that the enemy are terrorist scum who are there to be killed and would otherwise just fill up jail cells, but the RoE make this virtually illegal.

The general himself, at the apex of this conflicted structure, has an eye to his future political career. A veteran of CIA-support operations in the 1980s, he knows the insurgents and their methods like no one else in the battalion. He cannot afford to be sullied by civilian deaths and murder operations. He pressures his staff in many subtle ways. The job is hard for the general and his staff also. For the general to action an Article 32 he needs clear legal justification or his career is as dead as any hesitating soldier. Heavy handed rules of engagement create many more insurgents than they kill. The general knows that to keep this to a minimum he must make his men more afraid to kill than to capture.

Despite this strategically and ideologically impossible conflict, the Special Forces battalion make rapid progress. The countryside retreats before them, with pockets of stiff resistance. Insurgents can melt away and re-group with astonishing speed, or disappear entirely.

The second sergeant rifleman and the corporal ranger in team three, the cowboy and the object of his lust, have a terrible working relationship. Fortunately they never have to work together in combat, and can afford to be brutally aggressive, he sexually, her in a kind of feminist psychological warfare, towards each other. The woman is tough, as hard as her male comrades, but thinks of the brute right winger in purely feminine terms. He stinks of old sweat. He is a violent, dangerous, inveterate rule-breaker. She requests a transfer to another platoon, the captain knows why but cannot authorise it at this stage. The third rifleman suggests personal armour, and life insurance for a joke.

In one of the sniper-supported ground operations there is a moment of hesitation which goes savagely wrong. The lead point man is seriously wounded and is choppered out. The reality of injury and death, which they have all seen seen before, descends as a subtle mood that is heightened by a deeper paranoia – they painfully dissect it in thought and conversation, the moment of hesitation.

These soldiers, financed by superpowers and constituted by the UN, feel tiny and weak compared to the guerrilla forces aligned against them, vulnerable to the terror of their methods, caught in a poverty stricken and overpopulated nation that has become a prey to extremism inspired by ignorance and poverty itself. Saudi money, inspirational terrorist leaders and the complex, almost schizophrenic politics of the neighbouring states, supported by fighters of similar skill to their own, better in fact if they ever got the technology, leave them wondering if they and their leadership are up to the task.

That night they get drunk, music playing loud from the Humvee, pumped out through the PA speakers when they want a little volume for dancing. The number one rifleman smokes a joint, strong hash from the neighbourhood of their own forward base, some of them uneasy at this. Talking of home, the soldiers are bemused to realise again that people think their work is wrong, like the Vietnam generation vets who were called murderers on furlough, an experience entirely unfamiliar to their own non-US elements.

They go over the big geopolitical motives, of oil resources, pipelines and corrupt politics of international committee-style governance most associated with the UN. They can’t figure it out, can’t quite get the public mind, they look at it in a completely different way. In the same stream of consciousness we hear the thoughts of European, American and Australian civilians in clean clothes at bus stops and offices, actually having no thoughts of the Afghanistan situation or of these soldiers at all.

The conversation wanders. They talk about snipers as assassins, originally an Islamic sect, smoking hashish for a trancelike state, achieving martyrdom, the mad attraction that the suicide bomber seems to have over this incomprehensible enemy. The second rifleman, indistinctly counting off on his fingers: “So we’re up against tribal war lords, urban criminals, Taliban activists, Islamic extremists, elements of Pakistani military and intelligence, not to mention outright al-Qaeda fucking terrorists, and not knowing who might be working with who, or what…” Third point man: “I’d say we’re pretty close to fucked over, what do you think?”

The lead rifleman feels a deep loathing for himself, his latent heroin addiction[2] biting him, the poppy fields in the countryside around them. His mind is evidently not right, thoughts come in odd places, paranoia and tension vie for his thoughts, apocalyptic visions crowd his mind as he falls asleep. The third rifleman and ranger dance. Drunk and all over each other, they finally get it on, the second sergeant following them into the bush to watch. The ranger wears lace. We follow her mind through orgasm, it is her great tension release. They need each other, but do not know each other.

The point man’s replacement a week later is an MP lieutenant, but when the moment comes to view the action from his perspective we see that he is some kind of agent, thinking not of what he does next but what he should look like he is doing next, then re-focussing on his more usual and highly professional motive-oriented thinking about the men around him. It is evident that he is there to watch his comrades as closely as the enemy. No one suspects him, though from other perspectives he is an inconsistent character.

The rebuilt sniper team join a recon detail to provide backup for an Afghan commando unit, positioning themselves wide on a ridge around a village at night and observing closely for movement. The commandos enter the village as a moving black shadow, fast and fluid, taking a half-dozen captives without firing a shot. The captain, watching through infrared binoculars, sees the tactical care they take, their professional handling of detainees, and feels a nameless depression[3].

In a small vindication of their own methods, the second and third sniper teams and lead rifleman pull off a classic ambush almost by accident. They plug the lead guy, terrify the rest into throwing down. These enemy insurgents are all young, raw recruits in training. They carry a pack of training manuals written in Farsi, guerrilla warfare, explosives, weaponry, surveillance, commando tactics, grenade and sniper training. The snipers march the detainees back to a staging post and collapse in the dust, nowhere to sleep.

The general in conversation with his staff. He loves what the Afghan commando units are doing, and again revises the standing orders for his own sniper teams. Planning strategy, he is a master of dead reckoning navigation, a yachtsman in his home life, he uses satellite technology as well as topographic maps, to the extent that he is frustrated by the out-dating of imagery and limitations of perspective in this vertically challenging terrain.

A major in the general staff talks in systems terms of the opposing forces in this strategic situation, which tend to counteract each other and diminish their hopes of success. This type of thinking is clearly unusual in the military, though operations research originated here, and the ideas are dismissed by most other staff, particularly the senior ones. “Taliban extremists’ tactics are to plan and launch attacks from civilian areas then retreat to civilian areas to hide,” Belcher said. ” Conducting operations such as these in civilian areas requires extensive training and planning. The fact the commando-led forces were able to detain several suspected insurgents hiding in civilian areas without firing a shot shows tremendous development in their ability to conduct complex operations.”[4]

Enemy snipers begin working against the battalion; the paranoia increases considerably. Any movement away from the main compound involves potential exposure. Numerous deaths and injuries occur among men just going to latrines or between buildings, each victim suffering a different agony of mind and body as they fall. The injuries are described in detail as the weapons smash through their bodies, an Iliad of hardened steel and incendiary radioactive explosives, not iron and bronze.

Some coalition sniper teams use bait, leaving ammunition as though dropped from a truck where passerby can see it, plugging anyone who picks it up. But is it a terrorist or some dad who needs ammo for the AK-47 he uses to defend his house? Do we give a shit?

Snipers may request reassignment and refuse sniper duties, but they don’t. They continue to kill, as well as capture, insurgent leaders and the combat units defending them. Operations continue, in villages and outlying compounds, madrassas and mosques, poppy fields and IED factories, strongholds and cave systems, the wild desert landscape centring on river and road.

There is an ambush in a town, and the sniper team are involved in a massive shootout. A sniper in a house position picks off a local cop as they are standing there talking to the target, the forward team scatters to cover, half the crowd of people standing round at the confront suddenly produce weapons and it’s on. Two teams of snipers begin picking off the militia while the captain, master sergeant the lead rifleman and the CIA agent blaze away from behind the humvees with their Steyrs, heavy machine guns of terrifying kill power in just this situation.

The second rifleman and third ranger, who still hate each others’ guts, share a position on the ridge, blazing away with the high-powered 60 mm gun that literally blows the mud houses and flat-hatted men to pieces amid violent bursting clouds of dust. The militias disappear into a crowd that has gathered, incredibly enough, from the surrounding streets as if to provide a mass for them to escape into.

The second ranger and third rifleman have fallen in together in another position, they see the fearful damage being done by the other team but stick to the high-powered laser-guided rifle, trying to get a shot into the house. The dust kicked up the assault is too much, “shit!!”, they begin packing up and falling back out of there.

Sporadic shooting continues, but the fire from the house has dropped off, then stops. The forward team climb into their humvees with local cops and soldiers and throw dust out of there, still shooting from the turret and fire slots. There is no one with any interest in going forward to check out the kill. The sniper teams walk out almost backwards, under cover and in full camouflage like hairy dogs, and rendezvous with the return-recovery ring, a chain of men with mobile bases, first aid and supplies that span the desert at a wide range around the forward operating bases.

The third point man and second rifleman spend their march arguing about how many they killed, whether they followed the rules of engagement, and whether they are now really fucked in terms of career. They relate to each other in a friendly way unseen before, shared experience of near death bringing them closer together. They are both extremely tough cookies and they don’t kid each other around.

The lead rifleman, already unstable with apocalyptic dread and repressed memories, reacts with a kind of hilarious shock to this experience. He sits catatonic for several hours, barely noticed, in the side seat of an armoured car on the way back to base, and then in an iron chair inside the compound walls. We see through his shock the horror, the body parts flying in pink mist, the guilt.

The national government protests against the killing of civilians. International media puts the story uncomfortably into the general’s life and career. He departs for Washington.

The sniper teams are under a cloud of disapproval by officers and staff. Micromanagement worsens. The general returns and discusses revised rules of engagement with his officers. These do not change often and this is part of a direct reprimand. The revised rules are issued as a written directive in standing orders, tersely if not discreetly, no speeches. They make the kill even more difficult, the capture more imperative.

Naturally, the sniper teams’ morale worsens. In a deep conversation in a hot dry dust-shelter, they wonder which of these dangerous spirals, the disabling micromanagement or the escalating insurgency, will lead to their death or defeat first. Realising they are trapped they compare their curtailed freedom with the loftier aims of the war.

The lead rifleman is the only one who doesn’t offer an opinion, and through his eyes we see he may be going steadily insane. His repressed memory, whatever it is, is forcing its way into his mind and mutating as he strives not to recognise it.

The landscape grows more barren as they penetrate to the southwest, the road following one long sweep of the river as it spills onto the southern desert and curves around the last high terrain before the desert; the Eye, a region of broken mountains and outwash plains of burning heat.

Depressed, weary and fearful, their missions are increasingly remote and with smaller support from the national army and police. Choppered into the foothills of the Eye with coordinates in those high dark hills, they carry all equipment plus food and water for four days. Their objective is to locate a suspected compound based around a system of caves reported in those hills. The route is incredibly difficult, literally chasms and crags.

On day three, at a critical moment they hear approaching enemy radio before visual contact, but are unable to make good cover in time – the gully is narrow and the walls steep. They take assault positions and prepare for a first strike, an ambush in the open. Holding tight in half camo against the canyon walls, as soon as the first ten men are in sight they open fire, dropping four in the first volley and forcing the others against the walls.

Uniformed in dull loose red cloth with round turban-style helmets, the insurgents fire back from cover and are soon supported by similar troops moving fast and skilfully into positions behind them. Soon there are 14 or 15 AK-47s chattering insanely away at them. The captain realises he should have fallen back at ten, screams the retreat orders, they pull back up the gully, alternately retreating and laying down over.

The second sergeant falls, shot through the side of the chest, the third sniper team break cover moving very fast and drag him out of there. It’s a mortal wound, a massive haemorrhage, they pull him behind a rock, tear off his chest rig and open his camouflaged tunic, apply pressure bandages, the blood keeps flowing. “Fuck!!” They must get him out of there, they carry him in a shoulder lift, 7.62 mm rounds embedding in their packs, slicing a shoulder, ricocheting in hot showers of rock dust. He dies an agonising death, begging them to leave him, they grimly refusing. This scene seen partly from the dying mans’s perspective.

The team regroup and flee back up the canyon, but here now is a point at which they must climb a long face of rock as fast as possible to stay ahead of their pursuers and avoid being sitting ducks on the rock. Here a different moment of hesitation arises, the desperate decision to leave their dying, all but dead comrade at the point where they can no longer drag him and hope to live themselves. He is gone already, they can easily see, and they stand silently, danger forgotten, gazing down at his final coma.

They must keep going until dark, searching for ways up and out. The walls of the gully are steep. They cannot just take the first route out, as it will be easily followed. The map alone is not enough to tell them a secondary route – what they need is something steep, but not too steep. Dark comes as they keep moving. Finally in the starlight they come to a steep wall, lying at 60˚ back from the canyon floor and with many bulging overhangs, but crossed with wide spaces that wind across and up.

The second ranger, the Cuban, who since the death of the second sergeant has no rifleman, now climbs the wall using whatever grip he can find in the dark, friction hauling in places between widely spaced cracks, pressing close to the rock and using his entire body’s heavy cloth and mesh armour to cling to it.

Reaching the top he throws a line and secures it with a boulder rolled into place. The others climb and haul up their packs. That have water for one day. They get well away from the canyon, over the ridge and finally halt to rest. Exhausted, they eat MREs and collapse. The captain and master sergeant must decide what to do: find a way out, or move in to take a look from this higher position. If they can find a way back into the canyon country from here, wherever the group of enemy fighters they encountered up the gulch will probably not be far, and what else could they find in here with that sort of presence?

If they are going to make it that far in and out again they will have to move tonight. Barely awake at first, the second corporal scouts ahead, finds lights against the pre-dawn darkness and calls them forward. They make the last few miles up to this possible target with great care, position themselves in forward and rifle positions before dawn, extremely low and dusty with weapons and targeting devices just barely protruding from the rock. They watch as the sun rises – and the compound they see revealed is easily the most sophisticated and heavily guarded they have seen, a complex of caves on many levels, connected by well-made paths and signs of a road leading away to the south.

There is no question of sniper action. They call in an air strike on the entire compound, signalling the coordinates with an extremely narrow directional UHF to avoid detection. Not knowing if they have been received they keep transmitting and wire up the laser target sights to draw in the F-15s.

Now, watching the compound closely as his men and women set up the strike, the captain sees through binoculars a vetted major target, a senior terrorist leader and known assassin, coming as though by daily habit up a stone path. It is a total shock, a major plan-B moment. The captain and master sergeant have only a few seconds to argue the toss on this life-or-death situation – if they take the headshot now they will expose their position and draw massive attention. It will degenerate again into a retreat through wild terrain with little chance of avoiding being picked off this time. But if they wait there is still the air-strike. Those fucking daisy cutters are not penetration bombs, they need the big MOABs to cut through the mountain and quake the joint. They can’t get back to the radioman from here, not now. FUCK fuck, all this is told in spluttering abbreviated hisses over the near-range team intercom.

The captain, near exploding with tension, begins an order but is cut off – “Too late” says the third rifleman from his position 50 metres away on the ridge. They look. The target is now surrounded by a group who have emerged from a door set in a wall overhung by brows of red cliff, they greet and draw him in through the door.

The captain stares at the wall. That was not a regular movement, it was a greeting, he’s meeting someone here. And they’ll be coming out again the same way.

The lead rifleman is in a state of sick fascination. He had that guy’s head in his sight the whole way up the garden path. He must just have been looking in the right direction. He stares through his sight at the door.

The captain and sergeant go over it again, not knowing how long they have. They cannot expect a reply on the air strike until some minutes before the F-15s arrive, or in this terrain it may be only seconds. The head shot would be a sure kill of a major target, the air strike may do some damage but miss the main personnel targets entirely. The slug is a 2,000 pound bomb up that bastard’s arse, direct attention thank you very much. They are square in the green zone of their rules of engagement, a recognised terrorist senior head surrounded by only armed defenders. But the shot is certain death to them if they don’t get the air strike to back them up, and they don’t know when that will be. They go around in circles. The conversation of Krsna and Arjuna it is not, but the crisis has a similar intensity, to kill or not to kill.

The lead rangeman, the agent, hears the long radio silence from the head team, correctly interprets it as a leadership deadlock, a hovering hesitation over the next hard command, and begins to move stealthily forward. He is the master of this art of all of them, even divesting his camo suit and leaving it in an unobtrusive dark patch as he moves along worm-style. The captain and master sergeant don’t even notice he is gone, they are so intent on the door. The rangeman sets down in a gully on the very edge of the compound, with a view into doors and windows along the path. Figures come and go in both directions, movement seeming to step up, there are enemy fighters in dusty red turbans above and near in front of him.

Finally the captain signals the lead rifleman, “OK mon frere Jaques, wakey wakey, let’s do this the easy way. We plug that guy, hole down and wait for the strike. It’ll take them half an hour to work out where we are, another to get up here, and we can pick ’em off as they come.”

The lead rifleman acknowledges, his head spinning, then after a pause, “Where’s my wingman?” At that moment the door opens. A figure steps out. It is the Pakistani colonel, second in command of the Special Forces Battalion, their own senior officer.

The captain and master sergeant are paralysed, but he rasps automatically a hold fire order. The lead rifleman lifts his head in amazement. The agent, hunched twenty feet away and below this scene, his automatic bunched in his fist, freezes.

The colonel stands talking a moment. The captain and master sergeant now urgently wonder what the fuck he is doing here, and whether in fact they should plug him. Arsehole, fucking bastard, prick, scumbag fucking… What else could he be doing here. Fucking Pakistani military are so far up these guys this one’s just here to brush his teeth. They could kill him now, murder or no fucking murder, waste one scumbag terrorist leader supporter or whatever the fuck he is and the RoE be fucked. The master sergeant herself lines up the shot, demands that he command her, I have him now Sir! He refuses, No, dammit! She is that close to pulling the trigger out of sheer frustration and rage.

But she can’t do it, and there is no precedent for them to work from. They just have no way to point it, and no way to make the command.

After only a few moments the colonel turns and walks down the path with his retinue, followed by wary heavily-armed insurgent fighters. The lead rifleman signals he is losing his target, and he still has no wingman. “What? Where’s your wingman?”

The agent is trying to follow the colonel, but unable to remain in cover or move fast. He drops to the ground when the front door opens again, and this time out walks the target. But the agent can see…from where he is crouching…that this ain’t the guy either, it’s a decoy.

The captain hasn’t picked the deception, he’s too far back. He commands the kill, and the lead rifleman lowers his head with suddenly reptilian grace. The shot rings out and the decoy drops, half his head blown off by a high power expanding slug. The bodyguard, fighters at the same level as the decoy, react swiftly, bundle themselves to the wall as two of them drag the body to cover. They huddle along the wall, at the same time scoping the hillside opposite, then break out to move low and fast across the path, into the gully, and begin to move in cover up the hillside.

The agent mirrors their move and scrambles from the gully into the path, actually between two of the turbans spaced only twenty feet apart. He needs to see the dead guy up close, and he would love to try the door. This is a decoy, is the real guy still inside? And who else? Why a decoy for this middle-ranker? He also is still reeling from the shock of seeing the colonel, knows this could be too big.

At the same time the third sniper team begin laying down covering fire, picking off one of the guard, the others are hard, hard to spot. They are listening intently as the captain calls the retreat, orders the laying of fire, begins to fall back, more than partly exposed. Shots begin to crack from the high spaces on the mountainside above them, rounds hiss-crack and smash like hammer blows around them. An RPG roars in, deafening and showering the second team with dust and howling shrapnel, savaging but not severely injuring them.

The lead rifleman does not move. He watches the agent through his sights while scanning the path with his open left eye, sees action coming through doors further down the path, swivels slightly and begins picking them off at middle range, easy. Half of these new guys go for cover, the others don’t last long, the rifleman draws breath is just in time to see the agent disappearing through the door which had been left swinging open as the decoy emerged.

The lead rifleman feels a laziness coming on, as if oh what the fuck am I doing here. He rests his head on the stock of his rifle, closes his eyes, all but falls asleep in the rising heat. Enemy fighters creep past him, unseeing.

The second ranger is now the only one working the laser sights for the air strike if it ever comes. He stays where he is, knowing this is best chance of survival or at least of getting something bloody well done today. He’s positioned high on an outcrop, but he’s been spotted, shots start falling around him. He cowers, then distantly hears the roar of the jets. 15 seconds. He has to man his piece despite the fire if they are going to get a good strike. He struggles forward, raises himself, feels a shot slice his arm, ignores it, grabs the sight, but then the bombs fall. They miss the valley, explode high on the hillside opposite and above the ranger in enormous gouts of pulverising flame and a hurricane of high speed shrapnel.

Too high and in the wrong place, the ranger is caught in the second blast, cut into small pieces and blown in spirit form back into the wild country behind.

The explosion of six 2,000 lb daisy cutter bombs is incredible, devastating, they shatter the entire valley from above, but the fleeing snipers are still on the exposed side of their hill and take the full brunt of the explosions from barely outside the kill radius under cover of rocks that move with something like loving emotion. They are stunned, deafened, and the third rifleman raises his right hand to find it all but sliced off and bleeding profusely. He is too shocked to scream.

The captain, master sergeant and third ranger emerge in a pattering rockfall and then a hissing rain of sand and dust, stumble back from their position and regroup with the rifleman. It is only then that they see his injury. They have only a few minutes to get the hell out while the compound recovers from the shock. Without time to even bandage him they grab him into a shoulder lift, his ranger holding his arm to stem the blood, and drag him out of there.

The lead rifleman is closer to the blast but still apparently asleep, he is spattered with a hail of gravel and shrapnel, riddled with fine puncture wounds in his back. He jerks back into consciousness. He is stunned and in shock, unable to rise to join up with his team even if he had thought of it, can hear nothing through his singing ears. He lies groaning occasionally, slowly coming back out of himself, discovering the pain in his back, beginning to hear the sounds of violent action in the compound below him.

A pursuit team shortly crosses the gully, not twenty feet from him, searching for the strike team but moving on across the rock face and down into the gully, again without seeing him just lying there. Sounds of heavy machinery, shouts, a helicopter lifting off. He raises his head and sees the compound filling with men. They must have poured out of the caves. They are marshalling and moving off in columns of lightly armoured trucks.

The rifleman is still exactly opposite the same door that this whole action has centred on, and sees it swing open again. The assassin comes out with his retinue. It’s the dude this time, no decoy. The rifleman is in no fit state to make a plan. His rifle is still in sniper position, loaded and ready but coated in dust and partly buried by the muzzle. He lowers his head and stealthily tries to free the mouth of his weapon. But as he does so he sees the agent, two men behind the assassin and kitted out as mujahideen in dusty red baggy uniform and turban helmet with an AK-47 across his Saudi-made chest rig. He is indistinguishable from the rest of the guard. The rifleman would not have noticed him if the agent had not, briefly, looked directly at him.

The rifleman pauses now, finger on trigger, as the assassin and his guard move quickly down the path to a waiting truck. He follows the assassin’s head with his sight, left eye open and on the agent’s efficiently congruous back. The moment is gone and he now looks with both eyes as the agent leaps into the truck behind the others and is driven away out of sight.

The compound now slowly empties over several hours as the lead rifleman watches in a frozen position, beaten by the sun and feeling his wounds stiffen.

The four remaining members of the sniper team flee the scene, down into a maze of gullies, dragging their wounded comrade. They manage to avoid the pursuit teams, bandage the third rifleman, then wait until dark and call in an airlift by the same low band radio. They will need to lie low for a few hours, then make their way to the LZ, level ground shown on the map, ideal for dustoffs. They eat and sleep, the captain guarding. If they talk of anything they are brief and monotonic, their minds straying around what has happened like travellers avoiding potholes. With four of their number dead or missing, they feel dead and absent themselves.

A few miles behind them as the sun sets, the lead rifleman struggles out of his frozen position, stiff and in pain and thirst. He begins to drag himself out of there. As he moves, crawling among jagged rocks on weakening elbows, feverish and hallucinatory visions of the hunting of the Snark haunt him. We follow his mind down into death by thirst, shock and loss of blood, the chasms and crags of this nightmare land overwhelming his reason at last.

 

 

**************************************************************************************************************************************************************************************************************


[1] In fact Mullah Omar is still the active Taliban leader. He escaped in a bike motorcade as the US invaded, and was probably more important a target than OBL.

[2] He picked up his latent addiction while posted in Germany, he can live without it but wants a taste now.

[3] See Afghan Commando Raid.doc

[4] AFPS

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