Military satire written during the second Iraq War. Formatting went off a little, but not too bad.
Yi-Pei the Sniper
By Jason Harrington
From the memoirs of Staff Sgt. Phineas “The Director” Bailey.
March 26, 2007:
My boys call me The Director, and yeah, I’ve shot an ass or two. I spent the first 20 years of my career crouching in Bel-Air bushes just to bring that semi-nude photo of Carnie Wilson to your grocery store’s checkout line. For a long time I thought I’d scraped the dregs of meaningless humiliation. Then I joined the U.S. war in Iraq. In all my years in Hollywood I’d seen my share of far-fetched war movies up on the silver screen, but none of them came close to capturing the absurd reality of the job me and my boys have taken on as snipers in Baghdad’s Dora district. I’ve worked with a lot of sharpshooters since signing on to this war three years ago, but I never worked with anyone quite like Yi-Pei. But before we get to the star of this show, let me rewind the footage, go over the supporting cast, the location, put out a press kit, so to speak: a little back story on me, my boys, our mission, and the setting.
Numero uno: I hate conflict. That’s probably the first thing that made me a logical choice for this war. I began as a Paparazzo, staking out celebrities for days at a time, an Olympus OM-1 hanging around my neck like a dog tag. That front-page spread of Carnie Wilson pool-side wearing nothing but a thong after her first fat relapse back in ’91? You’re welcome. Everyone knows me by the Carnie spread, and not to brag, but I have to agree it’s my best work; big-time stuff. Carnie-goddamned-Wilson in all the flesh, liposuction scars still not yet healed and already back up to 250 pounds. I holed up in her bushes for damn near 48 hours to get that one. When she caught sight of me in her hedges and charged like a rhino, did I stand my ground to get an assault spread on top of the weight-gain spread? Hell no. I broke fast for the perimeter wall, snapping photos over my shoulder. Starting with the Carnie spread, I made a name for myself in the paparazzi world: stealthy, patient, and sharp-eyed. Turned out my knack for unwanted invasions of privacy caught the eyes of some military brass back in ‘03. At first I thought they had the wrong man: the only military experience I’d ever had was a stint with the National Guard. But from my very first day on the job, I knew I was just as qualified as anyone else.
There’s a neighborhood in Dora District that, on any given day, plays host to more suspected terrorists wanted by the U.S. than anywhere else in the world. All day and all night, they come and they go. It is this neighborhood that we monitor, from the fourth floor above what used to be the Pizzeria Napoli. I use the past tense because the Pizzeria Napoli is now nothing more than a charred husk, having been car bombed by insurgents when its owner was suspected of passing out free breadsticks to U.S. troops in ‘04. The good thing about half the building being reduced to shattered glass and powdered brick, however, is two-fold: 1. Our headquarters is now out of the enemy’s cross-hairs, and 2. The owner- Mr. Asad Ru’Shimi- is now on our payroll and back in business as our personal cook and creator of delicious Italian foodstuffs from the first floor kitchen. “Nothing satisfies when you’re in the Red Zone, like a Pizzeria NapoliCalzone” ™
Before Yi-Pei came on board, I had three men under my command: two snipers, Owl and Bug, along with a promising young grunt, Calzone. Owl was a Desert Storm vet, a Southern boy who had learned to shoot hunting wild pigs in the backwoods, an old dog in this show, around my age: mid 30s. In the morning, he was a fine sniper: focused and alert. But after 1200 hours- his lunchtime– his morale went low. Where before lunch he would be a proper sniper– one eye winked closed and the other opened wide against the rubber-lined scope of his M-40– after lunch both of his eyes would be lolling without focus somewhere above his scope and out on the cracked streets, meditating on the Red-Crossed blurs streaking back and forth. From his afternoon low he would gradually regain life until the end of his lookout, and then come the next morning he would be back to his alert self. Usually, deliberative calculation would be a desirable characteristics in a sniper, but the thing was, somehow, after 1200 hours Owl became too relaxed, too tranquil, too clear-headed– fact is, he began questioning things. But I have to say, before 1200 hours Owl was a hell of a sniper. So, on a slow day, a Friday (youm al-jum`a, mosque day) I dropped him the hint that he was undoubtedly sharp before lunch, but that afterwards, it would probably be best for him to catch some R&R and let Bug and I run the show.
“Permission to speak freely, sir?” he drawled.
“Cut the jargon, kid. Pitch me.”
“Okay, so there’s this old boy. A sniper. In the morning he’s sharp like an eagle. Nothin’ escapes his sites, every thing is in his sites,” he forked his middle and forefinger in front of his eyes to demonstrate acuity.
“But see, in the afternoon, and on towards evening, this old boy gets to philosophizin’. In the afternoon he’s like an owl. And in the afternoon, he wonders why the things are in his sites,” now he held both fingers up as if to shrug; a peace sign for a shrug held out in front of a slanted grin.
Owl’s knees cracked when he took his first steps after shut eye. I found I could always bring myself to wield my authority over the younger soldiers, but not over a man whose bones cracked like mine in the morning.
“We’re just painting, Owl. When the orders start coming down again to squeeze, then I understand. But for now… it’s just painting. Stay on mission.”
My second man, Bug, was a skinny Mexican kid, 23 years old, a serrated scar above his lip like an elongated beauty mark- born and raised in the barrios of East L.A. For Bug the war was just a logical continuation of the life he’d been living in L.A. before he’d enlisted. He wore a khaki suit better than any of us: every morning he made a point of pressing two perfect columnar creases down the middle of his khaki pant legs using a wrench heated on our stove, and he wore them sagged down below his ass like he’d never left El Sereno. That’s one thing about Bug, though; he wore the war cleanly and with style. Owl’s state of cleanliness, on the other hand, left a lot to be desired, and he didn’t seem to mind. When he pissed in our latrine, you could smell crotch all through the air long after he zipped up, and the brim of the musty fisherman’s hat he had permanently installed on his head rarely revealed both eyes at once.
Morale seemed to be on alternating shifts with my boys. Where it visited Owl on high in the mornings, and low in the afternoons, it was exactly the opposite for Bug. In the afternoons, when Owl went Socrates, Bug was on point, every ounce of his street-made alertness magnified through eight telescopic lenses. But come morning, Bug would start bugging out. It seemed as though in the morning he went to war with himself and every goddamned conceivable thing outside of the enemy. He battled the sweat trickling into his eyes with the backs of his hands and cursed the Mesopotamian sun in Spanish. He clashed with the Spartan furnishings of our quarters and kicked over chairs. He entered into epic struggles with his rifle, disassembling and reassembling, claiming he had to get it just right before he could scope anything, although he never got it right. The war itself became the enemy every morning for Bug, but the aspect that took the brunt of it was definitely the MRE rations.
“Salisbury steaks and Hooah bars, Salisbury steaks and Hooah bars, all the live long day! Hooah bars spinning in my nightmares, Salisbury steaks bobbing in my shit! It’s a freeze-dried takeover, Dog! Chingalo, I’m gonna’ die fighting the fuckin’ menu!”
The only way to calm Bug down at times like that was to send Calzone down to the kitchen on a Calzone run.
Calzone was the third member of our team: black sheep son of Senator Joseph McKedzie, guilty only of being acquiescent and turning 18 during Primaries. To accusations that he was a War Hawk who wouldn’t be willing to send any of his three sons to war, the good senator’s witty retort was to send Calzone to war. Calzone had dropped out of high school just before being volunteered, but it wasn’t for lack of intelligence: no, he was extremely intelligent– it just didn’t show in any way. His brilliance was inert; his genius was in the negative; his smartness was in knowing that it wasn’t his place to get smart, so when he ambled from corner to corner of our small apartment wearing headphones unattached to any type of music player, he did it so that he could hear us over the non-music when we ordered him to sneak down to the kitchen to ask Mr. Ru’Shimi to whip up some calzones.
I should have given this treatment before. The way we ran our lookout was this: four walls, four windows, four directions of observation. I covered East, Owl covered South, Bug covered North, Calzone covered stomach. We needed a West man, so one morning I put in a request to Central Command. Yi-Pei arrived at sunset that very same day, in the only safe way for a U.S. soldier to travel unnoticed through Baghdad: hands bound, black hood tied over his head, with a pair of AK-47-touting Iraqi escorts– friendlies– who winked, shoved a heavy duffel bag in my arms and then disappeared like specters.
I also should have mentioned the nature of our day to day ops. In most wars, the activities associated with snipers usually involve sniping people. But this was a new kind of war we were fighting, dictated by a different kind of logic, and so keeping in theme, we were in the business of not sniping people. We considered ourselves conspiring painters– I ran the show like art class. Leaning over Bug’s shoulder on a typical morning, it wasn’t just the barrel of an M-42 sniper rifle that he was looking down as he sat on an overturned bucket three feet back from the window, but an M-42 with an infrared attachment.
“Do you have a shot?” I asked him, laying a hand on his shoulder and bringing my cheek against his ear.
Two triggers on the rifle: trigger one for bullet, and a button on the side of the rifle, for beam. Through his scope he sees a minivan pull up to the curb, from the sliding doors a group of men emerge. Through the liquid snakes of the heat waves he singles out a man he knows is number 7 on the laminated list of suspected terrorist head shots we all had memorized. He gets him in his sites and depresses the button which sends the beam from point one, which invisibly paints point two on Mr. 7’s chest, which makes it possible for the U.S. satellite careening just outside the earth’s atmosphere to become point three, thereby completing a lovely triangle which puts a flashing red dot on the computer screens of military intelligence from Hamburg to Honolulu, designating the precise location of Mr. 7, down to within a half an inch.
“Man, get up out my face,” Bug said, shrugging me off with his shoulder. “Yeah, I got a shot.”
“Good. Now don’t take it.”
Strolling over to Owl and leaning over his shoulder I found out he had a number 12 man in his sites.
“Beautiful. Now drop him.”
Owl could make Number 12 literally dead with the squeeze of the trigger, or potentially dead with a push of the button. But literally dead this week means the Pentagon will have nothing to brag about next week when the Times runs an article on the President’s plunging approval ratings and the dwindling support for the war. Wars these days are fought on front lines and on front pages, and that’s why I’m here– I’m sympathetic to media strategy.
Sometimes, I would sit in my chair in the corner, listening to my room full of sharpshooters not shooting. I would web my fingers behind my neck and lean way back, just taking it all in.
“You hear that?” I would ask my men.
“Exactly. Savor it, boys. That’s the sound of nothing. One day, when they ask us what this war was about, we’ll remember that sound.”
The heavy black duffel bag that the hired Iraqi escorts shoved into my arms contained a disassembled rifle. Yi Pei was unusually tall for a man of Asian descent, I thought; so tall that even sitting cross-legged on the floor he still came up to Calzone’s chest. Without a word before or many after he assembled in 12 seconds what turned out to be a death-black, .50 cal M-82. Bug was in awe.
“Damn, dog. I heard you could punch a hole clean through a tank with them motherfuckers.”
It was this same rifle that Yi-Pei held as I slid up behind him and leaned over his shoulder.
“Got him?” I asked.
“I’m taking it.”
Owl turned around and swept his fisherman’s hat off his head. Bug stopped rifle assembling mid-assembly. Reeling, I asked the room in general:
“Did I miss a kill directive here, or…?”
“No,” Yi-Pei cut in, “but I’m taking it.”
Looking through my binoculars I saw what he saw: two men sitting at table at an outdoor café. One of them had a monstrous cleft lip. No doubt about it, Number 16. I spoke without taking my eyes away from the binoculars.
“Okay, kid, you got number 16 in your sites there, good work, but I think I forgot to fill you in on terminology. When we mark them, it’s not called ‘taking’ it. What you’re doing right now is ‘painting’ him, the button on your infrared attachment there, giving headquarters exact coordinates on the enemy combatant, and then standing down until if, and when…”
The shot deafened us in the room, and, 600 yards away, the spray of Number 16’s blood blinded his friend. He dropped his steak knife on the table and tumbled out of his chair, wiping at his eyes. The last thing I saw before I hit the deck was him reaching behind his back and looking around wildly. Yi-Pei slunk deftly from view of the window. Owl and Bug remained stunned and visible from the windows– 3 feet back from the windows– but still visible.
“Down!” I hissed, lying on my side. Calzone was still standing, and near me, so I yanked him down by the dangling cord of his headphones.
And then we all just watched each other from the floor for a while, motionless and without a word, until the wailing of sirens began to fill the silence– along with the sound of hollow metal skittering across the wooden floor– as Yi-Pei kicked his spent, red-hot shell towards him with the tip of his boot, gingerly enfolding it in his hand, using his sleeve as a mitt.
None of us had ever actually taken a shot at the enemy before, so for a few days we laid low, unsure of what to expect. When nothing happened, we were all a little surprised, and I ascribed Yi-Pei’s indiscretion to a greenhorn’s overzealousness. Nothing a little briefing couldn’t fix, so one evening buckets and chairs were circled in the center of the room and a meeting was held. I stood stage-center. Everyone’s eyes were on me besides Yi-Pei’s; his attention was on the floor and to the left.
“Listen up,” I began, “recently, there have been some misunderstandings. And in all fairness, I may have failed to run through the script as thoroughly as I should have. HQ wants visual confirmations and pinpoint locations. They want us to get their targets in our sites in order to give them options. I know it may seem that a dead enemy is a good enemy, but, for reasons above us, that’s not always the case. Remember: ‘A dead terrorist is worth 0 points; an undead terrorist is worth at least twice as much.’ So, when we get a target in our sites, we hold him there, and…”
“We take him,” Yi-Pei said without looking up. Calzone didn’t stop giggling until my eyes met his. Yi-Pei avoided my hard gaze.
“We’re taking him? ‘We’re taking him,’ Yi-Pei says. Easy as that. What do you think about that, Owl?”
“Speakin’ freely, sir…he’s insubordinate,” he said, adding beneath his breath, “although, a snipin’ sniper would make for a harmonious marriage between form and function…”
“What about you, Bug?”
“We got a mission, and we gotta’ stick to it, we’re not shooters, we’re snipers. He’s gonna’ get us killed, shootin’ at the enemy! Let’s take him out right now!”
“And you, Calzone?”
Calzone suddenly came to, having been lost somewhere between his headphones.
“Maybe a calzone would balance him out, sir?”
“Did you catch all that, Yi-Pei? Sounds as though it’s not as easy as just ‘taking it,’ doesn’t it?”
He never gave an answer- his narrow eyes remained fastened on the floor, and so we continued our operation as usual that afternoon; Owl debating with himself over the justness of Yi-Pei’s action, Bug showing Yi-Pei by example how to disassemble his rifle and leave it that way, for the good of the mission.
A week went by without further incident. A lot of wanted men in our sites, and of course, no orders to fire. Yi-Pei’s recent actions caused me to monitor his behavior a little more closely. He sat on his overturned bucket, facing toward the window, leg crossed over his knee, elbow rested on arm, rifle steady for hours on end, seemingly without moving so much as an inch. He was a fixture at his West window. The rest of us slept on 3 hour shifts; Yi-Pei never slept, and if he did, it was behind his rifle, eye pressed against scope. He never touched our reserve of MRE rations. The only time he ever ate was after Calzone returned from his runs to the downstairs kitchen, when he would place a calzone at Yi-Pei’s feet and quickly bow away. I was conflicted over the actions of Yi-Pei. On the one hand, he was being insubordinate by not shooting. On the other, he was firing on confirmed enemy combatants. How could I blame a man at war for fighting the enemy? Eventually, I self-reasoned the burden of fault onto my own shoulders, convincing myself that Yi-Pei’s little outbursts were nothing that a little on-the-job training couldn’t fix. It was raining that day and so across the street Number 9, a middle-aged man with preposterously large gold-rimmed spectacles, stood out of the rain in the doorway of a small shop, smoking a cigarette and chatting with another unidentified man. Adjusting my scope, I jerkily zoomed in through the diagonally slanting sheets of rain, then further in, too far, all the way in to the cracked beige surface of the shop’s clay bricks, then back out too far, where a blurry local boy with rain-slicked hair was kicking a soccer ball against the trunk of a palm tree, and then finally in to Number 9 himself, putting his chest in my cross hairs, using the designer insignia on his American-made dress shirt as a target.
“Observe, Yi-Pei,” I said in between a measured breath, “Number 9, locked. Now I could take him right now, but do I? No.”
I reached my index finger up to the side of the rifle and depressed the infrared button. Through my sites a red dot lit up in the center of the crosshairs.
“Now the boys and girls at command see everything I see. Any second now, an order will come in over-“
“Command to Stryker 6, hold combatant in sites, stand down until further instructions. Repeat…” a nasal voice crackled through my headpiece.
“And the beauty of it is, the further instructions never come, Yi-Pei. We’re not in the business of shooting,” I said, dipping my crosshairs a little to follow Number 9 as he stepped forward to flick his cigarette in the street. Behind me, Owl’s voice hesitantly rose.
“Hey, uh, sir?”
“Not now, Owl. I’m showing Yi-Pei how to not shoot.”
“Understood, sir. But on that subject, I’m not so sure he’s…”
“Quiet, Owl. That’s an order. We’re training here.”
There was the whoosh of the toilet flushing and the sound of the bathroom door opening, and then it was Bug:
“Oh, hell no. Motherfucker’s ‘taking it’ again, ain’t he? Endangering our mission…fuck this shit! Take him out, Owl!”
“In the grand scheme of things, what difference would that make?” Owl said placidly.
Just as soon as it occurred to me that behind me Yi-Pei may have been following Number 9 with more than a trainee’s interest, he made it known to all of us, in resounding and concise fashion, that he was, indeed, taking it.
One day not long after that, two big things went down. While scoping a building 1,000 yards off, I found myself looking straight into an insurgent’s binoculars. Luckily, his attention was focused on the building next to us, but just as I slid away from the window, the growing sound of footsteps came clicking down the hallway outside our door. Things like that usually come in threes, so I was sure the hat trick would be made by a close quarter fire fight. All of us went low. All of our rifles were leveled at the door. I slipped Calzone my side arm and even he took aim. I hated and loved Yi-Pei right then: hated him for putting us in that situation, loved him for being armed and on our side. As a series of knocks rapped the door I wondered whether the mother of the man I was about to kill would be proud to know that her son had knocked before he entered. I reached into the side pocket of my fatigues to make sure the last option- the cyanide pills- were still there. We called the last option “Chapter 7”- too much debt, too few assets, time for self-liquidation. On the second series of knocks I considered firing at the approximate place on the door where his head would be– average height, Middle eastern male, 5’8– when a muffled, quavering voice sounded out: “Delivery, Napoli Pizza.”
Wearing bags beneath his eyes and his signature scowl, Mr. Ru’Shimi told us what I already knew: the enemy was closing in on us. Hajji was scoping for us now. I ordered everyone away from all windows for a day while I decided on a course of action. Yi-Pei disregarded the order and stayed right at his post, but I didn’t bother arguing. In fact, I wanted him there. At that point, I didn’t like the idea of not having him on guard.
“We’re changing locations. Our boys are sweeping the neighborhood tomorrow, and in the middle of it we’re changing position. You can’t stay here, Yi-Pei. This building is no longer a base of operations.”
Yi-Pei stood before me, his eyes dull and unfocused.
“I’m taking it.”
”You’re taking it? You’re taking what? The building? You’ll be killed here before the week is out. Hajji is closing in on this location. We’re moving a mile East. It’s not quite in the middle of the action like we are here, but it’s safer. You give us your word you’ll stop taking targets, you can come with us. You’re a brilliant sniper, kid. But really, you can’t stay here.”
“I can, and I’m taking it.”
Somehow, he was looking at me and through me at the same time. His eyes seemed cloudy.
“What’s wrong with your eyes?” I demanded.
“Nothing. I see everything. Feel like sniper God.”
“Well, you’re not. You’re trigger happy. The next time you get a target in your sites…”
“You’re not!” I rarely smoked, but I had a pack of reserves in my breast pocket and I lit one up now.
I had a pistol holstered at my side. I reached for my wallet instead.
“This is fifty American. I could shoot you right now for insubordination but-“
“You couldn’t. I could take you.”
“But,” I continued, “I’m going to give you this money and wish you luck. I wouldn’t advise staying here. You would probably do best to hop straight into a cab and haul ass for the Green Zone. At any rate, if you try to come back with us, I will personally shoot you.”
“And then I’ll shoot him again,” Owl piped up from the other side of the room, “Son of a bitch can’t even stick to a simple mission. Orders are God: we serve the orders. That’s our only duty. Don’t they teach that in basic training anymore?” It was morning; Owl was pro-mission.
“Freedom, mission, duty, God, put ‘em all in a pot and mix ‘em up, still won’t have shit to do with this war. To shoot, not to shoot, fuck it, don’t fuck it, it’s all fucked up anyway,” Bug said, disassembling his rifle.
“Luckily, my opinion remains constant– you’re a threat to this mission. The best of luck.”
I extended the money; he didn’t move. Finally I laid it on the floor at his feet. The next morning brought the sound of U.S. tanks, Humvees and shouts rumbling through the streets below us. Closing the door behind us, only Yi-Pei and the untouched 50 dollars were left behind as evidence that U.S. soldiers had ever been there.
Our new operating base was another fourth floor apartment, in another building owned by Mr. Ru’Shimi. The views of the hot spot weren’t as good, but the quarters were much better: the place was furnished, and we even had an old T.V. with a DVD player. The hardest thing was that we no longer had the Pizzeria Napoli below us- Calzone had no more errands to run, although Mr. Ru’Shimi occasionally dropped in with a bag full of calzones. If any of us deserved a medal for valor it was definitely Mr. Ru’Shimi. With Yi-Pei gone, we returned to the tranquility that comes with not shooting. But even though he was no longer with us, the unmistakable crack of that M-82 continued ringing out a mile away. Through our scopes we could see Yi-Pei’s handiwork– men lying dead in the streets and crowds gathering around them. I still covered the East window and so, since we’d moved West, I had a view of the old building’s West window. Every now and then I caught a glimpse of him as he inched a little too far out of the shadows and too close to the window. As Yi-Pei’s shots continued to ring out– breaking afternoon silence, shattering morning stillness– it seemed as though nothing would be able to stop them. Then one day Mr. Ru’Shimi stopped by again, more solemn than usual. He wanted to talk privately, away from Bug and Calzone, so we held our conversation in the john.
“The one you have left in my building– the one who shoots all day and all night– I have asked him to leave, yet he does not go,” he said as I closed the bathroom door behind us. “Dangerous men are becoming suspicious. If he does not stop shooting, if you cannot make him stop shooting, you must understand…I will have to go to them before they come to me.”
“That’s Yi-Pei. Always taking it. Stubborn on that point. That’s why he’s no longer associated with us, Mr. Ru’Shimi. If radical elements start asking you questions, I advise you to play stupid. You don’t know us, we don’t know him, he’s a rogue U.S. soldier squatting in your building, that’s all you know and that’s all they need to know-“
“Excuse me, sir.” He held his index finger in front of him, as if to symbolize “I.
”I, am Shia. They…”
Now he pointed his finger toward the bathroom window.
”Are Sunni. That is all they need to know to kill me quickly. Any excuse they find above that…is reason to kill me slowly.”
His words hung darkly in the air. Unsure of how to deal with them, I picked up on the other thing that hung in the air.
“I smell something yummy. What’s that in the bag? Fess up, Ru’Shimi. You don’t expect me to believe you didn’t bring any calzones?”
He reached into the bag he was holding and pulled out a warm mass of tinfoil. Somehow I understood they would be the last calzones until circumstances changed, one way or the other.
“We’re taking him.”
I made the announcement quietly, staring out of the East window, leaning back in my chair. Bug was dancing in the middle of the room- Crip Walking to the call to evening prayer. Owl sat watching him, gnawing on a toothpick.
“Yes, sir! We’re takin’ him. Gonna’ Crip Walk straight to Mecca in this bitch, kill that insubordinate motherfucker on the way. We takin’ him, we takin’ him,” Bug sang, pivoting and shuffling his feet to an imagined hip-hop syncopation.
“Quit that hip-hoppin’ bullshit,” Owl grumbled. “Disrespectful little son ‘bitch. Somebody should take you. Hey Cal, pass me the last calzone.”
“I’m taking it,” Calzone proudly announced, his shining moment having finally arrived at his post guarding the plate of calzones. I jumped up from my chair.
“Since when are we all ‘taking’ things now? Nobody’s taking anybody, besides us to Yi-Pei. He’s given us no choice. This is the last time anything or anyone is going to be taken.”
The biggest challenge was going to be catching Yi-Pei at one of the moments when he wandered too close to the West window of the old apartment. Also, in the morning, Bug questioned the morality of killing a fellow U.S. soldier and refused to take part in the operation, and in the afternoon, Owl did the same. Seeing that it was mostly up to me to take the East window, I did what I had to do: posted Calzone there with a pair of binoculars and the order to inform me when Yi-Pei was visible. About a day into the operation, Calzone’s voice shakily broke the room’s silence:
“I see him. I see him, sir. And…he looks very serious. I’m not so good at reading lips but…I think he’s telling me that…he’s baking me…”
We all stared at Calzone for a moment, lost. And then, at the same moment, it hit us.
“-The son ‘bitch is taking you, Cal!-”
“-Hit the floor, kid!”
And not a moment too soon. The bullet burst in through the window and grazed the TV 10 feet behind where Calzone’s head had been, spreading a spider-web pattern of cracks symmetrically across the screen.
And so for days, the sorry state of things was this: we were a team of snipers in the business of not shooting, rendered unable to not shoot from our East window– the one window from which it was most likely (though more unlikely than not) that an order to not not shoot would have to be carried out– by a fellow member of the U.S. Marines, who was holding us virtually hostage and endangering our war effort by shooting the enemy. Surprisingly, we took it all sitting down. Owl began work on a manifesto, Bug broke the known-record for the fastest disassembly and assembly of an M-42, Calzone caught up on his non-music, and I took to sneaking surveillance from the East window, trying to catch Yi-Pei off guard. Meanwhile, the crack of that death-black M-82 continued to sound out, bringing us all together in glances and in speculation, until the day when the sound of Yi-Pei’s rifle went quiet, and stayed that way. When Mr. Ru’Shimi arrived with a DVD and a solemn face in lieu of calzones many days later, we gathered around the cracked T.V., and our silence became black. Without meeting my words or my eyes, Mr. Ru’Shimi handed me the DVD and left.
I lit a cigarette as the image of Yi-Pei sprang to life on the screen, seated in a chair in our old headquarters, looking at something off-screen.
“Sons of bitches got him. Woulda’ been lucky to have been taken by us instead,” Owl said.
“I can’t watch this shit. Animals,” Bug said, walking away.
Only Calzone and I were left to watch and listen as the shadow of a man fell over Yi-Pei.
“What is your name?” a tinny voice asked in heavily-accented English.
Yi-Pei’s gaze remained locked somewhere behind and away from the camera. His uniform was disheveled, his face bore bruises and somehow he looked gaunter than he did in person. There was a brief salvo of whispers behind the camera, and then the voice of the off-screen interrogator came again:
“Your name and your rank.”
Yi-Pei blinked. It was the first discernible movement he had made so far on the tape. He blinked and looked above and around the camera but not into it. The whispers behind the camera began again.
“You will denounce America and its allies…look into the camera!”
The camera trembled and Yi-Pei fell slightly out of focus, and then Yi-Pei looked into the camera, sending a chill careening down my spine. It was the first time I’d looked directly into his eyes in the 4 weeks I had known him– they were reptilian eyes, cold, black and gleaming. In a second movement, he wiped his hand down his face, from his nose to his goatee. He locked his eyes on the camera for a moment longer and then looked away again, his jaw muscles now tensed visibly, as though he was on the verge of a verbal outburst. But it never came. His jaw just kept working, silently.
“You will denounce the American war effort or you will die.”
“Why doesn’t he do it?” Calzone asked at my side.
“They’re going to kill him regardless,” I said.
Again the interrogator’s voice came, furious this time.
“Do you understand?”
Yi-Pei looked into the camera again, but now his eyes were different. Glazed over, eyelids sagging, he then did a strange thing– he began nodding slowly, almost rhythmically, as though listening to some distant music. His eyes weren’t closing, so much as absolutely relaxing. I began nodding my head with him as I caught on. Chapter 7. There were shouts in Arabic. The camera zoomed all the way in on Yi-Pei’s face, and then went out of focus.
“He took it,” I said, rising from the couch and walking toward the TV. Just before I turned it off, Yi-Pei was back in focus, head on the floor with a knife at this throat. The shouts rose to a fierce Arabic crescendo, and it seemed as though they were trying to wake him up to die. But his body was limp, his eyes remained closed, and when I turned the TV off, only the spider-web cracks remained on the screen. After a while, we all took up our positions again, in silence, again, three feet back from the windows.
In the days that followed I did some digging around and got half a scoop on Yi-Pei’s history. He was first generation Vietnamese-American, from a poor family. He had invested everything in his military career. He’d been somewhat of a star at Fort Benning, known around the academy for being inhumanly accurate behind a rifle, but not very well-liked by either his peers or superiors. He had learned to shoot from his father, a war vet himself: Nam. The other side. A V.C. sniper with a legendary American headcount. It all made sense the more I thought about it. Some people have a thing, a genuine thing, and the only burden that comes with it is that they have to do that thing, irrespective of the circumstances. That thing is their function, and the only way it’s wrong is when it’s not being performed. Yi-Pei was a killer, but insofar as that, he was authentic: one of the few things in this war that actually made any sense.
Fucking Yi-Pei. Fucking war.