* Graphic Content Warning*
It was all very intoxicating, the speed of victory was incredible. My nation, homeland, the parent of my people had conquered not only its neighbours but was now pushing deep into the lands of ancient enemies. It was as though a dream had engulfed us all. Though we had conscription, many of us volunteered in the preceding months to the war.
The euphoria and pride we all experienced was immense, the desire to work together as a people was religious. We had a leader and a state that was finally doing what it had promised, to create a great nation for a great people. I was proud. I had just missed the last war, though I recall what it was like to watch from afar, knowing that maybe in time I would do my part. It ended just before I was of age to meet history.
In the decades after that war, I had become an accomplished tradesman, a carpenter who built homes for people. I was good at my job. I had a knack for wood work, it was something I had always enjoyed. Then we had ‘The Depression’, where I had gone from being busy with work to suddenly desperately searching it out. The work I had already done was impossible to get paid for. So like everyone else, I voted for the party that promised hope and change. We the people needed solutions. A new government was elected.
Our nation went from idle and sick to thriving and busy. We had work, as a people we felt ambition. We looked outside of our homeland, with hungry eyes we drooled for what lay beyond. What we deserved, our destiny was to lead the world, to improve it. I could not help to feel excited at the prospect of living through such an age. I felt part of an importance. It was a special time, we were each told that we deserved more. So we would take it. War was coming, so I enlisted.
Because of my age, forty-three, I became a reserve policeman. It was my role to help maintain order inside domestic borders, ensuring that disobedience and order was maintained. In time however my unit found itself inside the occupied territories and that is where the heart of what I wish to convey commenced. Every policeman will enforce laws that they may not entirely agree with or even bend and perhaps break such laws given context. We are however policemen and we are paid to uphold the law. This is an important task to perform in any society, least of all one as great as our nation.
The transition into the occupied lands was unsettling, it was not just the language barrier and inferior culture we were also moving through a region that had been a war zone some weeks prior. People whose homes had been ruined were now refugees or trying to exist within what remained. Our role was to relocate the populace, place them inside of designated areas. Anyone who was likely an enemy soldier who may be hiding as a civilian was to be detained and processed accordingly.
Then we received ‘Special Order 123’, individuals of a certain occupation, class and status were to be arrested and confined to camps that had recently been built. These individuals were then to be taken as labourers or imprisoned. Perhaps I should explain some of the men that I worked with. We had a commander, Colonel Muler, in his late fifties, a career policeman he oversaw most of our operations and was present when we were briefed on the special order. He seemed stone faced, though often shared a joke with my immediate commanding officer, Lt. Boum.
Boum was thirty, he had joined the army straight from university but had suffered an injury. Boum was then transferred to the reserve police once the war commenced. He was likeable, though he had a limp he carried himself with vigour. Then there was me, a sergeant and my friend Corporal Otto who I had known since we both were tradesman and had worked together building homes. Otto had a family and spoke about them daily.
I had a wife once, she died ten years before the war and I had never seen to finding another woman to replace her. Cara, was her name. She was a lovely red headed farmers daughter, when she smiled her eyes beamed like suns and her cheeks would lift revealing her freckles. Cara would brush her hair from her face a certain way, gently though brisk. She was beautiful, every night for fifteen years as we lay in the same bed, she would fall asleep holding my hand. Each morning before I left for work I would kiss her, she would tell me she loved me, even if we were arguing, which happened more often than I would have wished for. It is only once you lose someone that you realise the folly of petty disagreements. Cara was a good woman, moral and principled. I often wonder what she would think of the war and our new leader, despite my own excitement, I feel she would not have approved. That is why I loved her so dearly.
The rest of the men in my unit, twenty-five of us all up were a mix of former police officers who had become reservists or those like myself who worked other trades and now found ourselves near middle age with a need for purpose. Once we began to round up the people of interest, we did it as though we were apprehending any other criminal. That these people did not speak our language mattered little, they would be saying the same sorts of things any criminal would. That we were making a mistake, had the wrong person or any other sort of bargain. It was not for us as policemen to negotiate but to follow orders and enforce. We were all otherwise just very ordinary men.
I recall person of interest we rounded up, he was lean with a long white beard, his eyes a deep brown, when I led him from his home and placed him in the back of a lorry, I pushed him up as he struggled to climb in. As he sat down, he smiled and thanked me. It was not uncommon for the people who were were rounding up to communicate with us in a courteous manner, once they had realised that they could not bargain it seemed as though they understood authority and treated us as they would have one of their own policemen before the war. I in effect was treating them as I would do back at home, if there had never been a war.
One morning Colonel Muler called us all out to parade, we had been spending a week in a hotel in a small city, we all stood in our uniforms in a court yard. Regular army trucks were backed up with soldiers and officers. A pair of party men were also present, they wore a brown uniform that contrasted with the grey blue of our own. We were then told that we needed to carry more ammunition on us. Along with the additional boxes of bullets were shovels and picks.
“You are to take the vermin of a specified class and ethnic origin to the woods, and execute them. A detachment of labourers will be there to bury them afterwards.”
That is when it all began. Perhaps it was the end of who I was as a man and who I would become. I was no longer to be merely a policeman but an executioner. I can’t speak for my comrades but the moment I heard the party man, I looked to Colonel Muler who remained stone faced. Inside I felt sick.
Once we ate breakfast, mostly in silence. We began to round up the people in question. In the wars build up, the leader had often spoke about undesirable races and groups, I had grown to despise them. I assumed it meant that they would be ejected from the homeland, pushed far afield or at most put to labour or even detained. Now, here I was eating my breakfast as I imagined what it would be like to take life. I had never killed before. Cara had teased my squeamish nature when she had shown me how to pluck a chicken. As a farmers daughter she was sturdy when it came to such actions, I enjoyed the eating just not the killing and dressing. She enjoyed the living in a house, not the building of them. We each had our own own skills.
I found myself rounding up people who were numb, polite and frightened. At first it was men, mostly those who had worked in the government, academia or those who belonged to undesirable races. According to our orders, men included any male above the age of thirteen. One such thirteen year old took with him, his football. I did not have the heart to tell him that he would not be able to play with it anymore. So I allowed him to take it with him.
Two of us sat in the back of the lorry with those who were rounded up, streams of trucks were driving full of people deep into the country. We reached a large forest, there we would take one lot out of the lorry and lead them into the woods. It was not just our unit but scores of others, army and special police were also present. As I saw the amount of lorries, I estimated that thousands were being taken to be shot. My rifle suddenly felt heavy, as a policeman I also carried a pistol. I wondered if I would also need to use that.
I recall pointing my rifle into the backs of a father and son, then the boy with his football began to kick it up and down with considerable skill as we marched them into the silence of the woods. Long rows had already been dug into the ground, companies of labourers stood by watching, their overalls dirty and sweat drenched. Nearby soldiers smoked and talked among themselves as we prodded about sixty people to an allocated location. We had them line up and stand by the pit. It was then that the more intelligent men realised what was about to occur. One dropped to his knees and prayed, another spat in my direction while the father hugged his son into his chest.
Colonel Muler stood alongside a party man. I looked in the Colonel’s direction and noticed that he was crying. The party man seemed to be grinning in anticipation. I loaded my rifle, only a few steps away from those I was about to shoot. I could see their eyes staring at me so I asked them to turn away and face the opening in the ground. I began breathing harder, my heart pounded in my chest. I shook hard the moment I heard a rifle near me fired, then another and more soon followed.
I aimed my rifle at the back of the fathers head. I pulled the trigger, his head exploded and then he fell forwards. I aimed it at his son, I shot him also. The football rolled in my direction as the boy who held it fell from the bullet. So I kicked the ball to him, it rested with him in blood. In a matter of minutes, all that we had led to the woods, lay dead. The labourers pushed them into the open ground. We returned to the lorries, while another grouped past us. It was a long day.
I had been carrying eighty bullets that morning, I collected another eighty after lunch. By the end of the day I was out of bullets. Each one that I fired, killed someone. We went back to our barracks in silence. It was once we had finished eating that we began to talk about what we had done. Otto banged his head against the table, repeating how horrible it was. Another policeman, Marek, lay on the ground crying, he prayed in between sobs. I was numb.
Later that night as I lay in bed, I could only hear the bang of rifles, the feel of my own as it pushed into my shoulder, the soreness of my finger and then I recalled the sight of men collapsing dead. Bits of blood, hair, skull and brain spat about the place. I barely slept that night. Marek could be hearing crying all night.
The following morning after we ate, we drove to collect another lot of people. Women, children and the elderly. I felt another sickness as it occurred to me that we would be killing them. One little girl sobbed, complaining that the wooden seat she sat on was uncomfortable. She reminded me of my niece, though she was not of the same blood as my kin, I could see that she was still a human child.
We arrived at the woods, there mechanical diggers were present along with the labourers and their shovels. The open wound in the ground was greater than before. This time were were told to get the people to enter the pits themselves before we shoot them. Ahead of us the special police had around one hundred women and girls, they stripped them naked and began to molest them with excitement. As a policeman I yelled to them to stop. Their commanding officer, who outranked me, came over and told me to mind my own business. “My men can enjoy the meat of the dead”, he told me with cold eyes.
As we led our group of just over one hundred, mostly women and children to the woods, they then were ordered to strip naked. Proud women and girls covered their bits with a modest pride, I averted my eyes and told my fellow police men to do the same. I watched Marek and Otto devour their naked bodies with lust as they forced them further into the woods. I made sure to keep the hands of the secret police and soldiers away from my lot of naked females, a woman thanked me in my own language as she walked with dignity to her own death. My rifle dangling ground wards as I led these people to a pit. Awkwardly they climbed into the deep trench in the ground, some hurting themselves as they did so. They cried in agony, though no one could tend to them. It was a tight fit for them inside of that pit.
We had our rifles and pistols out, pointing them down at the naked group of people who stood in discomfort. The adults faced away from from us, clenched hands and tight bodies in anticipation of what was to come while some of the children looked up at us, curious and with innocent eyes. One little girl while in her mothers arms, waved at us, too young to know any better. We all fired, I reloaded and fired again. The bodies lay still, some writhing as blood pooled everywhere. The labourers buried them over. I fired twenty bullets, I considered missing them all but then I reasoned it was better they received a clean kill shot, rather than a painful wounding before death. Lt. Boum fired his pistol into the head of one old lady who seemed to be moaning in pain, one of the other policemen had made a mess of her body, full of holes as she suffered.
In our barracks that evening, the Colonel had managed to find boxes of wine and vodka, locally made but it was welcomed by us all. Not one of us turned away the bottles, even those who had never touched liquor before all drowned in it. For breakfast we continued to drink, though it is an offence for an officers to be drunk while in uniform, we did our job regardless. I do not recall much about the first day of shooting while drunk, only that it felt as though my rifle was floating from my arms.
One morning as I saw the first hundred or so of naked bodies lined up, shivering in the cold it occurred to me in my inebriated state that it was a strangely organised image. The green of the woods, as a serene back drop, wet dirt in piles ready to be returned to the ground, the pale naked body of people awaiting their death and then the various uniforms of us all, each segregated in our own units. The grey voyeuristic presence of the labourers, many of them murderers, rapists and thieves, ripped from prisons to become unpaid workers watching us policemen do the very thing they were arrested for, wholesale.
Weeks turned into months, and then years. Though a more efficient way of killing had been developed, we still would shoot individuals and groups from time to time. It was more ad hoc and random, no longer convoys of trucks filled with the living bodies awaiting their execution. On a particular afternoon we were at a barn, it had been filled with the local people, awaiting our bullets, it was Otto who snapped after drinking from his nearly empty vodka bottle, “I can not shoot anyone today. I will not!”
“We must, we have orders” I reasoned.
Otto walked to a nearby soldier, taking from him a hand grenade, Otto then removed the pin and threw it into the barn. Moments later a loud roar followed by desperate screams, two other policemen then borrowed some more grenades from the soldiers who watched on. A handful more grenades were thrown in, explosions followed. This continued until the barn lay busted, smoking and the screaming inside stopped.
That evening Otto lay alongside me as we looked at the stars, “my wife always loved barns like that.”
I tell you know some moments that haunt me to this day, we were out far from any city, remote in grassy fields. A small town of maybe twenty-families that had remained mostly untouched by the war was now experiencing our presence, at first we were greeted with flowers and smiles. Minutes later pleas and incoherent cries followed as we took them all, dragged them to the fields that they had worked and began to shoot them, with no order or cohesion. It was brutal. Policemen bashed farmers heads in, bayoneted children and shot their mothers as they cried alongside the dead. It was the bloody carnage of drunk men filled with a callous supremacy, guaranteed by law to kill.
In the mayhem I looked for Otto who had slipped free from my sight. I made sure to look after him, if either one of us was to survive, it should be him. He had a family back home that needed his return. Though I often wondered what sort of man, husband and father he would be after all he had done. His only solace was in reading their letters, sharing photographs of them and telling me the same stories over again about each of them all. I opened a small cottage, made of wood by talented builders, inside I found Otto, his naked rear facing me as he was on top of someone begging him to stop. I walked away giving him privacy. I head a gunshot from inside, I rushed in to check on him. Laying on the floor, mostly naked but dead was a girl barely thirteen bleeding from Otto’s bullet and thursts. He walked past me still adjusting his pants. I looked at her naked soiled body and felt no arousal, only a sadness that I felt nothing.
We were miserable, it was only when we were drinking that laughter would creep in. Otherwise most of us stared into the distance, read the same books over and over again or played card games not to win but only to pass the time. Three policemen from my unit had taken their own lives, including Marek. I wondered what would happen to them in the after life. I thought about God and religion frequently, our own priests told us that we were going to heaven as we were on a holy crusade. Though we burned down places of worship and shot many of their priests.
What a twisted and sadistic God must we worship. If he cared, he did little to stop us, otherwise he condoned what we did. I must have listened to thousands of prayers. I used to let them finish their prayer before I pulled the trigger, I would even pray for them as I did it. Then I would pray for myself, after each trigger pull. Now I fired before their prayer even started, I wanted to make it as quick as possible for them and I. What point suffering.
We no longer willingly consumed the party propaganda, we had to listen to it, more now than ever. Otto figured that the war got worse the more we were told to remain stronger and endure, no longer was there any promised land for our people, only that we needed to fight to retain what was left to survive. Then we were told to take every last one of them with us.
So we were ordered to kill more. Colonel Muler drew his pistol and shared in the killing. His hand trembling as he pushed the barrel to a young woman’s temple, her tears fell down her beautiful face, she pulled her dark hair to the side, gently though brisk, one last time before he pulled the trigger. I watched her fall down in two stages, to her knees and then over herself. The colonel moved on to another person, I watched her collapse as the blood pumped from her head. I reloaded my rifle and shot a boy, he never stopped looking me in the eyes.
The war was going bad, some of those from our unit had deserted then we were told to join the army in a special battalion. We would defend a town in our homeland. We ended up shooting those who were found looting or had tried to negotiate with the enemy. I thought that it would feel different shooting my own people, they died the same. An order is an order. Then the war was over. My rifle that had taken so many lives was taken from me. I was now the prisoner. I thought that I was awaiting my own execution. I was sad for Otto. The colonel cried as he was taken by the enemy, Lt. Boum took his own life.
For the duration of the war we were told that we were fighting the enemies of our people. Class enemies, ideological foes, subhumans. I took many lives. I shot my rifle countless times, I killed thousands. All were unarmed. The moment armed men came for us we did not shoot back, we threw down our rifles and surrendered. That was decades ago now. I am a carpenter again, close to retiring.
I don’t think much about the war years, or what I did. I had to do those things, I regretted doing them. I suspect that all of the men in my unit did as well. Otto is dead now. He died of liver poisoning, I still check on his wife. The Colonel was hung a year after the surrender, as a war criminal. The rest of us were not monsters but ordinary men. No serial killer may have compared to us ordinary men but we were not murderers. None of us were responsible. I suppose I feel some guilt, guilty that I survived when others did not.
I think about Cara though, things would have been different if she was alive. Would she have let me become a policeman, if she knew the things that I did, would she have forgiven me. In my darkest thoughts I imagine if Cara had lived and men stripped her naked and took her to the woods to be shot. On those nights, I will drink. I am an old man now, I will be gone from this world soon. What I did or did not do matters little, for a time I was a policeman, a good one, I followed my orders well. Now, I am a carpenter. Soon, I will be dead.