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VOX POPULI

Keeping The Peace: A Soldier's Viewpoint
By Tom Waltz


It had been a pretty shitty month.

It all started a little more than three weeks ago with the demonstrations that got out of control, and continued right on through to the day before yesterday, the day we found the mass graves. I was thinking about these things - and all the stuff in between - as I was coming in from my daily patrol this afternoon. It had been a quiet day for once, thank God, and I was looking forward to getting back to the bivouac area; I needed a shower, I needed some hot chow, and I was anxious to see if I'd gotten a letter from back home. Nearly two weeks had passed since I'd received any news from my parents (or anyone else for that matter) and I could have really used the diversion right then. Something - - anything - - different from the insanity I'd been dealing with on this peacekeeping mission.

***




Like I said, it was the demonstrations that started the whole crazy ball rolling. It's standard procedure for my unit - crowd control, that is - and to have it go as haywire as it did caught us all by surprise. I mean, we'd trained for two months before arriving here for protests and marches and, to be honest, the basic idea of the thing was to keep the marchers and those against them separated. Simple if you think about it, especially when you consider the fact that we were the only ones carrying weapons (or were supposed to be, at least). What we didn't expect, however - what we totally underestimated - was just how much these people hate each other and, worse, how much they despise us for being here.

It started out like any other protest I've seen in this place : one group marching and yelling, complaining about how we've divided the city unfairly, how their side is getting the shit end of the stick in the deal, how we favor their enemy over them, stuff like that. Funny thing is, their so-called enemy had run the same kind of demonstration just a week before, with all the same gripes and complaints as this one. Being witness to both of them was just further proof to me that the only thing these two groups had in common was total ignorance. That, and centuries of ethnic hate to fuel the stupidity.

So, anyway, there I was, me and the rest of my unit, slam bang in the middle of it all. But, as I mentioned before, that was one of the things we were sent here to do, one of the things we'd trained for, and so far we'd kept it all under control.

There was just a platoon of us taking care of things that day, about forty soldiers or so. We were in a basic straight-line formation, standing in between the two opposing sides, shoulder to shoulder, M-16s held at port arms, calmly staring the protestors down from behind our protective face shields. Well, calm and confident is the way we're supposed to look, and I'm sure we do a pretty good job, but speaking for myself I can honestly say the whole thing always gets me nervous, so what my face is showing isn't even close to what I'm feeling inside. We all try to act real tough around here, but I'm pretty sure the other guys in my unit feel the same way as I do about the whole mess. These damn people are just too unpredictable and too angry.

For about forty minutes things were going pretty much to normal routine. We stood there, feet sore, wishing to be anywhere else, while we listened to the two groups of people who used to be countrymen and neighbors cursing and condemning each other, wanting to do nothing more than kill one another, to exterminate the other's existence. To hate.

It made me sick.

Suddenly, the group in front of us decided it was going to push its way through us to the other side. As they slowly approached, fists pumping and eyes glaring, I heard the platoon sergeant bark out an order.

"Ready... On Guard!"

We all shifted to the on guard position, rifles raised higher in front of us, barrels leaning forward, forearms protecting our faces, while the sergeant began to shout over his bullhorn to the crowd to stay back, to stay back, to stop movement, to stay back.

They didn't understand, or they didn't care. They continued toward us. The sergeant gave us another order.

"Stay on line!" he yelled.

I wondered where the hell he thought we were going to go. Forward or back, we were screwed either way.

The sergeant turned his attention back to the approaching protestors, bellowing more unheeded warnings over his bullhorn. I was keeping my eyes on the people immediately in front of me, the ones in my area of responsibility, when the soldier next to me - Corporal Watson is his name - crumbled down in a heap against my right leg.

Since I was looking straight ahead, I wasn't ready for his fall, and my leg collapsed with his weight. I fell forward onto my knees. I turned to look at him, and the first thing I saw was blood pouring along the side of his face. His helmet was off and he lay with his eyes closed. Even so, I could tell that the guy wasn't unconscious, but he was definitely dazed. Instinctively, I shouldered my M-16 and grabbed him up by his battle harness. As I struggled to lift him, I nearly stumbled over something that was lying on the ground. I looked down and saw the large, jagged brick that had struck him across the side of his head.

"Medic!" I hollered, straining to hold the corporal up. He was heavy as hell. "Medic, goddammit!"

Two of the unit "docs" were by my side in no time and they yanked Watson away, taking with them his helmet and rifle. I turned around and got back into position as quickly as I could, kicking the brick out of my way, and no sooner had I found my place then a handful of small stones pelted my facemask. Then a single, larger rock struck me across the knuckles of my left hand. It hurt like a bitch, even with the leather gloves I was wearing as protection. I quickly shook the hand and then re-grasped the barrel of my rifle. The demonstration had turned into a riot; I'd have to worry about the pain later.

At this point, it was becoming fairly obvious that the people in front of us were seriously determined about getting to the people behind us. Things were flying at us from all directions, and I was hit a few more times, mostly in the chest and stomach area where my flak jacket took the brunt of the blows. The whole time the sergeant was continuing to holler at the rioters to cease and desist. Lot of good it was doing. In my peripheral vision, I saw a few more guys go down in our squad and I was starting to think that maybe we should stop shouting and start shooting at the bastards.

As my right thumb began to longingly caress the safety/fire switch on my M-16, the sergeant ordered us to go to port arms and prepare for movement. Then he had us right face and double time our asses out of there. I couldn't believe we were just leaving the situation like that, as explosive as it was. Those psychos are going to tear each other up, I thought, as my platoon distanced itself from the mess. It wasn't until we halted about a block and a half away and were able to fall out of ranks to catch our breath that I saw the reason for our sudden retreat.

The secondary platoon that had been standing by as our backup moved into the position we'd just left. Unlike us, however, they were wearing gas masks. It didn't take a genius to figure out what was coming next.

Quick as hell, gas canisters were deployed into the crowd (downwind from us, thank God), and the rock throwing assholes were scrambling like ants on a hill. The few that fought through the gas to the first squad of the backup platoon soon regretted it because they had riot batons waiting for them, and even with thick gas swirling all around I could see the wooden clubs doing the dirty work they're designed to do. To be honest, it's not something I like to watch, let alone be a part of, but what were we supposed to do ? They could have killed Watson with that fucking brick. Hell, they could have killed any one of us. Us . . . their "protectors."

Finally, the sergeant told us all to fall in. I got back into my place in the squad, a new soldier to my right now, what with Watson being gone. I came to attention with the rest, and the sergeant started briefing us on our next move. I didn't really pay much attention to what he was saying, though. All I could think about was the painful throbbing in my left hand . . . and how my knees wouldn't stop shaking.

***




A week later, I saw someone get killed. Murdered, as far as I'm concerned.

My squad, and a group of French peacekeepers, had been assigned to run a security detail on a building that was suspected of holding illegal weaponry. Like riot control, security is normally a simple job,

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