The sunrise was nothing special in Saudi Arabia. The terrain is so featureless and flat that if you aren't paying attention you could miss the whole thing. The sun just pops up, one minute it's night and before you can sing one stanza of Dylan;
You that never done nothin'
But build to destroy
You play with my world
Like it's your little toy
You put a gun in my hand
And you hide from my eyes
And you turn and run farther
When the fast bullets fly
the sun's already up and you never saw it coming. At first it's pretty startling, but you grow accustomed to it quickly. Within a matter of days I no longer even noticed. I had no need of colorful displays of solar refraction, I had my own constant man made sunrise. All I had to do was turn around and gaze at the relief flame of the oil refinery and hope that the Moses pillar of fire they captured there wasn't going to give me anymore cancer than an average trip to McDonalds.
So when my night vision goggles became suddenly less effective I wasn't surprised at all and stowed them in favor of binoculars. The mornings were the hardest part of the twenty-four hour guard duty that we pulled in four hour shifts. The anticipation of breakfast made the last couple of hours all the worse. We may have been on a round the clock schedule, but we only got twelve hour chow for some reason.
My stomach rumbled its irritation and I pressed it firmly against the makeshift counter constructed of sand bags and scrap lumber, leaning into my elbows to steady my binocs. The night had gone without incident and I was hoping it would continue that way. I lost myself in the constant attention provided to the horizon, occasionally taking a moment to stare at my chin in the orange reflection of the binoculars lenses. As if waiting for my moment of inattention, fate intervened in a manner that anyone familiar with drama should anticipate.
"Heads up Spoon. We got a vehicle approaching off road and outside the channel."
I jerked my attention from my follicle inspection at Dan's announcement and scanned the channel. The channel was a barrier of concertina wire, concrete barriers and ditches designed to direct traffic in a zigzag pattern on its way to the ECP. That's Army talk for Entry Control Point; you probably call it a gate. The idea was to prevent a vehicle from gaining enough momentum to crash through the gates.
The channel can't cover the whole perimeter though, it only runs in front of the ECP and that's cool because the rest of the perimeter is relatively well protected. Double perimeters of cyclone fencing topped with triple strands of concertina wire were enhanced by another barrier of randomly strung concertina wire. This vehicle wasn't coming through the channel though, and that's a big no-no.
I could immediately tell it wasn't one of ours. It was on of those little white Toyota king cab trucks that the Saudi's were so fond of. I'm unaware of the reasons but they were by far the most popular vehicle in the country. A quick trip to downtown Riyadh's Auto Sales district would reveal thousands of nearly identical mini-trucks in one color, white. Everybody had one of these damn trucks, except us.
As I watched, the truck came closer and showed no signs of slowing down. I fumbled briefly in my cargo pocket and removed the solitary thirty round magazine. I tore at the tape covering the top round and tapped the steel box against the side of my helmet before sliding it firmly up the well of my M-16. With a slight movement of my trigger finger I released the bolt and my growing tension was eased slightly by the reassuring sounds of the weapons action.
"Vehicle approaching outside ECP channel. I've loaded my weapon." The radio received my status report and gave me another in return from my partner Dan in his elevated overwatch bunker.
"I can't make out how many passengers, but there's definitely someone besides the driver in there."
I was closer to the swiftly approaching truck and although Dan had the binocs on them I was at the better angle, and could see over the barrel of the M-16 that there were three heads in the cab of the small Toyota. The shit was too thick to take my hand from my rifle though; Dan would have to get that intel for himself.
When the vehicle stopped and the door opened my nervous fear was washed away with ethical terror as two children leaped from the cab and ran towards the wire.
Time stood still.
I have an Uncle who lost a leg in Vietnam. It ends right below his waist leaving only a short stub and the rash of shrapnel spreads up his sides. As a child I was on a fishing trip with him, his son and my grandfather, a Navy veteran of WWII. It was a lazy hunt for trout on the lake when my cousin asked a question that quieted the wind and stilled the water. "What's war like?" I would have paid any sum, performed any task to be anywhere but on that boat in the middle of the Ozarks.
Both older men were quiet and stern. Their gaze was like lasers and the tension was thick enough to spackle walls. After a long, still quiet my uncle opened up and regaled his son with horror stories of jungle, fear and children assassins. It was those stories of Vietnamese children assaulting American G.I.s that I remembered when time stopped. The Viet Cong were so desperate that they would send children, armed with pistols and grenades to approach soldiers, ask for candy and then attack in an action that was usually fatal for both.
In slow motion the children bounded towards the wire between the narrow barrier of my rifle's post sites. My radio buzzed and Dan spoke. I didn't hear his words but I was sure he was issuing status reports. The kids were maybe six or ten years old and they were dressed much like children dress everywhere and could have been easily transposed somewhere else and I wouldn't have noticed them. Except that they were running towards the wire and towards my judgment.
My duty was clear but I did not want to shoot children. There was no conceivable reason for them to run at me, at the site, at death. I briefly shifted my attention back to the truck and verified that the driver was still in the vehicle. As I turned my attention back to the children I made a thousand resolutions of engagement and broke everyone. Two more steps and I'll fire a warning shot. Four more steps and I'll shoot over their heads. Ten more steps and I'll aim for the legs.
How much farther would I let them come? How much longer could I deny the inevitable? When would they reveal their threat? Did they plan to toss grenades at the fence? Did one of them have a satchel charge? I was sweating deep rivers of terror and doubt. I may have shaken with frayed nerves, but if I did it didn't affect my target acquisition. I was outside myself and separate from the tired, hungry young man with morning stubble. I was the space between the targets and my weapon. I was the pit of regret and fear churning my stomach and tying my intestines in knots.
They ran and ran. In slow motion they crossed the short distance from the vehicle in step with the thunder of my heartbeats. With a steadiness I did not feel my thumb made the insignificant motion that rotated the fire selector from "Safety" one notch clockwise to "Single." Three more steps and the unnerving eternity of a single heartbeat.
Both kids reached the wire at the same time and as they reached out with their little hands, I could hear the tendon in my trigger finger creaking as it slid through the tendon sheath performing its inevitable mechanical duty.
And then, as swiftly as the sunrise only moments before it was over. Emotions ran through me with the speed and agility of a Mongol hoard. As they reached out with their little hands, each child touched the wire, turned and ran back to the vehicle. Their return journey was the barest of mentionable moments when compared to the eons I spent watching them run. As soon as they returned, the driver, whom I presumed now to be their father, lazily drove away towards the horizon.
I can't imagine why they did what they did. The site was no secret, but we had signs in Arabic and English posted everywhere, warning of the danger anyone faced if they approached. To this day, I don't believe any of them realize how close they came to Allah, or how far I was from grace on that long, hungry morning.
Paradise, sacrifice, mortality, reality.
But the magician is quicker and his game
Is much thicker than blood and blacker than ink
And there's no time to think.
Lyrics 1963, 1978 Bob Dylan