top of page

The Hammer


The best thing that could be said about Lieutenant Colonel Conrad’s boxing matches is that he never invited the enlisted soldiers to watch. Our battalion was already engaged in a fight with a deadly enemy, combing the cities and dunes of northeast Iraq for contact, but every Saturday, LTC Conrad took us to a patch of dirt behind the dining facility, pointed at two of his officers, and told them to glove up.

“Your unit culture begins with you,” he liked to say.

            I saw more nerves before the first of these matches than when we went outside the wire. It was almost midday, the sun high and hot, and there was no respite of shade across the sand. If there was a breeze, it was blocked by the DFAC, or by the trucks and connexes which surrounded us. We sweated, waiting, trying to get solid footing on the soft ground. Conrad stalked around the circle, taking time to look each of us in the face. He seemed pleased with himself.

Then he explained something I already knew, that the combatants we were fighting would often be hidden from us, setting bombs and sniping from the shadows.

            “A real soldier needs the opportunity to look an opponent in the eyes and hit him,” he said.

            My father had me working in our local boxing gym by the age of six, so I didn’t disagree with Conrad on principle, but much of my military training prior to commissioning had been focused on non-kinetic ways to wage war. We were meant to be meeting with local leaders, training host-nation security forces, building water treatment plants. And, yes, we were meant to be fighting, but security and violence didn’t have to be synonymous.

            That first bout, he pitted Captain Rogers, the A Co. commander, against Captain Blake, the B Co. commander. Rogers and Blake looked amused while they strapped on their gloves and headgear. The smell of fryer oil and steamed vegetables emanated from the DFAC. A small group of soldiers in PT clothes jogged by, visible in glimpses between the rows of support vehicles to our east. I breathed a little easier.

Rogers and Blake circled each other at the beginning, dancing, throwing nonchalant jabs here and there, laughing whenever a fist got close to a face. The rest of us made jokes and catcalled. The atmosphere around the makeshift ring was light.

            LTC Conrad let it go for all of a minute.

            “If someone isn’t bleeding by the end of this fight, you’re both fucking fired.” He pointed at the company executive officers, without taking his eyes off the men in the ring. “I’d rather have my companies led by lieutenants than by a couple of faggots.”

            Looking around the circle, it was evident that no one thought he was joking. The desert sun seemed somehow hotter. Blake responded first, lunging forward and throwing a wild haymaker that hit Rogers in the neck. Rogers punched Blake in the stomach, and they became tangled in one another. From there, the fight deteriorated. It ended, as most fights will, with the two men rolling in the dirt, kicking up dust while they threw rabbit punches into each other’s ribs. LTC Conrad ended the fight and smiled when Rogers rose to his feet with a bloody lip, but he seemed not to notice that the two men didn’t shake hands. Blake was too busy gloating, Rogers glaring. The smells of the motor pool, of grease and diesel fuel dogged us on the way back to our soldiers.

            It became clear that Conrad was, in fact, going to use whatever data he collected from these matches in his staffing decisions. A lieutenant wallowing in a boring staff position, some assistant to the assistant operations officer, could put himself in Conrad’s good graces with a strong showing when it was his turn to fight. Those guys had no trouble coming for blood, especially when they were pitted against a lieutenant who was currently in charge of a platoon.

            War was a hard thing and Iraq a hard place, but I seemed suited for them both. None of my soldiers died. I was fortunate. For a while, anything that wasn’t a mission—the girl I was talking to back stateside, holidays, Facebook posts—became meaningless. Then the world began to come back into balance. I tried to ease up on the chewing tobacco. I responded to my mother’s emails. When I could, I attended with Chaplain Heller.

            After three months, 1LT Grady became the first to lose his position, and suddenly LTC Conrad’s ring was the center of the universe again. During Grady’s first fight, another platoon leader had broken his nose. When his name got called the second time, he flinched at every feint his opponent made. He wore a pained, terrified look on his face for the duration of the bout, one unbecoming of an officer in Conrad’s battalion. My sense, though, was that Conrad already disliked him. Grady had commissioned out of Dartmouth and had none of the roughness to which Conrad responded in his subordinates. Conrad called the match early, a disgusted snarl on his lips. He replaced Grady with a younger lieutenant the following week, relegating him to a support role for the rest of the deployment, his platoon leader time cut short by nearly six months, and the potential of his military career abruptly clipped.

            One Friday, the day before my platoon was supposed to conduct a patrol in a town at the edge of our area of operations, I knocked 2LT Aldrich unconscious. He was the battalion Fire Support Officer and directed our large artillery, a vital aspect of our ability to fight effectively. I hadn’t meant to knock him out, but I also hadn’t expected him to roll under my punch. How was I to know he’d picked up a few moves over the previous months? Because I was trying to make it all look real for LTC Conrad’s benefit, there had been real power behind my fist.

            Most soldiers are terrible fighters. Sure, some have got a killer instinct. Yes, they can shoot a rifle and maneuver to close with and destroy the enemy. But put your average soldier in a boxing ring and chances are he’ll close his eyes and flail with all the grace of a startled house cat. Since I’d grown up boxing, I tried to showcase the technique born from my years of training, hoping it would be enough to satisfy LTC Conrad’s desire to witness violence. It might have been, had Aldrich not decided to try something new.

            In trying to dodge the punch, Aldrich put his face directly in the path of my knuckles, which otherwise would have glided harmlessly past his chin. He hit the dirt hard, and a cloud of dust went up around him. His arms stiffened like a B-movie zombie, a telltale sign of a concussion.

            Conrad let out an animal roar. “Now that’s what a steely-eyed killer looks like!” he said. The rest of the officers joined in the cheering.

            I took his congratulations with a forced smile. He extolled the virtues of my performance to the circle of bodies, turning it into a lesson about how they should conduct their portion of the war. For the most part Conrad’s audience was rapt, convinced, it seemed, about the efficacy of his methods, but I felt no pride at being held up as an example. What had I done? Aldrich was a good FSO, but he was a hopeless boxer. My father had put me up against tougher fighters when I was a teenager.

While Conrad talked, Doc Odom revived Aldrich and brought him slowly to his feet. It took two guys to help him, on his wobbly legs, to the Aid Station.

 

            LTC Conrad showed up to the ramp briefing before my platoon’s mission the next day. He stood, arms crossed, the broad grin of a proud father across his face, while I spoke. Once I finished detailing the maneuver portion of the mission, Conrad stepped forward and interrupted.

            “Sergeant Dix,” Conrad said, looking at my platoon sergeant. “If the platoon needs any artillery support today, you might want to call the fire mission instead of Lieutenant Clay, here. You all should have seen what he did to the FSO yesterday.”

            He swung an arm around my shoulders, and the scent of his cologne enveloped me. Who was that scent for? I had to force myself to bother with deodorant most days. While my eyes watered, Conrad proceeded to tell my soldiers that they were lucky to have a real fighter as their platoon leader.

            A wave of resentment came to a boil under my skin, and it took all my military bearing to keep a neutral expression. I didn’t need his endorsement to solidify the love and respect of my men after six months in theater, after everything we’d been through. He thought he was praising me, but this was an insult. And his little quip about Aldrich? I didn’t believe for a moment he’d fuck up a fire mission out of spite, but I’d buried him with that punch. Mental mistakes were almost inevitable after a concussion.

            Yet as LTC Conrad spoke to them, expressions of pride appeared on the faces of my soldiers. They liked hearing that their PL was worth a damn. That a lieutenant colonel thought I was a real warfighter was something else to hold onto while they daily sweated and feared. It was one less thing to worry about.

            As we were loading up to leave the wire, my .50 cal gunner, Specialist Hudson said, “Damn, sir, we liked you, but we didn’t know you had it like that.”

            Our posture on mission that day was markedly different, improved to such a degree that I wondered whether I’d been failing in my role as a leader. Gunners scanned their sectors of fire with unflagging discipline, and the radio crackled with persistent communication. To a man, my soldiers seemed energized through every minute of the six-hour patrol, despite the oppressive heat.

            The enemy didn’t test us that day. Were the outward indicators of our discipline too intimidating? Whatever the reason, we rolled back to base, unmolested, in time for dinner.

            Support personnel and combat units on their off-mission day filled the dining facility. SFC Dix and I moved through the chow line, piling our plates high with chicken tenders and steaming pasta, things that were usually gone by the time we were normally able to make it to meals. It was rare for our platoon to have the opportunity to eat this early because, as Dix liked to say, “the best whore in the whorehouse is always going to get fucked” so we were always on mission.

Dix yanked his head in the direction of an empty table near the back of the building. I followed him, but slowed when I noticed Doc Odom and Chaplain Heller sitting across from one another nearby. I told Dix I’d join him in a minute and went to their table. I stood to the side holding my food tray.

“Evening, gentlemen.”

Both men looked up. Only the Chaplain smiled.

“How are you, Lieutenant Clay?”

“Doing well, sir.” The back of my neck began to itch. “Captain Odom, I was wondering whether or not you had any insight into the condition of Lieutenant Aldrich.” I grimaced, frustrated by the awkward formality of my phrasing. Military deference to authority often made me feel like someone’s pet. I added, “He doing okay?”

Odom and Heller shared a quick sidelong glance.

“I can tell you he’ll be alright in time, but that’s really it,” Odom said. “I was able to get him a day of rest, but he’ll be back in the saddle tomorrow.”

He had been hunched over his tray, fingers resting lightly on a cup of Gatorade, but now leaned back in his chair to look me directly in my eyes.

“You know, Clay, my medics and I have enough to deal with over here without you adding to the list of casualties.”

As the battalion physician’s assistant, Odom’s role typically required a softer, less military touch. Now, though, he was making an effort to muster the power of his rank. I straightened my posture as a sign that I understood.

“Yes, sir.”

Chaplain Heller put a hand flat on the table in front of Odom.

“Kenny.”

Odom closed his eyes and took a deep breath.

“You’re right.” He looked at me with a new softness. “Clay, I’m sorry for that. It wasn’t your fault what happened.”

I choked down a thickness that had taken form in my throat. I’d never done well with kindness when it was directed at me. I’d have been more comfortable had he gone through with chewing me out.

“Thanks, sir.”

I was prepared to leave, when both men stood out of their chairs and snapped to attention. Before I felt his heavy hand on my shoulder, I smelled LTC Conrad’s cologne. I touched my heels together, still holding my tray in both hands.

“Relax, men, relax,” Conrad said. Odom and Heller sat down. “Clay, were you telling the chaplain here about your Mike Tyson impression yesterday?”

Chaplain Heller hadn’t been at the last set of bouts, though Doc Odom had clearly filled him in.

“No, sir. I was just asking Captain Odom about Lieutenant Aldrich. He’s a good FSO, and I wanted to make sure he wasn’t suffering too much from his concussion.”

Conrad began to laugh. He clutched his stomach and threw his head back, and the volume of it caused soldiers at other tables to look our way.

“Christ, Clay, if I hadn’t seen you fight, I’d think you were softer than baby shit.”

Something broke in me then, a fragile bone that had supported the belief that despite his brutish, unorthodox methods, LTC Conrad cared for us as men and as leaders. Maybe it happened because his derision was directed at me in that moment. Maybe it had become clear that he valued the ability to do violence over the ability to manage it. That broken bone was the one that had kept my face a mask of ambivalence through every hardship. My upper lip arched into a snarl.

Chaplain Heller noticed my face before LTC Conrad had the chance. He raised his eyebrows, maybe his way of telling me to keep my cool. Then he set his jaw and stood out of his chair.

“Sir, can we talk in private for a moment?”

LTC Conrad frowned at having his good time interrupted, but he agreed. He clapped me on the back before going with the chaplain to a less populated area of the room.

I took the opportunity to say goodbye to Doc Odom and join SFC Dix at the table he’d secured. We ate in relative quiet, as I was preoccupied by watching the conversation between LTC Conrad and the chaplain. It started calm enough, just another among the dozens taking place in the room. None of the words were discernible, the chaplain being soft-spoken, and Conrad’s voice sounding more like the barking of a large dog. Soon, however, the chaplain folded in on himself while he spoke, and LTC Conrad’s face twisted into a scowl when he responded. The chaplain flinched at the spittle flying from Conrad’s lips. LTC Conrad pointed at the ceiling, then at the floor, and the chaplain nodded. With one final snarl, LTC Conrad stormed out of the DFAC.

Chaplain Heller’s gait on the walk back to his table reminded me a bit of the way Aldrich had looked after I hit him. He wobbled slightly, and it seemed like an effort to keep his knees from buckling.

 

            Some of my peers argued that LTC Conrad was just doing what his chain of command expected him to do, that his aggressive behavior was nested perfectly in the higher mission of the brigade. This part of the country was lawless, a hotbed of insurgent activity which had given fits to the unit we replaced, so much so that they’d reduced their patrols in the area to prevent casualties and preserve equipment. Our brigade commander, Conrad’s boss, believed he needed a hammer in charge of the region, a blunt instrument who knew his role was simply to drive as many nails as possible. It was work that necessitated the sort of attitude LTC Conrad possessed and tried to instill in his soldiers.

Conrad went outside the wire every single day. When his vehicle crew needed a day off, he simply got in the truck with whatever company commander or platoon leader he needed to shadow. Typically, it was the unit in the greatest danger of engaging with the enemy. If there was one thing LTC Conrad seemed to love, it was being part of a fight.

By most metrics, our battalion was accomplishing what LTC Conrad’s superiors had hoped he would. Insurgent activity was down, and the brigade’s freedom of maneuver across one of its most important corridors was markedly improved. Would it last? That was impossible to know, and frankly I don’t know that LTC Conrad gave a shit. What happened after our battalion left the country—back to Applebee’s, and reliable internet, and free-flowing liquor? What to do when the violence stopped? Those were questions for other people.

One afternoon, as I knelt over an enemy combatant, pressing my hands on the sucking chest wound that was sure to kill him the moment I removed pressure, LTC Conrad told me the information he assumed the man to have. It was my job to get it out of him.

I tried. We stayed in that hut for an hour. There was a pretty chai set in the corner, cups still full of sweet amber tea, and early morning light streamed through a single square window. I asked questions, and my interpreter screamed the translations, but the man knew nothing, or else he was happy to go to his grave as one final act of resistance against the infidel.

The brigade commander was rotating through our area of operations at that time, and happened to be with us on that mission. He entered the room during a quiet moment. Our prisoner had passed out from the pain and blood loss, and I was trying to wake him up with smelling salts and slaps to the face. The brigade commander looked at the scene on the floor, then at LTC Conrad. He left the room, rank with the smell of blood and sweat and gunpowder, as quickly as he’d entered.

On the convoy back to base, I considered what the brigade commander’s reaction would be if he happened upon our boxing matches. My best guess is that it he would have made a similar exit. Better to walk away.

As we exited the city, the muezzin sounded the call to prayer, audible even over the truck’s engines. We barreled over the road, away from devout people kneeling in praise.

 

LTC Conrad never invited the enlisted soldiers to watch our fights, but we almost always had an audience. The area where he held the boxing matches was secluded, but those same barriers provided cover for spectators who’d gotten word there were bouts going on. Sometimes soldiers peered around vehicles or perched on top of the DFAC to watch over the ledge. If Conrad noticed, he never shooed them away.

            Nine months in theater had changed us. We didn’t tell jokes in the circle anymore. We hardly talked. Conrad’s voice, his message, was the only one that mattered. It resonated in the hostility of our environment. The addictive, almost narcotic feeling that came from winning a fist fight burned in our eyes. We hardly blinked, even against the onslaught of the Iraqi sun. The men in the circle rolled their wrists and necks and shifted their weight back and forth, hoping to be selected.

            A week after the incident in the DFAC, Conrad stalked around the interior of the ring, looking his officers up and down. He didn’t talk. The absence of his gruff platitudes was unnerving.

            The day before, he had demanded that all officers, regardless of their role or rank, be present at this set of matches, unless they were actively engaged in a mission-critical activity. Apart from increased officer attendance, the result seemed to be a new boldness on the part of the enlisted soldiers. More soldiers than ever before hid behind vehicles and peered around corners, even a few of mine. I wanted to tell them to leave, but some force kept me in my place.

            The sun beat down. Gusts of wind carried biting sand. LTC Conrad stopped stalking.

            “Everyone take out your dog tags.”

            Two dozen chains jangled as they were freed from their owners’ t-shirts. I thought he might just be doing a spot check, until he began moving around the circle again, looking closely at each man’s chest. He seemed to be seeking out information, and since I could think of no reason he needed to check our names or our social security numbers, the explanation must have been that he needed to know either our blood types or our burial preferences.

            My blood type was O negative, and since my mom was Jewish and my dad was Catholic, I’d asked for “NO PREFERENCE” to be inscribed on my dog tags. When LTC Conrad made it around to me, he took my tags in his hand to look at them. He hadn’t touched anyone else’s.

            “Lieutenant Clay,” he said, “you’re up.”

            I walked to the center of the circle, tightening the Velcro on my gloves with my teeth. There was no one in the battalion with the martial skillset to make me nervous, but something about Conrad’s energy had set me on edge. Was I going to fight two men at once? Run a gauntlet around the circle until I was so tired and battered that I couldn’t defend myself? Did he want to fight me himself, like a psychotic Roman emperor taking on a gladiator in the Colosseum?

Conrad stopped moving around the circle, and now seemed to be delaying the announcement of my opponent for effect. Then his voice boomed across the desert.

            “Chaplain Heller.”

My heartbeat throbbed in the arteries of my throat. Conrad smirked at the murmur that went up from the crowd, officers and hidden enlisted men alike.

“It’s time to pop your cherry.”

            Chaplain Heller took a cautious step forward.

            “Sir, I don’t—”

            Conrad held up a hand.

            “How can you minister to my men if you’re not willing to put yourself in harm's way the same way they are? Being a man of God doesn’t give you the right to act like a coward. Not here. Not in my battalion.”

            It shocked me to see nods of agreement from some of the other officers in the circle. Heller reddened at being called a coward, and after a moment’s hesitation, he moved forward to take his gloves.

            The presence of a new fighter, even if it was the chaplain, seemed to inspire enthusiasm among the officers. Some called out, “Let’s go, Chappie!” and others said, “Don’t hurt him too bad, Clay!” There was a novelty to this fight, even if they must have assumed its conclusion—none could have doubted I’d make quick work of him.

            But I didn’t want to do that. All the energy from the circle seemed focused on him, this sacrificial lamb. There were too many smiles. There was too much shallow joy. In the gym growing up, the same thing happened sometimes: “Clay,” the trainer would say, a smirk across his pockmarked face, “show this cocky sonofabitch what he doesn’t know.”

            As I raised my hands to protect my chin, I saw the cleverness of Conrad’s maneuvering. He must have known that I’d feel the eyes of my soldiers hidden in the audience as well as I felt the rays of the Iraqi sun scorching the skin on my neck. To lose the faith of my men, even to show a weakness that might soften their posture on mission, would put them in greater danger.

            As I inched towards the chaplain, I was relieved to see that his fighting stance looked athletic, like he might even have had some training. If he could hold his own, might it be possible to fake the fight to such a degree that I could appease LTC Conrad? It hadn’t worked with Aldrich, but that, I hoped, had been an anomaly.

            Heller threw a jab, which I slipped. I planted a jab of my own in the chaplain’s ribs. The noise from the crowd indicated that they’d noticed the connection, so I took a few steps back, putting myself out of range for the moment.

            LTC Conrad stood just inside the perimeter of the circle with his arms crossed. He wore dark sunglasses and his lips were pressed into a tight line.

            Heller must have noticed my attention was elsewhere, choosing that moment to attack with a flurry of punches. I was slow on the defense, and the first one caught me in the ear before I was able to find protection behind my forearms. I pushed him away, and he stumbled back.

            I tried to communicate my plan with my eyes, but the chaplain’s own were wide with animal fever. He attacked again, but this time I was quick to turn out of his path.

            “Come on, Clay,” Conrad said.

The other officers murmured their agreement.

            “Yeah, Clay, put him down.”

            I placed a jab on the chaplain’s forehead, then threw a hook at his ribs, which he blocked with an elbow. When he tried to counter, I shuffled backwards and he stumbled. The crowd laughed. When the chaplain regained his balance, he looked angry.

            “Just do it, Clay,” he growled, soft enough for only me to hear.

            In the distance, I heard the sound of a diesel engine starting up, some unknown element getting ready to conduct their business of the day. A key leader engagement? A patrol? An assault? Whatever it was, they were heading into danger.

At war, no plan survives first contact. Patton said that. Often as not, the idealized outcomes fall away and the only thing that matters is survival. That was true, even in the controlled crucible of this ring.

Hesitation, half-measures: those things killed as many people as IEDs. Sometimes, I realized, the only tool for the job was a hammer. I convinced myself that if I didn’t have the will to win this fight, I was probably going to die before we left this place. It probably wasn’t true. That didn’t matter.

            Hitting a chaplain, it turned out, didn’t feel any different than hitting an infantryman. There’s resistance, knuckles against jaw, then the feeling of raw power as you witness the damage of which you’re capable.

The chaplain was on the ground then, and I was wondering how it would go trying to preach with a concussion. Then again, we didn’t need prayers the same way we needed Aldrich’s artillery support.

“God is dead!” someone yelled out. The laughter that followed was riotous.

I heard it repeated, echoes of the joke, as uniforms enveloped me. Above the sea of digital camouflage floated the grins of my peers and commanders.

“God is dead,” and a wave of laughter followed, drowning out the hum of the generators. Then came the wave of congratulations, because what an impressive fighter I was.

Chaplain Heller struggled and failed to raise himself out of the dirt. He got on all fours. He spit blood and it mixed with the sand. I wanted to go to him, but there were bodies between us.

My hands were damp inside the gloves, so I took them off. LTC Conrad stayed outside the fray for once, watching, arms crossed, content. His face was a mask, rigid like plaster, yet somehow relaxed. I worked to fix my face in a similar expression, envious of his control.

A pillar of smoke rose into the sky beyond the DFAC. No sound accompanied it. The smell finally reached us, and I knew it was coming from a burn pit. Rotten food, spent packaging, chemicals, batteries, items beyond repair, all tossed into a hole, covered in jet fuel and set aflame. My nose twitched at the acrid odor. Conrad turned his head toward the pillar of smoke. When he turned back, he was smiling.


 

Robert B. Miner is a New York City native, West Point graduate, and occupational dilettante. His stories have appeared or are forthcoming in, among others, The Saturday Evening Post, New World Writing, The Dodge, and Identity Theory. He lives in Kansas City with his wife, kids, and dog, but you can find him (begrudgingly) on Twitter @rbminerauthor and Instagram @rbminer. 

コメント


bottom of page