This is what Jack said when I asked him about the war:
We’d been up in the tower for two hours when a man approached, stopping, fifty yards outside the gate, waving a Kalashnikov and screaming something in Arabic. A voice came over the radio, “Tower, do you have eyes on the man approaching the gate? Do you see a weapon?” Styza grabbed it before I could.
“Roger,” he said. “We have eyes on the target.”
It was a beautiful day, not hot and oppressive like it could be. I was reminded of a resort town, the type of place families might vacation. The thought of killing this man hadn’t even crossed my mind. The radio called in.
“Tower, prepare to fire warning shots.”
Styza leveled his weapon. He was shaking so badly that he could hardly hold onto the thing.
“You all right?” I asked.
Styza looked at me, wiping the sweat from his brow.
“Breathe,” I said.
Styza lowered his weapon and turned toward me. He looked like he was going to vomit.
Styza tried to raise his weapon again, but his hands were all over the place. I reached over and pushed his rifle toward the floor. “Slow down,” I said. “Let me handle this part.”
I shot off a burst ten yards in front of the man and waited, but the man didn’t move. A few minutes later another call came over the radio declaring the man a live target, just as Lieutenant Camacho arrived in the tower. He looked at Styza and then trained his rifle on the target. “What seems to be the problem, gentlemen?” he said, without lowering his weapon. Styza sat in his chair trying to get control of his hands. His rifle rested against his knee. He seemed to be wrestling with something out of reach, slowly realizing that he was being destroyed. I almost felt sorry for him.
“Giving our target ample time to retreat,” I said.
“If you’re joking right now,” Lieutenant Camacho said, “I am not laughing.”
The man stood off in the field, firing rounds at random things. Mountains rose behind him, lush things that I hadn’t expected to see in a desert country. The sun hovered just behind, covering them in a purple shadow that occluded the features of the man’s face. I could see the shape of him, the size and weight. He was heavy-set, and that surprised me. I didn’t imagine why he was this way, if he was, for instance, a middle-aged father. I didn’t care who he was or why he was standing in this field. I clicked off my safety and adjusted my aim.
Styza reached for me. “Wait,” he said, “I can do it. I want to.”
“No,” I said.
“You don’t have to do it.”
“You won’t tell the others, will you?”
I looked at the LT. This whole thing was very pathetic to him. I leveled my weapon, let out a short burst, and watched the man fall to the ground.
Styza began crying then, real tears. We didn’t speak for a time. Styza was still sobbing when I reached over and grabbed his weapon away from him. As I slowly pulled his rifle toward me, he came with it, leaned in so that his head came to rest on my knee. There were tears soaking into my pant leg. I handed the weapon to the LT, who looked at me, his eyes full of genuine disbelief. He left us there, ashamed to watch. Styza didn’t move from me for some time but instead let out a series of soft moans. I looked at the mountains as he wept. The sun had sunk behind them, and already there were vultures circling above. The dead man lay on his back. His giant beer belly gave him the look of a sleeping drunk.
When I’ve told this story before people have asked me what I felt, looking down on the first man I’d ever killed. Nothing, I tell them. I felt nothing for him because he was dead. But Styza, I felt very sorry for him. I knew what he felt like, finally knowing who he was.
Jon Chopan teaches creative writing at Eckerd College. He received his MFA from The Ohio State University. His first book, Pulled from the River, was published by Black Lawrence Press (2012). His work has been published or is forthcoming in Glimmer Train, The Southampton Review, Epiphany, Hotel Amerika, Hobart, and elsewhere.